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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 151. The Pelagian System Continued: Doctrine, of Human Ability and Divine Grace.


III. The Present Moral Condition of man is, according to the Pelagian system, in all respects the same as that of Adam before the fall. Every child is born with the same moral powers and capabilities with which the first man was created by God. For the freedom of choice, as we have already seen, is not lost by abuse, and is altogether the same in heathens, Jews, and Christians, except that in Christians it is aided by grace.17571757    Pelagius, in Aug. De gratia Christi, c. 31 (x. 244): “Liberi arbitrii potestatem dicimus in omnibus esse generaliter, in Christianis, Judaeis atque gentilibus. In omnibus est liberum arbitrium aequaliter per natumam, sed in solis Christianis juvatur gratia.” Pelagius was a creationist, holding that the body alone is derived from the parents, and that every soul is created directly by God, and is therefore sinless. The sin of the father, inasmuch as it consists in isolated acts of will, and does not inhere in the nature, has no influence upon the child. The only difference is, that, in the first place, Adam’s posterity are born children, and not, like him, created full-grown; and secondly, they have before them the bad example of his disobedience, which tempts them more or less to imitation, and to the influence of which by far the most—but not all—succumb.

Julian often appeals to the virtues of the heathen, such as valor, chastity, and temperance, in proof of the natural goodness of human nature.

He looked at the matter of moral action as such, and judged it accordingly. “If the chastity of the heathen,” he objects to Augustine’s view of the corrupt nature of heathen virtue, “were no chastity, then it might be said with the same propriety that the bodies of unbelievers are no bodies; that the eyes of the heathen could not see; that grain which grew in their fields was no grain.”

Augustine justly ascribed the value of a moral act to the inward disposition or the direction of the will, and judged it from the unity of the whole life and according to the standard of love to God, which is the soul of all true virtue, and is bestowed upon us only through grace. He did not deny altogether the existence of natural virtues, such as moderation, lenity, benevolence, generosity, which proceed from the Creator, and also constitute a certain merit among men; but he drew a broad line of distinction between them and the specific Christian graces, which alone are good in the proper sense of the word, and alone have value before God.

The Holy Scriptures, history, and Christian experience, by no means warrant such a favorable view of the natural moral condition of man as the Pelagian system teaches. On the contrary, they draw a most gloomy picture of fearful corruption and universal inclination to all evil, which can only be overcome by the intervention of divine grace. Yet Augustine also touches an extreme, when, on a false application of the passage of St. Paul: “Whatsoever is not of faith, is sin” (Rom. xiv. 23), he ascribes all the virtues of the heathen to ambition and love of honor, and so stigmatizes them as vices.17581758    De Civit. Dei, v. 13-20 and xix. 25. In the latter place he calls the virtues, which do not come from true religion, vices. “Virtutes ... nisi ad Deum retulerit, etiam ipsa vitia sunt potius quam virtutes.” From this is doubtless derived the sentence so often attributed to Augustine: “The virtues of the heathen are splendid vices,” which, however, in this form and generality, does not, to my knowledge, occur in his writings. More on this point, see below, § 156. And in fact he is in this inconsistent with himself. For, according to his view, the nature which God created, remains, as to its substance, good; the divine image is not wholly lost, but only defaced; and even man’s sorrow in his loss reveals a remaining trace of good.17591759    De Genesi ad Lit. viii. 14; ReTract. ii. 24. Comp. Wiggers, i. p. 120 ff.

Pelagius distinguishes three elements in the idea of good: . Power, will, and act (posse, velle, and esse). The first appertains to man’s nature, the second to his free will, the third to his conduct. The power or ability to do good, the ethical constitution, is grace, and comes therefore from God, as an original endowment of the nature of man. It is the condition of volition and action, though it does not necessarily produce them. Willing and acting belong exclusively to man himself.17601760    Pelagius, Pro libero arbitrio, cited in Augustine’s De gratia Christi, c. 4 (§ 5, tom. x. fol. 232): ”Posse in natura, velle in arbitrio, esse in effectu locamus. Primum illud, id est posse, ad Deum proprie pertinet, qui illud creatrrae suae contulit, duo vero reliqua, hoc est velle et esse, ad hominem referenda sunt quia de arbitrii fonte descendunt. Ergo in voluntate et opera bono laus hominis est: immo et hominis et Dei, qui ipsius voluntatis et operis possibilitatem dedit, quique ipsam possibilitatem gratiae suae adjuvat semper auxilio.” The power of speech, of thought, of sight, is God’s, gift; but whether we shall really think, speak, or see, and whether we shall think, speak, or see well or ill, depends upon ourselves.17611761    “Quod possumus videre oculis, nostrum non est: quod vero bene aut male videmus, hoc nostrum est .... Quod loqui possumus, Dei est: quod vero bene vel male loquimur, nostrum est.” Quoted in Augustine’s De gratia Christi, c. 15 and 16 (fol. 237 and 238). Augustinecites against these examples Ps. cxix. 37: “Averte oculos meos, ne videant vanitatem.”

Here the nature of man is mechanically sundered from his will and act; and the one is referred exclusively to God, the others to man. Moral ability does not exist over and above the will and its acts, but in them, and is increased by exercise; and thus its growth depends upon man himself. On the other hand, the divine help is indispensable even to the willing and doing of good; for God works in us both to will and to do.17621762    Phil. ii. 13. Augustineappeals to this passage, De gratia Christi, c. 5 (f. 232 sq.) with great emphasis, as if Paul with prophetic eye had had in view the error of Pelagius. The Pelagian system is founded unconsciously upon the deistic conception of the world as a clock, made and wound up by God, and then running of itself, and needing at most some subsequent repairs. God, in this system, is not the omnipresent and everywhere working Upholder and Governor of the world, in whom the creation lives and moves and has its being, but a more or less passive spectator of the operation of the universe.17631763    It is against this deistic view that the pregnant lines of Goethe are directed:
Was wär’ ein Gott der nur von aussen stiesse,
Im Kreis das All am Finger laufen liesse;
Jerome therefore fairly accuses the Pelagians (without naming them) of denying the absolute dependence of man on God, and cites against them the declaration of Christ, John v. 17, concerning the uninterrupted activity of God.17641764    Epistola ad Ctesiphontem. Dr. Neander (Church History, vol. ii. p. 604 ff. Torrey’s transl.) regards this difference of view concerning the relation of the Creator to the creature as the most original and fundamental difference between the Augustinian and Pelagian system, although it did not clearly come to view in the progress of the controversy.

IV. The doctrine of the Grace of God.

The sufficiency of the natural reason and will of man would seem to make supernatural revelation and grace superfluous. But this Pelagius does not admit. Besides the natural grace, as we may call his concreated ability, he assumes also a supernatural grace, which through revelation enlightens the understanding, and assists man to will and to do what is good.17651765    Pelagius, in Aug. De gratia Christi, c. 7 (§ 8, x. f. 233): ” ... Deus ... gratiae suae auxilium subministrat, ut quod per liberum homines facere jubentur arbitrium, facilius possent implere per gratiam.” This grace confers the negative benefit of the forgiveness of past sins, or justification, which Pelagius understands in the Protestant sense of declaring righteous, and not (like Augustine) in the Catholic sense of making righteous;17661766    Pelag. Com. in Rom. iv. 6: “Ad hoc fides prima ad justitiam reputatur, ut de praeterito absolvatur et de paesenti justificatur, et ad futura fidei opera praeparatur.” Similarly Julianof Eclanum. Augustine, on the contrary, has the evangelical conception of faith and of grace, but not of justification, which he interprets subjectively as a progressive making righteous, like the Roman church. Comp. De gratia Christi, c. 47 (§ 52, x. f. 251): ”... gratiam Dei ... in qua nos sua, non nostrae justitiae justos facit, ut ea sit vera nostra justitia quae nobis ab illo est.” In another passage, however, he seems to express the Protestant view. De spir. et Lit. c. 26 (§ 45, tom. x. 109): “Certe ita dictum est: justificabuntur, se si diceretur: justi habebuntur, justi deputabuntur, sicut dictum est de quodam: Ille autem volens se justificare (Luc. x. 29), i.e., ut justus haberetur et deputaretur.”


Ihm ziemt’s, die Welt im Innern zu bewegen,

Natur in sich, sich in Natur zu hegen,

So dass, was in ihm lebt und webt und ist,

Nie seine Kraft, nie seinen Geist vermisst.”

“What were a God who only from without

Upon his finger whirled the universe about?

’Tis his within itself to move the creature;

Nature in him to warm, himself in nature;

So that what in him lives and moves and is,

Shall ever feel some living breath of his.”


and the positive benefit of a strengthening of the will by the power of instruction and example. As we have been followers of Adam in sin, so should we become imitators of Christ in virtue. “In those not Christians,” says Pelagius, “good exists in a condition of nakedness and helplessness; but in Christians it acquires vigor through the assistance of Christ.”17671767    In Aug. De gratia Chr. c. 31 (tom. x. fol. 244): “In illis nudum et inerme est conditionis bonum; in his vero qui ad Christum pertinent, Christi munitur auxilio.” He distinguishes different stages of development in grace corresponding to the increasing corruption of mankind. At first, he says, men lived righteous by nature (justitia per naturam), then righteous under the law (justitia sub lege), and finally righteous under grace (justitia gratiae), or the gospel.17681768    Aug. De pecc. orig. c. 26 (§ 30, tom. x. f. 266): “Non, sicut Pelagius et ejus discipuli, tempora dividamus dicentes: primum vixisse justos homines ex natura, deinde sub lege, tertio sub gratia.” When the inner law, or the conscience, no longer sufficed, the outward or Mosaic law came in; and when this failed, through the overmastering habit of sinning, it had to be assisted by the view and imitation of the virtue of Christ, as set forth in his example.17691769    Cited from Pelagius, l. c.: “Postquam nimia, sicut disputant, peccandi consuetudo praevaluit cui sanandae lex parum valeret, Christus advenit et tanquam morbo desperatissimo non per discipulos, sed per se ipsum medicus ipse subvenit.” Julian of Eclanum also makes kinds and degrees of the grace of God. The first gift of grace is our creation out of nothing; the second, our rational soul; the third, the written law; the fourth, the gospel, with all its benefits. In the gift of the Son of God grace is completed.17701770    In Angustine’s Opus imperf. i. 94 (tom. x. f. 928)

Grace is therefore a useful external help (adjutorium) to the development of the powers of nature, but is not absolutely necessary. Coelestius laid down the proposition, that grace is not given for single acts.17711771   · “Gratiam Dei et adjutorium non ad singulos actus dari.” Pelagius, it is true, condemned those who deny that the grace of God in Christ is necessary for every moment and every act; but this point was a concession wrung from him in the controversy, and does not follow logically from his premises.17721772    Comp., respecting this, Augustine, De gratia Christi, cap. 2 (tom. x fol. 229 sq.).

Grace moreover, according to Pelagius, is intended for all men (not, as Augustine taught, for the elect few only), but it must first be deserved. This, however, really destroys its freedom.17731773    Comp. Rom. iv. 4, 5; Eph. ii. 8, 9. Shakespeare has far better understood the nature of grace than Pelagius, in the famous speech of Portia in the Merchant of Venice (Act IV. Sc, 1):
The quality of mercy is not strained:
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath; it is twice blessed,
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
“The heathen,” he says, “are liable to judgment and damnation, because they, notwithstanding their free will, by which they are able to attain unto faith and to deserve God’s grace, make an evil use of the freedom bestowed upon them; Christians, on the other hand, are worthy of reward, because they through good use of freedom deserve the grace of God, and keep his commandments.”17741774    Pelagius in Aug. De gratis Chr. c. 31 (x. f. 245). The illi, according to the connection, must refer to those not Christians, the hi to Christians. Yet according to his principles we might in turn fairly subdivide each class since according to him there are good heathens and bad Christians. Against this Augustineurges: “Ubi est illud apostoli: Justificati gratis per gratiam ipsius (Rom. iii. 24)? Ubi est illud: Gratis salvi facti estis (Eph. ii. 8)?” He concludes with the just proposition: “Non est gratia, nisi gratuita.”

Pelagianism, therefore, extends the idea of grace too far, making it include human nature itself and the Mosaic law; while, on the other hand, it unduly restricts the specifically Christian grace to the force of instruction and example. Christ is indeed the Supreme Teacher, and the Perfect Example, but He is also High-priest and King, and the Author of a new spiritual creation. Had He been merely a teacher, He would not have been specifically distinct from Moses and Socrates, and could not have redeemed mankind from the guilt and bondage of sin. Moreover, He does not merely influence believers from without, but lives and works in them through the Holy Ghost, as the principle of their spiritual life. Hence Augustine’s wish for his opponent: “Would that Pelagius might confess that grace which not merely promises us the excellence of future glory, but also brings forth in us the faith and hope of it; a grace, which not merely admonishes to all good, but also from within inclines us thereto; not merely reveals wisdom, but also inspires us with the love of wisdom.”17751775    De gratia Christi, c. 10 (tom. x. f. 235). This superficial conception of grace is inevitable, with the Pelagian conception of sin. If human nature is uncorrupted, and the natural will competent to all good, we need no Redeemer to create in us a new will and a new life, but merely an improver and ennobler; and salvation is essentially the work of man. The Pelagian system has really no place for the ideas of redemption, atonement, regeneration, and new creation. It substitutes for them our own moral effort to perfect our natural powers, and the mere addition of the grace of God as a valuable aid and support. It was only by a happy inconsistency, that Pelagius and his adherents traditionally held to the church doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ. Logically their system led to a rationalistic Christology.17761776    Wiggers, l.c. vol. i. p. 467, judges similarly. Also Neander, in his Dogmengeschichte, Bd. i. p. 884: “The Pelagian principles would logically have led to rationalistic views, to an entire rejection of the supernatural element, and to the belief that mankind needs only to develop itself from within itself, without the revelation and self-impartation of God, in order to attain the good. But they do not develop their first principles so consistently as this, and what Biblical elements they incorporate with their system are unquestionably not taken in merely by way of accommodation, but through the persuasion that a supernatural revelation is necessary, in order to realize the destiny of mankind.” Comp. Cunningham, Hist. Theology, i. p. 829: “Modern Socinians and Rationalists are the only consistent Pelagians. When men reject what Pelagius rejected, they are bound in consistency to reject everything that is peculiar and distinctive in the Christian system as a remedial scheme.”

Pelagianism is a fundamental anthropological heresy, denying man’s need of redemption, and answering to the Ebionistic Christology, which rejects the divinity of Christ. It is the opposite of Manichaeism, which denies man’s capability of redemption, and which corresponds to the Gnostic denial of the true humanity of Christ.17771777    Comp. Augustine, Contra duas Epist. Pelagianorum l. ii. c. 2, where he describes Manichaeism and Pelagianism at length as the two opposite extremes, and opposes to them the Catholic doctrine.



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