The Collegian
Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Walk: Christian Pessimism part three, the Pelagian controversy

<p>Graphic by Jackie Llanos</p>

Graphic by Jackie Llanos

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. 

Last week I introduced a puzzle for Christians who want to treat seriously the pessimist premise, which is that there are things that affect our lives other than those brought about by agential choices. In other words, the pessimist premise is the rejection of the popular idea in moral philosophy that only the moral really, seriously or ultimately matters. 

In responding to the pessimist premise, we can either assert that it is false or explain how our picture of God fits into a world where it is true. Last week, I explained why I think it is prudent to accept the premise: because rejecting the premise leaves us with a picture of God that does not line up with other presuppositions we hold. Accepting the pessimist premise presents the challenge of having to explain why an omnipotent and perfectly good God would allow bad things to happen, seemingly threatening His sovereignty. 

The Pelagian controversy is a classic debate among Christian theologians, and although it does not directly speak to the specific puzzle I’m after, I think approaching it can yield some insights to sovereignty that will help address some puzzles with responding to the pessimist premise. 

The Pelagian controversy is about whether or not humans can act well without the intervention of God’s grace. It originated from a disagreement from theologians Pelagius and Augustine. Pelagius was a late-fourth-century theologian who was a radical believer in free will and asceticism. Augustine was a contemporary of Pelagius who is among the most influential Catholic thinkers ever, he is best known for writing "The Confessions."

In the disagreement, Pelagius argued that humans had unfettered free will and that good action does not depend on God. Augustine's contrary view is that humans can only act well because of the salvation and that good action comes directly from God. 

In short, Pelagius believed humans could become without sin all on their own, whereas Augustine believed humans were inherently depraved and could only become without sin through God’s direct intervention. 

Each of these views has pros and cons. The Pelagian view severely limits the role that God plays in our lives, but is appealing because it assumes that salvation is available to everyone and that we, through our agency, can either accept it or not. 

The Augustinian view, on the other hand, has God as sovereign but does not allow for human free will. As such, it requires that God choose who is saved and who is not by predestining, or deciding ahead of time how the events of the world will unfold. 

Neither of these views is attractive to me. I think that Pelagius gives humans too much credit, and that Augustine’s conception of God is rather dark. As it turns out, early Quakers felt similarly and in their works espoused a middle path between Augustine and Pelagius. 

George Fox, a founder of the Quakers, tied his view on the Pelagian controversy to the concept of the Inner Light. Although Fox, similar to Augustine, saw human nature as utterly dark, he believed that God graced humanity with the ability to do good by instilling us with the Inner Light. 

This carves out a middle road between Pelagius and Augustine by thinking of God’s grace not as making the decision for us, but rather as giving us the capacity to do good. Although it may look similar to Pelagius’ picture, Pelagius believed that humans could live well without God factoring in, whereas Fox believed that God’s grace is the root of our capacity to live well. 

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William Penn, also a Quaker, assented to Fox’s view and added that part of God’s project seems to have moral judgement and free will tied up in it. 

In sending prophets and Jesus to teach humans how to live well, and in setting up the system of damnation and salvation, finding out who is a good person and who is not at least appears to be important to God. Penn believed, and I find myself agreeing, that it would be very strange for God, having set up the world as such, to not endow humans with free will and instead give them the same control over their salvation or damnation as a child’s doll. 

As interesting as all this is, it unfortunately does not speak directly to how Christians should respond to the pessimist premise. No matter your view of the Pelagian controversy, it is still a good news story. Even though these solution do not necessarily involve human agency, damnation and salvation are still decided by agential decisions. For Augustine, they are God’s agential decisions; for Pelagius they are humans’ agential decisions; for Fox they are both. 

However, there are some important lessons to be learned for our specific question. If you remember, I brought in the Pelagian controversy to see what we could learn about sovereignty questions. For me, Augustine’s view gave God too much sovereignty, which made it unattractive. Fox’s view, on the other hand, makes sovereignty sacrifices that allow for a view of God and the world that is more appealing to my intuitions. 

As such, it seems like we can do the same in our response to the pessimist premise. We will want to be careful in what sovereignty sacrifices we make, to avoid slipping into Pelagian territory that over-limits the importance of God. 

Next week, I’ll apply more concretely these lessons from the Pelagian controversy to the specific puzzle of the pessimist premise.

To contribute to The Walk, email opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at

Contact columnist Cal Pringle at

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