Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.08.12 Bonner, The Myth of Pelagianism

19.08.12 Bonner, The Myth of Pelagianism

For Professor Bonner "myth" names a storyline with claims that are contrary to fact. She argues that "Pelagianism" is a misnomer primarily because Pelagius did not teach the heresy that bears his name, nor did he start or lead a cohesive group. In her words, her book brings Robert Evans' opening arguments from 1968 (in his Pelagius) "to its conclusion in arguing that the term 'Pelagianism' should be abandoned" in favor of a "controversy about original sin, prevenient grace, and predestination interpreted as preordainment; or to the controversy about Christian anthropology and soteriology" (306). On that score, she will find many scholars ready to agree or at least sympathetic to her claims. The debate was much more about soteriology than Pelagius. A second aspect of her book provides an alternative storyline which attempts to explain why figures like Augustine would have invented the myth and why others would have so readily accepted it. Fewer scholars will readily agree with her reconstruction of the motives and process for defining orthodoxy and heresy. All will find her arguments clearly outlined and signaled at every turn.

After limiting her study to five texts she considers undeniably written by Pelagius (the Letters to Demetrius and Celantia, as well as On Virginity, On the Divine Law, and the Statement of Faith), Bonner uses fourteen propositions elaborated by Augustine from his On the Deeds of Pelagius to analyze the extent to which Pelagius would count as "Pelagian." She concludes, "there is no evidence drawn from Pelagius' own writings that associates the list of tenets attributed to 'Pelagianism' with Pelagius" (28). Simply put, Pelagius is not Pelagian. According to Bonner's analysis, Pelagius is one among many theologians who argued for traditional Christian asceticism. Athanasius' Life of Antony and Jerome's earlier works are presented as models of this kind of theology, which is contrasted with Bonner's understanding of Augustine's doctrine of prevenient grace, original sin, and predestination (which she understands as "preordainment"). Instead of imagining Pelagius as the theologian who added something novel to Catholic teaching (i.e. assertion of human sufficiency in matters of salvation), Bonner argues that we should understand Augustine as the theologian who introduced novelty. Thus, "the process that took place during the condemnation of 'Pelagianism' can be described as the invention of heresy in order to relocate orthodoxy" (26). The particular terms of Christian ascetic orthodoxy prior to the invention of Pelagianism as heresy are what Bonner calls "effective free will" which can act as the "sole cause of human virtue" and the basic anthropology which claims that human nature is not only capable of, but also inclined to moral goodness. According to Bonner, other Christians (particularly Augustine) imposed a binary set of possible answers to relatively new questions in which the newly defined "correct" response affirmed divine grace as the sole cause of human virtue and affirmed that original sin is a cause of the future brokenness of all humans with the result that humans have an inclination to evil, and not good.

Bonner first attempts (chapter 1) to establish that Pelagius did not teach what Augustine accused him of teaching by noting that there is either no evidence of Pelagius addressing those topics or that where Pelagius does address related material Augustine has mischaracterized Pelagius' intent. Most of Bonner's argument that Pelagius did not assert any new theological claim is made by comparison among primary texts, especially three different versions of Athanasius' Life of Antony (chapter 2) and several of Jerome's texts (chapter 3). She finds that Athanasius as well as Jerome taught "effective free will" and the goodness of human nature. She then turns to several texts variously considered "Pelagian" to show that there was no coordinated Pelagian movement because no set of texts or authors consistently holds the doctrines which are ascribed to Pelagianism (chapter 4). A fourth prong of her argument attempts to make sense of the life of the controversy after the fifth century and argues that modern and medieval scholars were unable to settle on a definition or canon of Pelagianism because no such thing existed (chapter 5 and the appendix with translation). Her theory that Pelagianism is a myth explains the later difficulty in definitions. It also explains the wide distribution of texts that Pelagius authored directly. We would expect heretical texts to disappear over time, but Pelagius' texts remained. Her theory of Pelagianism as a myth also explains why so many of Pelagius' texts would have been attributed to authors considered orthodox, like Jerome (chapter 7). Pelagius himself was orthodox, even if "Pelagianism" was recognized as heterodox. Bonner also makes a foray into sociology to argue that the general pattern of inventing an opposing doctrine in order to support one's own new rules for orthodoxy is a common phenomenon according to interactionist theory (chapter 6).

Methodologically, limiting Pelagius' corpus leaves more for Bonner to explore. The ancient discussion had access to texts which Bonner does not. This effectively leaves Bonner open to a critique about who gets to define Pelagius. What certainty can we have about Pelagius' teaching when we know he wrote and said things beyond the written record we possess? Bonner is right to explore the extent to which Pelagius actually taught what his opponents asserted he taught. Even the ancient account of Pelagius' doctrinal positions makes note of a great deal of variation and admits that the people involved changed their minds and said things differently than they wrote them. However, an extended argument from absence (Pelagius never taught what he is accused of teaching) demands assessment of the full corpus; since precisely the extant works of Pelagius are in question, the argument that Pelagius never said this or that is delicate at best. Part of the difficulty here may be attributed to texts which are simply lost; such problems simply cannot be resolved. But another part of the problem could be illuminated by expanding the argument to texts which we have, but which might have been manipulated. Perhaps in future work, Bonner will bolster her argument by considering texts like the Commentary on Romans and those excerpts contained in quotations of Pelagius to show the extent to which they lack any evidence of "Pelagianism." Similarly, Bonner suggests that Jerome's name of the "Caelestian" heresy might be more appropriate (22), and we might look for a fuller exploration of whether that matches the events of the fifth century better than the existence of a "Pelagian" heresy. Perhaps the "myth" is not so much that these things were taught, but more precisely who taught them.

There is a tension that lies in Bonner's argument that Pelagius did not teach what was condemned. Both Augustine and Pelagius are taken to honestly condemn the same set of fourteen propositions. In effect, this makes Pelagius an Augustinian. Bonner speaks of Pelagius compromising with Augustine's theology of grace and accepting not only a priority of grace, but even the regular and daily need for grace (12-14). Again, if Pelagius is not "Pelagian," then it appears that Augustine and Pelagius are actually in agreement. But Bonner suspects something else entirely is going on. The debate is not properly about those fourteen propositions which were taken to define "Pelagianism," but rather about a sense of divine justice and God's universal salvific will (15, 25). But the issue there would seem to involve the irresistibility of grace more than the necessity or prevenience of grace. More analysis is needed of Pelagius' genuine soteriology.

The extent to which we characterize the underlying controversy in terms of an exclusive case of grace versus free will also requires more careful investigation. One can find Augustine commending free will and calling human nature good, for example. Pelagius and Augustine seem, yet again, to agree. Augustine himself reflected that the true problem lies not in affirming grace or affirming human will, but rather in framing the problem as a case of the "exclusive or" (e.g. Grace and Free Choice, 1.1). We could also say he recognized the problem as one of "competing agencies," as if there is only one agent of salvation at any given time. Augustine argues that while God acts first in grace, the human will, mind, and actions also play a necessary role in salvation. Furthermore, "cooperation" in Augustine's mature sense does not mean taking turns, but quite literally working together in love. Cooperation is sometimes taken to follow the model of digging a ditch with your brother: either of you can finish the ditch alone, but it goes quite a bit faster when you both pick up shovels and work more or less independently, or when you alternate using the same shovel. But cooperation in Augustine's sense is more like a team pulling on a rope to lift something heavy. Neither of you could move the weight alone, but together you can. Is Augustine the first to use cooperation in the sense of lifting something together, while everyone else, Pelagius included, used a model like digging a ditch together? Do Augustine and Pelagius mean the same thing when discussing a model of "cooperation" in salvation? In addition to exploring the meaning of cooperation, Bonner's argument would benefit from consideration not only of the priority and necessity of grace, but also the necessity of free will in matters of salvation. The orthodoxy for which Augustine argues notes both the insufficiency and the necessity of human will. If Augustine and Pelagius are taken to be opposed such that one affirms the necessity and sufficiency of grace and the other affirms the necessity and sufficiency of the human will, perhaps both figures have been misunderstood. For Augustine, this debate about grace and free will plays out not only in those technical terms, but also in the language of loving God and loving neighbor. Exploration of Pelagius' theology of love would also be revealing and could help make Bonner's case that Pelagius did not, in fact, teach "Pelagianism." Love is not a matter of competition, but rather cooperation, even if God always initiates the love.

Bonner's discussion of "effective free will" should be linked to discussion of whether grace/predestination and free will are compatible or not. Augustine and the "new" orthodoxy argue that divine predestination is compatible with human free will. In fact, for Augustine, only those who belong to Heaven are truly free. In this matter, we should seek clarity about whether Pelagius taught effective free will in such a way that to sin and to do good are both understood as "freedom," or whether sin has some element of bondage. This discussion of free will would then be linked to libertas as a condition for the exercise of liberum arbitrium / voluntas. Augustine argues that libertas is required for salvific use of liberum arbitrium / voluntas. Does Pelagius agree on the structure of free will, but assert that we have libertas where Augustine asserts we do not? Does Pelagius assume that evil and good are equally free exercises of human choice? The extent to which this is a framework which had or had not been used for discussion of human and divine agency in salvation prior to the fifth century would further Bonner's study and help illuminate what might be new in this discussion of grace, free will, and their compatibility.

Bonner notes that Origenism is an important background for social networks and alliances that remained active in the Pelagian controversy. She also notes a concern on the part of Pelagius to defend the divine salvific will as universal. Theories about the number of saved and the method of salvation are also relevant in this regard and could be discussed more explicitly. A universalist would not be worried about infant baptism for the same reason Augustine was. Similarly, the recognition of and response to the problem of evil is a key component in Augustine's theory of the effect of original sin and provides the theological background to many debates about the origin of the human soul. Though not as directly related to Origenism, the issue of pagan virtue is also important in this debate. Augustine and the so-called "new" orthodoxy did not deny that some sense of goodness was possible for fallen human nature apart from specifically Christian grace; Augustine commends Platonism to a certain extent. A set of comparison points that includes issues of universalism, the problem of evil, and the category of pagan virtue, in addition to the meaning of cooperation between human and divine, could help establish Bonner's case and show further to what extent Pelagius followed what Bonner treats as traditional ascetic theology, and to what extent is Pelagius accepted or rejected earlier theories like those entertained by Origen.

In the debate about divine grace and human will, Bonner has argued for a reconsideration of Pelagius' place in the history of Christian thought and thereby for a reappraisal of Augustine's role. Perhaps it is fitting to close with Augustine's words in Teske's translation: "It is both the gift of God and free choice that some accept this word which not all accept" (Grace and Free Choice 1.1).