… Pelagianism was a heresy in the “classical” sense because it was a curious and ultimately harmful amalgam of truth and error.
In A.D. 400, Pelagius, a native of Ireland, arrived in Rome and began to promote his philosophy of self-determination that gave rise to one of the most enduring controversies in the history of Christianity. Some scholars opine that he was reacting to two systems of thought that, for him, smacked of determinism.
The first is the moral philosophy of the Manichees, especially the postulation that the nature of a thing is immutable. According to this view, something that has an evil nature can never do any good. The second system of thought that Pelagius reacted against was Augustine’s theology, according to which everything was dependent on the grace of God. For Pelagius, this understanding of God’s relationship with man does not leave much room for human freedom and responsibility.
He therefore became a protagonist of a certain view of human freedom. For him, freedom has to do not only with the ability to make simple choices, but something more fundamental: the capacity to choose between good and evil. Pelagius therefore was of the view that when faced with a number of moral alternatives, we have the intrinsic power to choose between them.
This conception of freedom coloured his understanding of sin and its consequences. According to the orthodox teaching, man’s capacity to make moral judgements is severely crippled after the primordial fall. As the result of original sin, human beings are enslaved to sin (non posse non peccarre). For Pelagius, however, while sin has compromised man in some respects, it has not generally impeded his ability to make moral choices.
He therefore refused to accept the orthodox doctrine of original sin, and rejected the idea that Adam’s heirs have inherited his fallen nature.
Consequently, for Pelagius, to think of Adam’s sin as the sin of humanity is absurd. God has endowed each human being with freedom, and this implies that everyone has the capacity to glorify their Creator by making sound moral choices.
Put differently, for Pelagius, every human being has the ability not to sin (posse non peccare). Adam’s fall did not rob his posterity of that ability. To the vexing question of why human wickedness and sin are so pervasive, Pelagius theorised that it is because we tend to imitate one another’s misdeeds. Thus, he located sin solely in man’s will, but not in his nature.
It was his anthropology – his philosophical concept of man – that provided the contours to his theology of grace. Pelagius’ God is indeed gracious. Having created man, He sustains, enlightens and forgives him. However, consistent with his uncompromising insistence on unfettered freedom, Pelagius insisted that God’s grace does not directly influence human action.
However, it was Coelestius, Pelagius’ most celebrated disciple, that pushed his thoughts to the extreme. Coelestius believed that sinless existence is possible since it is within our power to resist temptation and conduct our lives according to the demands of the Law. Consequently, entry into God’s kingdom is not dependent on the Gospel alone, and Christ’s death and resurrection are not the necessary conditions for eternal life.
It was against this version of the heresy that Augustine wrote so eloquently and forcefully in his famous anti-Pelagian treatises.
In many ways Pelagianism was a heresy in the “classical” sense because it was a curious and ultimately harmful amalgam of truth and error. For instance, the orthodox fathers also taught that the fall did not completely obliterate human freedom; but they rejected the Pelagian proposal that human nature is unscathed by it.
The Pelagians’ fundamental problem was their utter intolerance towards the paradoxes of the Faith. The Bible holds both divine sovereignty and human freedom in creative tension, without attempting to solve the difficulty according to the canons of human logic. The Pelagians, however, regarded it as a zero-sum game: if one is privileged, the other must be somewhat eclipsed.
Accordingly, they have dissolved the mystery in the acids of what they perceived to be “common sense”. We see modern instances of this error, especially in some versions of “open theism”, where human decisions are given such powers to shape the course of history that according to these erroneous views, even God does not know what the future holds.
Background picture by Yastremska/Bigstock.com
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.