I continue to listen to Leighton Flower’s podcasts on the way home from and to work. As he acknowledges, he is not an “academic,” per se, but a popularizer of various academic themes within the sphere he is associated. Nonetheless, he is constantly engaging with so called “academic theology,” and has various guests on his podcasts who are. The one that stands out most to me, thus far, is his interview of Augustine scholar, Ken Wilson. What was most striking to me about this interview is that both Wilson and Flowers attempt to invert the usual and historic understanding of Pelagius and Augustine; they denigrate Augustine as the heretic and elevate Pelagius as the champion of how we ought to understand ‘freewill’ vis-à-vis salvific appropriation. This is rather striking, for obvious reasons, but also concerning because this message is being advocated for among the popular; a group of folks who don’t have critical resource (or time) to see if what Wilson and Flowers are proposing be so. In an effort to provide some sort of online counter I wanted to provide a small sketch of Pelagius, and the implications of his teaching. My contention, along with the church catholic’s, is that when Pelagius’s teachings are placed up against the Scriptural teaching, particularly the New Testament’s teaching (cf. Rom 3 etc), that it flounders just at the point Wilson, Flowers et al claim that it achieves the proper balance for how we ought to understand humanity’s capacity to choose God rather than self. There is a reason ‘no one seeks after God,’ it is because we ‘love the darkness rather than the light’ (cf. Jn 3.17ff). Pelagius’s teaching operates out of a notion of ‘pure nature’ that is funded by the idea that creation itself has an absolute and ontological orientation of its own, such that it remains impermeable to anything other than its own self-determination; ironically, we might identify this orientation, of the self-determined self, as the definition of a Genesis 3 understanding of sin. This is why Pelagius’s teaching has rightly been identified as heretical; i.e. because his teaching on the nature of humanity is grounded, narrativally, in an understanding of humanity that finds its antecedents in the very conception of humanity’s ability ‘to choose’ that God unilaterally came to put to death in the cross and humanity of Jesus Christ.
With the above noted, here is a short sketch on Pelagius and his theology that I offered a couple of years ago here at the blog.
We often hear of Pelagianism, or of Pelagius himself. We know it is a heresy which Augustine in the 5th century combated; but we don’t often hear exactly what Pelagianism entails. I thought in an effort to remedy this type of lacuna, at least for those who don’t know, that I would share something from JND Kelly on Pelagius, and in brief, what the main aspect of his troubling teaching entails.
Pelagius was primarily a moralist, concerned for right conduct and shocked by what he considered demoralizingly pessimistic views of what could be expected of human nature. The assumption that man could not help sinning seemed to him an insult to his Creator. Augustine’s prayer, ‘Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt’ (da quod iubes et iube quod vis), particularly distressed him, for it seemed to suggest that men were puppets wholly determined by the movements of divine grace. In reaction to this the keystone of his whole system is the idea of unconditional free will and responsibility. In creating man God did not subject him, like other creatures, to the law of nature, but gave him the unique privilege of being able to accomplish the divine will by his own choice. He set life and death before him, bidding him choose life (Deut. 30, 19), but leaving the final decision to his free will. Thus it depends on the man himself whether he acts rightly or wrongly: the possibility of freely choosing the good entails the possibility of choosing evil. There are, he argues, three features in action—the power (posse), the will (velle), and the realization (esse). The first of these comes exclusively from God, but the other two belong to us; hence, according as we act, we merit praise or blame. It would be wrong to infer, however, that he regarded this autonomy as somehow withdrawing man from the purview of God’s sovereignty. Whatever his followers may have said, Pelagius himself made no such claim. On the contrary, along with his belief in free will he has the conception of a divine law proclaiming to men what they ought to do and setting the prospect of supernatural rewards and pains before them. If a man enjoys the freedom of choice, it is by the express bounty of his Creator, and he ought to use it for the ends which He prescribes.
Augustine famously opposed this with his development not only of sin as privatio (privation), but also concupiscence (self-love). But beyond that, if you have ever wondered about Pelagius, or more pointedly about his teaching which has become known as Pelagianism, then this should at least give you a good start. If you want to see what Kelly says further about Pelagius I recommend you pick up his excellent book where he covers this, among other important developments in the early period of the church.
I think all Christians, whether classical Calvinist, classical Arminian, Evangelical Calvinist, Barthian, Lutheran, or what have you share common ground in their opposition towards Pelagianism. Sometimes it requires heresy in order for orthodoxy to be sharpened and articulated in such a way that it provides a fruitful way forward for the church. In this case what Augustine offered against Pelagius served as the basis for what many Christians, even today, think of Pelagianism, and more importantly, how Christians conceive of grace (of course we’ve had other developments since Augustine and Pelagius as well).
For my two cents, I think when attempting to offer an alternative model to classical Calvinism and Arminianism it is best to avoid associating your alternative, even grounding some of its key themes, in the theology of a known and worldwide heretic. This approach may work well when presented to folks who don’t have critical access to the history of ideas and their development, but that’s really as far as it will go; other than idiosyncratic appropriation in and among a small number of a scholarly caste of people. It is true that credentials, one way or the other, do not establish the veracity of ideas, but ultimately that is not my appeal here. My appeal to the “theologians” in the church catholic is to note that Pelagius is a known heretic precisely because his teaching correlates with what Scripture identifies as something we need to be saved from (i.e. ourselves and our enslavement to only and always freely choose us rather than God).
 JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 356-57.