Some years ago I wrote several articles about Pelagius, a Celtic Christian who raised the ire of the Roman authorities, especially St. Augustine. The main point of contention between Augustine and Pelagius was over the concept of free will. In its extreme form, which was Pelagius’ position, we are free to choose our own destinies. Our actions in this life determine our future in the afterlife.
Augustine’s position, which became the starting point for the radical Reformers of the Reformation, was that man was saved purely by grace, like God’s choice and God’s choice alone. What we do in this life has little bearing on whether we achieve the Kingdom Of Heaven. Martin Luther developed the theology of “by grace alone” or “by faith alone.” John Calvin took this one step further and developed the doctrine of predestination. Predestination became the core principle of fundamentalist Protestant theology, the Christianity that Max Weber talks about in his essay on the relationship between capitalism and the Protestant theology. Protestants came to believe that material success was a sign of God’s grace. The materially successful would be the ones going to heaven. The materially unsuccessful, that is, poor, would be going elsewhere. To me, this whole doctrine of “by grace alone”/predestination is one of the greatest heresies in the history of Christianity.
As we talk more in subsequent posts about Pelagius, I will develop my argument for feeling that this is one of the most fundamental heresies that has become accepted as orthodoxy. Jesus Christ was adamantly opposed to wealth. There are numerous scriptural references where Jesus makes it very clear that rich people will have a hard time getting into heaven, whereas the poor will have an easy time of it. But what does all this have to do with freedom of will?
Very simple. If we have freedom of will, we are held responsible for our actions, not only by each other but by God. It is our actions that are weighed in the scales of justice in the afterlife. The accumulation of wealth too often requires one to take advantage of others for one’s own material gain. That is what capitalism is all about. If the Reformers are right, which they are not in my opinion, then it is perfectly acceptable for Christians to exploit each other in order to achieve material success. After all, isn’t material success a mark of God’s grace?
I am a heretic in that, like Pelagius, I believe God holds us accountable for our actions in this life. We have to earn God’s grace. It is not given indiscriminately and without any reference to what we have done in our lives. We are free, free to choose right from wrong, good from bad. That is the freedom in Christ that St. Paul talks about in his Letter to the Galatians.. That letter is the one letter from Paul that I really really love. I love it so much that I wrote a paper on it back in 1980, I believe, for a course on St. Paul in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. I wish I still had a copy of that. Unfortunately, like the number of other things of personal value, it remained in the possession of one of my ex-wives. If I had it still, I would post it here in a heartbeat.
Pelagius lived and taught in the fifth century. This was the time when Christianity really came under control of the Roman Empire, such as it was at that point. Pelagius eventually went to Rome to present his views on free will to the church fathers. Augustine was a Roman, a neo–Platonist and bishop of Hippo, what was once ancient Carthage. The church fathers condemned the doctrine free will as presented by Pelagius. Pelagius himself was excommunicated and led to Syria, possibly Antioch. It is interesting that a number of the early heretics from the West led to the Near East to avoid prosecution or even death. Christian authorities have never been particularly merciful toward heretics of any milk. Remember, that these Romans who persecuted the heretics were the descendents of the same Romans who persecuted early Christians. Romans had a tradition of being brutal and unmerciful.
As an aside and final comment for now, watch a movie called King Arthur where Arthur is actually a Pelagius in heretic. The portrayal of Germanus and the Roman family that Arthur and his knights are sent to rescue from the Saxons gives an interesting insight into how Christian orthodoxy developed in the fifth century. Next time we will talk some more about the debate between Pelagius and Augustine on the subject of free will.