The Pelagian Controversy. —A Historical Essay -- By: Philip Schaff

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 005:18 (May 1848)
Article: The Pelagian Controversy. —A Historical Essay
Author: Philip Schaff

The Pelagian Controversy. —A Historical Essay

Prof. Philip Schaff


The Pelagian controversy is concerned with the deepest interests of practical Christianity, the cardinal doctrines of sin and grace. The whole resolves itself at last into the question, whether redemption and sanctification are the work of man or the work of God. Before the time of Augustine, the doctrines of human freedom, of original sin and imputed guilt, and of the factors that enter into conversion, had not become the object of controversy in any proper sense, The church had other most weighty problems to solve; in particular she was called upon to maintain the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the holy Trinity against all sorts of adversaries. These anthropological points accordingly remained still, as to doctrine, very indefinite. The Greek church in general leaned towards an anthropology, in which the freedom of man was made to take a very high place; while the Latin theologians, the African fathers, Tertullian and Cyprian in particular, laid more emphasis upon the corruption of the human nature, through the fall of Adam, and the necessity of divine grace. In the beginning of the fifth century, these different doctrinal conceptions were made to stand out, one over against the other in sharp and full contradiction. Pelagius became the immortal representative of a tendency, that has since continued to reveal itself under various forms

throughout the entire history of the Christian church, the fundamental anthropological heresy, which must always influence more or less all other parts of the Christian system.

Pelagianism, in its whole mode of thinking, starts from man, and seeks to work itself upwards gradually by means of an imaginary good will, to holiness and communion with God. Augustinism pursues the opposite way, deriving from God’s unconditioned all-working grace, a new life and all power of doing good. The first is led from freedom over into a legal, self-righteous piety; the other rises from the slavery of sin to the glorious liberty of the children of God. For the first, revelation is of force, only as an outward help or the power of a high example; for the last, it is the inmost life, the very marrow and blood, of the new man. The first, consistently carried out, runs towards an Ebionitic view of Christ, and can see in him only a distinguished man, a virtuous sage, a prophet, but not properly a high-priest or king; the last here finds Him, in whom the fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily, and who is the principle of an entirely new spiritual creation. The first makes conversion a process of gradual moral purification on the ground of original nature; with the last, it is a total change, in which the old ...

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