Around 350 in Britain was born a man whose name connotes a man regarded as the greatest heretic in history. While one synod of leaders regarded him highly, Pelagius was condemned by the bishop of Rome in 417 & 418, and ultimately by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Concerned about the status of the church, Pelagius confronted the teachings of Augustine.
While he may not have intended to, his teachings forced him into denial. By continuing with the logic being exercised by Pelagius, one either had to deny the teachings he held to or deny some key biblical points. It is true that Pelagius did not deny anything adopted as ‘orthodox teaching’ at that point, but many understood him to be denying some clear scriptural principles taught by Christ and the apostles. However, Pelagius’ teachings did undermine some key points that undermined some generally accepted doctrine.
Pelagius was rightly accused of three heresies:
- Denial of original sin.
- Denial of the need for God’s grace in salvation.
- Denial of the need for God’s grace in sanctification.
For Pelagius, forgiveness was unnecessary if a person would leave free of sin, which he saw as possible. He claimed that grace was simply part of the human nature and the help by which God provided came from the law. Thus humans can freely choose to obey God or sin and those who had not received a good gift from God to conquer sin could not be held responsible for what they had not been given (and thus were unable to use it).
Augustine responded with a large volume of works. It is impossible to address all of Augustine’s beliefs here. Not only are there too many, but not all are relevant or even consistent with Scripture. However, his key responses acknowledged the free-will of humans but noted that men are inclined towards sin. While his view on baptism breaking the cycle of sin was not consistent with Scripture, Augustine recognized that if one continued in sin after baptism, repentance was a key point of the Christian life (something often denied today).
Ultimately, it comes down to this. Augustine recognized the total depravity of man and the total sovereignty of God. Apart from God’s sovereignty, man is incapable of saving himself.
Several hundred years after Christ, humans were still wrestling with their understandings of God’s teaching. Sometimes they made mistakes . . . sometimes we still make mistakes. So why was one man deemed a heretic and the other not? Not being there, my opinion is entirely subjective and should be taken as such. However, the seriousness of what Pelagius denied impacted the core of the gospel message.
There are certain things that even Christians today may disagree upon. We are all tainted by sin and thus imperfect, including in our thinking and understanding. Furthermore, certain things are conjecture because God did not give complete revelation but only revealed what was necessary for us to live according to His will. Therefore, some differences are inconsequential and should be recognized as such.
However, there are other aspects that are certain and those should not be denied, especially when it comes to the Gospel message as Pelagius did. . We may not agree with all of Augustine and his theology, but there is no denying the impact he had. Augustine clarified some important concepts of doctrine and compelled people to think deeper about what faith in Christ is and to live a lifestyle that matched that faith.