History of Christianity

Pelagius: Know Your Heretics

Pelagius: Know Your Heretics


Historical Background

In the early 5th century a debate arose between Pelagius, a British monk, and Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. They disagreed over the relationship between human nature after the Fall and saving, divine grace in Jesus Christ. When Pelagius arrived in Rome and saw the city’s dim view of morality, he developed a reputation for being a spiritual director who urged people to reform their behavior and live lives as upstanding, moral citizens.

Pelagius’ View of Sin

Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement, and justification by faith. Pelagius emphasized unconditional free will and the ability to better oneself spiritually without grace. This was in direct contrast to Augustine, who believed that humanity was completely helpless in Adam’s sin and in desperate need of grace. Specifically, Pelagius took issue with Augustine’s prayer in his Confessions, which asked God to grant humans grace to act in accordance with his divine commands: “Grant what you command and command what you will.” (Confessions, X. 40).

Pelagius rejected the teaching of “original sin,” the results of the Fall upon humanity. According to him, Adam’s sin in no way made humans corrupt, but instead “over the years our sin gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself.” (Letter to Demetrias, VIII). Humans by nature have a clean slate, and it is only through voluntary sin that humans are made wicked. Potentially, then, one could live a sinless life and merit heaven. Pelagius thought that God commanding a person to do something that he lacked the ability to do would be useless: “To call a person to something he considers impossible does him no good.” (Letter to Demetrias, I). If God called humans to live moral lives, Pelagius thought, it should be within their power to carry out such commands.

Orthodox Response

Pelagius’ error was deemed heretical in 416 by the Council of Carthage. Originally Adam, Augustine said, possessed freedom—the ability not to sin. After the Fall, all human beings participate in Adam’s sin, which renders them not able not to sin. After the mediation of divine grace in Jesus Christ humans are once again given the ability not to sin. Augustine replied to Pelagius’ views in two treatises: On the Grace of Christ and On Original Sin. Augustine writes: “We must realize that Pelagius believes that neither our will nor our action is helped by divine aid…he believes that God does not help us to will, that he does not help us to act, that he helps us only to be able to will and to act.”(On the Grace of Christ, V.6). Augustine saw Pelagius’ teaching to be a clear denial of Philippians 2:12-13, because Pelagius located the capacity “to will and to do” what pleases God in human nature rather than in God’s grace.”(On the Grace of Christ, V.6 and VI.7).

Why Does All This Matter?

Ignoring the consequences the Fall has on everyone leads to a diminishment of the multifaceted work of Christ. In his ministry Jesus not only bore our sins on the cross, but lived a perfect life in obedience to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit—the life that Adam failed to live—in order to restore fallen humans to their original state of grace. It is not only through the grace of God that humans are initially saved but also through this grace that they are sustained. As Augustine put it, God “guards the weak so that by his gift the saints unfailingly choose the good and unfailingly refuse to abandon it.”(On Rebuke and Grace, 38). Without understanding the magnitude of sin and the plight of humanity, the gracious work of Jesus for us and our salvation seems superfluous. 1 Peter 1:18-19 says: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” Because of sin, humans are not naturally good—that’s why we need Jesus.

Calvin on Faith: Assurance and Knowledge

Calvin on Faith: Assurance and Knowledge

Faith Rests on Knowledge

According to Calvin, in conversion the mind is renewed to appreciate the message of the Incarnation and to apprehend the gratuitous promise by Spirit-given faith, and the will is renewed in such a way that the person turns to God in piety and obedience. In his concept of faith, Calvin could not conceive of faith apart from knowledge: “Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge” (Institutes III.2.ii). Knowledge of God is founded on particular self-disclosures of the Word of God and made effective through the persuasive, internally testifying, and illuminating work of the Holy Spirit in faith.

More Than Ordinary Understanding

Calvin distinguishes between the knowledge of faith and ordinary intellectual comprehension: “When we call faith ‘knowledge,’ we do not mean comprehension of the sort that it commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception” (Institutes III.2.xiv). Calvin appeals to the common distinction between seeing and believing, in which to believe is precisely not to see an object but to accept that object on the testimony of another. He cites Paul, “While dwelling in this body, we wander from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not sight (2 Cor. 5:6-7)” and comments as follows: “By these words he shows that those things which we know through faith are nonetheless absent from us and go unseen. From this we conclude that the knowledge of faith consists in assurance rather than comprehension” (Institutes III.2.xiv). Calvin argues that humans can have knowledge of God only because God first accommodates to us in Christ and Scripture. He argues that humans cannot arrive, by themselves, at the truth about God. Left on our own, we are only good idolaters.

Persuaded to Faith

That is why Calvin says we live in a space of acknowledgment or recognition, not knowledge, where the human calling is less to grasp than to be grasped. For Calvin, the knowledge of faith is more persuasion than cognition: When we call faith “knowledge,” we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things that fall under human sense perception. For faith is so far above sense that man’s mind has to go beyond and rise above itself in order to attain it. Even where the mind has attained, it does not comprehend what it perceives. But being persuaded of what that which it does not grasp, by the very certainty of this persuasion it understands more than if it perceived anything human by its own capacity… Those things which we know through faith are nonetheless absent from us and go unseen. From this we conclude that the knowledge of faith consists in assurance rather than in comprehension (Institutes III.2.xiv).

Belief and Hope

This means that most of the time Christians do not know, we believe and hope. In his theology of faith, Calvin acknowledges the impossibility of securing the truthfulness of our knowledge of God in anything other than the revelation in Christ, which is illuminated and testified to by the Holy Spirit.

Calvin on Faith: Grace and Repentance

Calvin on Faith: Grace and Repentance

Legal vs. Evangelical Repentance

Immediately after developing his robust definition of faith in InstitutesIII.2.ii, Calvin discusses repentance and grace in III.2.iii. He makes a distinction between “legal repentance” and “evangelical repentance.” Legal repentance is the view that says, “Repent, and IF you repent you will be forgiven!” as though God must be persuaded into being gracious. It makes the imperatives of obedience prior to the indicatives of grace, and regards God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness as conditional upon what we do—upon our meritorious acts of repentance.

Evangelical Grace

Calvin argued that this inverted the evangelical order of grace, and made repentance prior to forgiveness, whereas in the New Testament forgiveness is logically prior to repentance. Evangelical repentance, on the other hand takes the form that, “Christ has born your sins on the cross, therefore repent!” What this means is that repentance is our response to grace, not a condition of grace. The good news of the gospel is that there is forgiveness with God and God has spoken the word of forgiveness in Christ and that word summons from us a response of faith.

The Perfect Response

Implicit in our receiving the word of God’s love there is, on our part, a humble submission to the verdict of guilty. But who can make the perfect response of love, that perfect act of penitence, that perfect submission to the verdict of guilty? What we cannot do, God has done for us in Christ.

God Living Vicariously For Us

Calvin saw that the coming of Jesus Christ is not only the coming of God as God, but also the coming of God as human to do vicariously for us what we cannot adequately do for ourselves. Christ deals with humans on the part of God and deals with God on the part of humans. In Christ, we have both God giving himself to humanity in unconditional forgiveness, and at the same time we see Jesus, as the representative head of humanity, taking on our humanity in order to absorb the just judgment of God in our place. God does not merely speak a word of forgiveness and then throw us back on ourselves to make our response of repentance. God knows our weakness and condition. Grace means that in Jesus Christ we have God personally present as a human giving himself in forgiveness, and at the same time from our side vicariously making the perfect response for us to God. In light of this, we are summoned to a life of faith, but our response is now by the grace of God, through the Spirit, a response to God’s response in Jesus. To be continued.

Calvin on Faith: Illumination by the Holy Spirit

Calvin on Faith: Illumination by the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit’s Work

Calvin’s defines faith not in terms of a book accredited by the Spirit; rather, faith has Christ as its object and is enabled by the Spirit’s work of illumination. Illumination plays a key role in Calvin’s doctrine of faith, especially in regard to the human condition: “The simple and external demonstration of the word of God ought, indeed, to suffice fully for the production of faith, did not our blindness and perversity interfere. But such is the propensity of our minds to vanity that they can never adhere to the truth of God, and such is their dullness that they are always blind even to his light. Hence, without the illumination of the Holy Spirit the word has no effect” (Institutes III.2.xxxiii). Calvin presents the illumination of the Spirit and the internal testimony of the Spirit in connection with the certainty of faith: “There are two operations of the Spirit in faith, just as faith consists of two principle parts: it both illuminates and establishes the mind…The commencement of faith is knowledge; the completion of it is a firm and fixed persuasion which admits no opposing doubts. Both, as I have said, are the works of the Spirit” (Commentary on Ephesians).

A Trinitarian Foundation for Faith

After focusing on Christ and his gospel, God’s gratuitous promise of mercy, and the illumination of Holy Spirit, Calvin arrives at his final definition of faith: “Now we shall have a proper definition of faith if we say it is a steady and certain knowledge of the Divine benevolence toward us, which being founded upon the truth of the gratuitous promise in Christ is both revealed to our minds and sealed in or hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Institutes III.2.vii). Calvin’s definition is concise and the content of the knowledge of faith is clear. Faith’s certainty is not founded on an argument or proposition, but founded on the work of the Trinity—God’s will to be benevolent toward us is revealed in the gratuitous promise because of Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit. The ground of certainty is God. To be continued.

Calvin on Faith: The Gratuitous Promise

Calvin on Faith: The Gratuitous Promise

Christ as the Object of Faith

According to Calvin, the content of the knowledge of faith is very narrow and specific, not broad and vague: “For the apprehension of faith is not confined to our knowing that there is a God, but chiefly consists in our understanding what his will is toward us. For it is not of so much importance to us to know what he is in himself, as what he is willing to be to us. We find, therefore, that faith is a knowledge of the divine will toward us received from his word” (Institutes III.2.vi). This disposition of God toward us has to do with the promises of grace that Calvin finds in Scripture. However, Scripture is not the exact object of faith. For Calvin, Scripture is the formal authority of special revelation, but Christ alone is the material of saving faith and the proper object of faith’s knowledge. (For more on Calvin’s view of Scripture, see Christian Theologies of Scripture.)

The Foundation of Faith

Calvin excludes elements of Scripture from his definition of the object of faith: “But since the heart of man is not aroused to faith by every utterance of God, we must further inquire what it is that faith properly has respect to in the word… We do not deny, however, that it is the office of faith to subscribe to the truth of God whenever, whatever, and in whatever manner he speaks, but just now we are inquiring what faith finds in the word to lean up and rest upon” (Institutes III.2.vii). While faith believes the Word of God, it has the promise of God’s mercy as its object: “We make the foundation of faith the gratuitous promise, because in it faith properly consists… [Faith] begins with the promise, stands upon it, and ends in it. For it seeks life in God, which is not found in the commands nor in the edicts of punishment but in the promise of mercy, and that only which is gratuitous, for a conditional promise, which sends us back to our works, promises life insofar as we find it in ourselves… Wherefore the Apostle bears witness to this testimony to the gospel, that it is the word of faith, which he denies to both the precepts and promises of the Law, since there is nothing which can establish faith except that free embassy by which God reconciles the world to himself” (Institutes III.2.xxix).

The Gratuitous Promise of Mercy

Calvin makes a bold distinction regarding special revelation, and to explain his view he writes: “Therefore, when we say that faith must rest upon the gratuitous promise, we do not deny that the believers embrace and accept the word of God in all its parts, but we designate the promise of mercy as its special object” (Institutes III.2.xxix). The various terms denoting the gratuitous promise of God are found throughout Calvin’s Institutes: “gratuitous mercy” (III.31.vii and II.17.i), “gratuitous favor” (III.21.vii and II.16.ii), “gratuitous goodness” (II.7.iv), “mere good pleasure” (III.21.v and II.17.i), and “gratuitous love” (III.21.v and II.17.i).

Faith and Scripture Are Separate, Yet Inseparable

Calvin distinguishes between the whole of Scripture, which must be believed and is accredited by the Spirit, and the gratuitous promise in Christ, the substance of Scripture and that which alone is the object of faith. We are not to choose one over the other but to affirm both. He also argues against separating faith from Scripture: “Take away the word, and no faith remains” (Institutes III.2.vi). In his Commentary on Romans he writes: “This connection of faith with the word ought to be well understood and carefully remembered, for faith can bring us nothing more than what it receives from the word.” To be continued.

Calvin on Faith: Christ and His Gospel

Calvin on Faith: Christ and His Gospel

Christian Faith: Not What You Thought It Was

What does “faith” mean? For centuries it was associated with specific knowledge or a set of beliefs, but recently the understanding of “faith” has changed. In our contemporary culture, faith primarily refers to the act of believing, not what is believed or the object of faith. When the object of faith is actually mentioned, it is rarely specified. It can be love, hope, fate, the unknown, oneself, someone else, or sometimes God. An attentive ear no longer hears descriptions of faith as biblical knowledge or trust in the person and work of Jesus, but rather tunes in to descriptions of faith as general religious sentiment or individual subjective feelings.

Faith: Defined

A Christian understanding of faith is very different, and John Calvin proves especially helpful in defining faith: “Now we shall have a proper definition of faith if we say it is a steady and certain knowledge of the Divine benevolence toward us, which being founded upon the truth of the gratuitous promise in Christ is both revealed to our minds and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.2.vii).

The Proper Object of Faith

According to Calvin, the object of faith’s knowledge is Jesus Christ. He defines faith by proceeding to the center of a series of concentric circles: God’s existence, God’s power, God’s truthfulness, God’s will “toward us” as revealed in Scripture, and finally Christ. All these circles are implied in faith, but only the last is properly understood as the object of faith. Calvin goes so far as to say that those who say that God is the proper object of faith “rather mislead miserable souls by vain speculation, than direct them to the proper mark” (Institutes III.2.i). Christ as mediator is necessary if humans are to know God. Christ is not set over against God. Rather, Calvin asserts, Christ is the means—the only means—by which we can believe in God.

True Knowledge of Christ

To explain what this means, Calvin writes: “This, then is the true knowledge of Christ—to receive him as he is offered by the Father, that is, invested with his gospel; for he is appointed to be the object of our faith, so we cannot advance in the right way to him, without the guidance of the gospel…The gospel certainly opens to us those treasures of grace, without which Christ would profit us little” (Institutes III.2.vi). Christ, who is the object of faith, is understood in terms of the gospel, which, in turn, is explained by reference to grace. To be continued.