No Mean Wretch: Against the New Pelagian Captivity

“Convert us, O God: and show us Your face, and we shall be saved” (Psalm 80:3).

Over and above all else, Holy Writ teaches the sovereignty of God. God’s mercy and judgment operate irresistibly throughout the pages of Scripture.  “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the thoughts of His heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11). In the course of history, and in the waxing and waning of every individual’s life, the activity of Divine providence is evident to all who see with eyes of faith. “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27).

Why, then, are so many contemporary Catholics averse to these essential doctrines, which form the very foundation of our Christian faith? It is hard to deny that the Church is once more besieged by Pelagianism. This ancient heresy, so furiously battled by Saint Augustine, imagines man as morally neutral but capable of great goodness through his own free will.

Wrote the heretic Pelagius: “And lest . . . it should be thought to be nature’s fault that some have been unrighteous, I shall use the evidence of the scripture which lay upon sinners the heavy weight of the charge of having used their own will and do not excuse them for having acted only under constraint of nature.” Adding insult to injury, he insisted that grace is always and everywhere cooperative, requiring synergy between the wills of God and man. “Grace indeed freely discharges sins, but with the consent and choice of the believer.”

Thus one heresy contains three distinct but interrelated errors: first, that man is not by nature the captive of sin; second, that the will of man is healthy and free; third, that grace is cooperative, a partnership between creature and Creator. Perceive how these mistakes are mutually reinforcing. Notice also that Pelagianism is not simply naïve optimism. It is rather a shameful exhibition of pride and vainglory, rooted in the primeval lust to be like God: good, free, and sovereign.

Against such folly, Scripture clearly declares the corruption of human nature, which tends inevitably toward evil so that even man’s good works are secretly motivated by self-interest. The prophet Jeremiah bellowed, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (17:9). Solomon in his wisdom lamented, “The heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3).

“Behold, I was shaped in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5).  As all men sin, so all men are captives of sin, their wills crippled by habitual vice. As the Lord said, “Whosoever commits sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34). With palpable dismay, we find Saint Paul rebuking his fellows, “Know you not, that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are to whom you obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness” (Romans 6:16)?

Given that man is thoroughly corrupted by sin, it is evident that he is desperate for sovereign saving grace, by which the Lord “quickens whom He will” (John 5:21). The Incarnate Word made clear that God alone is capable of delivering man, for He said of salvation: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

We do not know why God moves this way instead of that; why He crushes this man and raises up that man; why He scatters life here and spreads death there. But we do know that all things are under His thumb, even the tiniest dust motes floating in the empty gulfs between stars. “I know that, whatsoever God does, it shall be forever: nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it: and God does it, that men should fear before Him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14). We should refrain from attempting to penetrate too deeply the mystery of Divine providence and say with the prophet David, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it” (Psalm 139:6).

The crypto-Pelagians who today reduce Christ to a moral exemplar and the Holy Spirit to a friendly ghost would readily agree with their namesake’s description of justification: “But these deserve to be rewarded, who by the right use of free will merit the Lord’s grace, and keep His commandments.” Merit the Lord’s grace. This phrase rightfully incensed Saint Augustine, who knew intimately God’s ability to turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh (cf. Ezekiel 36:26):

“What, then, becomes of the apostle’s saying, “Being justified freely by His grace?” And what of his other statement too, “By grace are ye saved”—where, that he might prevent men’s supposing that it is by works, he expressly added, “by faith.” And yet further, lest it should be imagined that faith itself is to be attributed to men independently of the grace of God, the apostle says: “And that not of yourselves; for it is the gift of God.” It follows, therefore, that we receive, without any merit of our own, that from which everything which, according to them, we obtain because of our merit, has its beginning—that is, faith itself. If, however, they insist on denying that this is freely given to us, what is the meaning of the apostle’s words: “According as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith”? But if it is contended that faith is so bestowed as to be a recompense for merit, not a free gift, what then becomes of another saying of the apostle: “Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake”? Each is by the apostle’s testimony made a gift,—both that he believes in Christ, and that each suffers for His sake. These men however, attribute faith to free will in such a way as to make it appear that grace is rendered to faith not as a gratuitous gift, but as a debt—thus ceasing to be grace any longer, because that is not grace which is not gratuitous” (Anti-Pelagian Writings).

Pelagians identify the grace of God as mere assistance, not unlike a Greek daemon, a nebulous and resistible spirit-force that may be embraced or rejected.  They are fixated on the integrity of the “free will,” their most holy grail. Let those who know better accuse them: “What have you that you did not receive? Now if you did receive it, why do you glory, as if you had not received it” (I Corinthians 4:7)?

Tradition likewise condemns the triplet of Pelagian errors: human goodness, human freedom, and human cooperation with God’s grace. The Council of Orange (AD 529) was convened especially to denounce such vain folly, such fleshly lunacy.

The council fathers affirmed the corruption of human nature and the bondage of human will: “If anyone denies that it is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was “changed for the worse” through the offense of Adam’s sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius” (Canon I). If that was not clear enough, they reiterated the point: “If anyone maintains that some are able to come to the grace of baptism by mercy but others through free will, which has manifestly been corrupted in all those who have been born after the transgression of the first man, it is proof that he has no place in the true faith” (Canon 8).

In addition, they boldly underscored the sovereignty of God’s grace, denying that man naturally seeks salvation or freely uses his will to seek God: “If anyone maintains that God awaits our will to be cleansed from sin, but does not confess that even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit, he resists the Holy Spirit himself who says through Solomon, “The will is prepared by the Lord” (Prov. 8:35, LXX), and the salutary word of the Apostle, “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13)” (Canon IV).

Probably this revitalized Pelagian madness is due to skepticism concerning the Biblical account of human origins. If, after all, the primordial sin never occurred, then man is not in a fallen state. And if we are not in a fallen state, then we are not naturally corrupt, alienated from God and wicked in deed and thought.

Of course, this line of logic leads inevitably to devaluing the Cross. It is therefore very important to treat carefully the historicity of the Genesis narrative. Christians must be wary not to assume too quickly the paradigms of modernity, one of which is deep time.

That said, it is no surprise that Pelagianism and evolutionism complement each other: both are products of repellent pride and hatred of God; both are fruits of the creature’s insatiable lust to become the Creator.

It must be emphasized that sovereign grace does not destroy free will. It actually secures it! John Calvin put this succinctly, stating that “human will does not by liberty obtain grace, but by grace obtains liberty” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II). He was only repeating Saint Thomas Aquinas, who centuries before wrote, “God does not justify us without ourselves, because whilst we are being justified we consent to God’s justification by a movement of our free-will. Nevertheless this movement is not the cause of grace, but the effect; hence the whole operation pertains to grace” (Summa Theologica I-II, 111, 2, ad. 2).

For some reason, many contemporary Catholics are more concerned about free will than free grace. This despite the fact that, without grace, our “free will” is not free at all, but wracked by temptation and manipulated by transgressor angels. “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

The council fathers at Orange summed it up nicely when they somberly declared, “No mean wretch is freed from his sorrowful state, however great it may be, save the one who is anticipated by the mercy of God” (Canon XIV). Let us not glory in our flesh as the pagan does. Let us not in mock strength puff up our chests like idiot animals. But let us meekly allow the Artisan to work His living clay, hoping in the promise of the Word: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

Intercede for us, dear Saint Augustine, for Pelagius again wreaks havoc in the holy Church of God!

Philip Primeau is an associate editor at Catholic Lane. He also blogs at a-heart-of-flesh.blogspot.com. He may be contacted by email at philipryan.primeau@gmail.com.
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