Writing on Pelagius’ view of the freedom of man and his primitive state, Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, 803 ff., writes as follows:
This is the only conception of freedom which Pelagius has (the ability to be able to choose both, the good and the evil), and to this he and his followers continually revert. He views freedom in its form alone, and in its first stage, and there fixes and leaves it, in perpetual equipoise between good and evil, ready at any moment to turn either way. It is without past or future; absolutely independent of everything without or within; a vacuum, which may make itself a plenum, and then becomes a vacuum again; a perpetual tabula rasa, upon which man can write whatsoever he pleases; a restless choice, which, after every decision, reverts to indecision and oscillation.
Pelagius himself, however, it must be admitted, recognized to some extent the power of habit and its effect upon. the will, although it is claimed that Coelestius and Julian, his disciples, carried out his idea of the freedom of choice more consistently to the conception of a purely qualitative or formal power which admits of no growth or change by actual exercise, but remains always the same. Pelagius, however, recognized to some extent the power of habit and its effect upon the will. On this Schaff writes as follows:
Human liberty, like every other spiritual power, has its development; it must advance beyond its equilibrium, beyond the mere ability to sin or not to sin, and decide for the one or the other. When the will decides, it so far loses its-indifference, and the oftener it acts, the more does it become fixed; good or evil becomes its habit, its second nature; and the will either becomes truly free by deciding for virtue, or it becomes the slave of vice. “Whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin.” Goodness is its own reward, and wickedness is its own punishment. . . . .The right use of the freedom of choice leads to a state of holiness; the abuse of it, to a state of bondage under sin. The state of the will is affected by its acts, and settles towards a permanent character of good or evil. Every act goes to form a moral state or habit; and habit is in turn the parent of new acts. Perfect freedom is one with moral necessity, in which man no longer can do evil because he will not do it, and must do good because he wills to do it; in which the finite will is united with the divine in joyful obedience, and raised above the possibility of apostasy. This is the blessed freedom of the children of God in the state of glory. There is, indeed, a subordinate sphere of natural virtue and civil justice, in which even fallen man retains a certain freedom of choice, and is the artificer of his own character. But as respects his relation to God, he is in a state of alienation from God, and of bondage under sin; and from this he cannot, rise by his own strength, by a bare resolution of his will, but only by a regenerating act of grace, received in humility and faith, and setting him free to practice Christian virtue. Then, when born again from above, the will of the new man co-operates with the grace of God, in the growth of the Christian life.
Physical death Pelagius regarded as a law of nature, which would have prevailed even without sin. The passages of Scripture which represent death as the consequence of sin, he referred to moral corruption or eternal damnation. Yet he conceded that Adam, if he had not sinned, might by a special privilege have been exempted from death.
This is all rather confusing, is it not? We have no reason to believe that the above is not a correct and factual presentation of the position and views of Pelagius. One can hardly call this a clear presentation of the “truth.” Of course, heretics do not speak a clear and unambiguous language. According to Pelagius, habits do affect a person’s conduct. The right use of the freedom of choice leads to a state of holiness; the abuse of it, to a state of bondage under sin. And the state of the will is affected by its acts, and settles towards a permanent character of good or evil. Pelagius also speaks of the state of perfect freedom. He must do this. Do not the Scriptures speak of everlasting life and glory? So, the people of God in heaven will be everlastingly perfect. However, perfect freedom, according to him, is the state in which man can no longer do evil because he will not do it. But, how can the state of everlasting glory ever be the product of one’s own will? That is surely impossible. Whereas the wages of sin is death, everlasting life is surely the gift of God. Notice, too, that Pelagius speaks of a subordinate sphere of civil justice and natural virtue. This must remind us of the modern theory of common grace. This theory, too, speaks of a natural sphere of natural virtue and civil justice. It, too, draws a distinction between two spheres, the natural and the spiritual. The spiritual sphere refers us specifically to our relation to God. And the natural sphere emphasizes the natural sphere, the relation in which all men stand to one another. In that natural sphere men can do much good in the sight of God, often put the people of God to shame. Is it not striking that, already in the days of Augustine, Pelagius speaks of such a subordinate sphere? There is certainly a striking resemblance between the conception of Pelagius and the modern theory of common grace.
Finally, also Pelagius speaks of the regenerating act of grace. Of course, he must do this. Do not the Scriptures speak of this regenerating work of God’s grace? Does not our Lord Jesus Christ say to Nicodemus that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God?” So, also Pelagius speaks of a bondage under sin, and that man cannot rise from this by his own strength, by a bare resolution of his own will. But we do well to note that Pelagius also declares that we must receive this regenerating act of grace in humility and faith. And he also declares that the will of man co-operates with the grace of God. This is Pelagianism. The sinner needs the grace of God, but whether this grace of the Lord will operate in him depends upon the free will of that sinner. And this is also the fundamental heresy of the Three Points of 1924.
THE FALL OF ADAM AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
With regard to Pelagius’ conception of the fall of Adam and the consequences of that fall, Philip Schaff writes as follows, Vol. III, 805, ff.:
Pelagius, destitute of all idea of the organic wholeness of the race or of human nature, viewed Adam merely as an isolated individual; he gave him no representative place, and therefore his acts have no bearing beyond himself.
In his view, the sin of the first man consisted in a single, isolated act of disobedience. Julian compares it to the insignificant offence of a child, which allows itself to be misled by some sensual bait, but afterwards repents its fault. “Rude, inexperienced, thoughtless, having not yet learned. to fear, nor seen an example of virtue,” Adam allowed himself to be enticed by the pleasant look of the forbidden fruit, and to be determined by the persuasion of the woman. This single and inexcusable act of transgression brought no consequences, either to the soul or the body of Adam, still less to his posterity, who all stand or fall for themselves.
There is, therefore, according to this system, no original sin, and no hereditary guilt. Pelagius merely conceded, that Adam, by his disobedience, set a bad example, which exerts a more or less injurious influence upon his posterity. In this view he condemned at the synod of Diospolis (415) the assertion of Coelestius, that Adam’s sin injured himself alone, not the human race. He was also inclined to admit an increasing corruption of mankind, though he ascribed it solely to the habit of evil, which grows in power the longer it works and the farther it spreads. Sin, however, is born with man; it is not a product of nature, but of the will. Man is born both without virtue and without vice, but with the capacity for either. The universality of sin must be ascribed to the power of evil example and evil custom.
And there are exceptions to it. The “all” in
is to be taken relatively for the majority. Even before Christ there were men who lived free from sin, such as righteous Abel, Abraham, Isaac, the Virgin Mary, and many others. From the silence of the Scriptures respecting the sins of many righteous men, he inferred that such men were without sin. In reference to Mary, Pelagius is nearer the present Roman Catholic view than Augustine, who exempts her only from actual sin, not from original. Jerome, with all his reverence for the blessed Virgin, does not even make this exception, but says, without qualification, that every creature is under the power of sin and in need of the-mercy of God. With original sin, of course, hereditary guilt also disappears; and even apart from this connection, Pelagius views it as irreconcilable with the justice of God. From this position a necessary deduction is the salvation of unbaptized infants. Pelagius, however, made a distinction between vita aeterna, or a lower degree of salvation, and the regnum coelorum of the baptized saints; and he affirmed the necessity of baptism for entrance into the kingdom of heaven (Roman Catholicism today also distinguishes between Roman Catholic unbaptized and baptized infants—H.V.).
In this doctrine of the fall we meet with the same disintegrating view of humanity as before. Adam is isolated from his posterity; his disobedience is disjoined from other sins. He is simply an individual, like any other man, not the representative of the whole race. There are no creative starting-points; every man begins history anew. In this system Paul’s exhibitions of Adam and Christ as the representative ancestors of mankind have no meaning. If the act of the former has merely an individual significance, so also has that of the latter. If the sin of Adam cannot be imputed, neither can the merit of Christ. In both cases there is nothing left but the idea of example, the influence of which depends solely upon our own will. But there is an undeniable solidarity between the sin of the first man and that of his posterity.
In like manner sin is here regarded almost exclusively as an isolated act of the will, while yet there is also such a thing as sinfulness; there are sinful states and sinful habits, which are consummated and strengthened by sins of act, and which in turn give birth to other sins of act.
Finally, the essence and root of sin is not sensuality, as Pelagius was inclined to assume (though he did not express himself very definitely on this point), but self-seeking, including pride and sensuality as the two main forms of sin. The sin of Satan was a pride that aimed at equality with Cod, rebellion against Cod; and in this the fall of Adam began, and was inwardly consummated before he ate of the forbidden fruit.