*I've adapted this from a paper I wrote in seminary.
There are two polar positions that I’ve experienced in our culture and Church. The first position is “if I only had,” and the second is “if I would only choose.” We’ve created a model of choice and circumstance. I see our Church and society applying these positions to the Fruit of the Spirit as found in Galatians 5.
In a circumstance model, Joy, Love, and Peace come from the situation around us. I will enjoy the Fruit of the Spirit if I have the right house, job, relationship, or whatever. In a circumstance model, tautologically, the fruits of the Spirit come through our circumstances. We have joy, love, and peace by being in these positions. Opposite, if we were to lose the circumstances, we would lose the Fruit of the Spirit. Most who embrace such a model are generally unwilling to admit their Fruit are tied to their positions in life.
In a choice model, Joy, Love, and Peace are generated internally when we choose to live them. Those holding the choice model claim that the Fruit of the Spirit is just one decision away. You can choose to have joy even amid deep persecution. We may not have the Fruit of the Spirit because we haven’t chosen them. While at face value, this model seems to follow a more Biblical understanding of the Fruit of the Spirit, they both commit the same fatal flaw.
Both models of Circumstance and Choice place the Fruit of the Spirit as attainable under human will. The efficacy of the human will is not a modern debate; it goes back to Augustine and Pelagius. To further explore the history of this debate, we’ll look at Augustine and Pelagius and then return to a modern application.
Augustine was born in 354 in Tagaste in Roman North Africa to Patricius and Monica, his influential Christian mother. His parents sought to give him a good pagan education, which strained his relationship with Christianity from a young age. He studied in Madaura until his parents’ resources ran dry at seventeen, when Romanianus supported him as a patron, and Augustine completed his education in Carthage. Augustine was a gifted student and excelled in rhetoric.
In the early 370s, he had a couple of life changes that would impact him and the Church forever. First, in 372, he bears a son, Adeodatus, with his girlfriend. Second, he read Cicero’s Hortensius and fell in love with “divine wisdom” philosophy because it sought truth in contrast to rhetoric which encouraged lies if beautifully told. This set young Augustine on a search for truth.
In that search, he encountered the Manichaeism movement. According to Gonzalez, this appealed to Augustine for the problem of evil. Augustine saw evil in himself and around him and couldn’t reconcile the existence of evil with the God of his mother.
In Manichaeism, he found issues and unanswered questions. He spent his time teaching rhetoric in Tagaste and Carthage, even though philosophy appealed to him. He continued teaching rhetoric, and as a teacher, he moved to Rome in 383 and then to Milan in 384.
In Milan, three things happened that influenced his life. He first had a deconstruction experience of his Manichaeism through his time with the Christian Bishop of Milan, Ambrose. The second event was his marriage circumstances. He was unmarried to Adeodatus’ mother as she was from a lower social class. Augustine was persuaded to send her away and marry a girl from a good family. Unfortunately, she was below the marrying age of 12, while he was 30. So, while he waited, he took a concubine. The third thing that happened was Augustine doubted his career in teaching rhetoric because of his growing faith. He was concerned about teaching people to eloquently argue as lawyers for the execution of men and women.
In light of his growing faith, he became convicted of his career and living situation. At this moment, he struggled against becoming a Christian, praying his famous prayer, “Give me chastity and continence; but not too soon.”
He recognized his inability to overcome sin and the need for God to begin the work in his own life due to his evilness. He said, “When I thought of devoting myself entirely to you, my God…it was I that wished to do it, and I that wished not to do it. It was I. And since I neither completely wished, nor completely refused, I fought against myself and tore myself to pieces.” Then, in his garden in the year 386, he fully converted, having read Paul’s words in Romans 13, to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.”
He fully converted and took up celibacy and, for a time, monasticism. He was baptized on Easter 387. He then returned to his birthplace, Tagaste, and formed an ascetic community. On the way, his mother, Monica, died.
In 391, Augustine visited the town of Hippo in hopes of inviting a friend back to the monastic community at Tagaste. While there, Bishop Valerius preached a sermon informing the people that God sends the shepherd to the people and incited the people to pray that perhaps one such shepherd was in attendance. The people responded accordingly and ordained Augustine against his will. He would serve in Hippo for the rest of his life until 430. Between 397 and 401, he wrote Confessions, where most of this biography is contained.
Much more could be said about Augustine, but room does not allow it. For our next man, Pelagius, much less is known.
Pelagius was born circa 360. He was a British teacher of asceticism who was accepted in Rome in 400. He wrote letters, treaties (including Faith in the Trinity), and a commentary on the Pauline epistles. He drew from Augustine and tried to persuade people away from Manichaeism.
In 410, the Visigoths advanced on Rome. This caused Pelagius and his supporters to cross the Mediterranean southward to settle in Roman North Africa and eastward to Palestine. The following year, Celestius, an outspoken associate of Pelagius, was censured at Carthage. While Pelagius knew the teaching of Augustine, this is where Augustine was first exposed to Pelagianism.
Pelagius rejected the idea that people are born inherently sinful and instead taught that people could live sinless, holy lives in God’s will and earn salvation by good works. He would teach that God’s grace granted people unbreakable self-determination. According to him, people are capable of accomplishing God’s will against the “habit of sinning” set in motion by the fall.
Pelagius even attacked Augustine’s Confessions, where he found defeatism in the face of sin. Pelagius distinguishes three things, posse, velle, and esse, or the possible, the willful, and the actual. Pelagius is concerned with the possible. God has given us the gift of the possible. Therefore, it is possible humanity can live sinlessly. Ultimately, Pelagius wanted people to live holy lives and thought they could do so.
In this encounter with Pelagianism, Augustine developed a plethora of theology that is still accepted. Including the common theology that all are fallen through Adam, total corruption of sin, and our need for prevenient grace to begin to believe. Augustine would accuse Pelagianism of the following heretical beliefs, now commonly accepted as wrong:
Here is where our understanding of Augustine’s story will pay off, and we will see why Augustine opposed Pelagianism so harshly.
Augustine uses the terms of Pelagius, posse, to argue against him. According to Augustine, humanity was given the possibility of sinlessness (posse non peccare). After the fall, Augustine says that humanity is ‘non posse non peccare,’ not able not to sin.
Augustine experienced the desire to believe and the inability to will himself to faith. Therefore he couldn’t accept Pelagius’ position on the will. Instead, as Augustine had experienced, he recognized the need for God to be the first mover. He acknowledges that God moves first in his prayer, “give me chastity…”
Augustine developed the idea of prevenient grace, wherein God’s grace enables (praeveniri) us to do his will. Therefore God is the first mover, in opposition to Pelagianism which leaves room for man to move first. Augustine says, “The wills of men, by the grace of God, are prevented (praeveniri), and that it is God who makes them to will the good which they refused;…” Augustine knew that his conversion required God to move first to enable him to begin to believe. This came about through his knowledge of his evilness and his inability not to sin. Pelagius rejected this understanding of humanity.
Pelagius was condemned at the African council held at Carthage in 418. Pelagius would die circa 420. Augustine would continue arguing with the Pelagian Julian and the Semi-Pelagian monks from north Africa and Gaul until he died in 430. Finally, at the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431, anyone who shared the teachings of Pelagius and his associate Celestius were condemned. Kelly adds that the doctrine of Pelagianism was anathematized at that council. Parvis adds a caveat, saying that while Pelagianism was disowned, Augustine’s teachings weren’t canonized. Gonzalez adds that Augustine’s teachings would be transformed over the next hundred years before being accepted at the Synod of Orange. Yet, Pelagianism would continue to pop up throughout church history.
There is a modern Pelagianism that I hear in the Church today. I work at an intersection between an established aging congregation and a recovery community. All of us are together navigating what it means to be the Church. While we love the sober success stories shared in open worship testimonies. It can be easy to hate the disruptive drunk in the worship service.
I’ve talked with wives, mothers, husbands, and fathers from inside the Church, and I regularly hear the same thing, “why won’t they just stop using.” It is a simultaneous cry for help and an admonition for action. As a society, we tend to place recovery on the addict by holding paradigms that say, if you want to get better, stop doing drugs and go to treatment. I hear Pelagianistic paradigms from our Christian culture that there is no obstacle that exertion of the will cannot overcome.
Nearly every addict I know wants to stop, yet they can’t find the will inside themselves to not use. One man told me, “I know I need to stop, and if I don’t, I will die, but I don’t know if I can.”
Pelagianism tells the addict you have the power to stop; your will is free regardless of your sin condition. Reflecting Pelagisnistic ideas, the will is treated as though it has not been corrupted by sin and addiction. This is where Pelagianism in modern Christianity has gone astray; sin isn’t the action, it’s a condition from which sinful action flows. From our warped wills flows warped actions. Asking the addict to use their warped and twisted wills to do good places an impossible burden on them. As Augustine affirmed, they are non posse non peccare. In every addict I know is a piece of Augustine feeling the same tension Augustine felt:
“A harsh bondage held me under restraint. The new will, which was beginning to be within me a will to serve you freely and to enjoy, God, the only sure source of pleasure, was not yet strong enough to conquer my older will, which had the strength of old habit. So my two wills, one old, the other new, one carnal, the other spiritual, were in conflict with one another, and their discord robbed my soul of all concentration.”
Yet, in the lives of the addict remains a hope, the power of God calling them to himself, prevenient grace. Augustine said, “it is God who makes them to will the good which they refused.” While Augustine would go too far with his understanding of the irresistible nature of grace. It is grace, nonetheless, that opens the door for faith and, at the father’s touch - healing. In his I Have a Dream Speech, Martin Luther King said, “With this faith, we will hew from mountains of despair, stones of hope.”
Addiction creates a mountain of despair that holds people in isolation from community. When God enters the life of the addict, he begins to hew from that mountain of despair a stone of hope on which recovery and community can be built. Modern Pelagianism tells the addict to will themselves to be better and isolates them from the community where recovery is possible. In response to Pelagianism today, we must echo Augustine, who rightly fought against it. God is building his Church, one stone of hope at a time. The addict cannot stop themselves from using.
Just like the addict, all of us are incapable of choosing to receive the Fruit of the Spirit. We can no more choose to have peace any more than the addict can choose not to crave drugs. Only by God’s prevenient grace are we granted the Fruit of the Spirit- for they are the Fruit of the Spirit and not the Fruit of man. We must move beyond the models of circumstance and choice.
God alone delivers the Fruit of the Spirit to us. There is no way for us to manifest them either by building circumstances or by choice. So, we must develop a theological understanding of where the Fruit originates.