Pelagianism, like most theological systems where the victors have written the history, is probably one of the most misunderstood system in the theological world. One has to be clear that the debate wasn’t over whether “grace” was necessary for salvation or not, the debate was over what kind and nature this grace was. It was, in short, between grace and nature. Pelagius’s claim was that the Christian grace which enabled our salvation consists of empirical and material conditions for our belief, e.g. good Christian teachers, witnesses, sound teachings, etc, etc, to lead people to believe, whereas Augustine’s point was that on top of all these, a special spiritual extra was needed to be infused into people’s souls or wills to enable them to believe. The debate as such was really between *grace and nature*, whether common material and even natural gifts themselves are a matter of grace enabling salvation.
I think this would be an apt time to raise this topic as we are discovering, more and more, the benefits of cultural Christianity and many other civic and political preconditions for Christian flourishing and Gospel propagation.
To motivate this discussion I would like to relate this to a topic I’ve frequently discussed: Moral luck. In philosophy the concept of moral luck is the idea that you can be morally responsible for actions and events which are outside of your control. A more general point to this is the idea that righteousness and virtue are frequently the product of material and empirical conditions beyond our own control. This idea isn’t new but actually a constant theme of ancient literature, from Oedipus all the way to Aristotle. Aristotle himself noted that our capacity for virtue is frequently contingent upon material conditions like wealth, social position, even outright beauty, obviously material factors who don’t really have control over. As such, virtue is partially a literal matter of luck. Even the Bible itself recognises this in Proverbs 30:8-9
Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.
Thus, this passage makes a direct connection between carefully calibrated material conditions, not being either too poor or too rich, and literal avoiding denial and profanation of God. Thus, how God providentially arranges one’s material circumstances and empirical conditions directly determine whether we praise or blaspheme against God.
To illustrate this point in even more vivid terms, I was watching a Youtube video where a man was relating a story from his teenage years where he was driving in the dark. Then apparently he had hit something on the road. He didn’t know what it was but he was too terrified to come out of the car to investigate. So he drove all the way home and kept fearing that he had actually hit and killed someone. He didn’t dare to face the situation and did not tell his parents until the next morning. When he did, he said that he thought he had hit a deer, but his parents didn’t believe him and made him take them to the spot where he thought he had hit someone. All the while he was panicking that he may actually have killed someone in a literal hit and run, because if he had hit a man he had literally left him to die on the road. They searched the area and finally, he using the entire apt phrase “by the grace of God”, they found the deer’s body not far from the spot where the incident occurred.
The point about moral luck here is that whether or not he had hit man or a deer was definitely not within his control. He could have control whether he had hit *something* maybe by driving a little slower, more carefully, etc, etc, but it was not within his control if he had hit a man or a deer. Yet upon these two outcomes beyond his control his entire life and even moral standing hinged. If he had hit an actual man and left him to die, he would have been guilty of murder, hit and run, and he would have been jailed and condemned for the rest of his life. Fortunately, and literally, by the Grace of God he had only hit a deer, and he was cleared of all guilt and he would go on to live the rest of his life as per usual.
The irony about moral luck is that a lot of entirely perfectly respectable Augustinian and orthodox Christians, even Calvinists, would tend to resist this point. They simply cannot accept that we could be responsible for actions or events which are beyond our control, it seems unfair that whether or not the man from the Youtube video was responsible for hit and run and murder was literally a matter of luck, or divine providence. Yet this is *precisely what Pelagian grace is*. Pelagian grace is literally about empirical and material conditions beyond our control which are the necessary preconditions for righteousness.
We do not need to appeal to something as overarching and as abstract as “cultural Christianity” to make the point about how our salvation is contingent upon material conditions, after all obviously there was Christianity before it had converted cultures. Even something as basic as having good Christian teachers and witnesses to communicate the true Gospel itself points to such material preconditions for Christian salvation and righteousness. After all, do we want to say that it doesn’t make the slightest difference to the reception of the Gospel whether or not you have good preachers or paedophile priests who raped you in your youth? Or liberal pastors and theologians who colour Christianity with heresy or those who faithfully expound the Word? Or good Christian witnesses with sufficient wealth and material goods to aid you in your time of need?
I would go further and argue that Pelagian grace, as I’ve defined it, gives us a greater sense of the grace and sheer contingency and externality of the divine grace as a gift. The irony about Augustinian grace, which makes it simply a matter of the will, is that it is wholly “within” and subject to our control. Augustinian grace is simply a matter of whether or not you decide to believe, thus who do have it, those who don’t don’t, but it is wholly within us and, as such, within our will and our control. But Pelagian grace is viscerally beyond our control, we can’t control if we were brought up with paedo priests or faithful preachers, we can’t control if we hit a deer or a man, these come, literally, as a matter of divine grace, beyond our control and our will, to which we can only praise and thank God in awe.
To accept Pelagian grace as such is to accept the “naturalisation of grace”, that the gifts of this historic, empirical, and material world, itself is a matter of grace which constitutes the path to our salvation, that God, for us and for our salvation, commands all the events, forces and factors of the world towards our salvation. This is in contrast to Augustinian grace which would banish the divine hand from the work of God for salvation in all historical and empirical event and confine it to some esoteric movement in the soul at only a certain delimited point.