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§ 4. Pelagian Theory.

In the early part of the fifth century, Pelagius, Cœlestius, and Julian, introduced a new theory as to the nature of sin and the state of man since the fall, and of our relation to Adam. That their doctrine was an innovation is proved by the fact that it was universally rejected and condemned as soon as it was fully understood. They were all men of culture, ability, and exemplary character. Pelagius was a Briton, whether a native of Brittany or of what is now called Great Britain, is a matter of doubt. He was by profession a monk, although a layman. Cœlestius was a teacher and jurist; Julian an Italian bishop. The radical principle of the Pelagian theory is, that ability limits obligation. “If I ought, I can,” is the aphorism on which the whole system rests. Augustine's celebrated prayer, “Da quod jubes, et jube quod vis,” was pronounced by Pelagius an absurdity, because it assumed that God can demand more than man render, and what man must receive as a gift. In opposition to this assumption he laid down the principle that man must have plenary ability to do and to be whatever can be righteously required of him. “Iterum quærendum est, peccatum voluntatis an necessitatis est? Si necessitatis est, peccatum non est; si voluntatis, vitari potest. Iterum quærendum est, utrumne debeat homo sine peccato esse? Procul dubio debet. Si debet potest; si non potest, ergo non debet. Et si non debet homo esse sine peccato, debet ergo cum peccato esse, et jam peccatum non erit, si illud deberi constiterit.156156Gieseler, vol. i.


The intimate conviction that men can be responsible for nothing which is not in their power, led, in the first place, to the Pelagian doctrine of the freedom of the will. It was not enough to constitute free agency that the agent should be self-determined, or that all his volitions should be determined by his own inward states. It was required that he should have power over those states. Liberty of the will, according to the Pelagians, is plenary power, at all times and at every moment, of choosing between good and evil, and of being either holy or unholy. Whatever does not thus fall within the imperative power of the will can have no moral character. “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 propriæ voluntatis, id solum in homine est, quod Deus condidit.157157Pelagius, Apud Augustinum de Peccato Originali, 14; Works, edit. Benedictines, vol. x. p. 573, a. b. Again, “Volens namque Deus rationabilem creaturam voluntarii boni munere et liberi arbitrii potestate donare, utriusque partis possibilitatem homini inserendo proprium ejus fecit, esse quod velit; ut boni ac mali capax, natural iter utrumque posset, et ad alterumque voluntatem deflecteret.

2. Sin, therefore, consists only in the deliberate choice of evil. It presupposes knowledge of what is evil, as well as the full power of choosing or rejecting it. Of course it follows, —

3. That there can be no such thing as original sin, or inherent hereditary corruption. Men are born, as stated in the foregoing quotation, ut sine virtute, ita sine vitio. In other words men are born into the world since the fall in the same state in which Adam was created. Julian says:158158Apud Augustinum Opus Imperfectum contra Julianum, I. 60; Works, vol. x. p. 1511, d.Nihil est peccati in homine, si nihil est propriæ voluntatis, vel assensionis. Tu autem concedis nihil fuisse in parvulis propriæ voluntatis: non ego, sed ratio concludit; nihil igitur in eis esse peccati.” This was the point on which the Pelagians principally insisted, that it was contrary to the nature of sin that it should be transmitted or Inherited. If nature was sinful, then God as the author of nature must be the author of sin. Julian159159Ibid. therefore says: “Nemo naturaliter malus est; sed quicunque reus est, moribus, non exordiis accusatur.

4. Consequently Adam's sin injured only himself. This was one of the formal charges presented against the Pelagians in the Synod of Diospolis. Pelagius endeavored to answer it, by saying that the sin of Adam exerted the influence of a bad example, and in that 154sense, and to that degree, injured his posterity. But he denied that there is any causal relation between the sin of Adam and the sinfulness of his race, or that death is a penal evil. Adam would have died from the constitution of his nature, whether he had sinned or not; and his posterity, whether infant or adult, die from like necessity of nature. As Adam was in no sense the representative of his race, as they did not stand their probation in him, each man stands a probation for himself; and is justified or condemned solely on the ground of his own individual personal acts.

5. As men come into the world without the contamination of original sin, and as they have plenary power to do all that God requires, they may, and in many cases do, live without sin; or if at any time they transgress, they may turn unto God and perfectly obey all his commandments. Hence Pelagius taught that some men had no need for themselves to repeat the petition in the Lord's prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses.” Before the Synod of Carthage one of the grounds on which he was charged with heresy was, that he taught, “et ante adventum Domini fuerunt homines impeccabiles, id est, sine peccato.

6. Another consequence of his principles which Pelagius unavoidably drew was that men could be saved without the gospel. As free will in the sense of plenary ability, belongs essentially to man as much as reason, men whether Heathen, Jews, or Christians, may fully obey the law of God and attain eternal life. The only difference is that under the light of the Gospel, this perfect obedience is rendered more easy. One of his doctrines, therefore, was that “lex sic mittit ad regnum cœlorum, quomodo et evangelium.

7. The Pelagian system denies the necessity of grace in the sense of the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit. As the Scriptures, however, speak so fully and constantly of the grace of God as manifested and exercised in the salvation of men, Pelagius could not avoid acknowledging that fact. By grace, however, he understood everything which we derive from the goodness of God. Our natural faculties of reason and free will, the revelation of the truth whether in his works or his word, all the providential blessings and advantages which men enjoy, fall under the Pelagian idea of grace. Augustine says, Pelagius represented grace to be the natural endowments of men, which inasmuch as they are the gift of God are grace. “Ille (Pelagius) Dei gratiam non appellat nisi naturam, qua libero arbitrio conditi sumus.160160Epistola, clxxix. 3; Works, edit. Benedictines, vol. ii. pp. 941, d, 942, a. And Julian, he 155says, includes under the term all the gifts of God. “Ipsi gratiæ, beneficiorum quæ nobis præstare non desinit, augmenta reputamus.161161

8. As infants are destitute of moral character, baptism in their case cannot either symbolize or effect the remission of sin. It is, according to Pelagius, only a sign of their consecration to God. He believed that none but the baptized were at death admitted into the kingdom of heaven, in the Christian sense of that term, but held that unbaptized infants were nevertheless partakers of eternal life. By that term was meant what was afterwards called by the schoolmen, limbos infantum. This was described as that μέσος τόπος κολάσεως καὶ παραδείσου, εἰς ὃν καὶ τὰ ἀβάπτιστα βρέφη μετατ θέμενα ζῇν μακαρίως.162162On the distinction between vita æterna and regnum cœlorum see Pelagius Apud Augustinum de Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione, I. 58; Works, vol. x. p. 231. Conc. Carth. 415. Pelagius and his doctrines were condemned by a council at Carthage, A.D. 412. He was exonerated at the Synods of Jerusalem and Diospolis, in 415; but condemned a second time in a synod of sixty bishops at Carthage in 416. Zosimus, bishop of Rome, at first sided with the Pelagians and censured the action of the African bishops; but when their decision was confirmed by the general council of Carthage in 418, at which two hundred bishops were present, he joined in the condemnation and declared Pelagius and his friends excommunicated. In 431 the Eastern Church joined in this condemnation of the Pelagians, in the General Synod held at Ephesus.163163Wigger’s Augustinism and Pelagianism. Guericke’s Church History, §§ 91-93. Ritter’s Geschichte der Christliche Philosophie, vol. ii. pp. 337-443; and all the church histories and histories of doctrine.

Arguments against the Pelagian Doctrine.

The objections to the Pelagian views of the nature of sin will of necessity come under consideration, when the Scriptural and Protestant doctrine comes to be presented. It is sufficient for the present to state, —

1. That the fundamental principle on which the whole system is founded contradicts the common consciousness of men. It is not true, as our own conscience teaches us, that our obligation is limited by our ability. Every man knows that he is bound to be better than he is, and better than he can make himself by any exertion of his We are bound to love God perfectly, but we know that such perfect love is beyond our power. We recognize the obligation to be free from all sin, and absolutely conformed to the 156perfect law of God. Yet no man is so infatuated or so blinded to his real character as really to believe that he either is thus perfect, or has the power to make himself so. It is the daily and hourly prayer or aspiration of every saint and of every sinner to be delivered from the bondage of evil. The proud and malignant would gladly be humble and benevolent; the covetous would rejoice to be liberal; the infidel longs for faith, and the hardened sinner for repentance. Sin is in its own nature a burden and a torment, and although loved and cherished, as the cups of the drunkard are cherished, yet, if emancipation could be effected by an act of the will, sin would cease to reign in any rational creature. There is no truth, therefore, of which men are more intimately convinced than that they are the slaves of sin; that they cannot do the good they would; and that they cannot alter their character at will. There is no principle, therefore, more at variance with the common consciousness of men than the fundamental principle of Pelagianism that our ability limits our obligation, that we are not bound to be better than we can make ourselves by a volition.

2. It is no less revolting to the moral nature of man to assert, as Pelagianism teaches, that nothing is sinful but the deliberate transgression of known law; that there is no moral character in feelings and emotions; that love and hatred, malice and benevolence, considered as affections of the mind, are alike indifferent; that the command to love God is an absurdity, because love is not under the control of the will. All our moral judgments must be perverted before we can assent to a system involving such consequences.

3. In the third place, the Pelagian doctrine, which confounds freedom with ability, or which makes the liberty of a free agent to consist in the power to determine his character by a volition, is contrary to every man's consciousness. We feel, and cannot but acknowledge, that we are free when we are self determined; while at the same time we are conscious that the controlling states of the mind are not under the power of the will, or, in other words, are not under our own power. A theory which is founded on identifying things which are essentially different, as liberty and ability, must be false.

4. The Pelagian system leaves the universal sinfulness of men, a fact which cannot be denied, altogether unaccounted for. To refer it to the mere free agency of man is to say that a thing always is simply because it may be.

5. This system fails to satisfy the deepest and most universal necessities of our nature. In making man independent of God by 157assuming that God cannot control free agents without destroying their liberty, it makes all prayer for the controlling grace of God over ourselves and others a mockery, and throws man back completely on his own resources to grapple with sin and the powers of darkness without hope of deliverance.

6. It makes redemption (in the sense of a deliverance from sin) unnecessary or impossible. It is unnecessary that there should be a redeemer for a race which has not fallen, and which has full ability to avoid all sin or to recover itself from its power. And it is impossible, if free agents are independent of the control of God.

7. It need hardly be said that a system which asserts, that Adam's sin injured only himself; that men are born into the world in the state in which Adam was created; that men may, and often do, live without sin; that we have no need of divine assistance in order to be holy; and that Christianity has no essential superiority over heathenism or natural religion, is altogether at variance with the word of God. The opposition indeed between Pelagianism and the gospel is so open and so radical that the former has never been regarded as a form of Christianity at all. It has, in other words, never been the faith of any organized Christian church. It is little more than a form of Rationalism.

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