What’s wrong with Pelagianism?

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.

Original sin

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.

Divine Grace

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.


7 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Pelagianism?

  1. I gather that another problem many Christians have with Pelagianism — especially Catholics and those with a “high” ecclesiology — is that it calls into question why the church exists at all. The idea that virtuous pagans could save themselves without belonging to the Body of Christ would seem to encourage the common freelance attitude today that says, the church is full of hypocrites, pedophiles and committee meetings, why bother with it if I can go off an be holy by myself?

    This is another area where many modern Christians are torn, because the idea that you must belong to a particular church in order to be saved has largely gone out of style, even with Catholics. But again, I think it’s possible to separate the baby from the bathwater: i.e., say that the church has a purpose in the world other than being the sole determinant of people’s eternal fates.

  2. Lee,

    Thank you very much for this post. I’m just amazed that you can speak with so much finesse on a difficult subject (and with very little time to do so, no less). You really captured what I find attractive about Pelagianism–its emphasis on he strength of human character, and its acknowledgment of the strangeness of hereditary culpability and the (seeming) unfairness of its application to the stillborn, etc. Surely my view is informed by recent personal events: my closest friends recently had a baby with Down Syndrome and suffered the consequences of a strictly held view of Original Sin. Thankfully, the baby is in terrific health, but there were many moments during which it seemed quite possible that she would not make it. One grandparent, a very observant Catholic, felt compelled to do everything in her power to force the baptism of the baby immediately after her birth. Not only did she violate principles of etiquette, her frantic efforts only reinforced the parents’ fears that their baby’s future was in doubt. At that time, they were in need of precisely the opposite–assurance that things would turn out okay–if only to provide them the strength to deal with a very difficult time. Of course the grandparent had the baby’s best interests in mind, but her strict religious views had an unfortunate cost.

    I, like you, am uncomfortable with writing God’s grace out of the picture. [Perhaps this is a byproduct of my love of Star Wars; what is the Force if it doesn’t intervene somehow in the most important events in the Galaxy.] Being altruistic is one thing, but it seems even more Christ-like to deny that one’s altruism is not a result of her own will and, instead, is a result of God’s grace. Put inelegantly, grace allows a sort of super-selflessness. I like this. On the other hand, I firmly believe that people can be good without believing in God. Ward’s view challenges this assumption insofar as good is understood as consistently choosing the good. Now I’m willing to see his point that these hypothetical secular good individuals might be denied salvation, but I am unpersuaded that these people simply can’t exist. (And of course it would beg the question for him to define good as acknowledging God’s grace).

    Another difficulty I have with grace is understanding how it can be reconciled with a belief in human will (a belief extant in other Christian writings). But I’ll save this for later cuz I gotta run. Thanks!

  3. Camassia – I agree. I think we want to say that the church is necessary for something even if it’s not the only way people can be saved.

    bs – Your worry, as I understand it, is that grace might be defined in such a way as to rule out the possibility that atheists/non-Christians (or at least non-theists can be good).

    I think there are a couple of different issues there that need untangling. First, if “being good” isn’t what gets you into God’s good favor, then there’s no question of anyone – Christian or otherwise – being “good enough” to merit salvation. Of course, some Christians have turned around and made “faith” into a kind of good work that secures salvation – in other words, it’s not a matter of doing the right things but believing the right things. I think this is a dead-end both because it makes salvation dependent on explicitly being Christian, but also puts the onus back on humanity do “do something.” (And, belief isn’t obviously something we can choose.) I think that’s why most mainstream Christian traditions have insisted that faith itself is a gift of grace (which of course raises the question of why some people receive this gift and others don’t…).

    Secondly, I think it’s possible to say that all good that human beings do requires God’s grace and that atheists/non-Christians/whatever can still do good. It seems reasonable to me to think that God can influence or empower people’s actions even without their being explicitly aware of it or even believing in God. God’s sort of like gravity – you don’t have to believe in gravity for it to exert an influence on you!

    Hope that didn’t simply muddy the waters further…

  4. Very helpful. I’m starting to realize that my thinking on this just might be too regimented.

    Before, I was thinking that it was the express acknowledgment of faith (a grace/salvation trigger, if you will) that would transform one into a good person (with good meaning consistent choice of the good). It didn’t occur to me that it could happen unbenownst to the actor.

    Although it bears mentioning that introduction of this unconscious element does raise an epistemological problem: how can we conclude that human beings cannot consistently choose the good on their own without God’s grace unless there is an express acknowledgment? With such an acknowledgment, we have a verifiability procedure: we can theoretically find that only those who express faith in Christ have shown themselves to be consistent good choosers. Without it, howeer, we are subject to the criticism that, in asserting that only those who have received grace are good choosers, we are simply imposing grace ex post facto in order to justify our position.

    On the other hand, epistemological limitations could be seen to buttress your view. As I recall (and it has been a while), one theme of Augustinian philosophy is the belief that we are ill-equiped to know the basis for being granted salvation. On this view, the idea of a salvation trigger is, itself, unsupported, so the failure to satisfy the verifiability procedure is of no real consequence.

    I’m already in well over my depths.

    Oh, one other thing re: choosing our beliefs. I’m inclined to agree, but there is important work being done by evolutionary psychologist Bob Trivers on self-deception that might bear on the debate. Also, if we change the terms from choosing our beliefs to choosing our preferences, the debate would track a centuries-old philsophical conversation on whether reason can influence our desires. Important positions in that debate include Rationalism, Sentimentalism, Internalism, etc. Today, people like Stephen Darwall and Christine Korsgaard are doing interesting work.

  5. Lee – excellent, excellent post.

    Camassia – I can’t pretend to know what was in Augustine’s mind other than defending the honor of God. But one of the “pastoral” reasons for an unwavering opposition to Pelagianism is the concern for those who are all-too-aware of their own sinfulness and their own continuing predilection to sin. Whether one calls this concupiscence or flat-out-sin, Pelagianism’s “You can do it if you really try” (that is, become holy) would have been a death sentence for Paul, Augustine, Luther, and many throughout the ages who have been driven almost to despair by the reality of their own sinfulness.

    In my days when I was more involved in Evangelicalism, I saw this in the constant rallys, revivals, etc. that were held. And yet there was a subtext – pastors or speakers subtly reminding earnest Christians that they were not sinners because they sinned; they sinned because they were sinners. The solution was not found in one more altar call, one more baptism, but in falling back on the unshakeable foundation of God’s grace in Christ.

    Of course this leads to quietism, to “once-saved-always-saved,” etc. But it’s impossible to answer one question without raising another…

    • Probably you are right, Chip. But Pelagius must be understood within his own context. Here was a man who apparently was born and raised in the “Celtic lands” around a very rigorous bunch of Christians (but nothing is known for sure about his younger years), ones who took their Christian life very seriously and manfully (and womanfully) attempted to live it out. Now he is in Rome, the big city, with a bunch of urban folk very much like me whom he saw as Christians in name only. He really was not a “theologian” per se (and I’ve got something to say about how that fact resulted in the mess which was the Pelagius/Augustine debate) but rather a teacher of morality and a pastoral encourager. His main point really was “If you call yourself a Christian, then live like one!” I don’t think he was too terribly concerned with the people who would be wracked with grief about their own sinfulness, but rather those who didn’t seem to care. And he never set out to formulate a theology; he only wanted to call us to seriousness about our walk.

      — Sean+

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