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An Exploration of Pelagianism

April 7, 2018

Pelagius was a British theologian born in the 4th century AD. He is associated with several controversial doctrines, some of which were condemned as heretical by more orthodox Catholic theologians such as St. Augustine. One major common theme of Pelagius’ moral and theological teachings is the human ability to do good – or lack thereof. As such, he wrote about freedom of the will and original sin. For simplicity, I am going to focus on one particular view associated with Pelagius, which I’ll call “Pelagianism”. This is that human beings are capable of goodness independently of divine grace (i.e. assistance from God).

It is possible to accept Pelagianism even if one is atheist, or agnostic. You might believe that we could only do good if God existed and helped us, but still deny that God exists. This would lead one to the bleak conclusion that we are incapable of doing good. Conversely, some theists are Pelagians, following Pelagius himself – they may believe that God helps us do good, but claim that we could do good even without God.

While Pelagianism was condemned as heretical in medieval times, today we might think that Pelagius’ thesis strikingly anticipated modern ethical ideas. Most people in industrial societies today probably are Pelagians, since they are atheists or agnostic, but believe we are capable of goodness (even if they might say we don’t fulfil this potential very often).

There is a certain story certain historians of ethics tell, which presents Kant’s work as a key turning point at which we realised how to “do” ethics without making God the centre of everything. One unfortunate consequence of this over-simplistic view is that it passes over the complexity of, and variety of positions generated within, medieval and early modern (Reformation-era) debates about the relationship between God and human goodness. Paying closer attention to these debates – especially the debate about Pelagianism – should interest modern Pelagians, and those tempted by Pelagianism.

Rejecting Pelagianism may seem like an extreme, or highly austere, position to take. Why should human beings not be capable of goodness independently of divine grace? Even if you are a theist, we might say, imagine that it turned out God did not exist: surely it would not follow that one would have to revise one’s view of history, and say that after all no good deeds had ever been done? Does this thought experiment not show that God’s existence is besides the point as to whether human beings are capable of good deeds?

Moreover, rejecting Pelagianism might appear problematically misanthropic. Isn’t the more balanced and reasonable view that human beings are capable both of great evil and great good? Isn’t it also morally problematic to ignore or play down the genuine positive aspects of human life and action?

To answer these objections, we have to distinguish the various positions that can be adopted by those who reject Pelagianism. At the opposite extreme end of the relevant spectrum is Luther, who claimed that human beings are capable of good only in the sense that God can use us as conduits for achieving some good. According to Luther, human beings post-Fall are fundamentally corrupt, and even when God achieves some good working through us, only God truly is responsible for the goodness achieved. The situation is akin to one where a woman uses a hammer to nail a painting in the wall – although two entities are involved, the woman and the hammer, only the woman gets any credit. The difference, on Luther’s view, is merely that in the God-human case the human is actually in a sinful state, whereas the hammer is morally neutral.

To reject Pelagianism, we do not have to go for this extreme Lutheran view. Most medieval Catholic philosopher-theologians understood good human deeds as a two-way cooperation between human beings and God, for which both parties are partly responsible. Rather than being passive conduits, humans are understood, on this view, to have to awaken themselves to God’s grace and pro-actively respond to it through thought and action, in order to work good deeds. The reason this view is not Pelagian is that God’s assistance is still deemed necessary.

If we adopt the Catholic “takes two to tango” view, there are ways of answering the objections raised above. (There may also be ways to do this on the Lutheran view, but I confess I do not see what they are). First, it is true that human beings are capable of great evil and great good. So the Catholic view is not misanthropic. However, it is essential to appreciate that while we are capable of great good, this is so only because we receive assistance of certain kinds, including divine grace.

Putting aside God for a second, many people would subscribe to the view that we cannot achieve positive things without help of some kind. Acknowledgments in book covers and victory speeches often testify to this. Barack Obama often claimed that every successful businessperson should acknowledge that they managed to get where they did only because they received help from others – that crucial piece of advice, that timely loan… Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that human fragility implies we are always, to some extent, dependent on the support of others. The mother-child relationship is a case in point.

Within a theistic perspective, this sort of help – whether from other persons, creatures, or simply the natural world – are just some of the many forms which divine assistance take. Since this world is God’s world, parts of nature – including human beings – are vehicles which God can make use of and collaborate with to deliver his assistance to us. So if we think that we always depend help from someone or something external in order to do good, and we believe God created the world, it would make sense to reject Pelagianism.

What about our thought experiment – what if, contrary to our expectation, it turned out God did not exist? The issue here is that switching from theism to atheism would probably shift one’s understanding of the natural world itself. It is not as though the theist will accept that history remains exactly the same as he thought it was prior to discovering that God did not exist after all. Since most theists believe God is actively involved with the world, they would come to think of human history in a quite different way. And they may think those differences justify changing their judgment; saying that good deeds had not been done after all.

A final thought to conclude: drawing a parallel between the rejection of Pelagianism and acknowledging our dependence on others brings to light an advantage of the anti-Pelagian position, namely its connection with humility. If a strength of Pelagianism is that it appears to acknowledge the positive potential of human nature, some anti-Pelagians can claim their position fits better with the apparent truth that we need help to become good. There is a harmony here with Aquinas’ profound remark:

“Natural reason tells us that because of the inadequacies we perceive in ourselves we need to subject ourselves to some superior source of help and direction; and whatever that source might be, everybody calls it God.”

What do you think about Pelagianism? I’d be very happy to hear your thoughts.

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One Comment
  1. St.John Lambert permalink

    Just a quick thought. It might be interesting to distinguish between two types of anti-pelagianism: semi-pelagianism and arminianism. The former holds that humans can, through an unaided act of free will, orientate themselves towards doing good (but that humans still require God’s grace to carry through and do the good), while the latter holds that humans can’t even orientate themselves towards doing good until God’s grace has been poured out (in which case humans can then cooperate with God and do the good).

    The difference between the two types of anti-pelagianism, then, is who takes the first steps towards doing good: is it humans (semi-pelagianism) or God (arminianism)? Both hold that God’s grace is necessary for humans to do good, but they differ on whether humans can orientate themselves towards doing good without God’s grace.

    I don’t think you take a stand on this in the post, so I would be interested to know what you think. (I hope what i’ve said is clear.)


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