the pelagian revival and the religious condition


Though no one may recognize it, and those who may would be loath to admit it, we are in the throes of a Pelagian revival in the American church. (No shundai blankets needed.)

For the uninitiated or the unfamiliar, Pelagius was a British monk in the 5th century who argued, contrary to his rival Augustine, that we were not born with original sin, and that it was possible to maintain that state of grace throughout life. A popular mutation of this line of thinking is what is referred to as ‘works-based salvation’, that one’s deeds can earn Christian salvation. As mentioned, this is a mutation: Pelagius’ point wasn’t that sin could be counteracted with deeds, but that humanity has the ability to maintain its good standing with a Creator God. Augustine’s view in time won out, of course, and Pelagius was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Carthage.

Incidentally, Pelagius was a champion of free will. He called it ‘grace’.

Such an equivocal problem (or problems, in this case: Pelagianism proper and its mutated offspring, as well as ‘grace’) is exactly what we are dealing with today. While I do not believe sin is an act but a state of being–attitude precedes action, as an old friend and journalist/ethics instructor once put it–at the same time, there seems to be, within ecclesiastical circles, a line of thinking like this: If works are not enough to maintain or earn salvation, and a relationship with God through Christ is sufficient to be ‘saved’ (whatever that means), then what we do is ultimately arbitrary. If our actions cannot help, then they necessarily cannot hurt, either.

It’s material implication, but it’s deeply problematic, both logically and theologically.

I would think that most orthodox [note the case] Christians would agree with the statement that what we do cannot raise our standing with God. Christian salvation [fully recognizing the lack of a proper word here; I really am not particularly fond of ‘salvation’] is not reliant on a meritocratic fulfilling a quota of good deeds or engaging the requisite number of acts of Christian service (even Catholics can agree that the sacraments are inherently insufficient.) We recognize grace as, essentially, getting what we don’t deserve, and can recognize Pelagius’ equivocation for what it is.

Or do we?

While we generally object to Pelagius, we seem to be very fond of assuming the converse to be true: that if what we do can’t help, then it can’t hurt, either. And then we run into the un-Pelagian problem. What is the point of the Christ-event if the law has been circumvented by a gospel that says we may do what we please? What is the point of religious experience and participation if it does not demand of us some form of negotiation?

Unfortunately, I need to issue a caveat here: I am not advocating for legalism or some sort of harsh fundamentalist asceticism. But let’s be honest: what separates us from that mutant cult known as Calvinists if their TULIP (Perseverance of the saints should just be replaced with Pelagianism) and sense of eternal security and our progressive (and unintentionally Pelagian) sense of grace? Live by the law, die by the law. Or, in this case, live by the absence of the law, die by the absence of the law.

For being so hostile toward fundamentalism and strict legalism, the modern church has done a fine job of becoming so harsh and oppressive in their un-legalism. And last I checked, free beings are not free if we don’t have a choice with regard to relationship with the divine. Universalism violates our agency in the same way that strict Reformed theology precludes it. To be sure, the absence of regulation is at least as restrictive and probably more so than having a set of parameters within which a person could operate. Liberty is the tension between freedom and self-restraint, a tension within which theology and the community of faith is supposed to operate. Without the need for self-restraint–or, in this case, the work of Christ developing a person’s heart–there is no legitimate need for acceptance of Christ, or a relationship to God.

Which brings me to my main point: what we do may not save us, but that does not mean our actions don’t matter at all. Quite the opposite, our actions betray what matters most to us. They won’t help, but they certainly can hurt. A Christian doesn’t do things to demonstrate her faith, she does them because she is at liberty to precisely because there is nothing gained by it. The selfish person will do whatever he pleases, or will check as many things off the soteriological bucket list as possible because both poles are about the self and nothing else: they are one and the same. Relying on grace alone and a nebulous sense of relationship with God is no less legalistic as the churches many disgruntled adherents have left in the first place.

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Instead of focusing on the same Bible characters over and over, we would probably be better off learning from the heretics for a while. In our pursuit of truth here, like just about everywhere else, we’ve forgotten that that pursuit also means being watchful for falsehood. The heretics are just as important to our story as the holy.

And, like Pelagius’ or Calvin’s ideas, notions, even and especially well-intended ones, can have severe and deleterious consequences.

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6 thoughts on “the pelagian revival and the religious condition

  1. “Incidentally, Pelagius was a champion of free will. He called it ‘grace’.”

    So much silliness and misconception exists about Pelagius. Pelagius did not call freewill “grace”. What happened is that the word “grace” is used in different ways in Scripture, unfortunately, and the dividing point in the usage is between the Old Testament and the Gospels on the one side and Paul on the other.

    In the Old Testament and Gospels, grace either means “favor” or “mercy,” depending on the context. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” = “Noah found mercy in the eyes of the LORD.” “Jesus [from age 12 on] grew in grace with both God and men” = “Jesus grew in favor with both God and men.”

    In Paul, however, grace begins to be used in a new sense, i.e. “power.” “By the grace given unto me” = “by the power given unto men.”

    Now, Pelagius tends to use grace in the older OT and Gospel sense, “favor and mercy.” Augustine uses grace exclusively in the new Pauline sense, “power” and makes grace exclusively a “power of enabling.”

    The same dividing line of definitions of words also occurs with the word sin. In the Old Testament and Gospels sin is an act; in Paul it becomes an entity that indwells people and possesses them like Sin is a proper name of a demon or something. So, obviously, Pelagius again sticks with the Old Testament and Gospel definition, whereas Augustine uses the Pauline definition.

    The reason why Pelagianism keeps on coming back is because it makes more sense than Paulinism. It uses proper defintions of terms to begin with. Grace does mean favor and mercy, not power. Sin does mean an act, a violation of a commandment, not an entity or demonic agent. Pelagianism is nothing more than the usage of proper definitions of these words, which enables the gospels and the Old Testament to make sense. Augustinianism is the usage of the Pauline definitions which produce a faithonlyist system well loved by the wicked who refuse to repent, and which also renders the gospels and the Old Testament entirely nonsensical in the process.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Rey. I appreciate you taking the time to respond. That said:

      “When Pelagius spoke of ‘grace’, he meant free will, apprehension of God through reason, and the law of Moses and Jesus’ instruction.” — Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd Ed., 649. I really don’t know what more to say to that. It should also be noted that there is a lot of convenient equivocation going on in your citation examples, and on the face of it–and without the time and effort needed to exegete the prooftexts you offer–I would strongly disagree.

      Further, I’m pretty sure the wicked like the law for the same reason the righteous do: to know where the boundaries are and, ultimately, get what they want. Perfection, as Jesus notes to the young antagonist of Matthew 19, is not adherence to the law or the mere avoidance of sin. Sin is clearly not an act in Tanakh as much as it is a state of being (disunion, using Bonhoeffer) that weighs out well through the New Testament and to today.

      It is true that Pelagius is misunderstood, but not for the reasons you cite, and mere misunderstanding, at least to me, is not a sufficient reason to uphold a 1600 year old heresy.

      1. Well, obviously, I don’t have a clue who Millard Erickson is or what his credentials are. But reading that I would say he has neither read Augustine’s anti-pelagian writings nor any or Pelagius’ writings. I have a copy of the English translation of Pelagius’ commentary on Romans and of another book that is an English translation of Pelagius’ letters, the only letter being known to be for sure truly by him being the Letter to Demetrius. I’ve read both and never say Pelagius arguing that freewill is grace. I also know from Augustine’s anti-pelagian writings that often Augustine says that he thinks “by grace Pelagius merely means law and teaching.” But I think Augustine doesn’t perceive what Pelagius means at all. For example, Augustine acts like Pelagius is saying Job is sinless. Again, its a terminology problem, however. In the letter to Demetrius Pelagius says that Job “endured his punishment for his sin” so Pelagius admits that Job sinned. But Augustine acts like Pelagius is arguing Job was sinless, so why does Augustine think that? The term “righteous” to a Paulinist means “sinless” but to a gospel-ot-ist means “one who habitually does the right thing.” To the OT and the Gospels (see Luke’s saying on John the Baptists’ parents being “righteous and blameless”) the word “righteous” refers to one who more than not does right and whose sins are small and private (i.e. blameless meaning that there is no glaring public sin known of them). But to a Paulinist, “righteous” means sinless, and “there is none righteous” because there is none sinless. So Augustine is incapable of understanding Pelagius because he refuses to understand OT and gospel definitions of the terminology and maintains that only Paul’s definitions may be used. Now, in Pelagius’ commentary on Romans he very often speaks of grace and its necessity to salvation, and in all cases I take it to mean ‘mercy’ — certainly he does not mean a power than enables us to beleive as Augustine does by “grace.” Pelagius refers to freewill not as “grace” but as “capacity”, as in one of Augustine’s anti-pelagian writings where he makes a distinction between 3 things, which if I remember correctly are: capacity, will, and act. We have freewill, i.e. the capacity to do either good or evil, which we have from the beginning of creation and which was not destroyed by the fall. We have our actual will, what we will to do. Then we have the act that we do as a result. Where Augustine and Pelagius differ, of course, is point #1. Augustine denies that we have capacity that was not destroyed by the fall and maintains that “grace” (i.e. enabling power) must zap us to give us that capacity and until we are zapped by this enabling power we have no capacity to do anything but sin according to Augustine.

      2. Why is it that Protestants still call something heresy just because the Catholics did at some mistaken council? Its so absurd. You yourself acknowledge above that Augustinianism has lead to a sort of tyranny of “un-legalism” which teaches unless you live in outright sin you cannot be saved because anyone who obeys God is “fallen from grace” for “trusting in works.” To ever argue that we should obey even one command gets you labeled a Pelagian. Yet Christ said “he who keeps these commands and teaches them shall be called the greatest in the kingdom, but he who breaks them and teaches others to do so shall be called the least” — Pelagius then is the greatest and Augustine (if it even be proper to consider him in the kingdom at all) the least.

    2. In other words, it never has been so much a question of Pelagius or Augustine, but of Jesus or Paul.

      Pelagius represents the simpler doctrine of Jesus in the gospels, and when he tries to interpret Paul (he wrote a commentary on all of Paul’s epistles) he forces Paul to agree with Jesus.

      Augustine represents the more convoluted doctrine of Paul and when he tries to interpret the gospels, he forces Jesus to agree with Paul.

      Now, the question then must end here: Since we know that Jesus and Paul do not agree, and that the gospels use the terms grace and sin in a different way than Paul (or rather Paul uses them in a different way than the gospels) we must decide which direction to harmonize in. We must harmonize! So in which direction? Will we force Jesus and the gospels to agree with Paul as Augustine does? Or will we force Paul to agree with Jesus as Pelagius does?

      The faith–onlyist wicked man who refuses to repent and says faith alone matters and obedience is evil because it will make you “fall from grace” decides to force Jesus to agree with Paul, following Augustine.

      The righteous man who has faith in Jesus but also seeks to obey him to the best of his ability will decide to force Paul to agree with Jesus.

      So it boils down now to a question of which is better to be? A wicked unrepentant man? or a righteous man who believes in Jesus and also obeys?

      1. Again, I lack the time to be able to engage this as fully as I would like, but Erickson is one of the prominent Evangelical contributors to systematic theology, having authored several significant overviews of theology, and served as professor and administrator at several graduate schools, including a stint at my graduate alma mater, Bethel Seminary, which is a center-left (but fair) academic environment. I do not always agree with him–in fact, in most circumstances, I would not–nevertheless, CT is one of the finest Protestant surveys out there, and his bias generally stays out of that work.

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