Heretics – Part 05 // Was He Really? 2


As we’ve seen in other episodes, theologically, the Church spent the 4th & 5th Cs figuring out exactly how to articulate what it believed about the nature of God & Jesus. The main questions it dealt with in the 5th thru 7th Cs, centered on how God saves the lost. Theologians were consumed with properly understanding God’s grace, free will, and the nature of sin. Just what happened in the Fall? Instead of the nature of God, it was the nature of humanity that dominated Church councils.

In this episode of CS, we’ll deal with what’s become something of a boogeyman in theological discussions, especially those that take place between Calvinists and Arminianists.

That boogey is a man named Pelagius. His debate with the 5th C Church Father Augustine took center stage in the theological bruha over human nature and the extent of the Fall.

Pelagius was born around 354 in Britain. Descriptions of him cast a large figure; both tall and wide, who cut an imposing figure wherever he went. Pelagius took his faith seriously and followed the tradition of many of his Celtic peers by being an ascetic and becoming a monk. Having taken advantage of the finest education he could in his native Britain, mastering both Latin & Greek, in 380 he went to Rome, to further his studies in law & theology. What he saw there grieved him greatly.

The Church that had been persecuted through the 3rd C, had by the late 4th become something of a darling of the State. Hundreds of one-time pagans now filled the churches, many of them with dubious intent and less than altruistic motivation. They saw the way the political winds were blowing and so blew into the Church’s ready embrace. The consequence was many who called themselves “Christians” but whose lives gave little support to the claim.

Many Italian nobles kept a stable of mistresses in addition to their wives. They lived in luxurious ostentation while the desperately poor died nightly on the street outside the gate to their villa. Pelagius was shocked that the clergy took little action to confront all this. Priests allowed the rich to attend church as kind of half-way Christians. That is, they looked and sounded like believers, but hadn’t been baptized, because once baptized, a new level of obedience and morality was expected and the poser-noble didn’t want to go that far with it. Their attendance at church was a social thing, not a matter of a sincere faith. Pelagius was dumb-founded that this was going on in Rome. In one of his letters, he wrote, “Do you consider him a Christian who oppresses the wretched, who burdens the poor, who covets others’ property, who makes several poor so that he may make himself rich, who rejoices in unjust gains . . . and a man of this kind has the audacity to go to church!” Pelagius warned that unless a person denied himself and imitated Christ, he had no business calling himself a Christian.

From what he observed in Rome & from his own experience in following Jesus as a monk,  Pelagius developed a perspective on sin and salvation that centered on works. He said that sin doesn’t arise out of some pre-existing state. If it did, he said, that meant God created sin as part of human nature. He wrote, “To say that man cannot be without sin is like saying that a man cannot live without food or drink or sleep or other such things without which our human state cannot exist.” Rather, Pelagius said, sin comes from bad habits people form willingly. Continually sinning, their wills weaken & they sin more often. BUT: If they commit to doing good rather than sinning, they’re able to reverse their habits and develop patterns of behavior pleasing to God. God’s part in all this is 3-fold:

1) He gives people free will, with the ability to see for themselves what’s right and wrong.

2) God gives supernatural revelation through Scripture to guide them.

3) Christ is the ultimate manifestation of God’s grace; a perfect guide to demonstrate for humanity how to live.

But in the final analysis, people have to overcome sin by choosing not to, but rather to do that which pleases God.

The historical view of Pelagius is that he said Jesus was more an Example than a Savior.

It’s important to keep in mind that Pelagius’ primary motivation wasn’t theological so much as pastoral. He believed that the doctrine of Original Sin inherited from Adam & promulgated by Augustine, led Christians to be apathetic about their own sins, because it became a kind of cop-out for personal responsibility. He loathed the idea that people would say, “Well, I’m born a sinner, in sin, and have no choice in the matter. Since I came from fallen Adam, I’m fallen and can’t get up. So I might as well lie here in my sin and sin away.”  Pelagius reasoned along these lines: “If Christians are inherently sinful, but God forgives sins, what’s the motivation to even try to change?” He said the doctrine of Original Sin would gut the sense that sin was evil simply because it would be seen as inevitable. He worried when The Church accepted the idea of Original Sin, it would give people an excuse for sins, and that God would bring judgment.

During the next 3 decades Pelagius spent in Italy, he seemingly remained orthodox and was a popular author and speaker. He wrote a commentary on Paul’s NT letters and condemned the heresy of Manichaeanism. Though he held no official position or title, he was honored as a spiritual director and mentor to many. Regarding the things that mattered to him; namely, the moral purity of believers, Pelagius was only marginally influential.

Over against Pelagius who rejected the idea of Original Sin was it’s prime articulator, Bishop Augustine of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine had already made a name for himself in the controversy with the Donatists that we looked at in Season 1. This controversy with the Donatists prepared Augustine for the challenge Pelagius offered up. Against the Donatists, Augustine argued the Church isn’t made up of perfect people, but that it is peopled by those who’ve been Born Again, as evidenced by their baptism.

Augustine was convinced the doctrine of Original Sin was true. He said people begin life in the grip of a power their unable to shake. It draws them ever deeper into ruin unless God rescues them. In the same way that Pelagius’s ideas were formed in the crucible of his own experience, so were Augustine’s. He’d been a rank profligate, a true-blue pagan. Reform hadn’t come to Augustine by self-will or in a vow to do better. In His classic autobiography, Confessions, he leans on Romans 7 when he says, “Even though a person may be delighted with God’s law as far as his inmost self is concerned, how is he to deal with that other law in his bodily members which deliver him as prisoner to the law of sin dominant in his body. Who will free him from this death-laden body, if not your grace, given through Jesus Christ our Lord?” Augustine thus gives voice to how helpless he was in his former life, and how much he owed to God’s mercy.

Pelagius said human beings were posse non peccare = Able to not sin, apart from any supernatural enabling by God.

Augustine said they were non posses non peccare = Not able to not sin, apart from God’s enabling. He said even the good things people do aren’t out of a genuine of love of God but for some lesser, and ultimately selfish purpose. Augustine’s concept of grace isn’t the Pelagian nudge into doing good by being inspired by Jesus’ example, it’s a colossal power that liberates people to truly love & serve God. That grace-empowered love then conquers sin & installs the virtues of the Spirit-filled life. But, Augustine said, until that grace is given, people can’t even choose good, let alone DO it.

In Augustine’s conception of Original Sin, When Adam sinned, all humanity sinned with him.

The clash between Pelagius and Augustine might never have materialized if the Roman Empire had remained intact. But in 410 Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. Roman nobles fled to enclaves on the coast and North Africa. Among them was Pelagius and his followers. It was there that a disciple of Pelagius named Celestius began spreading his teacher’s ideas. A synod of African bishops met in Carthage in May of 418 to resolve the conflicting visions of God’s grace and human free will. They came down heavily on Augustine’s side.

Among the 8 canons the Council passed, are 3 that posed a major challenge to Pelagius’ theology.

1) The Council said infants require baptism because baptism is MORE than a symbol. The African bishops said it actually washes away sin; that is, the stain of original sin.

2) The Council decreed that the sinless life Celestius advocated was impossible. Quoting 1 John 1:8 where john says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,” they said the Bible writers who admitted sin weren’t just being humble, as Celestius argued. The Council rejected the idea we’re in control of the good & bad in us, and so, the idea that we can perfect ourselves.

3)  The Council took a stand on the power & scope of God’s grace. Pelagius had said, or at least, his later followers said, that God’s grace had bestowed on people a natural, that is a HUMAN ability, to overcome sin. The Council said God’s grace isn’t simply a tool people use to conform behavior; it’s how God changes them from the inside out by empowering them to love & obey Him rather than sin. God’s grace is something He gives, not something we choose.

The Council of Carthage was conducted without the political shenanigans that marked some of the other councils. The exception was the work of Pope Zosimus, who was impressed by Pelagius and Celestius piety. He urged the African Bishops to declared Pelagius’s party as orthodox. They refused, politely and after several months, Zosimus agreed with their findings.

But because The Council of Carthage had been a local synod, its decisions weren’t accepted in the East. Several theologians questioned its canons. The Council’s pessimism about human freedom alarmed those who concluded the Africans had gone to an extreme in rejecting Pelagianism. They called for a moderate position that could serve the same purpose without falling into fatalism. So, a 2nd council was called a century later to resolve some of the more controversial issues left by Carthage in a way that was binding.

You see, most theologians opposed Pelagius, and were glad Carthage put down his ideas. But they were also concerned that the Council had been influenced by Manichaeanism, one of those dualistic religions we looked at recently. Manichaeanism said humanity is trapped in an utterly evil material world. The only escape is through the spiritual realm. That Augustine had once been a Manichaean and that his ideas were central to the Carthaginian Council heightened the suspicions. Theologians like John Cassian argued while the aim of the bishops at Carthage had been laudable, they’d left no room for human choice; at least choices that had any real meaning. Carthage made Christianity as fatalistic as Manichaeanism.

Those who questioned Carthage thought . . .

1) The idea that the unredeemed are unable to choose good is self-evidently false.

2) The fatalism in Carthage’s ideas about predestination is contrary to Scripture.

The most famous of the theologians who challenged Carthage was John Cassian. He argued that human freedom is not in conflict with God’s grace and that predestination is based on God foreknowing who’ll freely but by grace, come to faith in Christ.

Cassian cited the story of Zacchaeus, Jericho’s despised tax-collector. Zacchaeus was desperate to see Jesus. Being short and unable to see through the crowd, he climbed a tree and waited till Jesus passed by. Cassian argued that God did not cause Zacchaeus to climb the tree; he decided to do so of his own accord, and Jesus rewarded this act of faith.

So, a 2nd Council was called in 529 at Orange in S Gaul, today, SE France, to deal with these questions. It decided once again in favor of Augustine’s views. Augustine’s influence was so strong in the Council, many of Orange’s rulings used his language word for word.

25 canons passed ruling out the arguments of men like Cassian. They accused those bishops who refused to accept the canons of being influenced by Pelagius. But it wasn’t an all-clear for everything Augustine taught. Room is left in Orange’s canons for the mystery of human free will. Augustine’s doctrine of double-predestination was declared heretical.

Today, calling someone Pelagian, or accusing them of spouting Pelagianism, effectively shuts them up because it’s saying they deny The Gospel and have turned the distinctive Christian doctrine of salvation by grace through faith into the something someone can earn by their good works which don’t require the enabling of God’s grace.

I’d be remiss in this review of Pelagianism to not mention Semi-Pelagianism.

A dictionary definition of semi-Pelagianism is that it is a mid-way position between Augustinianism, with its emphasis on predestination and man’s total inability, and Pelagianism, with its insistence on man’s ability to obey God apart from divine grace. Semi-Pelagians claim human beings, though broken by sin, aren’t totally ruined. They retain a measure of freedom by which they’re able to cooperate with God’s grace. Man’s will is weakened by the Fall; his nature has fallen, but it’s not utterly depraved. God’s grace comes to people through the conviction of the Spirit and persuasion that Jesus is the only answer to our need. While God’s Spirit brings grace through many means, the primary means by which grace is activated is in and through The Gospel message. The Spirit’s dual work of conviction & persuasion is God’s grace, which the person who is saved surrenders to and is born again. This work of grace that leads to salvation is called prevenient grace. But advocates of this position believe it’s possible to resist this work of grace and remain in s a state of unbelief. The Calvinist believes in irresistible grace; that it cannot be resisted.

Among those that would be classed Semi-Pelagian there’s a wide array of understanding on what role the grace of God does in drawing and wooing the lost INTO Saving Faith. Some believe the message of The Gospel by itself has the power to save. Other would say it’s God’s grace working through The Gospel that convicts the sinner of both their need and the realization that the remedy is in Christ.

Sadly, in the discussions that all too often turn into acrimonious debates between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, the charge of being semi-Pelagian is often tossed out as a kind of theological trump card. If Pelagianism is a heresy, being Semi-Pelagian is being a half heretic and a half heretic is still a heretic.

Theological discussions aren’t going very far when one side calls the other heretical. And if the dictionary’s definition of Semi-Pelagianism is accurate, why not call it Semi-Augustinianism?

It might be wise to question if either Augustinianism or Pelagianism are Biblical before we set some position as a mediating stand between them.

What if BOTH Augustine and Pelagius were wrong? If that were the case, we don’t want to find some middle ground between them. Being halfway between wrong and wrong is doubly wrong.


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2 thoughts on “Heretics – Part 05 // Was He Really?

  • Lemuel C. Dees

    Well, if this conclusion isn’t a precarious cliff hanger!? May I ask your closing question in another way: what if Augustine and Pelagius were both right? Or, let me put it this way: could it be that they both had in focus one side of the same coin? As much as I love theology, I believe some things are just a bit beyond our complete comprehension. Pretty sure some will not agree with me on that, in as much as we just HATE NOT KNOWING. I don’t believe God leaves us ‘dangling’ in the unknown. No, He left us plenty of information to walk in His ways (whether we choose to see it or not). But God, being Who He is, Eternal, and sometimes His ways “past finding out” (Romans 11:33 KJV), I’m pretty sure there are some things that may remain a mystery until He comes for us. ;)l

    • Lance Post author

      Lem,
      Some good thoughts there.
      For years, I did what many (most?) do regarding harmonizing God’s sovereignty and man’s free will = Assign it to mystery.
      But the more I’ve studied The Word and pondered, I’ve come to the conclusion there’s no need to do that.
      God is sovereign. But that doesn’t mean everything that happens is God’s immediate and direct will. To take that position is to turn God into a monster, or to say the morality by which He operates is completely different than the one He requires we live by.
      God is sovereign in that He’s ordained the ends. The chief End, the real Bottom Line of it all and His ultimate goal is His glory in an eternal, intimate, love relationship with us. Intrinsic and necessary to that is that we be free to choose Him and the love that relationship requires. That’s why we”recreated in His image & likeness.
      So, God honors the choices we make, but His ends aren’t thwarted by them when they contravene His will. Because GOd IS God, He’s able to work in such a way that even when we rebel, His overall plan goes forward. He even is able to take upo our failures and turn them into good (Romans 8:28).
      Anyway, that’s the way I see it.