The Vindication and Indictment of Pelagius

Pelagius
“I am not a crook!”

I don’t know that I should admit to this, but I will anyway. For the past month or so, I have been trying to work on a vindication of Pelagius, who is probably most famous for getting lambasted by the church fathers Jerome and Augustine. This all began when I took an unexpected plunge into the Spirituality of Celtic Christianity. In one of the books on this subject, J. Philip Newell suggests that Pelagius was gravely misrepresented by St. Augustine and that, really, at the heart of Pelagius’ message was a view of the human being as created in God’s image with an essential goodness, as it is with the rest of creation, at the core of her or his being. And though I truly do believe that sin, in some way that is hard for even the brightest of minds (like St. Augustine) to grasp and explain, is a part of our reality, I do not believe that people are inherently bad or that we should primarily focus on people’s badness. For whatever reason, I find it more important to suspect and explore and encourage the reflections of Christ that I see in other people. It’s not a comprehensive plan for tackling the world’s problems, this view of mine, but I do believe that it is a good and humble and truly human place to start.

So, believing Newell, I decided to explore Pelagius on my own. The study did not turn out as Newell himself may have hoped, though I did want to agree with his conclusions. Pelagius, with the best of intentions, exhorts people to do good works, and with good reasons for doing so, but he does so in a hellfire and brimstone sort of way that puts Jonathan Edwards to shame and which makes Pelagius hard to vindicate. I felt as though he expected something more than the Sermon on the Mount. His expectation was literally perfection, and it is crushing to read it as a devotional. It left me with a bad feeling, sort of like if I had gorged all night on really cheap microwavable pizzas and Funyuns and King Cobra and then awoke the next day to try to hike Mt. Rainier – it wasn’t a good feeling, in short. I would like to believe that Pelagius saw Christ in people, but so often what he says makes me think that he found the majority of people to be idiots who fared less well on some road to salvation than he himself did. In conclusion, he was well-intentioned, but he was also not very emotionally intelligent.

And, to be honest, I’m probably this critical of him because he indicted me.

He showed me, better than St. Augustine’s writings – in which I really should have gotten it, that Grace is extremely necessary. I cannot possibly do all that Pelagius asked of me. I need Grace. I need help. I need help from God, and I need help from people. I don’t need it because I’m a complete dunce, and I don’t need it because I’m some worthless piece of sinning garbage. I need it because I’m quite simply human, like most people, and I really just cannot do it all. Without Grace, I would probably give up. I would be crushed, like a wimpy Atlas wannabe. Yes, I would quit this losing game of faith and join the really nice people with no religious affiliation.

Why?

Take this moment for example. I am typing up this reflection, hoping that it resonates with at least one person, a good intention that may or may not pan out, and to do this, I am in a popular coffee shop in my small New England community because I like being around people, especially in such a “solitary” task as writing. I also have this idea that is a little pretentious that, if I am out in the community, God may find a way to use me that may not be possible if I am holed up in my apartment alone. Next week, I’ll be doing some service work in an attempt to better love this community. I would like to believe myself a decent person. At the same time, I’m conveniently ignoring, for the moment, the homeless man in the back of the coffee shop. And, according to some information that I read last year, 12 gallons of water are wasted in order for me to be able to have this coffee which I am now sipping. Really, though some may consider it a trifle, that water could be going toward something better than my enjoying a coffee. Yet, I must have this coffee – I’m addicted and I plain old want it so badly that I’d lie and sneak away like any other addict to get it. Better to just be honest about it.

And so, the point is that at any given moment, even the most mundane of moments, like now, I’m, in truth and probably more so than I can ever know or realize, a mixture and mash-up of saint and sinner that can never really be separated from each other, one exists and runs around and twists over the other in a strange dance, almost like how my arm’s radius and ulna work to give me an arm, and a human being is formed, leading me to have the hands of a good man and the hands of a villain, both at the same time. And I’m just holding out for a little more Grace every day so that things turn out a little bit better rather than a little bit worse.

2 comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your post. I heard that Pelagius taught that though man starts on level ground, able to choose to sin or not to, once he chooses to sin, he creates sinful habits which can lead to total bondage to sin, therefore, the grace of God is completely necessary for salvation and for sanctification (considering all of sinned). In your readings of Pelagius, did you read anything that seemed to indicate that he believed this? When Pelagius is written about nowadays, it’s often Calvinism claiming he said he could save ourselves, but if what I heard about him is true, this is a misrepresentation of him.

    1. John, thanks for your comment. I had heard things similar to what you had heard, apparently. I thought it would have been nice to vindicate Pelagius, but upon reading him, I found that it wasn’t very black-and-white. I appreciate what Pelagius wanted and wrote about in terms of effect, but I find his spirituality to be elitist. It’s as hellfire as the freakiest writings of the Great Awakening, which could motivate me in some way. But, overall, it demands of us such perfection that I wonder about how much room he really leaves for God’s grace. Is he incorporating it to shake off Augustine or does he really believe and rely on it? In short, he seems to place a great burden on the reader. But just how much falls on us and how much can we rely on God for according to Pelagius? I don’t know the answer there. Anyway, I find it hard to mesh Pelagius’ spirituality with what I know about myself and human fallibility. Though I invite you to go deeper. There is a great book containing his letters (the ones that have survived at least) that may be more helpful. Otherwise, only a few texts of his are existent, and they seem to me to be like this. You’ll probably have to go beyond my treatment of the topic here.

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