In terms of popularity among evangelical Christians, the fifth-century heretic Pelagius ranks somewhere between Judas Iscariot and Satan. His eponymous teaching is considered the heresy of all heresies, the false teaching from which all others spring. Somewhat like proving NP-completeness, a teaching can be proven to be heretical if it can be shown to imply or equate to Pelagianism. What is this dastardly, false, and dangerous teaching? The gospel of works-based righteousness, it is said. The lie that man can be good without God. That our righteousness is up to our free will and moral effort rather than the grace of God. That we can earn our salvation. That man is innately good rather than sinful. It is the very antithesis of the Gospel, such that the Gospel can sometimes be defined more negatively than positively, as the opposite of works righteousness.
But like my erroneous 32,000 Protestant denominations figure, virtually all of this is hearsay. After studying total depravity in my systematic theology class, I have to wonder, how historically grounded is this picture of Pelagius and Pelagianism? I'd like to try to dispense with the following myths about Pelagius:
- Pelagius' goal was to deceive people and pervert the gospel. Actually, his concern was much more pastoral. He was not very given to lofty theologizing; his concern was to help people live righteous, Godward lives. He saw the increasingly church's prevalent theology of original sin and human inability as an unnecessary hindrance, reasoning that God only commands us do do something (even "be perfect", Mat 5:48) if we are able to do it. He viewed Augustine's doctrines of original sin and predestination as a perversion of God's justice and a resurgence of the fatalistic pagan teachings the church struggled against in the second century, and defended what he considered to be the traditional teaching of the church on human responsibility. Adam's sin only affected Adam himself, and every human after him has the same freedom Adam did to choose to obey or disobey.
- Pelagius denied God's grace/taught that we can be good without God. Actually, Pelagius' theology was just as full of grace as Augustine's, albeit in a different way. To Pelagius, God's creation of man with free will and the ability to choose between good and evil was an act of grace. Man's exercise of that ability was not self-righteous moral effort, but grace on the part of his Creator. He also viewed God's revelation and moral instruction as dispensations of grace. Where he differed sharply from Augustine was that he saw grace as something largely passive or external, whereas Augustine saw grace (the most important, salvific kind) as active and internal.
- Pelagius promoted a theology of "works". He was not given to discoursing about "works" and their value at all. Rather, Pelagius stood up for what he saw as the church's teaching of human free will and responsibility over against fatalism.
- Pelagius taught that we earn our salvation. In the fifth century there was little sense of salvation as a legal transaction based on merit. Salvation was viewed as rich and multifaceted: the forgiveness of sins, regeneration of damaged human nature, deliverance from death and the devil, bestowal of the Holy Spirit, and Godward growth in holiness, righteousness, and Christ-resemblance. It was not given in an instant but received over a lifetime, primarily through the administration of God's grace via the sacraments. Pelagius affirmed that we actively participate in our salvation by choosing God and righteousness over sin and evil, but in no way taught that we simply "earn" salvation the way a worker earns his wages.
- Pelagius was condemned for these things. Actually, Pelagius' initial condemnation came from the Synod of Carthage in 418 over the allegation that his theology (especially his denial of the nascent doctrine of original sin) made infant baptism, a firmly established practice of the church and commanded in the Nicene Creed, unnecessary "for the remission of sins". This was reiterated at the Council of Ephesus in 431, along with mention of his denial of internally working grace.
- The church sided with Augustine over Pelagius. This is mostly, but not entirely, true. Though Augustine's theology has been enormously influential in the west, his contemporary church, especially in the Christian east, was not willing to follow all of his conclusions. They actually agreed with Pelagius' criticism of predestination as fatalistic, and that it implied that God did not actually wish all men to be saved, as 1 Tim 2:4 says. Neither did they deny that God's grace could work externally, or that man's free will is part of God's grace. Rather, both kinds of grace are active in the salvation of man. This is basically the theology of the Orthodox Church to this day. The term "Semi-Pelagianism" was only applied to this position in the sixteenth century and does not do justice to the fact that it has been the consensus of the church throughout the majority of its history.
Pelagianism is a heresy, but it is not the arch-heresy that it gets made out to be. It is certainly not the anti-gospel. There is plenty to criticize Pelagius for that is actually true without perpetuating these myths. And Augustinian theology is not as rock-solid orthodox as it gets made out to be, historically speaking. Augustine remained in good standing with the church and was never condemned for his teachings on predestination, but later theologians who propounded them with less of his nuance and balance (like Gottschalk, Cyril Lukaris, and Cornelius Jansen) were. Augustine was one of the greatest theologians of the church in any age, but he was not infallible, and his theology does not define the rule of faith. I hope this historical context has been helpful.