Who was Pelagius and What did He Believe?4
There was perhaps no greater theological debate in the history of the church than that which occurred between Augustine and the British monk, Pelagius.
We know very little about Pelagius (350-425) prior to his conflict with Augustine. Evidently he taught for a short time in Rome toward the close of the 4th century. He fled to North Africa in 410 (preceding the invasion of the Goths) and there engaged in his dispute with the famous Bishop of Hippo. He later went to Palestine and then disappeared from history.
Pelagius was a prolific author who preferred written treatises and rebuttals to open verbal confrontation. His writings reflect his excellent education, prompting one scholar to suggest that he "writes in a more polished style than Augustine" (Armstrong). Another has said that "it was this very clarity and persuasiveness which made him so dangerous an enemy to the orthodox faith" (Ferguson). His writings were characterized by clarity of thought and had devotional overtones throughout. They centered primarily in ethics and religious piety. The hallmark of the Pelagian literature was the insistence that all believers were morally obligated to high ethical ideals, not just the clergy.
He wrote several scholarly commentaries on the Pauline epistles as well as a number of letters during the course of the controversy, few of which have survived. Included among his works are The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart, Virginity, The Law, and Faith in the Trinity (an anti-Arian treatise). His two most influential works are his De Natura and his treatise on Free Will.
It is important to keep in mind a foundational assumption in all of Pelagius' thinking. He was first and foremost a moralist. He was concerned above all else with right conduct. He was especially hostile to what he perceived to be the tendency of grace to grant a license for sin (cf. Rom. 5:21-6:2). Consider the following statement:
"Whenever I am called upon to speak upon moral training and the course of holy living, I am accustomed first to display the power and quality of human nature and show what it is able to accomplish, and then from this to incite the mind of the hearer to (some) forms of virtue, lest it profit nothing to summon to those things which it would have thought to be impossible for it" (Ad Demetr. 2 init.).
We’ll look briefly at several of the more distinctive beliefs in Pelagius’ system.
Pelagius believed that the soul of man by creation is neither holy nor sinful. Adam was not created holy. He was not constitutionally inclined either toward good or evil. He was morally indifferent or neutral. In this state of moral equilibrium, Adam was no more disposed to good than to evil. Pelagius argued that if Adam had possessed any moral character prior to moral action, his moral responsibility would be destroyed.
Because he was a creature, Adam's body was mortal. That is to say, it was Adam's destiny to die physically whether or not he ever sinned. Physical death, therefore, is not a penalty for sin passed on to Adam's posterity, but is rather an inevitable corollary to man's essential character as created.
Adam's fall was occasioned by the exercise of free will. There was nothing in Adam's nature, either for good or ill, that inclined him in the decision he made. Furthermore, Adam's sin in no way affected his posterity except insofar as it set a bad example for them. Referring to Paul's statement in Romans 5:12, Pelagius insisted that
"It is said we sinned in Adam, not because sin is innate, but because it comes from imitation [emphasis mine]" (cited by Augustine in De Natura et gratia, c.x.).
Consequently, all men come into being in the exact condition as was Adam before the fall. Pelagius believed each soul is created immediately by God and thus cannot come into the world contaminated or corrupted by the sin of Adam. The doctrine of transmitted sin (tradux peccati) or original sin (peccatum originis), says Pelagius, is blasphemous. Only an insane man would teach that Adam’s sin comes upon us by natural propagation. “Sin is not born with man,” said Pelagius, “but is committed afterwards by man. It is not the fault of nature, but of free will" [emphasis mine] (De Pec. Orig. 6).
Thus, according to Pelagius, an infant is not born in sin nor does it possess any innate moral characteristics. Such are obtained only by the exercise of the will and the habits that develop from it. In other words, we are “socialized” to sin or “conditioned” to sin because of continual exposure to a family and society that are themselves sinful for the same reasons. Again:
"We have implanted in us by God a possibility for acting in both directions. It resembles, as I may say, a root which is most abundant in its produce of fruit. It yields and produces diversely according to man's will; and is capable, at the cultivator's own choice, of either shedding a beautiful bloom of virtues, or of bristling with the thorny thicket of vices. . . . But that we really do a good thing, or speak a good word, or think a good thought, proceeds from our own selves. . . . Nothing good, and nothing evil, on account of which we are deemed either laudable or blameworthy, is born with us, but is done by us: for we are born not fully developed, but with a capacity for either conduct; we are formed naturally without either virtue or vice; and previous to the action of our own proper will, the only thing in man is what God has formed in him" (cited by Aug. in De Peccato Originis, c.xiii; emphasis mine).
William G. T. Shedd, in his History of Doctrine, II:94, summarizes Pelagius' theology:
"At birth, each man's physical nature is liable to disease and death, as was Adam's at creation; and, at birth, each man's voluntary faculty, like Adam's at creation, is undetermined either to sin or holiness. Being thus characterless [emphasis mine], with a will undecided either for good or evil, and not in the least affected by Adam's apostasy, each individual man, after birth, commences his own voluntariness, originates his own character, and decides his own destiny, by the choice of either right or wrong."
B. B. Warfield identifies the formative principle in the theology of Pelagius:
"It lies in the assumption of the plenary ability of man; his ability to do all that righteousness can demand – to work out not only his own salvation, but also his own perfection. This is the core of the whole theory; and all the other postulates not only depend upon it, but arise out of it" (Two Studies in the History of Doctrine, 6).
Pelagius therefore denied that the fall of Adam had any adverse influence on the will of man. Thus each act of will is causeless, i.e., it is purely spontaneous and unaffected by any antecedent bias of nature. The power to will good and the power to will evil are equal. The only difficulty to doing and choosing the good arises from a long continued habit of vice which, according to Pelagius, could be abandoned at any time in favor of virtue. Pelagius defines free will as follows:
"But we say that man is always able both to sin and not to sin, so that we confess ourselves to have always a free will."
Thus, free will consists of: 1) the ability to sin (posse peccare) and 2) the ability not to sin (posse non peccare). These two abilities or powers are always equally at man's disposal. In the absence of that two-fold ability there is no moral responsibility.
Pelagius also insisted that sin consists solely in separate acts of the will. Sin is never a matter of nature. That is to say, there is no such thing as a sin nature or constitutional depravity. Sin is only sin when it can be avoided. To speak of inability is to eliminate responsibility, without which there can be no sin. Thus, sin is not a fault of nature but of choice.
Why, then, is sin universally present in the human race? Pelagius' only explanation is: imitation, or the "long practice of sinning and the long habit of vices" (Ad Demetr. 8). He writes:
"For no other cause occasions for us the difficulty of doing good than the long custom of vices, which has infected us from childhood, and gradually, through many years, corrupted us, and thus holds us afterward bound and addicted to itself, so that it seems in some way to have the force of nature" (ibid., 17).
Thus, there is no such thing as a sinner, but only a person who commits distinct and separate acts of sin.
In one place Pelagius appears to argue that grace is absolutely necessary to enable us to fulfill God’s moral commands. And yet other statements point to his belief that grace is entirely superfluous. Adolph Harnack argues that "it was assuredly the chief intention of Pelagius to deprive Christians of their indolent reliance on grace" (History of Dogma, V:200).
Pelagius identifies four dimensions or manifestations of grace: (1) the grace of creation or life itself; (2) the fact that we have free will is a manifestation of divine grace; i.e., the ability not to sin is grace; (3) grace is also manifest in the revelation of God through the Law; i.e., the provision by God of instruction, doctrine, commands and prohibitions, as well as reward and punishment; and (4) grace is seen in the coming of Christ to teach and to set a godly example.
The emphasis is on the latter two elements of grace. Thus grace is primarily external, consisting in the aids or examples or exhortations given by God to encourage us in the pursuit of purity. Grace is not internal. Pelagius rejects any notion of an inward empowerment of the soul or will. David Bell provides this illustration:
“Perhaps the best way to understand [Pelagius’ doctrine of grace] . . . is by using the analogy of a coach and competitors at an athletics event. First of all, the competitors enter the arena with a perfectly free choice of whether and when to run, walk,, kick, punch, or jump. Secondly, as the coach, I can stand on the side-lines, shout encouraging comments, and tell the competitors what to do and when to do it. And thirdly, if my team makes a mistake or fails to take my advice, I can tell them that it does not really matter, that their sins are forgiven them, that in [the] future they should listen to their coach, but that they do not have to leave the area immediately and throw themselves off the nearest cliff or hang themselves from the nearest tree. But at no time can I enter the ring or the field and add my strength and skill to theirs, and I certainly cannot rush in, open their mouths wide, climb down inside them, and compete for them. For Pelagius, then, we are all competitors (competitors with ingrained bad habits) and Christ is the coach” (A Cloud of Witnesses, 146).
All this implies, of course, that if you are extremely talented and self-disciplined and highly-motivated, you may not need the coach at all. You may well be capable of winning the race or the fight by your own unaided power. In other words, Pelagius’ concept of divine grace, at least potentially, makes the death and resurrection of Christ unnecessary.
According to Pelagius, a man can, if he will, observe God's commandments without sinning. The commands such as "Ye shall be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 19:2) and "Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Mt. 5:48) would not have been given had it been impossible to fulfill them. Pelagius argued that such OT figures as Abel, Enoch, Joseph, and Job all achieved sinlessness. The apostle John in the NT is also included in the list of those who reached perfection. As J. N. D. Kelly notes,
"he does not imagine, of course, that anyone will live such a life from childhood to death. What he envisages is not a state of perfection acquired once for all, but rather one which is attained by strenuous efforts of the will and which only steadily increasing application will be able to maintain" (Early Christian Doctrines, 360).
What are we to make of Pelagius and his theology? Kelly takes one position:
"Pelagius' teaching is often described as a species of naturalism, but this label scarcely does justice to its profoundly religious spirit. Defective though it is in its recognition of man's weakness, it radiates an intense awareness of God's majesty, of the wonderful privileges and high destiny He has vouchsafed to men, and of the claims of the moral law and of Christ's example. Yet its one-sidedness made it grievously inadequate as an interpretation of Christianity, and this inadequacy was heightened by Pelagius' disciples" (360-61).
I am more inclined to agree with Harnack who concludes that "we cannot but decide that their [the Pelagians] doctrine fails to recognize the misery of sin and evil, that in its deepest roots it is godless, that it knows, and seeks to know, nothing of redemption" (History of Dogma, V:203).
Pelagius was acquitted of the charge of heresy by a synod of bishops at Diospolis in Palestine in 415. However, he was later condemned as a heretic by the bishop of Rome in 417 and 418 and by the Council of Ephesus in 431.