256. Learning from the Pelagian Controversy of the 5th Century


12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. [Romans 5:12-14, NRSV]

23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [Romans 3:23, NRSV]

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. [1 John 1:8, NRSV]

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In early 5th century, a debate that affected the understanding of grace in Western Christianity, and that was to have long reaching effects on subsequent development in the doctrines of sin and grace, took place between Pelagius and Augustine of Hippo.

The Background

When Augustine and Pelagius arrived Rome in 380’s, they had much in common. Both were provincials: Augustine from Tagaste, N. Africa; Pelagius from Britain. Perhaps searching for a civil career in the heart of the Roman empire, they both turned out to be religious leaders exercising an enormous spiritual force. They shared a common historical period.

With Constantine having legalized Christianity by the Edict of Milan in 313, the Church in the 4th century was rapidly shifting from a persecuted minority religion to becoming the state religion of the masses. The resultant scenario from this new freedom of worship was not altogether rosy, however. On the one hand, pagan morality infiltrated the Church with conversions of convenience. On the other hand, the tradition of a radical conversion to an authentic Christian life of committed discipleship persisted, and stayed strong at places. Augustine converted to that Christian dedication; and Pelagius would be the apostle of the need for just such a conversion.

Paradoxically, however, time as the fashioner of change got into the act. This was particularly true of Augustine, who faced several turning points in his life: getting baptized, becoming a priest, and then a bishop. He was a different man when Rome was sacked in 410 from the person he was during the winter of 386-387, and far more different still from the reformer Pelagius.

Pelagius’  “experience”

Pelagius was a harsh ascetic monk from Britain, well educated, fluent in Greek and Latin, and learned in theology. He was well known in Rome for his harsh asceticism, and for his rhetorical skills.

As a rigorist in the moral life, he hated what he saw: the laxity of moral life in the city, and laxity even amongst the clergy. He was a reformist. His reputation earned him praise early in his career. Even such pillars of the Church as Augustine referred to him as a “saintly man” at the time, and in the 17th century, John Wesley called him “both a wise and a holy man”. All this, then, led to his rigorous, demanding, and challenging teaching in regards to grace and sin.

Pelagius’ teaching

There is no connection between Adam’s sin and the state all people are born into. Concerning human nature, specifically free will, he insisted that people have free will and can [capax!] choose good or evil. What was he aiming at?

As a moral rigorist, Pelagius demanded moral accountability. He insisted that by great efforts, it is possible for us in the flesh to achieve moral perfection.

His, therefore, was a positive or optimistic anthropology on which he based his reform mission, so he could demand and challenge. Concerning our ability to choose good over evil, discipline over laxity, Pelagius’ point is best translated into a slogan:

  • You can, therefore you must!

Understandably, for Pelagius: The assumption that humanity could not help sinning appalled him, for not only did that seem an insult to the Creator who made us in His image, but that it was impossible to demand moral responsibility. [And, imagine, how would that fare in criminal culpability?] Augustine’s prayer, “Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt”, was understandably objectionable to him as humanity would then be reduced to “puppets” controlled entirely by “grace” or finding convenient excuses in “grace”.

Pelagius’ central thought points us to unconditional free will and the attendant responsibility. In today’s world, how would office and factory managers be able to get any work done without implicitly relying on such Pelagian principles?

Pelagius never claimed that God is not sovereign, or that humanity is not subject to God. Along with free will, he proclaims that under God, humanity will reap what they sow – pain or reward!

In creating humanity, God knows that the commands He gave are capable of being obeyed. Excuses on ground of human frailty are not going to cut it for Pelagius.               Of course today, with Pope Francis, this is tempered by pastoral mercy, but that is something else. For Pelagius, since perfection is possible for humanity, it is obligatory.

Concerning original sin, Pelagius denied that “original sin” had extinguished God’s grace in Adam’s heirs. He insisted instead that human beings had the power to do good, the power to convert themselves from sin by their own power, and the ability to work out their own salvation.

Concerning the grace of God, there is a grace of God active in the world, but it operates only as an “illuminating grace” that influences people. People can, however, cooperate with or resist that grace. Religion’s purpose is to teach us virtue, from which we can expect reward from God.

Clearly, Pelagius, a well-recognized harsh ascetic monk and a strict moralist, could be blamed for anything but that he did not honour God’s sovereignty.

  • It is a travesty to suggest that he had no respect for God, and that he claimed that humans are wholly sufficient without God.
  • It is a grave injustice to declare him a heretic and then to have him excommunicated.
  • Furthermore, for scholarly work, we need to be conscious that there are no surviving writings by Pelagius. As for his thoughts, we are now wholly dependent on  what his enemies claimed that he taught.

Augustine’s vehement objection

Augustine vehemently objected to Pelagius’ optimistic anthropology, arguing that Pelagius’ teaching denied original sin and God’s grace, making humanity self-sufficient without the need for God.

His fight against Pelagianism would engage his energies all the way from 412 till his death in 430. For good or ill, this 5th century controversy has affected western Christian theology until today.

Why and how did Augustine argue his case?

First, note that Augustine’s “garden experience” at Cassiciacum in Milan radically changed his life. His new life of grace in Christ began with his experience of God’s mercy. That experience should be so powerful in his life because it stood in sharp contrast to his whole preceding life of sin. He would later become “doctor gratia” and “apostle of grace”.

For Augustine, the first step in this conversion was the overcoming of his pride with a Christian humility. He was incapable [non-capax] of anything “good” without God; all is God’s grace! Like St Paul before him, Augustine extrapolated his own experience to the whole of humanity: every human being was hopelessly stuck in sin and incapable of doing anything good on their own. This is very negative and pessimistic anthropology, in stark contrast to Pelagius’.

Notice there are two types of conversion

The first type of conversion is that of the godly to the realization that he has been radically wrong about God, and about what God is asking of us. St Paul typified that. This conversion was from one image of God (harsh laws and strict doctrines) to another image (of love, grace, and authentic liberating freedom). Conversion, is not one-off, but on-going.

Second, is the conversion of the godless to God. St Augustine typifies that. His conversion was from an irresponsible life of sin, of arrogance and self-absorption, to a faith in Christ powered by an immense gratitude to God who, as it were, brought him in from “the dark”, and who overcame his otherwise helpless sinful tendencies.

Augustine’s teaching

His earlier sinfulness had everything to do with Adam: “I was a son of Adam.” To him, every human soul comes into the world soiled by original sin, transmitted by Adam. Such is the universal reality of sin, affected by the Fall, that humankind has been incapacitated [non-capax] by sin from doing good. It is crucial to see that Augustine was saying from experience that Augustine could not help it (our first problem with Augustine is his extrapolating that to the rest of humanity, past present and future); his sinning ways were the effect of original sin. Only God could fix him and lift him out of that inherited sinful state. Even his conversion was initially led by God.

Born from personal experience, Augustine’s aim was to give all glories to God and all credit to His grace. But the price is extremely heavy. Humanity is deemed by him as massa peccati [a mass of sin] and massa damnata [one condemned mass of sin], that owes a debt of punishment to the divine and supreme justice and can no more endow itself with grace than an empty glass can fill itself.

Human free will does exist; but this will has been seriously weakened and incapacitated [non capax!] by an intrinsic bias in favour of wrong-doing as a result of the Fall. Original sin has tilted us towards sin, rendering us dysfunctional like an uneven balance, so that, compromised by sin, we cannot choose good. This is deeply negative and pessimistic anthropology. But most others may have grown up in diametrically opposite environments from Augustine’s life experience. And so, as a faith-filled Catholic response, we would rather propose, and do so adamantly, from a diametrically different and a great deal more optimistic and positive angle, that is: Every good work contains the possibility of an encounter with God. This would then hopefully take us away from an obsessed focus on sin and our “damned” impotence to do anything good at all.

While we may have “free will” (liberum arbitrium) in the sense that we can choose our course of conduct, Augustine insisted that we nevertheless lack true freedom (libertas) to avoid sin, for sin is inherent in each choice we make, even including every sexual act in marital intimacy. It is only by God’s sovereign choice to extend his grace to us that salvation is possible.

For Augustine, the taint of original sin did extinguish God’s grace in men’s souls. No matter how righteously they conducted themselves, their virtues could never make them worthy of the infinite holiness of God.

Augustine hunted down Pelagius

At the Council of Carthage in 417, Augustine won and had Pelagius’ views officially condemned. But the victor would not rest. In addition to Pelagius’ views, he wanted the man condemned as a heretic as well. For that, he expended much energy to mobilise council, emperor and the pope to make sure that Pelagius was personally condemned and that his condemnation was received by the whole Church!

However, the Eastern Orthodox Church, as expressed in the teachings of John Cassian, holds that though grace is required for humanity to save themselves at the beginning, there is no such thing as total depravity. There remains a moral or noetic [mental/intellectual] ability within humanity that is unaffected by original sin, and that humanity must work together (synergism) with divine grace to be saved. This position is called Semi-Pelagianism by many Reformed Protestants.

So, what do we get from this Pelagian controversy of the 5th Century?

If you view it as a narrowly technical question, of whether or not God’s grace is prior to and supportive of the exercise of human freedom in faith and the doing of the good, then, yes, this problem seems solved by the councils: Pelagius lost and he has since been branded a heretic; Augustine won and he stands in official history as a hero.

But, the question for us today is really much larger.

At stake is a much more basic question of what the very nature of human existence is according to Christianity. Do humans have genuine freedom to decide to do good or evil? Are people accountable before the law? Does Christianity still pose the radical question of the quality of human behaviour, and of the demands of discipleship? Where are the sources of good and evil in the world? Is it possible to give a retreat or preach a sermon on Christian piety or spirituality without explicitly working on the assumptions that underlie the Pelagian controversy?

From all this, may we not sum up what we think about human existence? No, the extensiveness of the broader question and its implications mean that the Pelagian question is unsolved. Every heresy, we must agree, is based on some truth, so Pelagius must have his say before we agree to become “Augustinian”. In scholarly work, we must insist that without extant documents and relying purely on what Pelagius’ enemies claimed what he said and wrote, we could be condemning nothing more than a straw man. In the end, might we not be acting cruelly and grossly unfairly against a renowned holy ascetic monk for all this time!

Most importantly, after the dust has settled, and we take a closer look again at the nature and detail of the debate, we may well see that the values both Augustine and Pelagius fought for must really be held in constant tension. In truth, we need the both these two holy men and their insights, not either one or the other.

We need to combine both nature and grace

That means:

  1. However else you may imagine the human person to be, and in this regard Karl Rahner’s take on the human person as an embodied spirit – a “spirit in the world” – capable of hearing God’s communication, the Christian acceptance of the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ requires us to combine both the divine and human realities to adequately define the human person.
  2. Human existence has got to be defined by a genuine freedom and an authentic autonomy. Nature is good, is “capax”, despite original sin. Then, with Pelagius, it is possible and legitimate to make demands on Christian discipleship, moral responsibility, work accountability, and legal culpability.
  3. Human existence has also got to be seen against a reality of sin pervasive in society where divine grace is a necessity for salvation. Then, we can appreciate that grace “graces” nature so that, with Augustine, we can legitimately insist upon God’s much needed healing grace.

Holding the two in healthy tension, we can follow Pope Francis in accepting that the “Eucharist is not only meant for the perfect,” that “a merciful God wants to see a merciful Church,” and that the Church is best understood as a “field hospital”.

As adult Christians, our prayers ought to take a “mature” form: We cannot just be telling God of our shortcomings and petition God to supply what we lack. Prayers essentially keep us in touch with God, who has already given us the seed and who sends us out. It is our duty (“yes we can”) to guide the seed through harvest to food in ourselves and for others.

In our being sent, it is well to be reminded by Reinhold Niebuhr that human nature has serious issues to deal with. Picking this up, Ronald Osborn observes that “despite our sentimental self-esteem, human nature is seriously flawed by its innate tendency to self-love. We pursue our own interests at the expense of others.” We need to watch that tendency.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, September 2020. All rights reserved.

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