Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thank you, Saint Pelagius

Pelagius was a forefather to Celtic Christianity. Celtic places like Iona and Celtic people like John Philip Newell appreciate his theology. What do they find compelling about Pelagius' theology? An affirmation of the goodness of humanity.

Pelagius provided a positive view of the world. Humanity has a core goodness as creatures made in God's image. Our habit of sin hides the image of God within us, hinders our innate goodness, and helps us to forget that we are children of God. The Gospels present us with the good news of our sacred vocation as beloved children of God, reminding us to live out of our goodness instead of our sin. Christ is the one who shows us how to live out of our goodness because he embodies the goodness that is within each of us. He models how to live the good life. Christ also shows humanity how to live because he decisively embodies the image of God. He reveals the image of God for us so we can be reminded of our own sacredness - and live accordingly. By living the good life, Christ reveals the good life. Each of us is called to turn from sin and allow our core goodness to emerge. This theology made Pelagius a hero to Celtic Christians and a heretic to Roman Christians.

Pelagius' wisdom has been ignored and supressed because of his label as a "heretic" by the Roman Church. But modern scholars are discovering that he wasn't as radical as the Roman Church made him out to be. And his theology wasn't as naive as Augustine made it out to be. So it's high time for a re-claiming of Pelagius and his theology.

Pelagius's theology is good stuff. First, he argued that humanity has salvation through God's "original grace." This prevenient grace is God's free gift to humanity. Second, Pelagius sugguested that humanity has a "grace of revelation" whereby God gives us divine guidance to follow, if we so choose to follow it. Scripture and Christ both point the way we are to follow. Third, he affirmed that God gives the "grace of pardon" to those who freely change their lives and attempt to live faithfully. This means that humanity has the free will to follow the example of Christ and turn from sin.

For Pelagius, our human condition isn't defined by original sin, yet he still understands that our lives are impacted by sin. He says, "By force of habit, sin attains a power akin to that of nature - sin becomes as it were 'second nature'." Therefore, he takes the reality of sin seriously. But he also thinks that we have the power and responsibility to overcome this "force of habit" with God's grace and guidance. And that is where Augustine departs from Pelagius. Augustine relinquishes human responsibility. Pelagius affirms human responsibility.

Pelagius wanted Christians to live according to the values of the Gospel instead of the values of the Roman Empire. His theology demanded change. It questioned the status quo of the increasingly institutionalized Church in Rome. It made those in power uneasy. It made the morally lax look responsible for changing their own lives. It made people realize they were wasting the gift of life, which God gave humanity, by choosing sinful behaviors. It made this charge to every Christian: "You must avoid that broad path which is worn away by the thronging multitude on their way to their death and continue to follow the rough track of that narrow path to eternal life which few find."

Pelagius' theology was a realistic description of human responsibility and God's graciousness. It wasn't perversely optimistic like the Social Gospel movement and it wasn't perversely pessimistic like Augustine. It was a "third way" between the two extremes. Pelagius says it well in his own words: "I did indeed say that a man can be without sin and keep the commandments of God, if he wishes, for this ability has been given to him by God. However, I did not say that any man can be found who has never sinned from his infancy up to his old age, but that, having been converted from his sins, he can be without sin by his own efforts and God's grace, yet not even by this means is he incapable of change for the future."

Overcoming sin and living out of our core goodness is difficult, yet not impossible with God's help. We can do it. Even Augustine says, "Without us God will not, without God we cannot." In other words, God won't do everything for us and we can't do everything for oursevles. And that is the vision of Christianity that Pelagius hands on to us. We're not distored people with no hope for change. Instead, we're good people who we need God's help to live the good life we were designed to live as people made in God's image.

With Pelagius' theology, we have the agency to change our lives. With Christ's example, we have the vision to change our lives. With God's help, we have the hope that we can change our lives.

Thank you, Saint Pelagius!

Note: A version of this post has been picked up on Tony Jones' blog. If you want to join in on the discussion, click here.


  1. Didn't know you guys were on here. It's been ages since I went to blogspot. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Pelagius, Brian.

  2. thanks for the great Pelagius summation. Although only slightly aware of his Theology before today, there is some good balance here I believe for many of our current conversations. Based on your inspiration here I am looking forward to digging a little bit more...found my way here via Tony Jones.