What Pelagius did or didn’t teach.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 October

Last week I wrote about Pelagianism, the belief humans are inherently good. It’s a common and popular idea, but it’s heresy. The ancient Christians condemned it at the Council of Ephesus in the year 431.

For good reason. If humans are fundamentally good—not profoundly corrupted by selfishness and sin—in theory it’s possible for one of us to live an uncorrupted life. Without sin. And in so doing, merit heaven all on one’s own. Without Jesus. After all, what might Jesus add to one’s inherent goodness? Nothing but a rubber stamp.

Well. Once the article went live, it annoyed various Pelagians. Some of whom had no idea they were actually Pelagian! They always presumed humans are basically good, and hate the idea we’re not. Likewise they hate the idea they’re heretic, ’cause too many Christians wrongly think “heretic” means “going to hell.” So them’s fighting words.

I didn’t write the article to pick a fight with Pelagians. I wrote it to inform. Most TXAB readers aren’t wholly up to speed on theological ideas like Pelagianism, so I figured I’d write about what it is and why it’s a problem. If any of you were leaning that direction, my hope was you’d pause and say, “Oh so that’s why Christians teach what we do,” and correct yourselves. We’re all wrong in one way or another, and could always stand to make mid-course corrections like that.

But what do people usually do? Exclaim, “No you’re wrong,” then take potshots at the messenger. If we bother to do any homework on the issue, it’s only to marshal arguments so we can take better potshots. I confess; I’ve done this too. It’s jerk-like behavior so I try not to. After all, I might be wrong! But old habits die hard, y’know.

Anyway. The Pelagians mustered the usual arguments, the ones I brought up in the article: They don’t believe humanity is totally broken. All have sinned, Ro 3.23 and they’re willing to admit they’ve sinned too: They’re hardly worthy of heaven on their own merits. But they can’t stomach the idea of humanity gone totally wrong. After all, they know good pagans! Nobody but the most hardcore pessimists and cynics are gonna say good pagans don’t exist.

True. But have any of these pagans achieved heaven-level goodness? Well no; nobody can imagine ’em being that good. Because nobody but Jesus is that good. Because total depravity: Not one human but Jesus, in our every last action, has acted wholly selflessly and sinlessly. Sin is like the sand on a beach: It gets everywhere, and you’re still finding it in your stuff and your cracks weeks after you visited the beach. Sin’s totally corrupted everything. It’s total.

Pelagians’ other hangup is that word depravity. It’s the right word; it means “moral corruption.” But I think most of ’em have it in their heads it means something dirtier, more perverted, more nasty. It doesn’t really. If they wanna quibble about vocabulary and use different words, that’s fine; depravity has synonyms. Still, we’re talking about moral corruption: Every single human but Jesus compromises what “goodness” means in order to defend ourselves, feel better about ourselves, and justify ourselves. But we’ve all fallen short of God’s glory. Ro 3.23 We’re all morally corrupt. Or depraved.

All that aside, one odd argument I heard in defense of Pelagianism is that Pelagius of Britain never actually taught what we call “Pelagianism.” It’s all slander. Against a perfectly good and upstanding Christian.

My big ol’ introduction aside, that’s actually what I’m gonna rant about today.

What do we know about Pelagius?

Not a whole lot. But enough.

Once the early Christians determined Pelagianism was heresy, lots of overzealous Christians decided to make sure Pelagius’s writings were wiped out. His books went into the trash fires. Nobody made copies of them anymore.

So how do we know what he wrote? Some of his critics quoted him, and the ancients kept their writings. And it turns out the ancient Christians didn’t successfully wipe out everything he wrote; we still have his letter to Demetrias, his commentary on Romans, and a few odds and ends.

It means the little we know about Pelagius largely comes from his opponents. Who, I pointed out in my other article, didn’t describe him as a wicked, devilish man. Their problem was entirely with what he taught. By all accounts, Pelagius was a good man. It was in the course of telling people to behave themselves and quit sinning—same as Christians have always taught 1Jn 2.1 —that he went a little too far and taught humans weren’t really fallen creatures; that Adam and Eve’s sin didn’t corrupt anyone but Adam and Eve themselves. “As long as they sin in the same way, they likewise die,” Pelagius wrote Commentary on Romans at 5.12 —he only considered Adam an example of how sin can corrupt, not the one who unintentionally corrupted all his descendants, i.e. humanity.

Yep, in what little we have of Pelagius’s writings, he supports Pelagianism. No surprise there.

Nonetheless, I’ve met Pelagians who think they have a clever defense here: They claim Pelagius didn’t really teach Pelagianism. He’s only accused of teaching it by his critics, like Augustine of Hippo. (And some of them have a few bones to pick with Augustine.) But accusing Pelagius of teaching that we can achieve heaven without any help from God? Slander! Pelagius taught no such thing.

Okay. First of all, I don’t claim Pelagius taught we can achieve heaven apart from God. That’s not what Pelagianism is. True, some Christians define it that way, but that’s inaccurate. Pelagianism is only the idea humans are inherently good. That’s all. And Pelagius totally taught that in the writings we have. He wasn’t shy about it.

Second, I agree Pelagius would be one of the last guys to float an idea of getting to heaven apart from God. He was Christian. He pursued a relationship with Jesus, and taught his monks to do likewise. He had no intentions of making an end-run around Jesus! Christ Jesus is the king of God’s kingdom, and nobody comes to the Father other than through Jesus. Jn 14.6 Evading Jesus wasn’t at all what Pelagius taught. Nor, I believe, what Pelagius wanted to teach.

But third: That’s the inevitable conclusion of Pelagianism.

If humans are inherently good, it means it’s possible to get to heaven apart from Jesus. I don’t think Pelagius intended in the slightest to teach any such thing. I’m not sure he believed his idea does lead to that inevitable conclusion. (Plenty of Pelagians sure don’t.) But it does. If we’re inherently good, it means we have it within ourselves to stay good and merit heaven. And nobody but Jesus merits heaven.

So fourth: This is the mixup semi-knowledgeable semi-Pelagians make all the time. They insist they’re neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian because “Pelagians believe they can earn heaven without God,” and they’re not that, so they’re not Pelagian. But they’re defining Pelagianism wrong, so of course they think they’re not Pelagian. It only means you believe you’re inherently good. That is what Pelagius taught. That’s what they believe too. The shoe fits.

Lastly: Because Pelagianism leads to that other idea, Pelagianism is what the ancient church councils condemned. Like it or not, it’s still heresy. And they’re still heretics.

But even if Pelagius taught no such thing…

Thus far I’ve brought up semi-knowledgeable semi-Pelagians. But of course there’s such a creature as the totally ignorant Pelagian. These’d be the Christians who don’t know what Pelagianism is, and don’t entirely care: They just don‘t wanna be called heretics. Sometimes they don’t even know what heresy means; they just know it’s a bad thing, so they don’t want the label, and object to anyone who calls them that. After all, they’re good people! (Trying to be, at least.)

I got some pushback recently from a guy (whom we’ll call Fulvius) who dislikes my article for that very reason. He doesn’t wanna be called heretic; he’s a good person. And somehow he found some other blogger (let’s call the other blogger Krishna) who claims Pelagius is nothing more than a bogeyman Christians use to bash one other. Pretty sure Fulvius didn’t entirely read or understand Krishna’s article, but he doesn’t feel he needs to; it’s easier to just slam me with the conclusions.

Krishna is a traditionalist Baptist. Traditionalists don’t believe total depravity is found in the bible. So it makes ’em Pelagians. But Krishna doesn’t wanna be called that, because he’s entirely sure he’s not Pelagian, because he defines Pelagianism as “the teaching that man has the capacity to seek God in and of himself apart from any movement of God or the Holy Spirit, and therefore that salvation is affected by man’s efforts.” Well, Krishna doesn’t believe we can save ourselves; ergo he’s no Pelagian. (And, he correctly points out, Pelagius himself never taught we can save ourselves. So there.)

Krishna got his definition from a book. So let’s be fair to Krishna: He was misinformed. (Likely so was the book’s author.) If we chop the definition at the comma and keep only the first clause, yep, that’s Pelagianism. The second clause, “and therefore that salvation is affected by man’s efforts,” might be a logical conclusion of Pelagianism, but it’s still not the definition.

Krishna’s conclusion: Pelagius didn’t teach “Pelagianism.” And that idea Fulvius grabbed ahold of, and repeated so many times you‘d think he programmed his computer to auto-complete it. But Fulvius doesn’t care what Krishna means by it; he only cares “Pelagius didn’t teach Pelagianism,” and waved it around at me as if it proves something. It proves nothing.

Let’s pretend Pelagius wrote nothing. Let’s pretend he was a totally orthodox Christian who never wrote anything heretic. Not even by accident. But somebody mixed him up with the real heretic, put his name on the heresy, and now everybody snipes at poor ol’ Pelagius for something he didn’t believe. That’d be horribly unfair of history, but we all know sometimes unfair things happen in a meaningless world.

Still: Just because (in our scenario) Pelagius didn‘t invent the heresy named for him, it’s still heresy. Doesn’t matter if the label was affixed to it unfairly; that’s its label now. Doesn’t matter that Amerigo Vespucci didn’t discover the Americas, or Daniel Salmon didn’t discover salmonella; that’s what they’re called now. Disconnecting the founder from the belief doesn’t disprove a thing. Well, other than in Fulvius’s mind.

Historical Pelagius?

I’ve encountered this phenomenon before. You recall there’s such an invention as Historical Jesus. Basically it’s whenever a skeptic wants to claim Jesus didn’t really teach what Christendom says he did, or Jesus didn’t really do as the gospels recorded. How do they know what Jesus really taught and did, apart from the gospels? Well they offer various reasons, but these reasons have at their core, “I don’t like the Jesus you Christians talk about, so I’ve edited out all the parts I don’t like, added a few things I do”—and it’s no coincidence these are traits they also share—“and I’m gonna follow that guy.” Too bad he’s fiction; really an idealized version of themselves.

People don’t only do this with Jesus, y’know. They’ll do it with lots of people. Sloppy historians will try to project their personal values and motives onto Alexander of Macedon, Shi Huangdi, Augustus Caesar, Charlemagne, Henry 5 of England, George Washington, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower—even when these values are entirely different from those of these people’s eras, and even when these motives simply don’t fit the historical evidence. Sloppy preachers will try to project themselves onto Abraham, Moses, David, Esther, and any other person from the bible. Jesus is just one of many.

So it stands to reason we’re gonna have people who try to invent a Historical Pelagius. And, no foolin’, there are real-life Pelagians who try to defend their Pelagianism by claiming all sorts of things about Pelagius. Stuff they can’t prove, or can’t possibly know, because—like I said—we don’t have that data anymore! Not that this stops ’em from projecting all sorts of their favorite things upon him. And all sorts of vile motives upon his theological opponents, like Augustine.

Meh; if they wanna start a Pelagius cult, it’s a free country. It’s not gonna get ’em any closer to Jesus though. Which is supposed to be the point, right?