Growing up, I always enjoyed reading about the “epic rap battles of Christian theology.” Augustine versus Pelagius. Arminius versus Calvin. Luther versus Erasmus. But I must admit — I thought that Pelagius was universally condemned as a heretic and that no one today would ever adhere to Pelagianism. I assumed Pelagians had gone the way of the Dodo birds. Come to find out, they still exist. And even more than that, it is possible that the stereotypes I had inherited about them and their beliefs are unfair and naive. When I found out that Justin H. — who is a very thoughtful, compassionate writer — considers himself Pelagian, I knew I had to hear more. So I asked him to write a guest post explaining what Pelagianism means to him and why that meaning is important. I am honored to share his thoughts here with you. ~Ryan
Disclaimer: I neither consider myself a scholar nor do I fully understand the beliefs of Pelagianism.
When I called myself Pelagian one day, Ryan asked me if I’d like to write an essay on what that means for me. I accepted, and this is what came of that. This is what being Pelagian is to me, and I don’t expect that it will be the same for others. But I hope this helps others to better understand why some do not believe he was a heretic — and why some, like me, still believe in his basic ideas, and have let them influence how we’ve grown in our theology and understanding of God and man.
I came across the name of Pelagius as a child. Of course the only thing I knew about him was that he was considered a heretic, denied original sin, and taught that we don’t need God’s grace and can save ourselves. Which was pretty much wrong.
The Catholic site New Advent still lists him as a heretic, and still says that he denied God’s grace.
But what Pelagius really believed was something more akin to the Wesleyan tradition of prevenient grace.
This is a form of divine grace that comes before human choice, in essence enabling that choice. Pelagius is himself noted as saying,
“It was because God wished to bestow on the rational creature the gift of doing good of his own free will and the capacity to exercise free choice, by implanting in man the possibility of choosing either alternative…he could do either quite naturally and then bend his will in the other direction too. He could not claim to possess the good of his own volition, unless he was the kind of creature that could also have possessed evil. Our most excellent creator wished us to be able to do either but actually to do only one, that is, good, which he also commanded, giving us the capacity to do evil only so that we might do His will by exercising our own. That being so, this very capacity to do evil is also good – good, I say, because it makes the good part better by making it voluntary and independent, not bound by necessity but free to decide for itself.” (The Letters of Pelagius and his followers by B.R. Rees.)
Pelagius was condemned for this. Augustine and others named him a heretic for believing that God did not predestine men’s choices, but enabled them to choose good or evil based on their own free will. All during his trials, he spoke eloquently of why he believed what he did, citing the Ante-Nicene teachings of Iraneaus and Justin Martyr and others as teaching that man had a will to choose between good and evil of their own volition.
Pelagius’ denial of original sin — for which he was mainly called a heretic — was to him not a denial of a biblical belief, but of the gnostic concepts which had been influenced by Augustine’s former Manichaeism.
Manichaeism even had its own doctrine of original sin, called original evil, which is that matter itself is composed of evil and that good is an eventual extracting of the light in spirit, so that it can leave the evil behind. Much of Christianity teaches something similar to this in calling carnality/flesh a sign of the evil sin in our nature. But as posited by many, carnality was not what was sinful about us, but what we chose. Pelagius believed that Augustine was unduly influenced by these former beliefs in his own formation of doctrine which led to the beliefs of original sin, total depravity, etc.
Original Sin is still a pretty much fully accepted orthodox belief that sin passes down in man’s nature, and is unavoidable.
This is believed even by those who believe in prevenient grace, which would say that man’s nature needs to have enabling grace change it so they can be able to live in free choices that then give them the ability to say “yes,” or “no,” to God’s will and thus be fully condemned for their choice, and fully deserve their punishment in Hell. And since it is enabling they can hold no merit for choosing to say “yes”.
This is pretty much what the denial of original sin does in Pelagianism, only it posits that this was always the way of humans.
Thus Adam’s sin did not change the nature of men that came after him, but brought about a separation from God in relationship.
Sin consequently happens from bad choices, environment, upbringing, and insecurity, but are not themselves what is keeping us from God. A Pelagian reading of Genesis 3 shows Eve not reacting out of rebellion, but fear. Eve chose to disobey God because she did not believe He had her best in mind. This was brought about from the lies of the serpent, which is of course if you take the story literally. But even if you don’t, the fact remains that men almost inevitably make bad choices. Because we are born separated from our relationship with God, fear and insecurity and the bad choices of those around us tend to lead us to sin as well. Sin being merely doing wrong in how we hurt others, or ourselves, and in our actions of obedience or disobedience to God.
Not in our nature, but our choices and our actions.
The question arises then if there is a possibility that man could fully stop sinning. Honestly I don’t believe so, and I’m not sure Pelagius did either. He seemed to believe that man could “not sin” in specific choices throughout life, and chose to teach virtue and even an ascetic lifestyle in light of this. But it doesn’t seem as if he fully believed one could ever stop completely sinning.
It’s sorta like saying, “It’s possible, but the likeliness is so low as to be basically null.”
Pelagius even spoke of how bad choices can take on their own force over us as we continually make them, writing,
“The long habit of doing wrong which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over many years and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature.” (Listening to the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality by J. Phillip Newell.)
As to how this “saves” people, even if one could not sin in every way, but still didn’t have a relationship with God, they would still need that relationship for the kingdom of Heaven/New Earth, which is itself an eternal communion between God and man in full physical form.
So the question of whether doing good or evil acts is what really condemns us is itself a good one worth asking.
If we are to be true to our basic beliefs then we would have to say that evil actions are not what condemn us to hell, but the state of our heart towards God. Whereas good actions don’t save us, but the state of our heart before God, and that is made in how we interact with God.
I tend to believe that Adam and Eve were flawed from the start, that this was God’s choice for us all, capable of sin or good in their nature, and that nothing Adam did changed that in us either. But what did change was our relationship to God. Thus what needs to be reconciled is not us, or our actions, but our relationship to God, which Jesus died on the cross to give us that chance again.
Grace is not about making us good, or less evil, but about giving us a chance to walk with God again in the cool of the day.
There does seem to be a strong sense of right and wrong in actions in the Bible, though. I believe this is not just for Christians, but for anyone. Since anyone can live moral lives, they should know what is moral and what is not.
These rules were laid down to help us love each other better, and taken in cultural context (meaning some rules were historically or anthropologically key for an ancient Jewish culture growing up in pre-Roman, and then post-Roman society but not for us now), and leaving room for human evolution of ideas and morals, can help us to be a better society in community with one another.
The basic rules — Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor — are ones that transcend time.
As a Pelagian, I believe that man is not born sinful, but becomes sinful based on his own choices.
I do think that the separation from God in our whole being is something that we need to reconcile, and that it does effect our choices and actions, and even our nature. But I also believe that being born in the image of God counteracts this, and creates in us the ability to choose against evil and sin. Eventually the hopeful result of this choice being in us is that we will face the choice of following God or not, or seeking after him in whatever context we can, and that we will choose to do so.
We will fail, as we are flawed beings.
But this flaw is not condemnable. It is rather a sign of our need for God, something that is good — as long as God is actually in relationship with us.
In fact, there are some people that seem to celebrate this flaw — some that even believe God Himself celebrates this flaw.
They celebrate it because it means we are not automatons, but free humans. We are neither chained to sin nor chained to good. We always can choose to do the opposite of what we have been doing.
John Ruskin, a leading Victorian era art critic, wrote about Gothic architecture as the sign of free men, creatively using their own imagination and making art out of their own soul, rather than following a preconceived formula by taskmasters. This was a very humanistic thought. It also fully describes my own belief in how Pelagianism effects my own life.
“Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.”
In other words, by giving us these tools God has shown himself to be a humanist. He believes in us, and in the beauty of His creative imagination in how he’s formed us. Nothing could change this, not even the walking away from relationship with Him in the Garden, not even Adam and Eve disobeying. When they leave the Garden, God continues to be there for them, guiding them, and showing them the right choices to make. And they continue to sometimes make them, and sometimes not.
To be Pelagian is to have hope for all men, to have the hope that — as they make choices, both good and evil — they will eventually choose God, and even make the good choice of surrendering their own will for His.
It is to believe in ourselves, as better than the choices we sometimes make for evil.
Most of all it is to say that we are not broken in our nature, or sinful, but exactly as God wants us to be, exactly as God created us. We don’t need grace to change our nature now. It already has if there was any changing to be made. All that lies between us and God now is a reconciled relationship, which we all face the choice of in our lives in one way or another.
There are still sects of Christianity that teach Pelagianism as well as other stuff these days, sects like Celtic Spirituality (a chief proponent being J Phillip Newell), and Celtic Christianity, which also espouses universal reconciliation, etc. They see Pelagius as one of their original saints, because he was himself a Briton. He returned to teach there long after he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was also influential on the Quakers, who believe that men are born with a light in them, God’s image, and that nature and man are basically good. They believe, and Pelagius too, that God has seemed to write His truth for us in our very nature, and in our hearts.
If we are to know it, we must search ourselves and find God.
(Not that we are God, but that God has written Himself on our hearts.)
I wonder what Christianity would be like if it had been more influenced by Pelagius, a man who believed in the basic goodness of all, and had hope that all could live a moral life and reconcile that relationship with God which Jesus had died to make possible. I tend to think we’d be far less dogmatic, and far less bigoted in how we approach evangelism. We would probably seek to enrich the inner self, and ignite its wonder in God’s story, and in His Creation, as a means of showing it the truth of itself, and the truth of God’s desire for it. We would be less prone to teach our children that they can do no good in and of themselves, and we would have a better relationship with nature, and carnal flesh, seeing it not as sinful in itself, but as making sin possible in the wrong kind of environment. We would have more hope for each other, and the ultimate outcome of humanity. We might even be more open to revisit our ideas of how we interpret scripture, and understand Hell, etc.
In short I think we could all be a little more Pelagian.
And I’ll continue to work towards that in how I treat others, and what I talk about in regards to theology. I have hope for us all, just as much as God does.
And because of my Pelagian leanings, that hope is pretty vast.