Essay / On This Day

Today Pelagianism Was Condemned (417)

“Da quod iubes, et iube quod vis!” prayed Augustine: “Give what you command, and command what you will!”

This line from Book 10 of Augustine’s Confessions is a perfect crystallization of Augustine’s recognition that he was desperately in need of God’s grace: “My whole hope is in thy exceeding great mercy and that alone. Give what you command, and command what you will.”

In the year 405, a bishop visiting in Rome was reading this section of Augustine’s Confessions aloud, in the hearing of a British lay monk named Pelagius. Pelagius went, to use the technical term, ballistic. What he heard in this prayer was every excuse, every cop out, and every self-justified failure that he had ever listened to from any so-called Christian. After all, if God has to give you the power to obey his commands, then you have an excuse when you disobey: You can just say that God didn’t give you the power to obey. Then you can go back to your supposedly heart-felt prayer, “give me strength to obey and I’ll obey.”

Hogwash, said Pelagius. What part of “BE PERFECT” don’t you understand? Moral responsibility to God is simple: you are confronted with a choice, you make the right choice, and you have done well. End of story. What’s free will for, if not to obey? Each of us stands before God in the same state as Adam in the garden, choosing whether we will eat from the forbidden tree or not. Don’t be like Adam: choose the good.

Provoked by Augustine’s language and worried over the North African bishop’s growing influence, Pelagius picked the fight with him. Augustine responded: he wrote more than a dozen refutations of Pelagius, and they make for dense reading. Most of them have the word “Grace” in the title, because Augustine saw that Pelagius’ moral earnestness and high view of human possibilities came at too high a cost: an anemic view of grace. God does call us to perfection, but that just goes to show how much work God is going to have to undertake on our part to get us there. He can command whatever he wants to, but he’s going to have to give what he commands. And furthermore, each of us is not Adam: Adam is Adam, and the rest of us are downstream from his guilt and disorder.

Eventually a regional council of North African bishops met at Carthage and condemned Pelagius’ doctrine. Augustine pressed forward to get the authority of the bishop of Rome, Pope Innocent I, behind the decision of that local council. When the Pope read Pelagius’ views, he was scandalized that such things were being taught. On January 27, 417, he dispatched five letters condemning Pelagianism as an error, a heresy in the doctrine of human nature.

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