Pelagius Explored: On His Own Terms Part Three/Conclusion

Cassian, Pelagius, and Augustine

Note (added October 2019): It has been some time since I have come to this conclusion, but I am compelled to say, even if my explanation is not fully clear, that lack of stark separation between nature and grace in Pelagius’ theology, which it has in common with St. Cassian’s, is not disturbing to me any longer. If there is anything disturbing in Pelagius’ theology, it is that he thinks the will is inviolable in a way that even precludes the recognition that the will can and is inclined towards one end or another. It is also noteworthy that Pelagius’ theology cannot offer a sufficient explanation for why infant baptism exists according to tradition. Furthermore, I believe that I overstated the case that I do not think of Pelagius was a heretic. Rather, I do think he was a heretic indeed, namely on account of his denial of original/ancestral sin. That said, this admission should not be construed that I think his theology that he actually proposed has been fairly treated, even by some of his contemporaries. For a fuller exploration of the detailed minutia of this realm of theology, I recommend reading Tradition and Theology in St John Cassian by A. M. C. Casiday. 

For the past several weeks have been discussing the various aspects of Pelagius’ theology on grace. In part one, I discussed his concept of Creation Grace (die Schöpfungsgnade) and in part two Revealed Grace (die Offenbarungsgnade). In this final post on Torgny Bohlin’s understanding of Pelagius, I will offer an overview of Pelagius’ understanding of die Vergebungsgnade (Forgiving Grace).

Die Vergebungsgnade: Forgiving Grace

Pelagius’ concept of Forgiving Grace can be divided into two parts: A and B. Part A is relatively simple. Pelagius understood Part A in mainly historical terms insofar that it only concerned God’s covenant with Abraham and the Old Testament. He believed that Abraham’s faith was so great that he gained forgiveness for all of his previous sins and that the rock that accompanied the children of Israel throughout their wanderings in the desert was the figure of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). Additionally, he believed that circumcision functioned as some sort of baptism or pre-figurement of baptism. Therefore, the death and resurrection of Christ applied to all of creation – past, present, and future.

As for Part B, this portion of Pelagius’ theology on grace has consistently come under harsh scrutiny. Pelagius believed that Part B of Forgiving Grace was best realized through Christian baptism. The effects of baptism helped the individual to overcome the conseutudo (bad customs) ingrained in humans after the Fall. Baptism annulled the past and future effects of sin. For Pelagius, Forgiving Grace acted in synergy with the human will to realize the will in action (velle in arbitrio, esse in effectu). In short, Pelagius is operating off of Christ’s maxim: The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Mark 14:28). The question then may arise as to whether man merits this grace by explicitly undergoing baptism. This question is often asked, but Pelagius actually doesn’t offer an answer to this question in any of his writings. The “problem” simply does not occur to Pelagius, so he never addressed it.

How Heretical Was Pelagius, If At All?

Perhaps most implicit in Pelagius’ theology on grace is that he rejects any notion of Original Sin. This is not to say that Pelagius believes that humans have not fallen. Indeed, he does believe that humanity has fallen, but that the flaw lay not in human nature but rather lay in blindness or conseutudo (bad customs). Pelagius’ understanding is certainly unorthodox to say the least, but his way of framing the condition of humanity after the Fall is certainly not antithetical to traditional Christian understanding. For example, Pelagius clearly understood the free will and the grace of God as acting in synergy with one another, insofar that it closely resembles St. John Cassian’s understanding of synergy between the human will and God’s grace. This is best represented in Cassian’s Conference XIII, in particular Chapter 3 with his analogy of the farmer and his environment.

But what of the differences? St. Augustine’s position was that humanity was totally depraved in nature after the Fall and that free will is no longer free. Humans cannot hope to believe without first having the gift of grace to restore their free will let alone do truly good works:

…because faith itself does not precede that calling of which it is said: For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance; (Romans 11:29) and of which it is said: Not of works, but of Him that calls (Romans 9:12) (although He might have said, of Him that believes); and the election which the Lord signified when He said: You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you. (John 15:16) For He chose us, not because we believed, but that we might believe, lest we should be said first to have chosen Him, and so His word be false (which be it far from us to think possible)…

– Augustine of Hippo, On the Predestination of Saints, Ch. 19, Paragraph 38 Note: In the New Advent translation the chapter and paragraph numbers are reversed. My citations are based off of those found in the Patrologia Latina.


Cur ergo non omnes docet, ut veniant ad Christum; nisi quia omnes quos docet, misericordia docet; quos autem non docet, judicio non docet? Quoniam cujus vult miseretur, et quem vult obdurat: sed miseretur, bona tribuens; obdurat, digna retribuens. Aut si et ista, ut quidam distinguere maluerunt, verba sunt ejus cui Apostolus ait, Dicis itaque mihi: ut ipse dixisse accipiatur, Ergo cujus vult miseretur, et quem vult obdurat; et quae sequuntur, id est, Quid adhuc conqueritur? nam voluntati ejus quis resistit? numquid responsum est ab Apostolo, O homo, falsum est quod dixisti? Non: sed responsum est, O homo, tu quis es qui respondeas Deo? Numquid dicit figmentum ei qui se finxit, Quare sic me fecisti? Annon habet potestatem figulus luti ex eadem massa, et sequentia, quae optime nostis. Et tamen secundum quemdam modum, omnes Pater docet venire ad suum Filium. Non enim frustra scriptum est in Prophetis, Et erunt omnes docibiles Dei. Quod testimonium cum praemisisset, tunc subdidit, Omnis qui audivit a Patre et didicit, venit ad me. Sicut ergo integre loquimur, cum de aliquo litterarum magistro, qui in civitate solus est, dicimus, Omnes iste hic litteras docet; non quia omnes discunt, sed quia nemo nisi ab illo discit, quicumque ibi litteras discit: ita recte dicimus, Omnes Deus docet venire ad Christum, non quia omnes veniunt, sed quia nemo aliter venit. Cur autem non omnes doceat, aperuit Apostolus, quantum aperiendum judicavit: quia volens ostendere iram, et demonstrare potentiam suam, attulit in multa patientia vasa irae quae perfecta sunt in perditionem, et ut notas faciat divitias gloriae suae in vasa misericordiae, quae praeparavit in gloriam (Rom. IX, 18-23). Hinc est quod verbum crucis pereuntibus stultitia est; his autem qui salvi fiunt, virtus Dei est (I Cor. I, 18). Hos omnes docet venire au Christum Deus; hos enim omnes vult salvos fieri, et in agnitionem veritatis venire (I Tim. II, 4). Nam si et illos quibus stultitia est verbum crucis, ut ad Christum venirent, docere voluisset, procul dubio venirent et ipsi. Non enim fallit aut fallitur qui ait, Omnis qui audivit a Patre et didicit, venit ad me. Absit ergo ut quisquam non veniat, qui a Patre audivit et didicit.

Why does he [God] not teach all, so that they might come to Christ? Perhaps because all those he teaches in mercy [he taught]; but those who he does not teach in justice he does not teach [at all]? Because ‘he has mercy on whom he wills, and whomever he wills he hardens. (Romans 9:18)… Thus rightly we say, God leads all to come to Christ, not because they all come [on their own accord], but because no one in any other matter [is able] to come. But why does he not teach all? The Apostle made it abundantly clear: because ‘wanting to show his anger, and his power, he endured with much patience the vessels of wrath who are made for perdition, and so that he might make [some] signs of his divine glory with the vessels of mercy, who he prepared in glory’ (Romans 9:18-23). Hence it is that ‘the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18).‘ Here God teaches all to come to Christ; for here ‘he wishes all to be saved, and to come to knowledge in truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4). For if God wished to teach those whom the word of the cross is foolishness so that they might come to Christ, undoubtedly they too would have come. For he does not deceive nor is deceived when he says, ‘All who have heard from the Father and have learned, come to me’ (John 6:45).Therefore, perish the thought that anyone does not come who has heard from the Father and has learned.

– Augustine of Hippo, On the Predestination of Saints, Ch. 8, Paragraph 14; Patrologia Latina 44: 0971

Augustine’s stark position has never really gained much of a foothold in the Christian East, although it has enjoyed much more popularity in the Latin West, albeit often contended and convoluted. In fact, it can be said that Augustine’s position was condemned by the Orthodox Church at the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672, when it explicitly denounced Calvinism (Note: Augustine himself was not condemned, I believe). But is this to say, necessarily, that human nature was not damaged at all after the Fall? I would say that it was damaged to some extent, but not anywhere near to the extent that Augustine believed it to be. Traditionally, St. John Cassian has been understood to have spoken in these terms, specifically in Chapter 10 and Chapter 12 of his Conference XIII. Nevertheless, if one really wanted to, they could read Pelagius’ understanding of conseutudo (bad customs) into Cassian’s writings, and it is because of this that I am forced to the conclusion that Pelagius’ objections to a wounded human nature and Original Sin are largely semantic on this point. This is not to say that any Orthodox individual should prefer Pelagius’ formulation to the Orthodox formulation of Ancestral Sin. By no means should they. However, Pelagius clearly was not as far off base as has traditionally been assumed.

Aside from this, the only thing that I could take issue with Pelagius is that he all-to-often seems to think that free will itself is nature and that nature is grace. I myself am not inclined to this fuzzy theology, but considering the fact that Pelagius was only trying to answer the charges of both Arianism and Manichaeism, I can certainly forgive him of this imprecision. Additionally, Pelagius implies that natural death is not the result of Adam and Eve’s transgression. In short, I don’t think that Pelagius merits the charge of being a heretic. At worst, I would say that he merits the lesser charge of being in minor error.

The Council of Ephesus and the Council of Trullo

It is often objected that the case for Pelagius cannot be revisited because both the Council of Ephesus (the Third Ecumenical Council) and the Council of Trullo (the Quinisext Council) explicitly condemned Pelagius as a heretic. This is simply not true. First off, Canon IV of Ephesus does not name Pelagius at all, but rather his supposed disciple, Caelestius, whom Pelagius actually denounced. The closest condemnation of Pelagius can be found in the council’s letter to Pope Celestine. That being said, it is historically demonstrable that Pelagius’ teachings were misunderstood and warped in the eyes of his detractors. When read on their own terms, not Augustine’s, his views come across as far less sinister, even if still a bit objectionable on some points (namely Original/Ancestral Sin and the nature of death). The Council of Trullo also happened to have accepted the vast corpus of canons from Carthaginian councils and synods. However, if one looks at the anti-Pelagian Council of Carthage from 418, the canons condemn doctrines and not people. Pelagius is simply not named, and none of the doctrines that are condemned are explicitly advocated by Pelagius.


About Alura

I just do my thing.
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