The Real Cruelty of Pelagianism

Regardless of whether Pelagius’ optimistic view of human nature is correct, his God is still a heartless spectator.

Todd Brewer / 8.26.21

There was a 5th century monk from Ireland who became famous for all the wrong reasons. This humble simpleton of a monk was as holy as he was portly, espousing the strictest of moral standards. He believed moral perfection in this life was the goal toward which Christians must strive, and any moment spent not improving oneself was wasted time. The Christian life was a journey that required strenuous effort and discipline if one wished to escape the fires of hell. Had this monk, Pelagius, remained in Ireland, he would have certainly not appeared in the history books. But he decided to travel to Rome, where his teaching drew great applause from the crowds and the ire of both Augustine and Jerome. To them, Pelagius seemed to preach a strange gospel of free will and self-salvation. An exchange of treatises ensued and, at the Council of Carthage in 418, Pelagius was condemned as a heretic. He likely died shortly thereafter.

Deeming someone to be a heretic might seem like an efficient way to expunge their doctrine from the church. Bishops who voiced support for Pelagius were immediately removed from office. Following the Council of Ephesus in 431, it became illegal to possess any of his writings. In declaring him a heretic, Pelagius became known solely for his affirmation of free will. His error became a single data point, a fencepost along the boundary of orthodoxy. The history books would record him as the famous enemy of Augustine, a foil who would serve the church through his folly.

Those history books, however, don’t usually tell the whole story. Pelagius was deemed a heretic, but Pelagius’ views over the freedom of choice and the necessity of good works to merit salvation were deeply rooted within some segments of Christianity (such as the monastic tradition of Egypt) well before Pelagius’ arrival in Rome.[1] The condemnation of Pelagius did little to quell his influence and in the centuries following his conviction, the writings of Pelagius continued to spread, rebranded as anonymous writings or the work of orthodox teachers like Jerome. Pelagianism went underground, in other words, with the rougher edges of his teachings smoothed away and laundered as orthodoxy. Thus, Martin Luther astutely observed in the 16th century: “For although there are now no Pelagians by profession and title, yet there are many people who in truth and in their thinking, although ignorantly, are Pelagians.”[2] Augustine might have won the battle, but Pelagianism lived to fight another day.

Remembering Pelagius strictly as this arch-heretic of free will lets him (and the church by extension) off the hook. Pelagius’ optimistic view of human nature existed within a vast network of theological circuitry comprising his strict asceticism.  His views on free will go hand in hand with his impersonal view of grace, his views on baptism, and his severe legalism. The historian’s caricature of Pelagius enables the wider framework of his account of the Christian faith to remain largely intact.

If there is a byword that aptly captures Pelagius’ view of the Christian life it might be “journey.” Life is a high-stakes, upward struggle of holiness toward salvation. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 10:6 and Israel’s wilderness wanderings, Pelagius wrote:

For as they were freed by Moses from Egypt, so we are free from the present world by some bishop or teacher. Then, when we have become Christians, we are led through deserts, that by practicing contempt of the world and abstinence, we may forget the pleasures of Egypt, in such a way that we will not know how to return to this world. When we cross the sea of baptism, then indeed for us the devil, with his host, is drowned like Pharaoh. Then are we fed with manna, and we do receive of the drink that trickles forth from Christ’s side. The brightness of knowledge is also shown, as a pillar of fire in the night of this world, and amidst the scorching heat of tribulation we are covered by the cloud of divine consolation. If after all those experiences we sin, they alone will not be able to help us, even as the Hebrews also are told, ‘A man that has disregarded Moses’ law dies without compassion on the word of two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, think you, will he be judged worthy, who has trodden under the foot of the Son of God

For Pelagius, preaching begins our journey away from the world and toward godliness. After our baptism vanquishing the forces of evil, the real marathon begins — and marathon is the best analogy for what he describes. The journey is long, the desert is hot and dangerous, and the destination resides far in the distance. Salvation is awarded to the worthy runners who cross the finish line. For those who wander from the path or turn back to the safety of Egypt, there is literal hell to pay.

For some, the above quotation from Pelagius may not sound all that unorthodox (which is part of my point). It may even be something you’ve heard in a sermon recently. After all, Pelagius was fond of quoting scripture. But the issue of heresy has never been a simple question of whether one can appeal to scripture for support. All the best heretics in church history knew their Bible backwards and forwards. What mattered most was how the Bible’s constitutive parts were understood in light of the whole. In a manner not uncommon today or throughout church history, Pelagius made the Bible’s ethical demands its center of gravity in such a way that the gospel (and scripture) had become distorted. The good news of Jesus Christ became a manual. The Bible became “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

At the heart of Pelagianism is a terrible cruelty, one unnoticed by his modern supporters. Far from an ancient forerunner to the modern belief in the innate goodness of people (what some call “original blessing”), Pelagius’ God is the strictest of taskmasters, laying up heavy burdens on people and not lifting a finger to ease their toil. The Christian life as he described it is a joyless endeavor — laboring under the watchful eye of a God who will ruthlessly punish our sin. A God who will not pick us up when we fall or seek us out when we stray from the flock.[3] No, it is we who have to muster the desire to push on and to resist the urge to give up. It is we who must run the race, follow the signs, and never stray from the road to eternal life.

In this brutal marathon of life, God might set up hydration for runners (the Eucharist) and mark the bounds of the track upon which we race — such interventions might be deemed “grace” by Pelagius — but these are really the bare minimum required for the marathon to occur. We are to struggle onwards and upwards alone, hoping that our performance satisfies the divine judge who we wish to impress. Left to wonder whether we have done enough, anxiety or resentment are sure to follow. We search the grandstands in the hopes of catching a glimpse of an approving smile from God — only to find him dispassionately staring at his stopwatch.

Regardless of whether Pelagius’ optimistic view of human nature is correct, his God is still a heartless spectator. Constantly judging our performance at a distance, Pelagius’ God is abundantly fair and impartial at the expense of mercy and love.

The substance of the disagreement between Augustine and Pelagius related to whether, or to what extent, the human will is free to choose. But the underlying issue that animated the debate had to do with the gospel itself: Are we rewarded for our efforts by God or does undeserved mercy characterize the entirety of God’s relationship to humanity? Pelagius believed that God provides a roadmap to avoid coming fires of hell. But the gospel Augustine staked his life on was more than a roadmap. God does not guide the righteous to life, but carries sinners every step of the way.