Tabletalk Subscription
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining.You've accessed all your free articles.
Unlock the Archives for Free

Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.

Try Tabletalk Now

Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?

Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.

{{ error }}Need help?

The Pelagian controversy takes its name from Pelagius, a British-born monk who was teaching in Rome from about AD 380 to 410. Pelagius wrote a set of biblical commentaries that have been preserved under the names of Jerome and Cassiodorus. It seems that the Pelagian controversy arose not because Augustine had read Pelagius’ writings, but the other way round. Pelagius read what Augustine was teaching about human sinfulness and the need for divine grace, and he objected to what he regarded as an unacceptable novelty. It was only after he expressed his opposition to Augustine that the latter’s attention was drawn to the issues at stake.

At first, it seems that Augustine was reluctant to criticize Pelagius directly, thinking that his reaction may have been the result of a misunderstanding, but on closer investigation, he realized that there were genuine problems with Pelagius’ teaching. At the same time, Pelagius was not alone in holding the views that he did, and he cannot be regarded as the sole author of the heresy that has taken his name. Among his supporters was Julian of Eclanum, who developed Pelagius’ views into a coherent system of thought. So, it is fair to say that what we now call Pelagianism is as much the teaching of Julian as it is of Pelagius himself.

The Origin of Sin

Pelagianism arose because the early church had failed to define the concept of sin with sufficient precision. Everybody agreed that human beings were sinful and in need of God’s grace for salvation, but there was a difference of opinion about what sin was and where it had come from. Many pagans believed that matter is intrinsically evil, and so human beings were inevitably sinners by nature, but Christians could not accept that idea. The Bible says that when God created the world, it was good. The Son of God had become a man and lived a sinless life in a material body, which would not have been possible if matter were inherently sinful. Finally and not least, the promise of salvation included the resurrection of the body, which would have been inconceivable if the body was beyond redemption. Evil was therefore not something that God had created, but what was it?

Everybody agreed that human beings were sinful and in need of God’s grace for salvation, but there was a difference of opinion about what sin was and where it had come from.

The Bible portrays evil as the rebellion of Satan, an angel who had originally been created good but whose pride had led him to believe that he could dispense with God. Satan appeared to Adam and Eve and tempted them into following him in his rebellion even though they knew that what they were doing was wrong. Their sin was not an inescapable part of their created nature but was an act of disobedience to the revealed will of God. On this, Augustine and Pelagius were agreed, but it was not clear what the consequences of Adam’s disobedience were for the rest of humanity. Does everyone sin by their own free choice, as Adam and Eve did, or do we inherit an innate sinfulness that cuts us off from God, whether we commit actual sins or not? To put it another way, is a newborn baby a sinner in need of salvation even if he has not done anything wrong? In an era when infant mortality rates were high, this was a pressing question for many Christians, who found it impossible to believe that God would condemn a baby to hell merely because of what Adam and Eve had done.

The Effect of Adam’s Disobedience

The dispute between Augustine and Pelagius was not about the origin of sin but about the effect of Adam’s disobedience on his posterity. Augustine maintained that all human beings have inherited the broken relationship with God caused by the disobedience of our first parents. We are not free to choose our inheritance and must accept what we have been given. Pelagius, on the other hand, believed that sin is an act of the will and that, like Adam and Eve, every human being is free to choose whether he will sin. Pelagius admitted that in practice everyone does choose to sin, and so his position was that human beings are sinners, but there is an important difference of principle that shows us just how incompatible the two views are.

Pelagius believed that every human being is granted free will in the same way that Adam and Eve were. He insisted that sinlessness must therefore be theoretically possible, because if it were not, human beings could not be held responsible for their freely chosen sinful actions. Furthermore, Pelagius argued, God would not have commanded people to act righteously if He knew that they were incapable of doing so, because God does not ask us to do the impossible. In his view, the law of Moses would have no meaning if it could not be kept, even if nobody actually did so. Pelagius believed that Jesus was the exception that proved the rule. He had kept the law perfectly and was therefore sinless. The fact that He achieved this shows that it is possible, and it makes those who fail to live up to the standard guilty of their sin. To Pelagius and those who thought like him, this seemed fair—people are rightly held responsible for their own failings but not for those of others, including the disobedience of Adam and Eve.

The idea that there is a universal human sinfulness for which we are all responsible is hard for many people to accept. As a result Pelagian beliefs are still common today, even though Pelagius himself has largely been forgotten.
The Question of Guilt

Reluctance to accept the transmission of sin from one generation to another was compounded by the question of guilt. Some people accepted that the weakness of the flesh was such that every human being would fall into sin sooner or later, but they could not agree that we are individually responsible for that weakness and therefore guilty in the sight of God. Pelagians believed that responsibility and guilt are meaningful only in the context of actual sins committed. They had no concept of innate sinfulness as distinct from sinful acts and therefore rejected the idea of “original sin.”

Augustine himself wrestled with these questions in his early days as a Christian, and it was only slowly that he came to understand sinfulness as something distinct from sinful acts voluntarily committed by people who were exercising their free will. Augustine did not deny that human beings have the freedom to choose between good and evil, but following the teaching of Paul in Romans 7, he came to see that even if we choose what is good, we are incapable of doing it. We may not want to sin, but we have no alternative because our will is in bondage to the power of evil.

Like Augustine, Pelagius believed in the need for divine grace, but he interpreted this differently. Where Augustine believed that God’s grace is needed to deliver us from a spiritual condition that we can do nothing about, Pelagius thought of it as the power given to us so that we can choose what is good. In his view, God helps us achieve spiritual perfection by enlightening our souls in baptism and by giving us the Holy Spirit to guide us along the way to perfection.

The Way of Salvation

Pelagius did not believe that the sinlessness of Christ is easily obtainable by anyone who desires it. He knew that the lure of temptation is too great to resist other than by the grace of God. The gulf that separated Augustine from Pelagius was hard for many people to appreciate because by stressing the need for divine grace to help us overcome our weakness, Pelagius appeared to give God the credit for human salvation.

Augustine retorted that although human nature retains the goodness of its creation, human beings are cut off from God, with the result that everything good in our created nature is perverted and abused. Sinfulness is a universal spiritual condition, not a voluntary choice that can be mitigated or reversed, so that every human being, including the newly born infant, stands in the same broken relationship with God. In Augustine’s view, no amount of moral training can deliver a person from his inherited sinfulness. That can only be achieved by spiritual death and resurrection to a new life, which is not ours but Christ’s. The role of the Holy Spirit is not to enlighten our minds and strengthen our wills to follow Christ but to impart His new life to us by coming to dwell in our hearts and uniting us to Him. Our “righteousness” is not ours at all—it is the righteousness of Christ at work in us.

Augustine maintained and developed his opposition to Pelagianism until his death in AD 430, but by then most of the church had been won over to his views. Pelagius and his followers were condemned several times, but that is not the whole story, because the beliefs that lie behind Pelagianism are more than the heresy of one man and his followers. The desire to find some good in fallen humanity and to exempt small children (in particular) from the consequences of original sin remains very strong, as does the feeling that punishment should be meted out only to those who commit actual sins. The idea that there is a universal human sinfulness for which we are all responsible is hard for many people to accept, even if they are officially committed to Augustinian principles. As a result, Pelagian beliefs are still common today, even though Pelagius himself has largely been forgotten.

Concerned with the Wrong Table

Recommended Books on Time

Keep Reading Time

From the September 2020 Issue
Sep 2020 Issue