Midweek Evening Prayer, Easter 4, 2022


Pelagius claimed that human ability to choose to do evil or to do good is evidence fo God’s goodness.  Without that freedom, we would be merely robots.



Who was Pelagius?

We just read part of Pelagius’ letter to a friend called Demetrius. Pelagius was a Welsh monk.  He travelled to Rome, where he became quite well-known. He wrote several books.  However, none have survived as far as we know today. Only a few of his letters are available in translation from Latin.  Even these only became available in the 20th century.

Pelagius, common sense, and Original Sin

What I especially like about Pelagius is that his writing is commonsensical. He wrote, for example, about Christian behaviour , It can be found among non-Christians.  That means that Christians have no special claim on virtue. Pelagius ran afoul of Christian dogma, because he insisted that people are not innately sinful. That doctrine is Original Sin.  It comes from a reading of the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis Chapter 3.  That says that the two mythical first people brought sin into a perfect world. But laso, they passed the trait on the all their descendants, including us. Like a malign genetic mutation or a sexually transmitted disease.

That brought Pelagius into conflict with the great St. Augustine.. He was the Bishop of Hippo, in North Africa. Augustine elaborated St Paul’s strictures on original sin. Both men said that the story of the Fall was literally true. It wasn’t metaphorical. However, Pelagius was a mere monk, and Augustine was a bishop.  So guess who the Church leaders of the day sided with? Pelagius got excommunicated and his books were set ablaze.

But in tonight’s brief passage, we can see Pelagius’ common sense at play. God gave us freedom, including to choose to do evil as well as good. Otherwise, we would be mere puppets or robots.

Even today, Pelagius’ ideas are unacceptable to most Christians

Original Sin is still taught as doctrine. And Pelagius is the butt of ridicule.  Many Christians claim (erroneously) that Pelagius taught that human beings can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. They do not need God’s forgiveness for their sins. That’s not what Pelagius actually said. In fact, he claimed that we can strive to behave without sin. But only God’s unmerited grace can allow that work to develop in us. Theologian Karl Barth described Britain as incurably Pelagian.  Like a disease that “infects” all churches that originated in the British Isles. That’s the Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and, in Canada, United churches. However, if that’s a heresy, I gladly subscribe to it!! Amen.