Justification in the Early Church – 14 – Pelagius

200 Early Church pic

Welcome to this series of posts giving a survey of what the early church fathers have written about justification and works of law with reference to Paul. Click this link to go to the first post with the contents of the whole.

In today’s post we look at Pelagius (c.e. 360-418). Pelagius held many orthodox beliefs typical of the early church including the virgin birth, that Jesus is the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s role in the future judgment.

He is famous because of his debate with Augustine of Hippo (next post) over predestination, free-will and the unassisted abilities of mankind prior to salvation.

I list what we may hold to be true of his beliefs and what we may argue is false in order that we may not throw the baby out with the bathwater in regards to what he says about justification. We will be looking at his commentary on Romans.

our sins have been freely pardoned

Rom 1.7

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

His greeting is everywhere designed both to recall God’s benefits and seek that [they[ remain perfect within us, because our sins have been freely pardoned and ‘we have been reconciled to God through the death of his son’ (Rom 5.10).

He also impresses on them that they ought to live peacefully, since they have obtained one and the same grace.

Pelagius constantly refers to Christ’s death and the benefits that come from it.

for salvation our Lord was crucified in the flesh

Rom 1.16-17

[16a] For I am not ashamed of the Gospel

[16b] For it is the power of God for salvation

[16c] For all who believe.

[16d-17a] First for the Jew, and also for the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in it

[17b] By faith in faith.

[17c] As it is written: the just live by faith.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[16a] This is subtly intended to censure the pagans, who although they do not blush to believe that for the sake of their monstrous lust their god love turned into irrational animals and inanimate gold, suppose that we should be ashamed to believe that for the salvation of his image our Lord was crucified in the flesh he assumed, though in the one case the disgrace is shocking, in the other a mark of fidelity and power. At the same time he touches upon those heretics who shrink from the idea [that God should put on a man and give up to death for the salvation of the human race] as something unbecoming for God, not realising that nothing is more becoming for the creator than to care for the salvation of his creatures, especially since he could not on account of this suffer loss to his own nature, it being impassible.

[16b] There is no greater power than that which conquered death and restored to mankind  the life it had lost.

[16c] Much as it may seem weakness to the unbelieving (cf. 2 Cor 13.4)

[16d-17a] Either: Because it was just that the rest of the believers should be saved in the same way that Abraham was, who when he believed was saved from among the Gentiles initially by faith alone.

Or: Because the testament which God, who is truthful, promised in the law had to be revealed.

[17b] Or: Because the Jew is justified by faith and the Gentile in faith; he wrote [‘by’ and ‘in’] to avoid the fault of tautology.

[17c] ‘Not by works of the law’ (Gal 2.16)

Pelagius’ commentary quotes a small section of the verse and then comments on it. I’ve divided the scripture from his commentary and labelled them accordingly. He also frequently gives options for interpretation. (e.g. Either, Or, …)

He refers to the incarnation ‘God puts on a man’ saying men are saved through the crucifixion of Christ.

He says believers saved in the same way as Abraham who was among the Gentiles.

Like Ambrosiaster before him he uses the ‘faith alone’ expression a few times’.

the wrath of God is revealed

Rom 1.18

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

He begins [to address] the case [of the Gentiles], and he says that the wrath of God is revealed through the Gospel, or else through the testimony of nature]: for people have learnt to expect both benefits and calamities from heaven.

Pelagius like many others says in Romans 1.18-32 Paul is describing the case of the Gentiles.

He gives options regarding how God’s wrath is revealed. The first is the gospel message says something about God’s wrath. The other is that the world around us displays at times God’s wrath.

uprightness deserves reward and wickedness punishment

Rom 2.1-2

[1] Therefore you — everyone who passes judgment — are without excuse. For in whatever matter you pass judgment on another person, you condemn yourself: for you who pass judgment do the same things.

[2] Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with the truth against those who do such things.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[1] Everyone passed judgment on people of this sort, but above all this concerns those who are in a position to pass judgment. Judges and princes are being brought to trial. For by means of natural judgment each person pronounces a sentence which fits the deed, and all know both that uprightness deserves reward and that wickedness meets with punishment.

[2] … For if you, a sinner, pass judgment upon a sinner like yourself, how much more will God, who is just, judge you to be unjust. …

Pelagius strangely identifies Paul’s interlocutor at this point as a judge or a prince.

He describes the common belief of many in New Testament times and after ward there are rewards for righteous behaviour and punishment for wickedness.

The reward for a good work is awaited with patience

Rom 2.5-7

[5a] But because of your hardness and your unrepentant heart.

[5b-6] You are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath and of the revelation of God’s righteous judgment, who will render to each one according to his deeds.

[7a] To those who with patience in good work

[7b] Glory and honor and incorruption.

[7c] Seek eternal life.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[5a] But you, unaware that you are sick, use the very remedy to sustain greater wounds; in the words of the blessed Job, you ‘waste the opportunity for repentance in pride (Job 24:23). Spurned kindness leads, consequently, to heavier judgment, so that one who refused to be affected by mercy is afflicted with punishment,

[5b-6] You yourself are laying up wrath upon wrath for yourself on the day of judgment, which will be revealed at a time that is fixed and certain in God’s mind.

[7a] The reward for good work is awaited with patience because it is not given in this life: For we walk by faith, and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). Or: If a work endures right to the end, it will then be perfect (cf. 1 Cor. 3:14), because one who perseveres right to the end will be saved ( Matt. 24:13).

[7b] The glory with which ‘the saints shall shine as the sun (Matt. 13:43). The honor of the children of God: nothing is greater than this: on account of it they will judge even the angels (cf. 1 Cor. 6:3). The ‘incorruption’ of life without end.

[7c] One who with works of patience seeks eternal life shall attain all these things, and ‘one who has this hope in God, makes himself holy, just as God is holy (1 John 3:3).

Pelagius backs up his rationale for good works and future reward from scripture.

He places Jews and Gentiles on a similar footing

Rom 2.11-12

[11] For God does not show favoritism.

[12] For whoever sinned without the law will perish without the law, and whoever sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

[13] For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s eyes, but the doers of the law will be justified.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[11] Therefore the Gentiles should not be smug about their false ignorance, nor the Jews about their privilege in the law and in circumcision.

[12] … He places Jews and Gentiles on a similar footing when he says that doers, rather than hearers, of the law are righteous (cf. Rom. 2:13); and, a little further on, states that the Gentiles will be judged on the day of the Lord (cf. Rom. 2:16). For does anyone doubt that those who have been placed under the law will perish just as those who lived without the law, unless they have believed in Christ?

[13] He explains why the Jews are not better than the Gentiles. We too should fear, therefore, lest we, hearing the law but not doing it, perish along with the Gentiles, as he himself says elsewhere: Lest we be damned along with this world (1 Cor. 11:32).

Pelagius is aware Paul is putting Jews and Gentiles on equal footing with his arguments.

at this point he turns to the Jews

Rom 2.17

Now if you call yourself a Jew.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

At this point he turns to the Jews. He teaches that one ought to be a Jew in deed, not only in name, and that one will be deemed a real Jew if what is hidden is good.

Pelagius believes Paul’s interlocutor has changed. Now Paul is addressing a Jew.

He believes part of what is means to be a Jew, one of God’s people, is to live accordingly.

the invisible does not need the visible

Rom 2.26

If, therefore, the uncircumcision keeps the righteousness of the law, will not their uncircumcision be counted as circumcision?

Pelagius’ Interpretation

The visible needs the invisible, but the invisible does not need the visible, because the visible is an image of the invisible, and the invisible is the reality of the visible. The circumcision of the flesh, therefore, needs the circumcision of the heart, but the circumcision of the heart does not need the circumcision of the flesh, because the reality does not need the image, but the image needs the reality. If circumcision has no value by itself, one rightly wonders why it was instituted. First, in order to distinguish the people of God in the midst of the Gentiles

Pelagius has a great understanding of the importance of a circumcised heart over that of a person actions.

He acknowledges circumcision was given in order to distinguish the people of God among the other nations. Circumcision is a sign.

God will circumcise your heart

Rom 2.29

[29a] but he is a Jew who is one inwardly.

[29b] And circumcision is a matter of the heart, in spirit, not according to the letter;

[29c] his praise is not from humankind, but from God.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[29a] He is a real Jew: for everything that previously was performed with regard to the outer person contained a figure of the inner person.

[29b] He has not been circumcised in the flesh

[29c] About this it is written in the law: ‘In the last days God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed so that you love the Lord your God’ (Deut. 30:6); and again: ‘Circumcise yourselves for your God, and circumcise the foreskin of your heart (Jeremiah. 4:4), not according to the letter of the law, but according to the new testament, which investigates the inner secrets that God alone sees.

Pelagius continues with his understanding of the inner person who has not been circumcised. He refers to God’s promises he would do this in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah.

at the time he appeared no one was found righteous

Rom 3.9-10

[9] What advantage, then, do we possess? For we have pleaded that all, Jews and Greeks, are under sin.

[10] As it is written: For no one is righteous.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[9] I find no basis for the idea that we, who are of the Jews, are greater. For reason has discovered that both Jews and Gentiles are under sin–something we deduce not only by reason, but also corroborate with testimony from the Jews.

[10] The psalm from which this citation has been taken speaks of the fool (cf. Ps. 13: 1). Paul shows that this testimony was fulfilled especially at the coming of Christ, for at the time he appeared no one, I think, was found righteous.

Pelagius acknowledges the ‘testimony of the Jews’ – the law, depicts the Jews being under sin.

He says there was probably no one who was righteous when Christ first came. Possibly believing before this time there may have been some (e.g. Lk 1.5-6).

by works of law he means

Rom 3.19-20

[19a] But we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law.

[19b] So that every mouth may be stopped up.

[19c-20a] And the whole world be made subject to God. In the confession of sin. Because all flesh will not be justified in his sight by works of the law.

[20b] For through the law comes recognition of sin.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[19a] In case they might claim that these verses of the psalm were spoken about the Gentiles, he indicates that what has been said in the law has been said to those who are under the law. Of course, it is a question in what sense the Jews claimed there is no God (cf. Ps. 14: 1). They undoubtedly did not state this in word, but in deed: for they avow that they know God, but they deny it with their deeds (Titus 1: 6). Here he does not address the Gentiles, because he had already made such statements about them in regard to their own case.

[19b] Not only of the Gentiles, but also of the Jews, since they have no reason to boast.

[19c-20a] Will be all but justified. Or: By works of the law he means circumcision, the Sabbath, and the other ceremonies, which had to do not so much with righteousness as with carnal pleasure.

[20b] Neither forgiveness, nor sin, but recognition. For through the law one realizes what is a sin, either because the natural law had been forgotten, or because prior to the written law the lesser sins–that is, the sins which were not harmful to others, such as concupiscence, drunkenness, and others of this sort–were not recognized to be sins.

Pelagius identifies the works of law as circumcision, the Sabbath and the ‘other ceremonies’. He follows the naming convention we first noted with Ireneaus. He will consistently identify the works of law under the banner of these ceremonies.

freely given by God not acquired by our effort

Rom 3.21-24

[21a] Because all flesh will not be justified in his sight by works of the law.

[21b] Attested by the law and the prophets.

[22a] Namely, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ upon all who believe.

[22b] For there is no distinction.

[23] For all have sinned and are in need of the glory of God.

[24a] Having been freely justified by his grace.

[24b] Through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[21a] The righteousness which has been given to us freely by God, not acquired by our effort, has been made plain without the written law, and, having lain hidden in the law, has been revealed with greater clarity through the examples of Christ, which are more obvious.

[21b] Either: The law and the prophets foretold that this righteousness would come in the last times. Or: The law and the prophets bore witness to the recognition of sin.

[22a] The faith by which one believes in Christ.

[22b] Between Jew and Gentile.

[23] Because they do not have their own.

[24a] Without the works of the law, through baptism, whereby he has freely forgiven the sins of all, though they are undeserving.

[24b] By which he has redeemed us with his blood from death. Through sin we had been sold to death. …

Pelagius says righteousness is given to believers freely by God and not because of anything they have done. It is by grace. He does not explain what he things Paul is referring to with the expression.

He understands God has freely forgiven those who have faith in Christ, linking forgiveness with Jesus blood and death on the cross.

what works should one suppose the apostle meant

Rom 3.27-30

[27a] Where then is your boasting? It is excluded.

[27b] Through which law? The law of, deeds? Not.

[28] For we deem that a person is justified through faith without the works of the law.

[29a] Is God only the God of the Jews? Not of the Gentiles as well?

[29b] Yes, of the Gentiles as well.

[30a] Because there is in fact one God who justifies.

[30b] The circumcision by faith and the uncircumcision through faith.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[27a] He addresses the Jew: Where is the ground on which you were boasting that you had merited righteousness by works?

[27b] It is understood. But through the law of faith. He means the law which is the appointed end of faith, namely, the New Testament.

[28] We are sure’ or we judge. Some misuse this verse to do away with works of righteousness, asserting that faith by itself can suffice for one who has been baptized, although the same apostle says elsewhere: And if I have complete faith, so that I move mountains, but do not have love, it profits me nothing 1 Cor. 13: 2); and in another place declares that in this love is contained the fullness of the law, when he says: ‘The fullness of the law is love (Rom. 13: 10).

Now if these verses seem to contradict the sense of the other verses, what works should one suppose the apostle meant when he said that a person is justified through faith without the works [of the law]? Clearly, the works of circumcision or the Sabbath and others of this sort, and not without the works of righteousness, about which the blessed James says: ‘Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2: 26).

But in the verse we are treating he is speaking about that person who in coming to Christ is saved, when he first believes, by faith alone. But by adding ‘the works of the law he indicates that there is also a work of grace which those who have been baptized ought to perform.

[29a] Did God create the Jews alone, so that he is concerned about them alone? For even if the Gentiles sinned, so did you; and even if you repent, so do they; and if to you Christ came as promised by the law, so likewise to them. For often the prophets spoke of their calling too.

[29b] His economy of words is admirable. He said Yes so that he might further show the Gentiles that the first saints had not been circumcised, and that Abraham was righteous before circumcision. He reiterated as well so that he might not seem to exclude the Jews.

[30a] Both of you have believed in one and the same God and in one and the same Christ.

[30b] By faith and ‘through faith’ undoubtedly mean the same thing, but it is the custom of the Scriptures in these instances to prefer to change a word rather than repeat it, as is written in Daniel: For the sake of Abraham, your servant, and Isaac, beloved by you, and Israel, your holy one (Dan. 3: 35).

Pelagius again identifies the works of the law as the ceremonies – circumcision, Sabbath, etc.

He recognises the passage could be abused to suggest what Paul says could be used against ‘works of righteousness’ as well. But counters using James. I’ve argued the same in my post of James use of justification.

If he was justified because he circumcised himself

Rom 4.1-3

[1a] What then shall we say that Abraham discovered?

[1b] Our father according to the flesh?

[2] For if Abraham was justified by works, he has glory, but not before God.

[3a] For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed in God.

[3b] And it was credited to him as righteousness.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[1a] He called them back to the origin of circumcision, so that what it stood for in the beginning might be understood in its entirety.

[1b] Father according to the circumcision of the flesh; for faith dwells in the mind.

[2] If he was justified because he circumcised himself, then God gave him nothing, but he had glory on account of himself. Alternatively: If he carried out the ordinances, he had glory in his own eyes, but not in God’s.

[3a] Abraham’s faith was in fact so great that his previous sins were forgiven him and righteousness was reckoned as credit for every one of them by faith alone, and thereafter he burnt with such love that he furnished himself works over and above them all.

[3b] And therefore he has glory in God’s sight, in accordance with what the law deemed satisfactory.

Pelagius associates Paul’s use of ‘works’ in Rom 4.2 as circumcision paying attention to the context of Paul’s argument.

He has a great estimation of Abraham’s faith saying God forgave him he previous sins because of it.

absolved, justified and readied

Rom 4.4-6

[4a] Now to one who works wages are not credited as a gift.

[4b] But as an obligation.

[4c] For we say that faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.

[5a] But to one who does not work, but who believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.

[5b] According to the plan of God’s grace.

[6a] As also David describes the blessedness of the person.

[6b] To whom God credits righteousness without works.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[4a] He offers an example.

[4b] For it is the lot of one who is under obligation to do what he is told, and unless he complies he is condemned. But if he does what he is told he has no glory, because a servant who does nothing more than of nature, circumcision, and Christianity.

[4c] All, in fact, confess and agree on this point; therefore, what reason discovers about Abraham, this will we heed with regard to the rest.

[5a] When an ungodly person converts, God justifies him by faith alone, not for the good works he did not have. Otherwise he should have been punished for works of ungodliness. At the same time one should note that he did not declare the sinner justified by faith, but rather the ungodly, that is, one who has just come to believe.

[5b] By which he planned to forgive sins freely by faith alone.

[6a] It is great blessedness to obtain the grace of the Lord without the labor of the law and of penance, as if one were to receive gratuitously some public honor.

[6b] One’s initial faith is credited as righteousness to the end that one may be absolved of the past, justified for the present, and readied for future works of faith.

Pelagius considers there to be a threefold value of being ‘credited‘ with righteousness. Past, present and future. Absolved or forgiven of past sins, made right with God in the present and prepared for future good works.

blessedness to the three periods

Rom 4.9

Is this blessedness for the circumcision, or also for the uncircumcision?

Pelagius’ Interpretation

He means to assign this blessedness to the three periods

I assume the three periods relate to the dispensations the early church fathers discuss occasionally.

  1. God’s people in the time frame before circumcision and the law of Moses.
  2. The people of Israel and the law of Moses.
  3. Christ’s coming and the time of Gentile Christianity.

in order to be the father of uncircumcised believer

Rom 4.11-12

[11-12] So that he is the father of all believers through uncircumcision, in order that righteousness might be credited to them as well,

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[11-12] So that all who believe from among the Gentiles are children of Abraham, when faith alone is credited to them as righteousness and they too become circumcised, but in the heart. Or: Because he was righteous in uncircumcision, in order to be the father of uncircumcised believer], and remained righteous once circumcised, in order to become the father of the righteous who are circumcised.

Pelagius recognises the Jew – Gentile element in Paul’s argument. He calls Abraham ‘righteous’ in uncircumcision in order that he can be father of uncircumcised believers.

also so that we imitate his example

Rom 4.24

but also for us, to whom it will be credited.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

Not so that we only know of his faith, but also so that we imitate his example as the example of a father, just as we imitate all the examples of the saints, by which they have pleased the Lord; they were, in fact, tempted so that they might know themselves and so that we might follow their steps.

Pelagius believes Paul is encouraging his audience to follow in Abraham’s example.

all are saved in the same way by God’s grace

Rom 5.1

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

He has discussed the point that none of them is justified by works, but all by faith, and he proves this with the example of Abraham, of whom the Jews think they alone are children. He has also explained why neither race nor circumcision but faith makes people children of Abraham, who was justified initially by faith alone. Now, having finished this argument, he urges them to be at peace, because none is saved by his own merit, but all are saved in the same way by God’s grace.

Pelagius summarises Paul’s previous argument to introduce this new section.He acknowledges again God’s grace as he has done several times before.

He states it is faith that makes people the children of Abraham, not race or circumcision. He acknowledges Paul’s ethnic arguments.

He also points out no one is saved by their own merit. All are saved the same way by God’s grace.

how much more will he now preserve the righteous

Rom 5.8-9

[8a] But God demonstrates his love for us.

[8b] Because, while we were still sinners.

[8c-9] Christ died for us, how much more, therefore, shall we, Who have now been justified.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[8a] He becomes the object of love, when he conveys how much he loves us. For when one does something while under no obligation, then especially one demonstrates love. And what would be less of an obligation than that a master who is without sin should die for his faithless servants, and that the creator of the universe should be hanged on behalf of his own creatures?

[8b] One should note that the apostle, by saying that many who now believe in Christ were sinners, means that now they are not sinners, so that they may recall how they ought to behave.

[8c-9] If he loved sinners so much, how much more will he now preserve the righteous!

I’ve blogged on this passage before. I came to a similar conclusion.

Because righteousness is by faith, and they refused to believe

Rom 9.30-32

[30a] What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness?

[30b] Even the righteousness which is by faith.

[31-32] Israel, on the other hand pursuing the law of righteousness, did not attain to the law. Why? Because they pursued it not by faith, but as if it were by works.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[30a] If the above is spoken in the person of the apostle, he here once more imagines that they could say: ‘If it is not the case, as we say, that it does not depend on the one who wills or on the one who runs (cf. Rom. 9: 16), why have the Gentiles found righteousness, which they never sought before, while Israel could not find it, although they have always sought it?’ But if the whole of the above thought is attributed to those who are bringing objections, the apostle here replies and briefly reviews the question by saying: ‘What shall I say to these objections that are presented to us, except that the Gentiles believed as soon as they were called, and that the Jews refused to believe?’

[30b] Because righteousness is by faith, and they refused to believe.

[31-32] He explains once again why they did not find righteousness: because, having wrongly gloried in works, they refused to believe and, as if they were righteous, spurned grace.

Pelagius explains the Jews refused Christ because they did not believe righteousness is by faith and not by works [of law].

they refused to submit themselves to the forgiveness of sins

Rom 10.3

For since they did not know of God’s righteousness and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.

Pelagius’ Interpretation

Because they did not know that God justifies by faith alone, and because they thought that they were righteous by the works of a law they did not keep, they refused to submit themselves to the forgiveness of sins, to prevent the appearance of their having been sinners.

The Jews refused to repent and accept forgiveness, because in doing so they would have to admit they were sinners.

Israel thought it was justified solely by works of the law

Rom 11.5-7

[5] A remnant has been saved according to the election of grace.

[6a] But if by grace, then not by works.

[6b] Otherwise, grace is no longer grace.

[6c-7] But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work. What then? Israel has not obtained that which it seeks for;

Pelagius’ Interpretation

[5] The election of grace is faith, just as works are the election of the law. Otherwise, what sort of election is it, where there is no difference in merits?

[6a] In case they replied to him about those concerning whom the word comes to Elijah:

‘They were righteous; why were these sinners elected?’,

he added that they too are saved freely, just as the Gentiles.

[6b] Because to bestow gratuitously is called ‘grace’.

[6c-7] Israel as a whole has not obtained righteousness, because it did not seek it by faith, but thought that it was justified solely by works of the law, though it disregarded the greatest commandments of the law. This is why the Savior censures those who strain a gnat and swallow a camel (Cf. Matt. 23:24).

Pelagius says the Jews thought they were justified solely because of their observance of the works of law. He refers to what Jesus says of them in the gospel.

Overall, Pelagius’ repeated mention of grace, forgiveness and Christ’s death seem out of character for one who argued prior to salvation, unbelievers could do good works of their own will. However we might want to make a distinction between his exegetical works and his systematic theology.

In the next post we look at Pelagius’ opponent Augustine of Hippo. Augustine (c.e. 354–430) was an early Christian theologian whose writings had massive influence over Western Christianity including Roman Catholicism and the Reformers. He was the bishop of Hippo Regius, located in Numidia (a Roman province of Africa). He is viewed as one of the most important Church Fathers in Western Christianity for his writings in the Patristic Era. Among his most important works are The City of God and Confessions.

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