|The Gospel According to Pelagius
|There has been throughout the centuries a heresy known as Pelagianism. I would like to actually focus on the historical heresy that is identified with a fifth century monk who came from somewhere in Britain, probably Ireland, a lay monk arriving in Rome and he attracted a following for his austere and ascetic piety. At first Pelagius, who was never ordained, engaged in itinerant teaching, primarily on Christian virtues. Eventually he became impatient with the lack of moral earnestness among Christians in Italy, and credited apparent laxity to the influence of a certain bishop from Northern Africa named Augustine.
Pelagius began writing polemical works included a commentary on Paul's epistle to the Romans which explicitly championed the views for which he would be well-known. Denying original sin, Pelagius held that every one after Adam was born just as he was created, able to sin or not to sin, and so to merit God's acceptance by their own obedience. Human beings are, by nature, good not sinful. The only thing we inherit from Adam is his bad moral example. Consequently he goes on to argue we are saved by following Christ's good example. By imitating Christ's virtuous life we can finally obtain by free-will rather than by grace eternal life. Grace is helpful Pelagius said, but not necessary.
Furthermore, he argued that the law is as saving in its revelation as the Gospel. Now no one was more aroused to rebut Pelagius more than Augustine. Converted from a life of moral license, Augustine was deeply conscious of his sinfulness and the need for grace. All human beings are born in sin which means that the will is in bondage to sin and incapable of fulfilling the obligations that God requires. So no one can merit salvation by nature, but must be given God's grace freely as a gift. Augustine took seriously Paul's statement that salvation does not depend on human decision or effort, but on God's mercy. Pelagius appeared before a church council, but claimed that he didn't hold the views he was accused of holding and subsequently left Rome for Palestine where he was supported by the heretical bishop of Antioch, Nestorius. Pope Innocent I condemned Pelagius' views and subsequent church councils also did so with representatives from the East and the West.
Although Pelagianism was condemned, a mediating view known as Semi-Pelagianism grew. Unlike full-blown Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagians taught that salvation is a cooperative process of free-will and grace. This view too was declared heretical by the Council of Orange in 529 and was supported by several popes. Throughout the Middle Ages debates erupted over the relationship of free-will and grace and election. The 14th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bradwardine reports his own conversion to the doctrines of grace. In seminary days, he said, he heard nothing but the celebration of the power of free-will and how we can do all things by the power of our choice. He says then he began reading Romans, and "I saw there," he writes, "how everything is to be attributed to God's grace in election that all that was mine in truth was misery and all that is Christ's was perfect truth and righteousness, and the gospel became exceedingly sweet and gracious to me then." As Archbishop he took up his pen to author a powerful tract, "The Cause of God Against our New Pelagians." There were other noble examples, great defenders of the Gospel in the Medieval period, but Medieval piety at least was characterized by a hazy moralism that can only be described as Semi-Pelagian at best. Into this fog a handful of ministers defended the doctrines of grace, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote winsomely of the marvelous exchange where our sins are transferred to Christ and his righteousness is transferred to us. In the late 15th Century the head of the Augustinian order of Germany, Johannes von Staupitz wrote The Truth of Scripture Concerning Eternal Predestination and Grace. In that work Staupitz defended original sin, unconditional election, Christ's substitutionary atonement, effectual grace, and the perseverance of the saints. You can even detect in that work the seeds of a more consistent doctrine of justification through faith alone that would come to full flower in the ministry of one of his most troubled and favorite monks, Martin Luther.
Undoubtedly Pelagius was a decent man with remarkable virtue, in fact that is a point Augustine respectfully observed. But Christ came into the world to save sinners, not those who believe that they are righteous. In his book What's So Amazing About Grace, Evangelical author Philip Yancy offers a terrific insight to begin our discussion. He concludes, "Pelagius was urbane, courteous, convincing, and liked by everyone. Augustine had squandered away his youth in immorality, had a strange relationship with his mother, and made many enemies. But Augustine started from God's grace and got it right, whereas Pelagius started from human effort and got it wrong."
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