As I’ve said before, contra the unjust slanders of Augustine, Pelagius did not deny the necessity of grace in our salvation. He merely had a different conception of what that grace consists in. For Augustine, the grace which he thinks is necessary is some mysterious spiritual movement in us or psychological moment wrought by some gooey Spirit infused grace into our souls.
Pelagius on the other hand locates the grace of God in the external empirical gifts which God decides to favour us with, e.g. true preaching and teaching of the Gospel, loving Christian witnesses whose charitable deeds and virtues towards us moves us to believe the Gospel, or any other material or empirical resources we need to sustain our lives and faith, etc. As Proverbs 31 puts it, we ask God to give us bread needful to our lives lest we despair and deny the Lord, but not too much lest we grow arrogant towards him.
This is why Pelagius can paradoxically deny Augustinian grace and yet stridently preach justification by faith alone without works in his commentary on Romans. For Pelagius, our regeneration does not consist in some esoteric spiritual movement in our souls but the reception through faith of the knowledge of the Gospel. This preaching and teaching of the Gospel, granted to us anterior to subjective agency and the crowning gift of God’s grace (Luther’s External Word), constitutes the entirety of our justification and is given utterly without works. Thus it is difficult to see in what sense of the word is Pelagius, erm, Pelagian, since he emphasies the need for the gracious gifts of God for our salvation which is given anterior to our subjective agency or works, whether that gift consists of good faithful teaching of the Gospel or loving Christians to exhibit the love of Christ to us in charitable deeds or literally physical bread to keep us from despairing of life.
Later Reformed thinkers have been a little more nuanced in that while they do not wish to deny the necessity of “Pelagian Grace”, they have attempted to reframe it by calling it mere “common grace”, which while necessary for salvation, is not sufficient for the same. An extra Augustinian boost in our souls is still necessary for us to believe in the Gospel.
However the term “common grace” is rather puzzling in that the gifts which constitutes this so-called “common grace” is anything *but* common. Do all have faithful and good teachers of the Gospel? How common are virtuous or charitable witnesses of Christ? Is economic security necessary for bread common given the amount of poverty and economic disparity in the world? Thus, it seems that “common grace” is in fact rather UNcommon, it’s distribution is unequal, in some cases completely absent or exceedingly rare, all subject to God’s contingent providential decrees.
The root intuition behind this tenacious conviction in the necessity of esoteric grace seems to stem from the observation that people who seemingly receive every external empirical help yet still deny the Gospel. (George Herbert’s poem “Sin” where he lists out all the empirical help God has provided only to be blown away by a single sin describes this conviction very well.) But this observation can still be rightly interpreted under the Pelagian frame in the following way: God’s grace isnt the bare giving of certain disjointed gifts but involves the providential configuration of one’s empirical circumstances as well to lead one to faith. Remember the Proverbs 31 prayer, it is not the mere giving of bread which constitutes the grace of God, but giving of “needful” bread which does, for giving too much may lead to complacency and arrogance, leading one to deny the Lord. Thus just because someone fails to believe despite receiving certain particular empirical gifts doesnt entail the necessity of an esoteric Augustinian grace. It merely means that the Lord has yet to implement a correct providential empirical circumstance to lead one to faith.
What does this conception of grace leads us? It is “grace naturalised”, a far less gnostic conception of grace contra Augustine who banish God’s salvic hand away from the natural empirical world to some esoteric mystical moment in the soul while disparaging the natural gifts of God as mere salvically ineffectual “common grace”. It affirms that God works salvically in nature and that God’s grace in our material goods and empirical circumstances are by no means to be despised as mere “common grace” but in fact are particular and special condescension of the divine favour who has an interest in our salvation and to be received with praise and thanksgiving, giving full glory to God.
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[…] I have outlined in a scattered collection of posts about the need to recover some idea of “Pelagian Grace“, in contrast to Augustine’s “Spiritual grace”, whereby the divine action […]