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Pelagius: My Favourite Heretic, by the Revd Canon Chuck Collins

Pelagius is My Favourite Heretic

By Revd Canon Chuck Collins

Pelagius is my favourite heretic. I know that the Thirty-nine Articles addresses this (Article 9), but I am deeply afflicted by “the Pelagian default” that Fleming Rutledge talks about. In a hundred different ways I have reduced Christianity to my own will-power in ways that makes me an active participant in my own redemption – “I have decided to follow Jesus,” working the spiritual disciplines, focused on my performance and moral improvement. On this anniversary of the excommunication of Pelagius by Pope Innocent (January 27, 417), I am again confronted with the cruelty of my heresy: thinking that righteousness is within my grasp if I just try hard enough. And it doesn’t help one bit for my recovery that most of the good folks sitting next to me in church are flaming heretics too!

In a famous fifth century fight, Pelagius and Augustine argued about what the Bible says about human nature. Pelagius was convinced that individuals have a powerful capacity for achievement, even to achieve their own salvation. He felt that men and women are born morally neutral with an equal capacity for good or evil – that Adam’s disobedience adversely affected humankind, but only by setting a bad example. Everyone has the responsibility and potential to be righteous; such is God’s command and he would not command the impossible.

Augustine, on the other hand, was sure that our human wills are governed by what we love, and that apart from the Holy Spirit we choose to love sin. He believed that our love for sin is a consequence of Adam and Eve’s original disobedience (the Fall) and that the end result is that all people are spiritually infected, dead in their trespasses and sins and “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2). Saint Augustine saw that we sin because we are sinners (original sin). Much later Martin Luther would talk about this in a similar way, as people being turned/curved in on ourselves rather than towards God and others (incurvatus in se). It takes the Spirit to work in us to give us a new object worthy of love, and so to free our wills to love God and others.

“In Pelagius’s view it was possible (though very unlikely) that a new-born baby would never sin. Perhaps it would gasp once and die, before it had a chance to look upon forbidden fruit. But for Augustine it was already too late for such hopes. The new-born child belonged to a race that lives under the effects of Adam’s sin.”

— Oliver O’Donovan

Semi-pelagianism, a term coined in the 17th century, was invented to be a compromise between Pelagianism and the teaching of the church fathers (Saint Augustine). Semi-pelagians teach that salvation is won by a cooperative (synergistic) effort between God and his people (God, with a little help from my friends!). Semi-pelagianists distinguish between the beginning of faith and the increase of faith – the beginning of faith is an act of free will (we seek God/truth and find him) and this then ignites grace in us for Christian living and growth. Augustinians, conversely, credit God completely for resurrecting the spiritually dead, people who are unable in themselves to choose God apart from the prior work of God’s grace moving us in the right direction.

How is it that Reformation Anglicans remember Pelagianism in their confession a thousand years after Pelagius? In the context of their protest against Medieval Catholicism? How is it that this heresy is the only one specifically named the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion? It is because pride and works-righteousness is the default heresy of all humans until God steps in to turn our wills and affections aright towards God. Anglicans are clearly Augustinian in our anthropology. We believe that men and women, apart from grace, are incapable of doing anything but continue to sin. Article 9 speaks of “the fault and corruption of the nature with which all descendants of Adam are born. It is due to original sin that we are departed very far from the original righteousness in which we were created, and are naturally inclined to evil. . . accordingly, in every person born into this world, original sin is deserving of God’s wrath and condemnation” (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes paraphrase). And the article continues to drill this in, that “this infection of our nature remains even in those who in Christ are reborn” (Hughes). Article 10 says this even more succinctly: “Since the fall of Adam man’s state is such that he is unable, by his own natural strength to believe and call upon God” (Hughes). The second Anglican homily, “The Misery of All Mankind,” is completely devoted to this theme: “For of ourselves we are crabtrees that can bring forth no apples. We are of ourselves of such earth as can bring forth only weeds, nettles, brambles, briers, corncockle, and darnel” (Lee Gatiss edition).

Christians love semi-pelagianism because we don’t want to admit that the corpse on the couch is actually dead, but only faint and needing some fresh air. In truth, we don’t want a Savior who died to destroy death, but instead prefer a coach that shouts encouragements from the sidelines. We desperately want to believe that in some small way we can contribute to our salvation by “do more” and “try harder” religion, even if it’s doing more prayer, Bible reading, and serving to get God’s approval. Our motto is so good that it comes close to sounding biblical: God helps those who help themselves. But as Steven Paulson states, “Lazarus did not come out of the grave because he got his free will in motion to choose resurrection; it was because he received an external command from Gods word, which does what it says.”

The Revd Canon Chuck Collins is the Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism.