Pelagius was a fifth century monk who probably would have been forgotten were it not for the herculean efforts of Augustine of Hippo to publicize his writings for the sole purpose of condemning him. For a while Pelagius’ teachings were the “flavor of the month” in North Africa, and because of Augustine’s sustained critique, a council (the Council of Carthage) was called, his ideas were condemned, and he was anathematized a heretic. It’s an odd way to achieve infamy.
If you were paying attention in Church History class, you would have learned that Pelagius rejected the doctrine of “Original Sin.” One facet of that doctrine is that humans are completely helpless spiritually and grace is therefore the essential element of salvation. In contrast to this, Pelagius rejected the impotence of the human condition. Instead, he proposed that sin was natural and in no way prevented one from achieving salvation. As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains it,
[Pelagius] regarded the moral strength of man’s will (liberum arbitrium), when steeled by asceticism, as sufficient in itself to desire and to attain the loftiest ideal of virtue. The value of Christ’s redemption was, in his opinion, limited mainly to instruction (doctrina) and example (exemplum), which the Saviour threw into the balance as a counterweight against Adam’s wicked example, so that nature retains the ability to conquer sin and to gain eternal life even without the aid of grace.
If we jump ahead one thousand years, the then developing Protestant doctrines of substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone were far more radical than the Roman Catholic dogmas of Original Sin, Grace, and Merit, and the Protestants, in turn, accused the Roman Catholic Church of the Pelagian Heresy because, in the Protestant view, Rome did not embrace salvation as pure grace and pure gift, based on their radicalized interpretation of Augustine’s critique of Pelagius.
The Eastern Orthodox, on the other hand, didn’t get too excited about Pelagius. It’s not because they had any sympathy for his wacky ideas. It’s rather that the doctrine of Original Sin, especially as developed by Augustine, is considered to be in error. Augustine taught that all humans inherited guilt from Adam. He believed that sin was inherited from the parent. (It is this doctrine of inherited sin and guilt that led the Roman Church to institute the rather bizarre doctrine of the sinlessness of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Even though there is nothing biblical nor traditional about the doctrine, it became necessary in Roman Catholic theology precisely because of Augustine’s teaching about Inherited Guilt and the church’s doctrine of Original Sin.)
In the period leading up to the Council of Carthage, it became clear that the condemnation of Pelagius was going to be framed specifically in the Augustinian version of Original Sin and especially of Inherited Guilt. This put the Eastern bishops in a precarious position. The Roman version of original guilt had never been formally condemned, but it was a clearly flawed teaching (from the Eastern perspective). So even though they rejected Pelagius on the grounds that his theology was a revival of Greek Stoicism in Christian theological garb, they could not support the Council of Carthage because its reasons for condemning Pelagius were in error. In short, Pelagianism and the Church’s response to it are a uniquely Western phenomenon.
All of that can get pretty confusing. Because of the passage of time (Pelagius lived over 1500 years ago) and all of this he-said-she-said argumentation that is rooted in foreign ways of thought, it’s hard to get a bead on Pelagius. The result is that even though the complex historical context has been lost, Pelagianism has become a short hand method of dismissing anyone or any idea that is thought to not take the necessity of divine grace seriously enough, and more specifically, any doctrine of salvation that involves any activity that might be construed as works.
But this distilling of the whole Pelagian controversy into a single idea (“works” vs “grace”) is reductionist and blinds us to why Pelagius’ teachings were so attractive in the first place. I therefore want to put him into a contemporary context. Pelagius’ ideas were essentially a revival of Greek Stoicism. Pelagius equated the Christian doctrine of salvation with the Stoic concept of “virtue,” which is embodied in the “wise man” of ancient Greek philosophy. The “wise person” is whole and balanced, well-rounded and interested in a broad variety of ideas. He/she desires excellence but not excess, lives with gusto but never with decadence. In a word, this is the Stoic ideal.
And as I hope you are aware, Stoicism is experiencing a huge revival in the Western world since the turn of the millennium. There are now Stoic philosophers (click on the “visit my literary website” link to read about his book on contemporary Stoicism, which is a popular college text book), Stoic Churches, Stoic National Communities and Conferences, etc. After the excesses of the last few decades have come back to threaten our civilization and in an era where endless, unchecked growth is no longer possible, the seemingly simple balance of Marcus Aurelius (the most famous Stoic) is profoundly attractive.
Stoicism is gaining popularity because it has all the trappings of committed faith without any of the core commitments (other than a commitment to self – and here is where we discover the contemporary significance of Pelagianism.) In an era when Western Christianity is unfortunately stained by decadence, Stoicism is a mildly ascetical approach to life which focuses on personal well-being through discipline and self-improvement. Furthermore, it has a sense of proper limits. (And in this way distinguishes itself from the often obscenely self-gratifying prosperity gospel groups of American Evangelicalism – a distinction that becomes increasingly important in a society where ostentatious demonstrations of wealth are increasingly treated with contempt.)
The contemporary spirit of the age evidently desires sensible limits (the essence of Stoicism) and self-gratification (the essence of Pelagianism). The contemporary danger is not grace vs. works – the binary that immediately comes to mind when Pelagius is mentioned – but Self vs. Savior. Whether it’s priests having sex, Prosperity Gospel proponents and their private jets, or Presbyterian (or Orthodox) bureaucrats and their lust for power or control, authentic Christian witness is drowned out by all this dissipation. The “Savior” of church institutions this corrupt is hard to take seriously by outside observers. And in this context old heresies that stand apart from and against the traditional institutions (such as Arianism and Pelagianism) are resurgent. But if we hope to understand the spirit of the age we need to move past the handy-dandy short hand in our heretical lexicon and appreciate why the heresies were attractive in the first place.
Why can’t “self” be a savior? Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Jack LaLanne, Eckhart Tolle, and Dr. Al Sears (and the list could go on and on) have all presented compelling evidence that the disciplined self is quite capable of a full life within limits. In this environment we need to move beyond our enchantment with the “works/grace question” and speak to the reality that the “self” (or more technically, the fallen self) is ultimately self-destructive when left to itself.
But in order to proclaim this message effectively, the Christian must take seriously today’s ascetic mood. How does our longing for self-improvement fit into the Christian understanding that self, left to itself, will destroy rather than improve itself? I will argue that there is a deep desire for authentic Christian asceticism – for the discipline of faith – which can only be practiced in the light of the overwhelming brightness of divine grace. And if that is true, it means we have to critically reconsider the common jargon of salvation by grace alone. (And let me be absolutely clear: what we need to reconsider is not the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, but the common jargon that surrounds it.) But that is another essay.