The Two Types of Graces
As I’ve argued before, the dispute between Pelagius and Augustine is not between faith and works or even grace and works. The dispute between Pelagius and Augustine is really between grace and nature. More accurately, the dispute would be about what does the “grace of God” consist of, to what sort of gifts do they refer to? Pelagius did not deny that God’s grace was necessary for salvation, even completely determinative for it. What he disagreed with Augustine is what does that grace whereby we are assisted unto salvation consists of.
For Pelagius, the gifts which God graciously grants us unto our salvation are material, empirical and natural gifts. For Pelagius, God’s grace which effects our salvation consists of sending sincere and faithful preachers to teach us the Gospel correctly and thereby leading us to faith; granting us good, loving Christian fellowship and homes whereby we may be drawn by their testimony in both deed and word to believe in the Gospel as well as nurtured unto good habits and grow in sanctification. To cite a portion of his letter to a nun:
Most people look at the virtues in others, and imagine that such virtues are far beyond their reach. Yet God has implanted in every person the capacity to attain the very highest level of virtue. But people cannot grow in virtue on their own. We each need companions to guide and direct us on the way of righteousness; without such companions we are liable to stray from the firm path, and then sink into the mud of despair. At first a companion who has achieved a high level of virtue can seem utterly different from oneself. But as friendship grows, one begins to see in the companion a mirror of oneself
To give another example, supposed one had become jobless and was threatened with poverty, then a generous Christian comes into your life and tides you over with financial help or even provide a job for you. Thus, moved by his love, kindness and generosity, you are induced to be receptive to his faith and are drawn to the Christian Gospel. This would be the par excellence of Pelagian Grace, the material and empirical helps and benefits which God graciously gives us to draw us to Christ and to believe the Gospel. Without God graciously giving us such material and empirical helps and benefits, we would not be able to believe the Gospel or the love of God in Jesus Christ.
For Augustine on the other hand, the “grace of God” whereby we are saved refers to spiritual gifts or mysterious internal movements in our hearts by the Holy Spirit whereby we are moved to believe in the Gospel. Thus for Augustine, it is not enough that God has sent orthodox and sincere preachers to us nor to have received material and empirical benefits from good Christians or loving Christian fellowship, something more is needed for faith, and it is this mysterious internal spiritual gifts which finally moves us to believe and receive the Gospel.
The dispute therefore between Pelagius and Augustine ultimate boils down to a grace-nature conflict. If one, for example, believes that one’s faith and life is determined wholly by external empirical and material circumstances, then the Augustinian mysterious spiritual grace becomes unnecessary, all one needs is external graces and the empirical gifts of God to have faith and salvation. On the other hand, if one believes that external empirical and material forces are not wholly determinative of faith and life of the Christian, then a mysterious Augustinian spiritual grace would be necessary. In short, Pelagius was concerned with the entire process which leads one to faith, Augustine was simply concerned with the bottom line after all the material and empirical helps have been given.
Speculative Thoughts as to the Background of the Dispute
If Pelagianism was so obviously contrary to the Scriptures and Christian faith, why did it manage to acquire so much force and loyalty? Speculatively, one could say that Pelagius and Augustine were living in the time of the birth of Christendom. The Roman Empire was not as yet fully Christianised, there were still many pagans to be evangelised. Yet there was also a rise in the number of nominal Christians who believe simply to get in line with official imperial policy as well as Christian fellowship and confession becoming more open and widespread throughout the empire.
Therefore the Pelagians looked at all the pagans still lacking the teaching of the true Gospel as well as corrupt and worldly Christians who blaspheme the name of the Gospel and as such, believe that if someone has received the teaching of true Gospel or the fellowship of loving Christians, they would be very fortunate and therefore would already be “graced” by God by enjoying these precious gifts unto their salvation.
Augustinians on the other hand looked at all the nominal Christians and pagans who have equally received the Gospel, equally enjoying or having access to good Christians with exemplary virtuous lives, and yet only some Christians truly believe the Gospel and obey the Law, while the rest feign belief or even reject it. Thus, after all the material and empirical benefits have been exhausted, the Augustinians ultimately turned to Augustine’s “spiritual grace” to explain this discrepancy. The sincere believers have an extra “leg up” by the internal regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, the hypocrites or defiant pagans do not.
While the initial form of the debate had particular force and relevance in their environment, the dispute eventually morphed into a highly speculative and abstract dispute between freewill and grace, it assumes a ceteris paribus situation of two person, both equally enjoying all the same empirical helps and material benefits, but one believing and the other does not. Pelagius would eventually answer that it is simply because one has chosen to believe and not the other, while Augustine would answer that one has received a special spiritual grace and not the other.
This would be the exact same dispute which would play out in the Arminian-Calvinist controversy and in exactly the same background. Europe was Christian, churches and good preaching was everywhere, yet some sincerely believed and others did not. The Calvinist would therefore answer that it is because the elect has received an efficacious calling, the Arminians would say that it is because they choose to believe.
Conclusion: Too Much to Do to Worry about the Bottom Line
In the wake of Christendom collapse, the spread of heresies and uncharitable nominal Christians, and with the drought of good preaching and teaching as well as loving Christian homes and fellowship, the Pelagian material and empirical grace once more acquires its existential force. Is there any point to arguing over the bottom line when Christians and churches everywhere are failing in their duty to even reach halfway there? Or lacking the resources and time to witness in love to the unbelieving world to draw them to Christ? Is the Pelagian grace ultimately determinative of a person’s faith? Or are Augustine’s special internal spiritual gifts still necessary?
My conclusion is, who cares, we have too much to do to worry about the bottom line.