The Pelagian Crisis

From NT times Christian believers understood grace as a totally gratuitous gift of God, the unmerited favour of being saved in Christ through faith. As St Paul put it, 'since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith' (Rom. 3: 23—5). The divine initiative of love stood behind the whole process: 'God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him' (Eph. 2: 4—6). The early Church experienced the fullness of Christ's grace as a new birth (John 1: 13; 3: 3; 1 Pet. 1: 3—5) and as the divine love poured 'into our hearts' through the gift of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). The Spirit prompted the prayer of 'Abba' or 'Father', which showed believers to be adopted children of God and to be brothers and sisters of the risen Christ (Rom. 8: 12-17; Gal. 4: 5-7).

One might sum up what grace meant to the early Christians as the new life that had its source in the crucified and risen Christ and its immediate cause in the Holy Spirit. This twofold relationship to the Son and the Spirit transformed fully those who were justified and constituted them 'adopted' sons and daughters of the Father. In that way the gift of grace, accepted in faith, meant and means an intimate sharing in the life of the tripersonal God. At the same time, God's free self-gift calls for a personal response through a life worthy of God's children.

Until the late fourth century the doctrine of grace, or being 'made holy' through Christ in the Holy Spirit, was more or less universally accepted.

As we saw in Ch. 1, Pelagius challenged this tradition.121 Against Pelagius and Pelagianism, St Augustine of Hippo led two hundred bishops at the Sixteenth Council of Carthage (held in 418) to condemn the view that the freedom of human beings has not been weakened by inherited sin, and that they can achieve salvation through their own sustained efforts (see also Ch. 5). Appealing to such Gospel texts as 'apart from me you can do nothing' (John 15: 5), this regional but highly significant council insisted on our absolute need for divine grace (DH 225—30; ND 1901—6).

The struggle to understand the interaction between divine grace and human freedom continued during Augustine's lifetime and beyond his death in 430. Some monks in southern France, including St John Cassian of Marseilles (d. 435) and St Vincent of Lerins (d. before 450), developed the view that human beings can make their first step towards God without the help of divine grace. While accepting that grace is indispensable for salvation and thus rejecting Pelagianism, those who developed Semi-Pelagianism (as it came to be called in the late sixteenth century) did so in opposition to the severe version of predestination that Augustine proposed in his old age. The Pelagian controversy provoked him into making some extreme assertions about God's primary role in the life of grace: from the 'mass of sin' or the sinful human race (see Ch. 5) God elects only some persons for eternal salvation. Anxious to tip the balance in the opposite direction, the Semi-Pelagians failed to acknowledge the sovereign efficacy of divine grace, right from our first steps towards salvation. Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at the Second Council of Orange in 529, which insisted that it is 'the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit that makes it possible and easy to open oneself in faith to 'the saving message of the Gospel' (DH 377; ND 1919). Somehow forgotten for many centuries, the teaching of this council emerged again at the end of the sixteenth century; thereafter, it helped to fashion the teaching on faith as developed by the First and Second Vatican Councils. In particular, Vatican II appealed to the Second Council of Orange when insisting that, before human beings can exercise faith, they must 'have the grace of God to move and assist' them (Dei Verbum, 5).

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