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§ 150. The Pelagian System: Primitive State and Freedom of Man; the Fall.


The peculiar anthropological doctrines, which Pelagius clearly apprehended and put in actual practice, which Coelestius dialectically developed, and bishop Julian most acutely defended, stand in close logical connection with each other, although they were not propounded in systematic form. They commend themselves at first sight by their simplicity, clearness, and plausibility, and faithfully express the superficial, self-satisfied morality of the natural man. They proceed from a merely empirical view of human nature, which, instead of going to the source of moral life, stops with its manifestations, and regards every person, and every act of the will, as standing by itself, in no organic connection with a great whole.

We may arrange the several doctrines of this system according to the great stages of the moral history of mankind.

I. The Primitive State of mankind, and the doctrine of Freedom.

The doctrine of the primitive state of man holds a subordinate position in the system of Pelagius, but the doctrine of freedom is central; because in his view the primitive state substantially coincides with the present, while freedom is the characteristic prerogative of man, as a moral being, in all stages of his development.

Adam, he taught, was created by God sinless, and entirely competent to all good, with an immortal spirit and a mortal body. He was endowed with reason and free will. With his reason he was to have dominion over irrational creatures; with his free will he was to serve God. Freedom is the supreme good, the honor and glory of man, the bonum naturae, that cannot be lost. It is the sole basis of the ethical relation of man to God, who would have no unwilling service. It consists according to Pelagius, essentially in the liberum arbitrium, or the possibilitas boni et mali; the freedom of choice, and the absolutely equal ability at every moment to do good or evil.17401740    De gratia Christi et de pecc. origin. c. 18 (§ 19, tom. x. fol. 238) where Augustinecites the following passage from the treatise of Pelagius, De libero arbitrio: “Habemus possibilitatem utriusque partis a Deo insitam, velut quamdam, ut ita dicam, radicem fructiferam et fecundam, quae ex voluntate hominis diversa gignat et pariat, et quae possit ad proprii cultoris arbitrium, vel nitere flore virtutum, vel sentibus horrere vitiorum.” Against this Augustinecites the declaration of our Lord, Matt. vii. 18, that “a good tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor a corrupt tree good fruit,” that therefore there cannot be “una eademque radix bonortim et malorum.” The ability to do evil belongs necessarily to freedom, because we cannot will good without at the same time being able to will evil. Without this power of contrary choice, the choice of good itself would lose its freedom, and therefore its moral value. Man is not a free, self-determining moral subject, until good and evil, life and death, have been given into his hand.17411741    Ep. ad Demet. cap. 3: “In hoc enim gemini itineris ne, in hoc utriusque libertate partis, rationabilis animae decus positum est. Hinc, inquam, totus naturae nostrae honor consistit, hinc dignitas, hinc denique optimi quique laudem merentur, hinc praemium. Nec esset omnino virtus ulla in bono perseverantis, si is ad malum transire non potuisset. Volens namque Deus rationabilem creaturam voluntarii boni munere [al. munire] et liberi arbitrii potestate donare, utriusque partis possibilitatem homini inserendo, proprium ejus fecit esse quod velit, ut boni ac mali capax, naturaliter utrumque posset, et ad alterutrum voluntatem deflecteret. Neque enim aliter spontaneum habere poterat bonum, nisi aeque etiam ea creatura malum habere potusit. Utrumque nos posse voluit optimus Creator, sed unum facere, bonum scilicet, quod et imperavit; malique facultatem ad hoc tantum dedit, ut voluntatem ejus ex nostra voluntate faceremus. Quod ut ita sit, hoc quoque ipsum, quia etiam mala facere possumus, bonum est. Donum, inquam, quia boni partem meliorem facit. Facit enim ipsam voluntariam sui juris, non necessitate devinctam, sed judicio liberam.”

This is the only conception of freedom which Pelagius has, and to this he and his followers continually revert. He views freedom in its form alone, and in its first stage, and there fixes and leaves it, in perpetual equipoise between good and evil, ready at any moment to turn either way. It is without past or future; absolutely independent of everything without or within; a vacuum, which may make itself a plenum, and then becomes a vacuum again; a perpetual tabula rasa, upon which man can write whatsoever he pleases; a restless choice, which, after every decision, reverts to indecision and oscillation. The human will is, as it were, the eternal Hercules at the cross-road, who takes first a step to the right, then a step to the left, and ever returns to his former position. Pelagius knows only the antithesis of free choice and constraint; no stages of development, no transitions. He isolates the will from its acts, and the acts from each other, and overlooks the organic connection between habit and act. Human liberty, like every other spiritual power, has its development; it must advance beyond its equilibrium, beyond the mere ability to sin or not to sin, and decide for the one or the other. When the will decides, it so far loses its indifference, and the oftener it acts, the more does it become fixed; good or evil becomes its habit, its second nature; and the will either becomes truly free by deciding for virtue, and by practising virtue, or it becomes the slave of vice.17421742    Pelagius himself, it must be admitted, recognized to some extent the power of habit and its effect upon the will (Ep. ad Demetr. c. 8); but Coelestius and Juliancarried out his idea of the freedom of choice more consistently to the conception of a purely qualitative or formal power which admits of no growth or change by actual exercise, but remains always the same. Comp. Niedner (in the posthumous edition of his Lehrbuch der Kirchengeschichte, Berlin, 1866, p. 345 f.), who justly remarks, in opposition to Baur’s defense of the Pelagian conception of freedom: “Freedom in its first stage, as the power of choice, is a moral (as well as a natural) faculty, and hence capable of development either by way of deterioration into a sinful inclination, or by rising to a higher form of freedom. This is the point which Coelestius and Julianignored: they attached too little weight to the use of freedom.” “Whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin.” Goodness is its own reward, and wickedness is its own punishment. Liberty of choice is not a power, but a weakness, or rather a crude energy, waiting to assume some positive form, to reject evil and commit itself to good, and to become a moral self-control, in which the choice of evil, as in Christ, is a moral, though not a physical, impossibility. Its impulse towards exercise is also an impulse towards self-annihilation, or at least towards self-limitation. The right use of the freedom of choice leads to a state of holiness; the abuse of it, to a state of bondage under sin. The state of the will is affected by its acts, and settles towards a permanent character of good or evil. Every act goes to form a moral state or habit; and habit is in turn the parent of new acts. Perfect freedom is one with moral necessity, in which man no longer can do evil because he will not do it, and must do good because he wills to do it; in which the finite will is united with the divine in joyful obedience, and raised above the possibility of apostasy. This is the blessed freedom of the children of God in the state of glory. There is, indeed, a subordinate sphere of natural virtue and civil justice, in which even fallen man retains a certain freedom of choice, and is the artificer of his own character. But as respects his relation to God, he is in a state of alienation from God, and of bondage under sin; and from this he cannot rise by his own strength, by a bare resolution of his will, but only by a regenerating act of grace. received in humility and faith, and setting him free to practise Christian virtue. Then, when born again from above, the will of the new man co-operates with the grace of God, in the growth of the Christian life.17431743    Comp. the thorough and acute criticism of the Pelagian conception of freedom by Julius Müller, Die christliche Lehre von der Sünde, Bd. ii. p. 49 ff. (3d ed. 1849).

Physical death Pelagius regarded as a law of nature, which would have prevailed even without sin.17441744    Coelestius in Marius Mercator. Common. ii. p. 133: “Adam mortalem factum, qui sive peccaret, sive non peccaret, moriturus fuisset.” The passages of Scripture which represent death as the consequence of sin, he referred to moral corruption or eternal damnation.17451745   The words of God to Adam, Gen. iii. 19: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” Julianinterpreted not as a curse, but as a consolation, and as an argument for the natural mortality of Adam, by straining the “Dust thou art.” See August. Opus imperfectum contra Julian. l. vi. cap. 27 (x. fol. 1346 sqq.). Yet be conceded that Adam, if he had not sinned, might by a special privilege have been exempted from death.

II. The Fall of Adam and its Consequences.

Pelagius, destitute of all idea of the organic wholeness of the race or of human nature, viewed Adam merely as an isolated individual; he gave him no representative place, and therefore his acts no bearing beyond himself.

In his view, the sin of the first man consisted in a single, isolated act of disobedience to the divine command. Julian compares it to the insignificant offence of a child, which allows itself to be misled by some sensual bait, but afterwards repents its fault. “Rude, inexperienced, thoughtless, having not yet learned to fear, nor seen an example of virtue,”17461746    “Rudis, imperitus, incautus, sine experimento timoris, sine exemplo justitiae.” Adam allowed himself to be enticed by the pleasant look of the forbidden fruit, and to be determined by the persuasion of the woman. This single and excusable act of transgression brought no consequences, either to the soul or the body of Adam, still less to his posterity who all stand or fall for themselves.

There is, therefore, according to this system, no original sin, and no hereditary guilt. Pelagius merely conceded, that Adam, by his disobedience, set a bad example, which exerts a more or less injurious influence upon his posterity. In this view he condemned at the synod of Diospolis (415) the assertion of Coelestius, that Adam’s sin injured himself alone, not the human race.17471747    “Adae peccatum ipsi soli obfuisse, et non generi humano; et infantes qui nascuntur, in eo statu esse, in quo fuit Adam ante praevaricationem.” In Angustine’s De pecc. orig. c. 13 (f. 258). He was also inclined to admit an increasing corruption of mankind, though he ascribed it solely to the habit of evil, which grows in power the longer it works and the farther it spreads.17481748    Ep. ad Demet. cap. 8: “Longa consuetudo vitiorum, quae nos infecit a parvo paulatimque per multos corrupit annos, et ita postea obligatos sibi et addictos tenet, ut vim quodammodo videatur habere natura.” He also says of consuetudo, that it “aut vitia aut virtutes alit.” Sin, however, is not born with man; it is not a product of nature, but of the will.17491749    Coelestius, Symb. fragm. i.: In remissionem autem peccatorum baptizandos infantes non idcireo diximus, ut peccatum ex traduce [or, peccatum naturm, pecca. tum naturale] firmare videamur, quod longe a catholico sensu alienum est; quia peccatum non cum homine nascitur, quod postmodum exercetur ab homine quia non naturm delictum, sed voluntatis ease demonstrator. Man is born both without virtue and without vice, but with the capacity for either.17501750    Pelagius, in the first book of the Pro libero arbitrio, cited in Augustine’s De pecc. orig. cap. 13 (§ 14, tom. x. f. 258): “Omne bonum ac malum, quo vel laudabiles vel vituperabiles sumus, non nobiscum oritur, sed agitur a nobis: capaces enim utriusque rei, non pleni nascimur, et ut sine virtute, ita et sine vitio procreamur; atque ante actionem propriae voluntatis id solum in homine eat, quod Deus condidit.” It is not, however, very congruous with this, that in another place he speaks of a natural or inborn holiness. Ad Demet. c. 4: “Est in animis nostris naturalis quaedam, ut its dixerim, sanctitas.” The universality of sin must be ascribed to the power of evil example and evil custom.

And there are exceptions to it. The “all” in Rom. v. 12 is to be taken relatively for the majority. Even before Christ there were men who lived free from sin, such as righteous Abel, Abraham, Isaac, the Virgin Mary, and many others.17511751    Comp. Pelagius, Com. in Rom. v. 12, and in August. De natum et gratia, cap. 36 (§ 42, Opera, tom. x. fol. 144): “Deinde commemorat [Pelagius] eos, qui non modo non peccasse, verum etiam juste vixisse referuntur, Abel, Enoch, Melchisedech, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesu Nove, Phineas, Samuel, Nathan, Elias, Joseph, Elizaeus, Micheas, Daniel, Ananias, Agarias, Meisael, Ezechiel, Mardochaeus, Simeon, Joseph, cui despondata erat virgo Maria, Johannes. Adjungit etiam feminas, Debboram, Annam, Samuelis matrem, Judith, Esther, alteram Annam faliam Phanuel, Elizabeth, ipsam etiam Domini ac Salvatoris nostri matrem, quam dicit sine peccato confiteri necesse ease pietati.” From the silence of the Scriptures respecting the sins of many righteous men, he inferred that such men were without sin.17521752    “De illis, quorum justitiae meminit [Scriptura sacra] et peccatorum sine dubio meminisset, si qua eos peccasse sensisset.” In Aug. De Nat. et grat. c. 37 (§ 43; tom. x. fol. 145). In reference to Mary, Pelagius is nearer the present Roman Catholic view than Augustine, who exempts her only from actual sin, not from original.17531753    In the passage cited, Augustineagrees with Pelagius in reference to Mary ’propter honorem Domini,’ but only as respects actual sin, of which the connection shows him to be speaking; for in other passages he affirms the conception of Mary in sin. Comp. Enarratio in Psalmum xxxiv. vs. 13 (ed. Migne, tom. iv. 335): “Maria ex Adam mortua propter peccatum, Adam mortuus propter peccatum, et caro Domini ex Maria mortua est propter delenda peccata.” De Genesi ad literam, lib. x. c. 18 (§ 32), where he discusses the origin of Christ’s soul, and says: “Quid incoinquinatius illo utero Virginia, cujus caro etiamsi de peccati propagine venit, non tamen de peccati propagine concepit ...? ” See above, § 80, p. 418. Jerome, with all his reverence for the blessed Virgin, does not even make this exception but says, without qualification, that every creature is under the power of sin and in need of the mercy of God.17541754    Adv. Pelag. l. ii. c. 4 (tom. ii. 744, ed. Vallarsi): ”Ἀναμάρτητον, id est sine peccato esse [hominem posse] nego, id enim soli Deo competit, omnisque creatura peccato subjacet, et indiget misericordia Dei, dicente Scriptura: Misericordia Domini plena est terra.”

With original sin, of course, hereditary guilt also disappears; and even apart from this connection, Pelagius views it as irreconcilable with the justice of God. From this position a necessary deduction is the salvation of unbaptized infants. Pelagius, however, made a distinction between vita aeterna or a lower degree of salvation, and the regnum coelorum of the baptized saints; and he affirmed the necessity of baptism for entrance into the kingdom of heaven.17551755    August. De peccatorum meritis et remissione, lib. i. c. 21 (§ 30, tom. x. f. 17); De haeresibus, cap. 88.

In this doctrine of the fall we meet with the same disintegrating view of humanity as before. Adam is isolated from his posterity; his disobedience is disjoined from other sins. He is simply an individual, like any other man, not the representative of the whole race. There are no creative starting-points; every man begins history anew. In this system Paul’s exhibitions of Adam and Christ as the representative ancestors of mankind have no meaning. If the act of the former has merely an individual significance, so also has that of the latter. If the sin of Adam cannot be imputed, neither can the merit of Christ. In both cases there is nothing left but the idea of example, the influence of which depends solely upon our own free will. But there is an undeniable solidarity between the sin of the first man and that of his posterity.

In like manner sin is here regarded almost exclusively as an isolated act of the will, while yet there is also such a thing as sinfulness; there are sinful states and sinful habits, which are consummated and strengthened by sins of act, and which in turn give birth to other sins of act.

There is a deep truth in the couplet of Schiller, which can easily be divested of its fatalistic intent:


“This is the very curse of evil deed,

That of new evil it becomes the seed.”17561756   765  ”Das eben ist der Fluch der bösen That,
Dass sie, fortzeugend, immer Böses muss gebären.”


Finally, the essence and root of sin is not sensuality, as Pelagius was inclined to assume (though he did not express himself very definitely on this point), but self-seeking, including pride and sensuality as the two main forms of sin. The sin of Satan was a pride that aimed at equality with God, rebellion against God; and in this the fall of Adam began, and was inwardly consummated before he ate of the forbidden fruit.



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