Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume V/On the Proceedings of Pelagius/Chapter 55
Chapter 55.—Pelagius’ Letter Discussed.
What, then, is the meaning of those vaunting words of theirs in this epistle, wherein they boast of having induced the fourteen bishops who sat in that trial to believe not merely that a man has ability but that he has “facility” to abstain from sinning, according to the position laid down in the “Chapters” of this same Pelagius,—when, in the draft of the proceedings, notwithstanding the frequent repetition of the general charge and full consideration bestowed on it, this is nowhere found? How, indeed, can this word fail to contradict the very defence and answer which Pelagius made; since the Bishop John asserted that Pelagius put in this answer in his presence, that “he wished it to be understood that the man who was willing to labour and agonize for his salvation was able to avoid sin,” while Pelagius himself, at this time engaged in a formal inquiry and conducting his defence, said, that “it was by his own labour and the grace of God that a man is able to be without sin?” Now, is a thing easy when labour is required to effect it? For I suppose that every man would agree with us in the opinion, that wherever there is labour there cannot be facility. And yet a carnal epistle of windiness and inflation flies forth, and, outrunning in speed the tardy record of the proceedings, gets first into men’s hands; so as to assert that fourteen bishops in the East have determined, not only “that a man is able to be without sin, and to keep God’s commandments,” but “easily to keep.” Nor is God’s assistance once named: it is merely said, “If he wishes;” so that, of course, as nothing is affirmed of the divine grace, for which the earnest fight was made, it remains that the only thing one reads of in this epistle is the unhappy and self-deceiving—because represented as victorious—human pride. As if the Bishop John, indeed, had not expressly declared that he censured this statement, and that, by the help of three inspired texts of Scripture, he had, as if by thunderbolts, struck to the ground the gigantic mountains of such presumption which they had piled up against the still over-towering heights of heavenly grace; or as if again those other bishops who were John’s assessors could have borne with Pelagius, either in mind or even in ear, when he pronounced these words: “We said that a man is able to be without sin and to keep the commandments of God, if he wishes,” unless he had gone on at once to say: “For the ability to do this God has given to him” (for they were unaware that he was speaking of nature, and not of that grace which they had learnt from the teaching of the apostle); and had afterwards added this qualification: “We never said, however, that any man could be found, who at no time whatever from his infancy to his old age had committed sin, but that if any person were converted from his sins, he could by his own exertion and the grace of God be without sin.” Now, by the very fact that in their sentence they used these words, “he has answered correctly, ‘that a man can, when he has the assistance and grace of God, be without sin;’” what else did they fear than that, if he denied this, he would be doing a manifest wrong not to man’s ability, but to God’s grace? It has indeed not been defined when a man may become without sin; it has only been judicially settled, that this result can only be reached by the assisting grace of God; it has not, I say, been defined whether a man, whilst he is in this flesh which lusts against the Spirit, ever has been, or now is, or ever can be, by his present use of reason and free will, either in the full society of man or in monastic solitude, in such a state as to be beyond the necessity of offering up the prayer, not in behalf of others, but for himself personally: “Forgive us our debts;” or whether this gift shall be consummated at the time when “we shall be like Him, when we shall see Him as He is,”—when it shall be said, not by those that are fighting: “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind,” but by those that are triumphing: “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” Now, this is perhaps hardly a question which ought to be discussed between catholics and heretics, but only among catholics with a view to a peaceful settlement.
- Ch. 16. At the synod of Diospolis. The proceedings before John, bishop of Jerusalem, were not duly registered. See above, 39.
- See above, 37.
- Matt. vi. 12.
- 1 John iii. 2.
- Rom. vii. 23.
- 1 Cor. xv. 55.
- This point, however, was definitely settled a year or two afterwards, at a council held in Carthage. (See its Canons 6–8.) See also above, the Preface to the treatise On the Perfection of Man’s Righteousness.