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from issue no. 06/07 - 2007

For Pelagius grace is only knowledge and not loving attraction

Interview with Nello Cipriani, Professor at the Augustinianum Patristic Institute

Interview with Nello Cipriani by Lorenzo Cappelletti

The figure of the pious Britannic monk Pelagius and the story of his clash with Augustine has moved out of the confines of academic discussion and has for some time been the subject of ongoing debate within the Church, in which the terms have perhaps been oversimplified: Pelagius the champion of morality and Augustine the champion of grace. In actual fact, neither did Pelagius fail to mention the role of divine grace…
NELLO CIPRIANI: Pelagius is a Christian heretic. A heretic as a Christian. He believed in the grace God offered in Christ, who died and rose again for us. He believed that, through Christ, God has made us the gift of the Holy Spirit, forgiving our sins and adopting us as his children. He is a heretic all the same because he limits the action of the grace of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. As Augustine himself acknowledged, the grace Pelagius was talking about is not merely an external help (like teaching and example), but is also a gift of the Spirit which must be requested by prayer. Nevertheless this inward help goes no further than the level of knowledge. It is a matter in all cases of the revelation of a truth, of an enlightenment and never of a help directed to the will which always stands alone to decide. Divine grace, according to Pelagius, always retains a purely intellectual quality.
The archeological remains of a Christian Basilica in Carthage

The archeological remains of a Christian Basilica in Carthage

Could you say more about the “intellectual quality” of grace in Pelagius?
CIPRIANI: Pelagius is ready to recognize an illuminating of the mind, and in this sense he speaks of the grace of Christ helping the believer to behave morally. But his view is that the Holy Spirit does not spread charity into hearts. That is the fruit of human will. Saint Augustine obviously acknowledges the grace of teaching and example but chastises Pelagius for recognizing the minor gift and denying the major one, the gift of inspiratio dilectionis. According to Pelagius the action of God’s grace reaches man only through a revelation that enlightens his mind. God operates in us the wish for what is good, the wish for what is holy, the moment he kindles, with the revelation of the greatness of future good and the promise of reward, us who are subject to worldly desires and who, in the fashion of unreasoning animals, love only the things that are under our eyes; the moment he stirs the indolent will to desire for God with the revelation of wisdom the moment he persuades us of what is good» (De gratia Christi et de peccato originali I, 10, 11). According to Pelagius Christianity comes down to a teaching, a doctrine. It is not the encounter with a presence that spellbinds us.
Pelagius does not appear to have known Greek. Whose teaching did he follow?
CIPRIANI: Pelagius justified the reduction of the grace of Christ out of a concern not to remove man’s responsibility through the destruction of free will. He agreed that because of bad habits in man, reason could be darkened and thereby knowledge of natural law, hence Christ comes to man with teaching and example that he may rediscover it. But Pelagius did not allow that the will could be weakened. Hence it had no need to be put right and helped. This moral notion was in line with the basic tenets of ancient pedagogy (paideia) which held that what underpins moral action is the natural ability to acquire virtue and the personal commitment of the will, while it assigned the task of leading to perfection to the teaching and example of the teacher. It wasn’t necessary to have read treatises of Greek philosophy to gain this knowledge, one merely had to frequent the schools of the time. As we know, ancient rhetoric aimed not only at teaching public speaking, but also at giving directives for living, its goal was to provide a complete education for man that would be intellectual and moral as well as literary. We needn’t be surprised, therefore, if schooling and treatises on rhetoric were the most natural source for Pelagius and for others of the Fathers, particularly the Greeks, before him. It will have been there that he assimilated the constituent principles of ancient pedagogy, in some way adapting the novelty of Christian faith to it.
What in brief were the constituent principles of ancient pedagogy?
CIPRIANI: The basic principles of Pelagius’ conception of the moral and spiritual life, corresponding exactly to those in the training for oratory and in general of all moral education, can be reduced to three: nature, that is the innate capacity to know and perform good; will, or better, assiduous application (studium), practice (usus), exercise (exercitatio) or imitation (imitatio) of models (exempla); doctrine, contained in the Gospel law. Pelagius claimed that «we have from God the innate possibility for good and evil, almost, so to speak, a fruitful and fertile root; but it generates and gives forth different fruits according to man’s will; it can shine with the flowers of virtue or put out the thorns of vices according to the will of its grower» (De gratia Christi et de peccato originali I, 18, 19).
Augustine had also been trained in the schools of rhetoric. How come it had a different influence on him?
CIPRIANI: Saint Augustine also knew the notions transmitted by the schools, indeed in terms of artistic training he shows he shared them to the full. But he thought they were inadequate to express the novelty and effectiveness of the grace of Jesus Christ. For scriptural and theological reasons he broke away from the moral conceptions handed on by the schools of rhetoric in an altogether more radical way than the austere Britannic moralist.

Taken from 30Days (n. 3 of March of 1996, pp. 36-39) and republished in Il potere e la grazia. Attualità di sant’Agostino, Nuova Omicron, Roma, 1998, pp. 115-123.

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