WHO WAS PELAGIUS?

Author’s Note: This post is meant to be educational and not controversial.  The only theological position taken in this post is the following: “multiple condemnations of Pelagianism also serve as a caution for those, who in their human state of hubris, would endeavor to do righteous works attributed to their own will.  Such endeavors are scripturally unsound.”  In consideration of that, I recommend that you consider with great caution any line of reasoning that has been labeled by its critics as “Pelagian” or “Semi-pelagian” There is a very real danger in attributing any good work to human merit when it is God alone to Whom glory is due.

WHO WAS PELAGIUS?

Pelagius (not to be confused with St. Pelagius of Cordova), was an influential theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries.  He is most remembered for his teachings and writings on the doctrines of free will, grace, and original sin.  During his theological career, he encountered the theology and made the acquaintance of his contemporary Augustine.  Like Pelagius, Augustine is also one of the most widely studied theologians in church history on the subjects of free will, grace, and original sin.  Although both Augustine and Pelagius are both widely studied on the same subject matter, both are not widely venerated.  Augustine was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church.  His books, City of God and Confessions are among the most widely read theological works in the world, among Protestants and Catholics alike.  The oldest city in the United States, Saint Augustine, is named in his honor. Conversely, there are no cities named after Pelagius.  His literary works have either been lost or left largely untranslated.  Pelagius was far removed from the honor of beatification; his views were condemned as heretical.  The theological beliefs attributed to him, known as Pelagianism, have been decried throughout church history.

It is certain that Pelagius was disparaged by leading church authorities both in his day and after his death.   However, Pelagianism has not been without followers.  In fact Pelagianism itself has its own offshoot, Semi-Pelagianism (though no group specifically claims to be “Semi-Pelagian”).  It is even possible that Pelagianism itself is modified offshoot of Pelagius’ own views.  Like many theologians before and after him, Pelagius’ personal views may have been exaggerated or changed by his followers.  Whatever Pelaguis’ exact views were and regardless of the general rejection of his teachings by his contemporaries, Pelagius has made a lasting impact on church history.  Ascertaining exactly what Pelagianism is and where Pelagius came from (if that can be done) is the first step to understanding that impact.

BACKGROUND AND MISSION

            Not much is known about the early life of Pelagius.  He is thought to have immigrated east to Rome from the British Isles.  He led and aesthetic life and was referred to as a monk, but history does not definitively identify him with any specific monastic order. It seems that Pelagius had both a classical Greek education as well as a formidable knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.  Aside from these things not much is known of Pelagius personally except that he was a man of great virtue.  Of his personal virtue, even his most vehement theological opponent Augustine, was complimentary going so far as to refer to Pelagius as a “saintly man.” [1]

Augustine (among other influential church leaders) was less complimentary of Pelagius’ views.  Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin.  Although there was no official accepted church orthodoxy on original sin in Pelagius’ day, the belief that all of mankind was condemned because of the sin of Adam and redeemed only through the unilateral grace of God was widely accepted.  Pelagius saw this pervading belief as a reason for moral laxity in society.  To him, the kind of doctrine that condemned humans as predisposed to a sinful lifestyle provided people with an excuse to live such a lifestyle.  If mankind did not have the inherent choice to live righteously, then mankind could not be expected to do so without the intervention of God.  Pelagius found this notion to be as disagreeable as the immoral lifestyle of many former pagans who had nominally converted to Christianity while substantially maintaining their former lifestyles.  Pelagius preferred to think that man had a choice to act morally; he said, “Yet we do not defend the good of nature to such an extent that we claim that it cannot do evil, since we undoubtedly declare also that it is capable of good and evil; we merely try to protect it from an unjust charge, so that we may not seem to be forced to do evil through a fault of our nature, when, in fact, we do neither good nor evil without the exercise of our will and always have the freedom to do one of the two, being always able to do either.[2]

Pelagius posited that mankind was not indeed condemned by Adam’s original sin and born into a fallen state.  Rather, mankind was born innocent with the free will to choose a righteous path or a sinful one; sin was an act of a man’s will.  Sin was not a part of a man’s nature; therefore, living within God’s conditional grace, man could do what was necessary for salvation without special election from God.  Furthermore, since mankind was not born into a condemned state of original sin already, infant baptism was not necessary for salvation.  In theology such as this, there is not room for a sinner to excuse himself based upon an inborn sin nature.

Due to the sacking of Rome by Alaric the Goth in 410, Pelagius was forced to leave the city.  Whilst residing there, he promulgated his ideas to the Christian Aristocracy relatively unmolested.  During his sojourn in Rome he composed several works: “De fide Trinitatis libri III”, now lost, but extolled by Gennadius as “indispensable reading matter for students”; “Eclogarum ex divinis Scripturis liber unus”, in the main collection of Bible passages based on Cyprian’s “Testimoniorum libri III”, of which St. Augustine has preserved a number of fragments; “Commentarii in epistolas S. Pauli”[3]  Pelagius and his partisan Caelestius eventually moved onto Carthage, the home of Augustine.

OBJECTIONS TO PELAGIANISM

It was in Carthage where Pelagius’ troubles with church authorities would begin.  There Caelestius began disseminating Pelagian thought to a much more controversial reaction than it was met with in Rome.  Pelagius himself moved onto Palestine where Pelagian controversy would continue as he aroused the ire of fellow aesthetic, Jerome.  During the year 415 in response to criticism in Palestine, Pelagius authored “De Natura”, in which he states of man, “He is not condemned; because the statement that all sinned in Adam, was not made because of the sin which is derived from one’s birth, but because of imitation of him.”[4]   This type of theology did not sit well with Augustine, Bishop of Hippo who would author many polemical writings objecting to Pelagian thought.  In fact Augustine stated that it was “De Natura” that first convinced him of the dangers of Pelagius’ teaching.[5]

In Carthage, Caelestius caused perhaps the greatest Pelagian controversy.   His views were so objected to that a council was called to refute them in 411.  At that council, the following “Pelagian” views propagated by Caelestius were condemned:  “Adam was created mortal so that he would die whether he sinned or not.” “The sin of Adam harmed him alone and not the human race.” “The law leads to the kingdom just as the gospel does.” “Before the coming of Christ there were human beings without sin.” “Newly born infants are in the same state Adam was before his transgression.” “The whole human race does not die through the death or transgression of Adam, nor does the whole human race rise through the resurrection of Christ.”[6]  So ended Caelstius’ career in Carthage.  Pelagius fared little better in Palestine and was eventually banished from it.  Church orthodoxy would become largely Augustinian, especially after the Council of Carthage of 418.  It is important to note that Pelagius and Caelestius were themselves never severely punished as heretics; it was rather Pelagianism that was deemed heretical.   That’s not to say that Pelagius did not face trouble; he had to defend himself against the potential condemnation of councils and popes many time.  Pelagius himself fell away from the theological scene around 418 and likely died among a small group of his supporters in Egypt after a life of flight from persecution.

WAS PELAGIUS A PELAGIAN?

There is some argument in historical scholarship as to how substantially Pelagian views should be attributed to Pelagius.  It is possible that after Pelagius parted company with Caelestius, that the latter took the ball and ran with it in his own direction, so to speak.  There are numerous accounts of Pelagius making statements that could be deemed as anit-Pelagian.  For example, Pelagius is quoted as refuting “Pelagian” doctrine by saying, “I anathematize the man who either thinks or says that the grace of God, whereby ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,’ is not necessary not only for ever hour and for every moment, but also for every act of our lives: and those who endeavor to disannul it deserve everlasting punishment.”[7]  The case could the case be that Caelestius and other Pelagian disciples took the precepts of Pelagius further than Pelagius himself would have taken them.  The case could also be that Pelagius was trying to talk himself out of trouble when he spoke out against controversial ideals that were attributed to him.

Because so much Pelagian thought is preserved in the writings of Pelagian opponents rather than Pelagius himself, it may never be possible to formulate a truly Pelagian picture of Pelagianism.  In other words, Pelagianism may be Pelagian in name only.  As Augustine biographer Peter Brown puts it, “Indeed, Pelagianism as we know it, that consistent body of ideas of momentous consequences, had come into existence; but in the mind of Augustine, not of Pelagius.” [8]  Given Pelagius’ afore mentioned refutations of Pelagian principles, it is possible that Pelagius was more Semi-Pelagian than Pelagian.   Semi-Pelagianist thought suggests that a combination of God’s grace and human will work together to achieve salvation; this kind of thinking certainly fits within the framework of the above quote from Pelagius regarding Christ and the grace of God.  Given the ambiguous historical record of Pelagius’ actual personal beliefs, perhaps it is best to think of him not as a theologian or cleric, but as a social reformer who desired to see Christianity lived out in the daily lives of men rather than esoterically opined upon.

LEGACY OF PELAGIUS

Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism have been condemned by numerous ecumenical councils and confessions, both Catholic and Protestant, throughout history.  During Pelagius’ own life, Pelagiainism was condemned three times in Carthage alone. After Pelagius’ death, Pelagianism was subsequently condemned by the councils of Ephesus (421), Orange (529), and Trent (1546).  The Lutherans, French Reformed, and German Reformed denominations all deny Pelagian views in their confessions of faith.  Conversely, there have been no widespread confessions of faith or church councils that affirm Pelagianism.  Certainly there have been individuals throughout church history, especially during the lifetimes of Pelagius and Caelestius who held Pelagian views, but these individuals did not take their views far enough to cause serious schisms within the church.  For example, Bishop Julian of Eclanum is noted for leading the fight in support of Pelagianism after it was condemned in 418, but his efforts (and the efforts of other Pelagian leaders) did not lead to a serious separate church movement.   Pelagianism when compared to other heretical movements does not seem to leave a significant trial of deaths, persecutions, and denominational splitting.

That is not to say that Pelagian theology disappeared in the first century.  To this day, some Arminian denominations are accused of harboring Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian views.[9]   However, Pelagian ties within Ariminian denominations are tenuous at best.  Evangelist Charles Finney, an influential revivalist of the late 19th Century is perhaps the most notable religious leader to have harbored Pelagian views within the last century.  Finney, a major Force in the Second Great Awakening movement,[10] certainly harbored Pelagian viewpoints, but comes off as more staunchly Anti-Calvinist that Pro-Pelagian.   Finney wasn’t known as a scholarly theologian, he was even unaware of the tenets even of his own Presbyterian profession of faith when he first made it.   Given his apparent ignorance on the subject, he can hardly be claimed as a champion of Pelagianism.  So then, Charles Finney, like Pelagius comes off more as a social reformer than a theological revolutionary.  Given that Pelagianism doesn’t have any specific denominational offshoots or outspoken proponents within the modern church; it would seem that, for all the controversy it has caused since the 5th Century, Pelagiainism hasn’t made a concrete impact on church history from an institutional perspective.  However, it is safe to say that Pelagius inspired many in his day and throughout history to strive to live more righteous lives; lives focused more on experiential living rather than empty doctrinal observance.  At the same time, the multiple condemnations of Pelagianism also serve as a caution for those, who in their human state of hubris, would endeavor to do righteous works attributed to their own will.  Such endeavors are scripturally unsound. As the Apostle Paul put it in Romans, “There is no one righteous, not even one.[11]”  What the Apostle Paul doesn’t say is “There is none righteous, so don’t even try to live that way,” and perhaps that is the point Pelagius was trying to make all along.

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

WORKS CITED

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. University of California Press, 2000.

Butler, Rex. Augustine of Hippo: A Giant of the Church.

Colline, William J.& John A. Mourant. Four Anti-Pelagian Writings . Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992.

DeWaay, Bob. Charles Finney’s Influence on American Evangelicalism: Exposing Charles Finney’s Heretical Teachings . July/August 1999. http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue53.htm (accessed July 5th, 2010).

Hankins, Barry. The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Holy Bible, New International Version. New York: International Bible Society, 1984.

Justo L. Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. HarperOne, 1984.

Jennings, Daniel R. Pelagius, on Nature. http://www.monachos.net/content/patristics/patristictexts/195-pelagius-on-nature (accessed July 4th, 2010).

Jennings, Daniel R. “Pie_Pelagius_Written_Anthema.” http://www.seanmultimedia.com/Pie_Pelagius_Written_Anathema.html (accessed July 4th, 2010).

Johnson, Phillp R. A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: How Charles Finney’s Theology Ravaged the Evangelical Movement. 1999. http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/articles/finney.htm (accessed July 5 2010, 2010).

Ligon, Duncan. “Pelagian Origins.” February 10th, 1988. http://www.fpcjackson.org/resources/church_history/pelagianorig.htm (accessed July 4th, 2010).

Miller, Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller, Boyce M. Bennett, David H. Scott. Harper’s Encyclopedia of Bible Life. Book Sales, 1996.

Ministry, Christian Apologetics and Research. Pelagianism . http://www.carm.org/pelagianism (accessed July 5th, 2010).

Olson, Roger E. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities . Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2006.

Pelagius and Pelagianism: Encyclopeida of Philiosophy Summary. http://www.bookrags.com/research/pelagius-and-pelagianism-eoph/ (accessed July 5th, 2010).

Pelagius: Relgion Facts. 2004-2009. http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/people/pelagius.htm (accessed July 5th, 2010).

Pohle, Joseph. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.

Rees, B.R. The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers. Boydell & Brewer Inc, 1991.

Rees, B.R. Pelagius, a Reluctant Heretic. Boydell Press, 1988.

Rees, B.R. Pelagius: Life and Letters. Boydell Press, 2004.

[1]  (Pohle 1911)

[2]  (B. Rees 1991)

[3]  (Pohle 1911)

[4]  (Jennings n.d.)

[5]  (Colline 1992)

[6]  (Hill 1997)

[7]  (D. R. Jennings n.d.)

[8]  (Brown 2000)

[9]  (Olson 2006)

[10]  (DeWaay 1999)

[11]  (Holy Bible, New International Version 1984)

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