The Pelagian Controversy


What was the 5th Century Pelagian Controversy? How was this controversy similar to what is taught in the Churches of Christ today?

During the early part of the 5th century there was a religious controversy which occurred that placed at odds a very earnest, moral, and zealous monk by the name of Pelagius, against the Bishop of Hippo we may know today as St. Augustine. This controversy became known at the Pelagian Controversy and came to a crisis point at the council of Carthage in 418 AD.

Now to understand this controversy, we need to know something about the background of Pelagius.

Pelagius was born on the British Isles. And sometime later in life when he traveled to Rome, he became alarmed about the godlessness he saw in the clergy and other professing Christians. It was while in Rome that Pelagius had the reputation for the calling of Christians 'to the attaining of virtue and righteousness.'

In this way he and his followers had much in common with the Puritans in that they loved the law and the precepts of God, and were also very concerned about the moral laxity they saw in their own day.

The crisis point came, however, when Pelagius read a famous prayer written by St. Augustine, and in this prayer there was a statement that troubled him greatly. The statement was, “Oh God, grant unto us what thou dost command...".

It was this very statement in that prayer which set into motion the controversy that was to ensue.

The question on Pelagius’ mind was, why would anyone need to pray such a prayer? For what Augustine was asking for was that God grant unto them the moral and religious power and ability to do the very things that He had commanded.

For Augustine believed that, unless God grants the necessary grace, man by himself is inherently unable to live in perfect obedience to God, and that in our fallen humanity we lack the moral power and ability to do the things that God commands.

This teaching deeply concerned Pelagius.

How can it be that a Just and Holy God could render a law or a command that in our own humanity we do not have the moral power and ability to obey? For God to be just and at the same time issue a law or command that we cannot possibly obey…(and then punish us?)…would not only be unthinkable but also monstrous.

It was here that Pelagius rejected the teaching that man requires any kind of grace, or divine assistance outside of himself in order to live in perfect obedience to the laws and commands of God.

No, Pelagius argued, God saves us by providing us with His laws and commands, by giving us the excellent moral examples of Christ and the saints, and by the cleansing waters of baptism.

For according to Pelagius, salvation can and is received by our own cooperation and obedience to the commands and laws of God as found within the pages of the New Testament.

St. Augustine’s Response

Augustine’s response, however, was that Pelagius’ doctrine was a spiritual impossibility. In light of Adam’s fall and what that meant to all of humanity, the idea that man can somehow decide to live and be saved by being obedient to all of the commands and laws of God is simply an ability we do not have.

Adam had it, but when he sinned he lost it, not only for himself but also for all of his descendants as well.

It would be like an illustration of a long column of paper cups where, should a pin or needle be run completely through, not only would the integrity of the first cup be compromised, but also the character of all the succeeding cups would be ruined as well.

So it is with all of humanity, because of Adam’s sin, we have a flawed character, or a fallen, sinful, nature.

And because of this sinful nature, we have a predisposition that makes us inclined to sin and thus makes it impossible for us to be saved through our own moral and religious "law-keeping."

This is why we are in such great need of a Savior.

An Argument for Augustine

In Romans Chapter 5:10-21, the Apostle Paul contrasts how that through Adam we were made sinners but through Jesus Christ we can be made righteous. In verse 19 he says, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man (Adam) the many were (past tense) made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man (Jesus Christ) the many will be (future tense) made righteous.”

Paul continues this thought in the context Romans Chapter 7 and says, ‘I agree that God’s law is good. But I see another law (the sinful nature) at work within the members of my body. For the very things I want to do, I do not do. And the things I do not want to do are the very things that I do. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of sin and death?’

Historically Christianity has said, ‘We did not become sinners because we sinned. Rather, we sin because we are sinners.' In other words, we sin and fall short of God’s holiness and righteous standard because that is what sinners do.

And this is why in our fallen humanity we need of the grace and mercy of God.

Comparing Church of Christ theology

For anyone familiar with the Stone/ Campbell Churches of Christ, it is their view of the fall that makes them very similar to that of Pelagian theology.

This is due to the fact that they also believe or assume that man is basically “good” or morally neutral, and that man has the moral power within himself to save himself through his own cooperation and obedience to the necessary moral and religious requirements of God.

In other words, they deny (or minimize) the effects of the fall, and do not believe that Adam’s sin adversely affected man’s moral and religious abilities to follow commands and laws in order to be saved. Thus, it is the Church of Christ view of the fall (that the effects of the fall were negligible) that is the enabler of their theology of salvation by works.

By contrast, evangelical Christianity begins with the view that man is fallen, that his heart is inclined towards evil, and that he has an inherit inability through 'New Testament law-keeping' to be righteous in the sight of God, and in this way save his own soul.

This is why evangelical Christianity believes that man is in desperate need of a Savior and the perfect righteousness that God provides as a gift 'to all and upon all' who will place faith and trust in Jesus Christ.

So what is this 'gift of righteousness' that God provides to believers? What does it mean to trust in Christ for the very righteousness we need?

Other Bible references to the effects of the fall and how it adversely affected humanity:

Genesis 3; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9

Romans 3:11-20; 5:10-21; 7:14-25; 8:3-4

Ephesians 2:1-10

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