- THESIS #49 of 95. Pelagius was right in believing that man possessed the innate spiritual faculties to perform good works such as exercising compassion towards his fellow man
- THESIS #50 of 95. Pelagius was wrong if he believed that man possessed the innate spiritual faculties to live a sinless life or merit co-heirship with Christ
- THESIS #51 of 95. Pelagius was wrong if he believed that any man could be saved in the gospel sense apart from being in a living cognisant relationship with Jesus Christ
1Cor9:24-27(NASB): Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. So, they do it to obtain a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore, I run in such a way as not to run aimlessly; I box in such a way, as to avoid hitting air; but I strictly discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified
Rev3:21 (NASB) The one who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat with My Father on His throne
1Thes5:23 (NASB) May the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ
Pelagius (CE354-418) was a British-born theologian and monk who migrated to Rome around 380AD. Though not a priest, he became a highly regarded spiritual teacher for both clergy and laity. He was greatly distressed by the moral standards of the church and people of Rome and blamed their laxity on the doctrines of grace, especially as they had been fashioned by his contemporary (born the same year), Augustine of Hippo. That bishop in turn became the fiercest critic of Pelagius.
Both these men feature in my theses, for the dispute between the two was pivotal in the development of Christian theology thereafter, more particularly in the West. That cannot be examined in any detail here, merely a few comments on the three related theses stated above, with pointers to some earlier posts that deal with related issues.
WHAT PELAGIUS GOT RIGHT
The first of the related theses (#49) affirms Pelagius to be broadly correct and Augustine profoundly in error regarding the underlying goodness of human nature. That is partly because Augustine unlike most of the earlier Fathers rejected anthropological trichotomy – i.e., that a human being consisted of body, soul and spirit (1Thes5:23). The British theologian was right to affirm that man by nature is perfectly capable of performing that which is good and pleasing to God.
Such is supported by Jesus’ teaching on final judgement in Mt25 and by Paul’s statement that pagans who do not possess the Law can instinctively perform that which fulfils its requirements (Rom2:14NASB). This all pertains to “natural law”, covered in an earlier post. Augustine’s teaching in this area is more akin to that of mankind’s Adversary than any reasonably minded human being. For He considered that man by nature could do “absolutely no good thing, whether in thought or will, affection or in action” [“On Rebuke and Grace – chapter 3].
That would be total depravity, a doctrine moderated to an extent within his Church’s teaching but embraced and reinforced by the Protestant Reformers. For as Luther asserted in his introduction to the Heidelberg theses, he believed his former monastic patriarch Augustine to be “the Apostle Paul’s most trustworthy interpreter”.
WHAT PELAGIUS GOT WRONG
It needs to be said that little is known about what Pelagius actually believed and taught, for most of his writing was destroyed by the Catholic Church once they had denounced him as a heretic. But he certainly went too far if he actually taught that man is capable by his own efforts of avoiding sin or attaining what the New Testament means by salvation (Heb7:25). Such requires a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and access to the sacraments of grace. That, writes Paul, commences with “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Tit3:5). It is followed up by regular participation in what the early Fathers, including Augustine himself, regarded as the central rite of the Church: the eucharistic sacrifice with its sacred species: the bread of Life and cup of salvation. Self-determination, discipline, even the most stringent asceticism apart from such means of grace will not raise a man to eternal life or enable him to attain the first resurrection.
What Pelagius would have recognized and emphasized is that such spiritual advancement is not through grace alone but requires personal effort and self-discipline. Observe carefully what Paul wrote in 1Cor9 (quoted above under “Biblical Reference”). If, as was the case for the first 28 years of my Christian life, it appears at odds with your understanding of gospel salvation, then scorned Pelagius was closer to the Kingdom than you currently are. For truly, such self-determined discipline is required along with the means of grace to attain “the prize of the high calling of God” (Phi3:14). That refers to co-heirship with Jesus Christ, no less; and the scarcely imaginable glories that attend it (Rev3:21).
Pelagius, if his views have been rightly represented, also failed to recognize that the Fall resulted in a radical disruption in the relationship between mankind and his Maker. In addition, that a vital part of human nature has indeed been corrupted – the temporary intellectual vessel the soul currently inhabits. A part of human nature I say, for as Paul declared but few appear to have understood him, “Whilst I joyfully agree with the law of God in the inner person, I am aware of a different law in the parts of my body waging war against the law of my (spiritual) mind, making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my body’s parts. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Rom7:22-24).
That cannot be Paul speaking of himself as a Christian, for in no way was the Apostle enslaved to the sins of the flesh; he was victorious through his association with Christ, the empowerment of the Spirit and determined self-discipline.
Many of the biblical tensions that arise from both Augustine’s and Pelagius’s polarized positions regarding the economy of grace, human nature and the freedom/bondage of the will can be resolved. But only once the mystery concerning the conflicting laws of flesh and spirit that Paul was outlining in Rom7 has been rightly interpreted. That subject was considered in more detail in my earlier post covering theses #29-#32. That in turn had to be reconciled with the rest of Scripture. Through God’s help I believe that such has been achieved – set out in the Little Book of Providence, available to all as a free PDF.
Free PDF of The Little Book of Providence HERE
Large-print version suitable for mobiles HERE