For a conversation among experts about Pelagius and Augustine, listen to Melvyn Bragg’s programme from Radio Four, In our Time.
Pelagius, a 4th century Christian thinker, was excommunicated for heresy in 418. Wikipedia says he “denied the need for divine aid in performing good works” – but that’s a misleading summary. What he denied was the belief of Augustine of Hippo (pictured here) that divine aid in baptism was needed before a human being could do anything good. In baptism, he thought, God wipes away the evil inherent in every newborn baby and the taint of Adam’s original sin is removed.
Original Sin has its biblical base in Paul’s letters (Romans 5:12-21) and is the idea that Adam’s disobedience in ignoring God’s instruction not to eat from the tree of good and evil has been inherited by every human being who has since lived. For Augustine this explained why sin had such a strong influence on us. The power of sexual impulses was particularly worrying for Augustine (who before his conversion said “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”). Though in the 16th century, Pope Pius V condemned the identification of original sin with sexual desire, and pronounced that unbaptized people could do good, the damage was done. The ideas, apparently sanctioned by Christianity, that sex is wrong and unbelievers go to hell are embedded in the human psyche. The result today is that many feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with them that makes them either despair or feel they have to compensate for by pushing themselves to do good (Jung’s idea of the Shadow is a non-religious explanation of the same phenomenon).
Pelagius believed on the contrary that all creation is holy (‘narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth’) and that includes human beings. All people, Christian or not, are capable of doing good. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of us. He didn’t deny that things can go wrong and that we need God’s help to prevent this but we can all feel positive and relaxed about our starting point. We are all at root OK.
His ideas appeared to challenge the need for God’s help. They didn’t do that but they did undermine the need for baptism (and therefore the church) as the only way to heaven. Pelagius’s excommunication was motivated more by this threat to the church than by his doctrines – though some of them were a direct challenge to the church’s authority. ‘You will realise’, he wrote to a new Christian,’ that doctrines are inventions of the human mind as it tries to penetrate the mystery God….thus it is not what you believe that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters; it is becoming like him.’ Today those who believe a personal faith in Christ is the only way to heaven would be unhappy with such a view just as were those who like Augustine believed baptism was needed (‘there is no salvation outside the church’, he wrote). But many Christians today would applaud his openness and see in it something Christ-like.
What his detractors ignored was Pelagius’s recognition of how difficult ‘becoming like him’ was, how many pitfalls there are on the way and how much Christ’s help is needed if it is to be achieved. He saw such help coming from a number of sources, including soul friends (see the material for Session 8), not only, as those who called him a heretic would have it, from the sacramental offices of the church.
Christianity and the way we human beings see ourselves would have developed very differently had Pelagius won the 4th century argument.
I am indebted, particularly for the quotations, to a chapter on Pelagius in Philip Newell’s book, Listening for the Heartbeat of God.