In a comment to this post bs asks:
Having followed the blog and its comments for a while, I’ve noticed that Pelagianism is taken (by Lee and commenters) to be a dirty word. Embarassingly, I didn’t know what it was and googled it. While I can’t say that I necessarily agree with Pelagius, I admit that his theory, at least superficially, does not strike me as all that bad. Has rigorous analysis revealed it to be half-baked?
This is a good question in part because I think a lot of modern Christians do accept views (not without good reason) that are similar to those embraced by Pelagius. However, there are other components of Pelagianism (and its cousin, semi-Pelagianism) that continue to be rejected by mainstream Chrstianity. It would be presumptuous of me to try and cover the entire Pelagian controversy in a blog post even if I had the ability, but I’ll talk a little bit about why I think modern Christians might be attracted to some of Pelagius’s views, but also why I don’t think they have the implications that Pelagius himself seemed to think.
First of all, a caveat: my understanding of the “historical Pelagius” is highly imperfect and it’s probably misleading to talk about “Pelagianism” as though it were a timeless set of doctines. Still, it’s probably fair to speak of Pelagianism as a tendency within Christianity, one that comes to the fore whenever we are tempted to emphasize human potential at the expense of divine grace. Consequently, “liberal” Christians have often been accused of being closet Pelagians, as have some conservative evangelicals, though hardly anyone that I’m aware of actually claims the label.
Pelagius was a British theologian of the fifth century whose views were condemned for (to simplify greatly) two reasons: he denied original sin as understood by the church at the time and he denied the need for divine grace to attain salvation. He’s probably known to us now chiefly on account of Augustine’s polemic against Pelagian views on these matters, over against which Augustine developed his own views which obviously have been highly influential in Western Christianity.
It’s in Pelagius’s denial of Original Sin, at least in its Western-Augustinian form, that I think many modern Christians are likely to be sympathetic to his views. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Pelagianism denies that 1. Death entered the world as a result of Adam’s sin. 2. That Adam’s sin (and accompanying guilt) was passed down to succeeding generations in a quasi-biological fashion. 3. That newborn children are in a state of sin, both in being prone to sin and in being actually guilty on account of Adam’s sin. 4. That the entire human race dies “in Adam” or as a result of his sin.
What’s striking here is that I think it’s fair to say that many present-day Christians would want to deny, or at least significantly modify, these tenets of the traditional formulation of Original Sin too. Given the perspective of evolution and the questionableness of interpreting the Genesis story in a literal fashion, we no longer think that death entered the world only as a result of human sin, or that guilt and sin can be transmitted biologically, or that newborn children are guilty of sin, or that we die only because Adam sinned. Death seems to be part of the warp and woof of creation, a necessary condition for the ongoing development of life, at least under present conditions. Likewise, we have trouble making sense of gulit as something that can be passed down physically from parents to child. And it seems morally questionable, to say the least, to suggest that newborn infants are guilty of sin and deserving of (possibly everlasting) punishment, or even the “mild limbo” of some traditional theology.
The second part of Pelagius’s condemned views seem to flow from his views on original sin. If Adam’s role is primarily one of setting a bad example for us, but our faculties remain uncorrupted, it seems, in principle, that we should be capable of attaining blessedness and moral perfection under our own steam. This is where Pelagius really runs up against orthodoxy since, if we’re capable of being good on our own, what need is there for a Savior? Jesus is then reduced to an example of the virtuous life which we are fully capable of imitating.
Leaving aside the question of original sin for a minute, I think it’s worth pointing out that this purely exemplarist view of Christ simply doesn’t fit with the experience of Christians throughout the ages. We get this at least as early as Paul’s lament that “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7.15). This idea that evil is a power within us over which we don’t have complete control, and from which we need to be delivered, is part and parcel of the Christian experience of Jesus as Savior. Jesus is the one who breaks the power that sin has over us. Pelagius, by contrast, takes the view of Stoicism – that by the sheer power of our will we are capable of doing right.
So orthodoxy was right, it seems to me, in seeing Pelagianism as a heresy that strikes at the heart of the gospel. Still, given the difficulties with the traditional doctrine of original sin, aren’t we forced back into a kind of Pelagianism? I don’t think so, because I don’t think Pelagius’ conclusions about divine grace follow from his account of sin. Or, to put it another way, I think we can give at least a partial account of sin that doesn’t fall afoul of the problems with the traditional Augustinian view, but which also gives us a more realistic picture of human life and its need for grace than that offered by Pelagius.
A revised view of Original Sin
In light of our knowledge of evolutionary biology, a lot of Christians have felt a need to revise the Augustinian account of original sin. One such account that I’ve discussed before has been offered by Keith Ward. Ward accepts that death existed long before human beings came on the secne, but he still thinks we can talk about a historical “fall” of sorts. What he means by this is that there was a point at which human beings chose self-interest over the obligations of morality and what he calls a “tacit” knowledge of God. Thus our primal sense of unity with the ground of our being was ruptured.
This primal choice reinforces our preexisting tendencies toward lust and aggression which are legacies of our evolutionary development. Severing our fellowship with the divine renders us impotent to choose the good in the face of these competing drives. Thus the result is a “spiritual death.” And this tendency is propagated and reinforced through the social environment created by this rejection of God. So, human beings aren’t born, in Ward’s view, with original sin strictly speaking, but they are born into a world where it is virtually impossible to consistently choose the good due to the combined factors of our innate tendencies and the social and cultural environment that has been corrupted by the choices of our ancestors.
Though he rejects Original Sin understood as a hereditary transmission of guilt or an innate corruption, Ward parts ways from Pelagianism in holding that the compounded sin of humanity has put each one of us in a situation where we can neither consistently choose the good nor repair the ruptured relationship with God. This is why divine grace is needed: to restore us to fellowship with God and heal our distorted tendencies toward self-centeredness.
God’s restoration of fellowship and healing presence are mediated, Ward says, by the Incarnation. In Jesus “God acts to show the life that is required of us, to establish a community in which such a life can be begun, to show that the human goal of divine-human fellowship is possible, and to draw people into such fellowship” (Ward, Religion and Human Nature, p. 223). This goes beyond Pelagian exemplarism in that our restoration to fellowship with God relies entirely on God’s gracious initiative, and the healing of our disposition to sin is a gift of the Spirit. There is no suggestion that human beings, under their own power, can restore what was lost through the fall.
This is just one possible revisionist account of original sin, and I’m not saying it’s correct in all its particulars. But it does offer a view that takes seriously our need for grace even while questioning the traditional way that the doctrine of original sin has been framed.
The God of Grace: The Heart of the Gospel
The reason that so many Christians find Pelagianism to be wrong, then, may not be necessarily because it rejects a particular account of Original Sin, but that it seems to eliminate the need for divine grace, which is the very heart of the Christian message. Christianity is all about a God who helps those who can’t help themselves. Indeed, setting ourselves up as independent of God’s help is pretty much the definition of sin in traditional Christianity. So, my contention is that what we may find attractive about Pelagius’s rejection of a hard Augustinian view of original sin doesn’t entail the optimistic conclusions he drew about human beings’ capacities for self-perfection. We can still affirm with the tradition that we’re in need of God’s grace to be delivered from our condition.
Hope that helps somewhat. Of course, I could’ve completely missed the point of the question.