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Pelagianism is a theological theory named after Pelagius (AD 354 – AD 420/440), although ironically he denied, at least at some point in his life, many of the doctrines associated with his name. It is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special Divine aid. Thus, Adam's sin was "to set a bad example" for his progeny, but his actions did not have the other consequences imputed to Original Sin. Pelagianism views the role of Jesus as "setting a good example" for the rest of humanity (thus counteracting Adam's bad example) as well as providing an atonement for our sins. In short, humanity has full control, and thus full responsibility, for obeying the Gospel in addition to full responsibility for every sin (the latter insisted upon by both proponents and opponents of Pelagianism). According to Pelagian doctrine, because men are sinners by choice, they are therefore criminals who need the atonement of Jesus Christ. Sinners are not victims, they are criminals who need pardon.



Pelagius was opposed by Augustine of Hippo, one of the most influential early Church Fathers. When Pelagius taught that moral perfection was attainable in this life without the assistance of divine grace through human free will, Augustine contradicted this by saying that perfection was impossible without grace because we are born sinners with a sinful heart and will. The Pelagians charged Augustine on the grounds that the doctrine of original sin amounted to Manichaeism: the Manichaeans taught that the flesh was in itself sinful (and they denied that Jesus came in the flesh) – and this charge would have carried added weight since contemporaries knew that Augustine himself had been a Manichaean layman before his conversion to Christianity. Augustine also taught that a person's salvation comes solely through an irresistible free gift, the efficacious grace of God, but that this was a gift that one had a free choice to accept or refute[1].

Pelagianism was attacked in the Council of Diospolis[2] and condemned in 418 at the Council of Carthage.[3] These condemnations were ratified at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The strict moral teachings of the Pelagians were influential in southern Italy and Sicily, where they were openly preached until the death of Julian of Eclanum in 455.[4] As a movement, Pelagianism ceased to exist after the 6th century although its ideas continued to live on in the modern Church of Christ movement.[5]

In De causa Dei contra Pelagium et de virtute causarum, Thomas Bradwardine denounced Pelagians in the 14th century and Gabriel Biel did the same in the 15th century.[6]


Little or nothing is known about the life of Pelagius. Although he is frequently referred to as a British monk, it is by no means certain what his origins were. Augustine says that he lived in Rome "for a very long time" and referred to him as "Brito" to distinguish him from a different man called Pelagius of Tarentum. Bede refers to him as "Pelagius Bretto".[7] St. Jerome suggests he was of Scottish descent but in such terms as to leave it uncertain as to whether Pelagius was from Scotland or Ireland. He was certainly well known in the Roman province, both for the harsh asceticism of his public life, as well as the power and persuasiveness of his speech. Until his more radical ideas saw daylight, even such pillars of the Church as Augustine referred to him as “saintly.”

Pelagius taught that the human will, as created with its abilities by God, was sufficient to live a sinless life, although he believed that God's grace assisted every good work. Pelagius did not believe that all humanity was guilty in Adam's sin, but said that Adam had condemned humankind through bad example, and that Christ’s good example offered humanity a path to salvation, through sacrifice and through instruction of the will. Jerome emerged as one of the chief critics of Pelagianism, because, according to him, sin was a part of human nature and we couldn't help but to sin.

Comparison of teaching


Church Fathers on free will

Many of the Church Fathers taught that humans have the power of free will and the choice over good and evil. Justin Martyr said that 'every created being is so constituted as to be capable of vice and virtue. For he can do nothing praiseworthy, if he had not the power of turning either way'. 'Unless we suppose man has the power to choose the good and refuse the evil, no one can be accountable for any action whatever.' (The First Apology, 43). Tertullian also argued that no reward can be justly bestowed, no punishment can be justly inflicted, upon him who is good or bad by necessity, and not by his own choice. (Doctrine of the Will by Asa Mahan, p. 61). Likewise Origen [8], Augustine [9], and Clement of Alexandria [10]

Justin Martyr said, “Let some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever occurs happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain. We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Now, if this is not so, but all things happen by fate, then neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it is predetermined that this man will be good, and this other man will be evil, neither is the first one meritorious nor the latter man to be blamed. And again, unless the human race has the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions.” [11]

Justin Martyr said, “I have proven in what has been said that those who were foreknown to be unrighteous, whether men or angels, are not made wicked by God’s fault. Rather, each man is what he will appear to be through his own fault.” [12]

Tatian said, “We were not created to die. Rather, we die by our own fault. Our free will has destroyed us. We who were free have become slaves. We have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God. We ourselves have manifested wickedness. But we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it.” [13]

Melito said, “There is, therefore, nothing to hinder you from changing your evil manner to life, because you are a free man.” [14]

Theophilus said, “If, on the other hand, he would turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he would himself be the cause of death to himself. For God made man free, and with power of himself.” [15]

Irenaeus said, “But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect similar to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself his own cause that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff.” [16]

Irenaeus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds’…And ‘Why call me, Lord, Lord, and do not do the things that I say?’…All such passages demonstrate the independent will of man…For it is in man’s power to disobey God and to forfeit what is good.” [17]

Clement of Alexandria said, “We…have believed and are saved by voluntary choice.” [18]

Tertullian said, “I find, then, that man was constituted free by God. He was master of his own will and power…For a law would not be imposed upon one who did not have it in his power to render that obedience which is due to law. Nor again, would the penalty of death be threatened against sin, if a contempt of the law were impossible to man in the liberty of his will…Man is free, with a will either for obedience or resistance. [19]

Church Fathers against Original Sin

"If a man were created evil, he would not deserve punishment, since he was not evil of himself, being unable to do anything else than what he was made for." Justin Martyr (First Apology Chap. 43)

"If anyone is truly religious, he is a man of God; but if he is irreligious, he is a man of the devil, made such, not by nature, but by his own choice." Ignatius (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume One, p. 61)

"The Scriptures…emphasize the freedom of the will. They condemn those who sin, and approve those who do right… We are responsible for being bad and worthy of being cast outside. For it is not the nature in us that is the cause of the evil; rather, it is the voluntary choice that works evil." Origen (A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 289, published by Hendrickson Publishers)

"Those who do not do it [good] will receive the just judgment of God, because they had not work good when they had it in their power to do so. But if some had been made by nature bad, and others good, these latter would not be deserving of praise for being good, for they were created that way. Nor would the former be reprehensible, for that is how they were made. However, all men are of the same nature. They are all able to hold fast and to do what is good. On the other hand, they have the power to cast good from them and not to do it." Irenaeus (A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 287, published by Hendrickson Publishers)

Other Christian Theologians against Original Sin

"To represent the constitution as sinful, is to present God, who is the author of the constitution, as the author of sin." Charles Finney (Finney's Systematic Theology, Bethany House, p. 261).

"To equate humanity with sinfulness is to make God the Author of His own worst enemy; to make God responsible for the thing that has brought Him unhappiness." Winkie Pratney (Youth Aflame, Bethany House, pg. 78).

"The next dogma deserving attention is the position, that mankind derived from our first progenitor a corrupt nature, which renders obedience to the commands of God impossible, and disobedience necessary, and that for the mere existence of this nature, men 'deserve God's wrath and curse, not only in this world, but in that which is to come.' If the above dogma is true, it is demonstrably evident, that this corrupt nature comes into existence without knowledge, choice, or agency of the creature, who for its existence is pronounced deserving of, and 'bound over to the wrath of God.' Equally evident is it, that this corrupt nature exists as the result of the direct agency of God. He proclaims himself the maker of 'every soul of man.' As its Maker, He must have imparted to that soul the constitution or nature which it actually possesses. It does not help the matter at all, to say, that this nature is derived from our progenitor: for the laws of generation, by which this corrupt nature is derived from that progenitor, are sustained and continued by God himself… If, then, the above dogma is true, man in the first place, is held as deserving of eternal punishment for that which exists wholly independent of his knowledge, choice or agency, in any sense, direct or indirect, He is also held responsible for the result, not of his own agency, but for that which results from the agency of God." Asa Mahan (Doctrine of the Will, published by Truth in Heart, p. 115).

"If man is in fault for his [supposed] sinful nature, why not condemn man for having blue or black eyes? The fact is, sin never can consist in having a nature, nor in what nature is, but only and alone in the bad use which we make of our nature. This is all. Our Maker will never find fault with us for what He has Himself done or made; certainly not. He will not condemn us, if we will only make a right use of our powers - of our intellect, our sensibilities, and our will. He never holds us responsible for our original nature… since there is no law against nature, nature cannot be a transgression… man's nature is not a proper subject for legislation, precept, and penalty, inasmuch as it lies entirely without the pale of voluntary action, or of any action of man at all." Charles Finney (Sermons on Gospel Themes, p. 78-79, published by Truth in Heart)

Pelagius's views

In contrast, Pelagius taught:

Pelagius said, “Whenever I have to speak on the subject of moral instruction and conduct of a holy life, it is my practice first to demonstrate the power and quality of human nature and to show what it is capable of achieving, and then to go on to encourage the mind of my listener to consider the idea of different kinds of virtues, in case it may be of little or no profit to him to be summoned to pursue ends which he has perhaps assumed hitherto to be beyond his reach; for we can never end upon the path of virtue unless we have hope as our guide and compassion…any good of which human nature is capable has to be revealed, since what is shown to be practicable must be put into practice.” [20]

Pelagius said, "It was because God wished to bestow on the rational creature the gift of doing good of his own free will and the capacity to exercise free choice, by implanting in man the possibility of choosing either alternative...he could do either quite naturally and then bend his will in the other direction too. He could not claim to possess the good of his own volition, unless he was the kind of creature that could also have possessed evil. Our most excellent creator wished us to be able to do either but actually to do only one, that is, good, which he also commanded, giving us the capacity to do evil only so that we might do His will by exercising our own. That being so, this very capacity to do evil is also good - good, I say, because it makes the good part better by making it voluntary and independent, not bound by necessity but free to decide for itself." [21]

Pelagius said, "Those who are unwilling to correct their own way of life appear to want to correct nature itself instead." [22]

Pelagius said, "And lest, on the other hand, it should be thought to be nature's fault that some have been unrighteous, I shall use the evidence of the scripture, which everywhere lay upon sinners the heavy weight of the charge of having used their own will and do not excuse them for having acted only under constraint of nature." [23]

Pelagius 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." [24]

Pelagius said, "Nothing impossible has been commanded by the God of justice and majesty...Why do we indulge in pointless evasions, advancing the frailty of our own nature as an objection to the one who commands us? No one knows better the true measure of our strength than he who has given it to us nor does anyone understand better how much we are able to do than he who has given us this very capacity of ours to be able; nor has he who is just wished to command anything impossible or he who is good intended to condemn a man for doing what he could not avoid doing." [25]

Pelagius said, "Grace indeed freely discharges sins, but with the consent and choice of the believer." [26]

Pelagius said, "Obedience results from a decision of the mind, not the substance of the body." [27]

An unknown Pelagian, "Is it possible then for a man not to sin? Such a claim is indeed a hard one and a bitter pill for sinners to swallow; it pains the ears of all who desire to live unrighteous. Who will find it easy now to fulfil the demands of righteousness, when there are some who find it hard even to listen to them?" [28]

An unknown Pelagian, "When will a man guilty of any crime or sin accept with a tranquil mind that his wickedness is a product of his own will, not of necessity, and allow what he now strives to attribute to nature to be ascribed to his own free choice? It affords endless comfort to transgressors of the divine law if they are able to believe that their failure to do something is due to inability rather than disinclination, since they understand from their natural wisdom that no one can be judged for failing to do the impossible and that what is justifiable on grounds of impossibility is either a small sin or none at all." [29]

An unknown Pelagian, "Under the plea that it is impossible not to sin, they are given a false sense of security in sinning...Anyone who hears that it is not possible for him to be without sin will not even try to be what he judges to be impossible, and the man who does not try to be without sin must perforce sin all the time, and all the more boldly because he enjoys the false security of believing that it is impossible for him not to sin...But if he were to hear that he is able not to sin, then he would have exerted himself to fulfil what he now knows to be possible when he is striving to fulfil it, to achieve his purpose for the most part, even if not entirely." [30]

An unknown Pelagian, "Consider first whether that which is such that a man cannot be without it ought to be described as sin at all; for everything which cannot be avoided is now put down to nature but it is impious to say that sin is inherent in nature, because in this way the author of nature is being judged at fault… how can it be proper to call sin by that name if, like other natural things, it cannot be avoided, since all sin is to be attributed to the free choice of the will, not to the defects of nature?" [31]


  1. ^ The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. 2001. , eds. Eleonore Stump, Norman Kretzmann. New York: Cambridge University Press. 130-135.
  2. ^ *Transcript From The Council of Diospolis (Lydda) Against Pelagius, 415AD
  3. ^ Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion by William L Reese, Humanities Press 1980 p.421
  4. ^ Unitarian Universalism
  5. ^ Pelagianism The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition; 2006 . (Accessed May. 10, 2006.)
  6. ^ Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion by William L Reese, Humanities Press 1980 p.421
  7. ^ Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary
  8. ^ said, “The soul does not incline to either part out of necessity, for then neither vice nor virtue could be ascribed to it; nor would its choice of virtue deserve reward; nor its declination to vice punishment.”(The Works of the Reverend John Fletcher p.212) Again, “How could God require that of man which he [man] had not power to offer Him?” (Doctrine of the Will by Asa Mahan, p. 62, published by Truth in Heart)
  9. ^ “They that would not come [to Christ], ought not to impute it to another, but only to themselves, because, when they are called, it was in the power of their free will to come.” (A critical history of philosophy)
  10. ^ “Neither promises nor apprehensions, rewards, no punishments are just if the soul has not the power of choosing and abstaining; if evil is involuntary.” (Doctrine of the Will by Asa Mahan, p. 63, published by Truth in Heart)
  11. ^ Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 95
  12. ^ Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 140
  13. ^ Address to the Greeks, 11
  14. ^ c.170, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 286, published by Hendrickson Publishers
  15. ^ c.180, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 286, published by Hendrickson Publishers
  16. ^ c.180, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 286, published by Hendrickson Publishers
  17. ^ c.180, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 287, published by Hendrickson Publishers
  18. ^ c.195, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 287, published by Hendrickson Publishers
  19. ^ c.207, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 288, published by Hendrickson Publishers
  20. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 36-37, published by The Boydell Press
  21. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 38, published by The Boydell Press
  22. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 39, published by The Boydell Press
  23. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 43, published by The Boydell Press
  24. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 43, published by The Boydell Press
  25. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 53-54, published by The Boydell Press
  26. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 92, published by The Boydell Press
  27. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 90, published by The Boydell Press
  28. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 167, published by The Boydell Press
  29. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 167-168, published by The Boydell Press
  30. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 168, published by The Boydell Press
  31. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 168-169, published by The Boydell Press

See also

Writings by Pelagius

External links

Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

Pelagianism received its name from Pelagius and designates a heresy of the fifth century, which denied original sin as well as Christian grace.


Life and Writings of Pelagius

Apart from the chief episodes of the Pelagian controversy, little or nothing is known about the personal career of Pelagius. It is only after he bade a lasting farewell to Rome in A.D. 411 that the sources become more abundant; but from 418 on history is again silent about his person. As St. Augustine (De peccat. orig., xxiv) testifies that he lived in Rome "for a very long time", we may presume that he resided there at least since the reign of Pope Anastasius (398-401). But about his long life prior to the year 400 and above all about his youth, we are left wholly in the dark. Even the country of his birth is disputed. While the most trustworthy witnesses, such as Augustine, Orosius, Prosper, and Marius Mercator, are quite explicit in assigning Britain as his native country, as is apparent from his cognomen of Brito or Britannicus, Jerome (Praef. in Jerem., lib. I and III) ridicules him as a "Scot" (loc. cit., "habet enim progeniem Scoticae gentis de Britannorum vicinia"), who being "stuffed with Scottish porridge" (Scotorum pultibus proegravatus) suffers from a weak memory. Rightly arguing that the "Scots" of those days were really the Irish, H. Zimmer ("Pelagius in Ireland", p.20, Berlin, 1901) has advanced weighty reasons for the hypothesis that the true home of Pelagius must be sought in Ireland, and that he journeyed through the southwest of Britain to Rome. Tall in stature and portly in appearance (Jerome, loc. cit., "grandis et corpulentus"), Pelagius was highly educated, spoke and wrote Latin as well as Greek with great fluency and was well versed in theology. Though a monk and consequently devoted to practical asceticism, he never was a cleric; for both Orosius and Pope Zosimus simply call him a "layman". In Rome itself he enjoyed the reputation of austerity, while St. Augustine called him even a "saintly man", vir sanctus: with St. Paulinus of Nola (405) and other prominent bishops, he kept up an edifying correspondence, which he used later for his personal defence.

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", elaborated no doubt before the destruction of Rome by Alaric (410) and known to St. Augustine in 412. Zimmer (loc. cit.) deserves credit for having rediscovered in this commentary on St. Paul the original work of Pelagius, which had, in the course of time, been attributed to St. Jerome (P.L., XXX, 645-902). A closer examination of this work, so suddenly become famous, brought to light the fact that it contained the fundamental ideas which the Church afterwards condemned as "Pelagian heresy". In it Pelagius denied the primitive state in paradise and original sin (cf. P. L., XXX, 678, "Insaniunt, qui de Adam per traducem asserunt ad nos venire peccatum"), insisted on the naturalness of concupiscence and the death of the body, and ascribed the actual existence and universality of sin to the bad example which Adam set by his first sin. As all his ideas were chiefly rooted in the old, pagan philosophy, especially in the popular system of the Stoics, rather than in Christianity, he regarded the moral strength of man's will (liberum arbitrium), when steeled by asceticism, as sufficient in itself to desire and to attain the loftiest ideal of virtue. The value of Christ's redemption was, in his opinion, limited mainly to instruction (doctrina) and example (exemplum), which the Saviour threw into the balance as a counterweight against Adam's wicked example, so that nature retains the ability to conquer sin and to gain eternal life even without the aid of grace. By justification we are indeed cleansed of our personal sins through faith alone (loc. cit., 663, "per solam fidem justificat Deus impium convertendum"), but this pardon (gratia remissionis) implies no interior renovation of sanctification of the soul. How far the sola-fides doctrine "had no stouter champion before Luther than Pelagius" and whether, in particular, the Protestant conception of fiducial faith dawned upon him many centuries before Luther, as Loofs ("Realencyklopädies fur protest. Theologie", XV, 753, Leipzig, 1904) assumes, probably needs more careful investigation. For the rest, Pelagius would have announced nothing new by this doctrine, since the Antinomists of the early Apostolic Church were already familiar with "justification by faith alone" (cf. JUSTIFICATION); on the other hand, Luther's boast of having been the first to proclaim the doctrine of abiding faith, might well arouse opposition. However, Pelagius insists expressly (loc. cit. 812), "Ceterum sine operibus fidei, non legis, mortua est fides". But the commentary on St. Paul is silent on one chief point of doctrine, i.e. the significance of infant baptism, which supposed that the faithful were even then clearly conscious of the existence of original sin in children.

To explain psychologically Pelagius's whole line of thought, it does not suffice to go back to the ideal of the wise man, which he fashioned after the ethical principles of the Stoics and upon which his vision was centred. We must also take into account that his intimacy with the Greeks developed in him, though unknown to himself, a one-sidedness, which at first sight appears pardonable. The gravest error into which he and the rest of the Pelagians fell, was that they did not submit to the doctrinal decisions of the Church. While the Latins had emphasized the guilt rather than its punishment, as the chief characteristic of original sin, the Greeks on the other hand (even Chrysostom) laid greater stress on the punishment than on the guilt. Theodore of Mopsuestia went even so far as to deny the possibility of original guilt and consequently the penal character of the death of the body. Besides, at that time, the doctrine of Christian grace was everywhere vague and undefined; even the West was convinced of nothing more than that some sort of assistance was necessary to salvation and was given gratuitously, while the nature of this assistance was but little understood. In the East, moreover, as an offset to widespread fatalism, the moral power and freedom of the will were at times very strongly or even too strongly insisted on assisting grace being spoken of more frequently than preventing grace (see GRACE). It was due to the intervention of St. Augustine and the Church, that greater clearness was gradually reached in the disputed questions and that the first impulse was given towards a more careful development of the dogmas of original sin and grace.

Pelagius and Caelestius (411-415)

Of far-reaching influence upon the further progress of Pelagianism was the friendship which Pelagius contracted in Rome with Caelestius, a lawyer of noble (probably Italian) descent. A eunuch by birth, but endowed with no mean talents, Caelestius had been won over to asceticism by his enthusiasm for the monastic life, and in the capacity of a lay-monk he endeavoured to convert the practical maxims learnt from Pelagius, into theoretical principles, which successfully propagated in Rome. St. Augustine, while charging Pelagius with mysteriousness, mendacity, and shrewdness, calls Caelestius (De peccat. orig., xv) not only "incredibly loquacious", but also open-hearted, obstinate, and free in social intercourse. Even if their secret or open intrigues did not escape notice, still the two friends were not molested by the official Roman circles. But matters changed when in 411 they left the hospitable soil of the metropolis, which had been sacked by Alaric (410), and set sail for North Africa. When they landed on the coast near Hippo, Augustine, the bishop of that city, was absent, being fully occupied in settling the Donatist disputes in Africa. Later, he met Pelagius in Carthage several times, without, however, coming into closer contact with him. After a brief sojourn in North Africa, Pelagius travelled on to Palestine, while Caelestius tried to have himself made a presbyter in Carthage. But this plan was frustrated by the deacon Paulinus of Milan, who submitted to the bishop, Aurelius, a memorial in which six theses of Caelestius -- perhaps literal extracts from his lost work "Contra traducem peccati" -- were branded as heretical. These theses ran as follows:

  • Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died.
  • Adam's sin harmed only himself, not the human race.
  • Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall.
  • The whole human race neither dies through Adam's sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of Christ.
  • The (Mosaic Law) is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel.
  • Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin.

On account of these doctrines, which clearly contain the quintessence of Pelagianism, Caelestius was summoned to appear before a synod at Carthage (411); but he refused to retract them, alleging that the inheritance of Adam's sin was an open question and hence its denial was no heresy. As a result he was not only excluded from ordination, but his six theses were condemned. He declared his intention of appealing to the pope in Rome, but without executing his design went to Ephesus in Asia Minor, where he was ordained a priest.

Meanwhile the Pelagian ideas had infected a wide area, especially around Carthage, so that Augustine and other bishops were compelled to take a resolute stand against them in sermons and private conversations. Urged by his friend Marcellinus, who "daily endured the most annoying debates with the erring brethren", St. Augustine in 412 wrote the famous works: "De peccatorum meritis et remissione libri III" (P. L., XLIV, 109 sqq.) and "De spiritu et litera" (ibid., 201 sqq.), in which he positively established the existence of original sin, the necessity of infant baptism, the impossibility of a life without sin, and the necessity of interior grace (spiritus) in opposition to the exterior grace of the law (litera). When in 414 disquieting rumours arrived from Sicily and the so-called "Definitiones Caelestii" (reconstructed in Garnier, "Marii Mercatoris Opera", I, 384 sqq., Paris, 1673), said to be the work of Caelestius, were sent to him, he at once (414 or 415) published the rejoinder, "De perfectione justitiae hominis" (P. L., XLIV, 291 sqq.), in which he again demolished the illusion of the possibility of complete freedom from sin. Out of charity and in order to win back the erring the more effectually, Augustine, in all these writings, never mentioned the two authors of the heresy by name.

Meanwhile Pelagius, who was sojourning in Palestine, did not remain idle; to a noble Roman virgin, named Demetrias, who at Alaric's coming had fled to Carthage, he wrote a letter which is still extant (in P. L., XXX, 15-45) and in which he again inculcated his Stoic principles of the unlimited energy of nature. Moreover, he published in 415 a work, now lost, "De natura", in which he attempted to prove his doctrine from authorities, appealing not only to the writings of Hilary and Ambrose, but also to the earlier works of Jerome and Augustine, both of whom were still alive. The latter answered at once (415) by his treatise "De natura et gratia" (P. L., XLIV, 247 sqq.). Jerome, however, to whom Augustine's pupil Orosius, a Spanish priest, personally explained the danger of the new heresy, and who had been chagrined by the severity with which Pelagius had criticized his commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, thought the time ripe to enter the lists; this he did by his letter to Ctesiphon (Ep. cxxliii) and by his graceful "Dialogus contra Pelagianos" (P. L., XXIII, 495 sqq.). He was assisted by Orosius, who, forthwith accused Pelagius in Jerusalem of heresy. Thereupon, Bishop John of Jerusalem "dearly loved" (St. Augustine, "Ep. clxxix") Pelagius and had him at the time as his guest. He convoked in July, 415, a diocesan council for the investigation of the charge. The proceedings were hampered by the fact that Orosius, the accusing party, did not understand Greek and had engaged a poor interpreter, while the defendant Pelagius was quite able to defend himself in Greek and uphold his orthodoxy. However, according to the personal account (written at the close of 415) of Orosius (Liber apolog. contra Pelagium, P. L., XXXI, 1173), the contesting parties at last agreed to leave the final judgment on all questions to the Latins, since both Pelagius and his adversaries were Latins, and to invoke the decision of Innocent I; meanwhile silence was imposed on both parties.

But Pelagius was granted only a short respite. For in the very same year, the Gallic bishops, Heros of Arles and Lazarus of Aix, who, after the defeat of the usurper Constantine (411), had resigned their bishoprics and gone to Palestine, brought the matter before Bishop Eulogius of Caesarea, with the result that the latter summoned Pelagius in December, 415, before a synod of fourteen bishops, held in Diospolis, the ancient Lydda. But fortune again favoured the heresiarch. About the proceedings and the issue we are exceptionally well informed through the account of St. Augustine, "De gestis Pelagii" (P. L., XLIV, 319 sqq.), written in 417 and based on the acts of the synod. Pelagius punctually obeyed the summons, but the principal complainants, Heros and Lazarus, failed to make their appearance, one of them being prevented by ill-health. And as Orosius, too, derided and persecuted by Bishop John of Jerusalem, had departed, Pelagius met no personal plaintiff, while he found at the same time a skillful advocate in the deacon Anianus of Celeda (cf. Hieronym., "Ep. cxliii", ed. Vallarsi, I, 1067). The principal points of the petition were translated by an interpreter into Greek and read only in an extract. Pelagius, having won the good-will of the assembly by reading to them some private letters of prominent bishops among them one of Augustine (Ep. cxlvi) -- began to explain away and disprove the various accusations. Thus from the charge that he made the possibility of a sinless life solely dependent on free will, he exonerated himself by saying that, on the contrary, he required the help of God (adjutorium Dei) for it, though by this he meant nothing else than the grace of creation (gratia creationis). Of other doctrines with which he had been charged, he said that, formulated as they were in the complaint, they did not originate from him, but from Caelestius, and that he also repudiated them. After the hearing there was nothing left for the synod but to discharge the defendant and to announce him as worthy of communion with the Church. The Orient had now spoken twice and had found nothing to blame in Pelagius, because he had hidden his real sentiments from his judges.

Continuation and End of Controversy (415-418)

The new acquittal of Pelagius did not fail to cause excitement and alarm in North Africa, whither Orosius had hastened in 416 with letters from Bishops Heros and Lazarus. To parry the blow, something decisive had to be done. In autumn, 416, 67 bishops from Proconsular Africa assembled in a synod at Carthage, which was presided over by Aurelius, while fifty-nine bishops of the ecclesiastical province of Numidia, to which the See of Hippo, St. Augustine's see belonged, held a synod in Mileve. In both places the doctrines of Pelagius and Caelestius were again rejected as contradictory to the Catholic faith. However, in order to secure for their decisions "the authority of the Apostolic See", both synods wrote to Innocent I, requesting his supreme sanction. And in order to impress upon him more strongly the seriousness of the situation, five bishops (Augustine, Aurelius, Alypius, Evodius, and Possidius) forwarded to him a joint letter, in which they detailed the doctrine of original sin, infant baptism, and Christian grace (St. Augustine, "Epp. clxxv-vii"). In three separate epistles, dated 27 Jan., 417, the pope answered the synodal letters of Carthage and Mileve as well as that of the five bishops (Jaffé, "Regest.", 2nd ed., nn. 321-323, Leipzig, 1885). Starting from the principle that the resolutions of provincial synods have no binding force until they are confirmed by the supreme authority of the Apostolic See, the pope developed the Catholic teaching on original sin and grace, and excluded Pelagius and Caelestius, who were reported to have rejected these doctrines, form communion with the Church until they should come to their senses (donec resipiscant). In Africa, where the decision was received with unfeigned joy, the whole controversy was now regarded as closed, and Augustine, on 23 September, 417, announced from the pulpit (Serm., cxxxi, 10 in P. L., XXXVIII, 734), "Jam de hac causa duo concilia missa sunt ad Sedem apostolicam, inde etiam rescripta venerunt; causa finita est". (Two synods having written to the Apostolic See about this matter; the replies have come back; the question is settled.) But he was mistaken; the matter was not yet settled.

Innocent I died on 12 March, 417, and Zosimus, a Greek by birth, succeeded him. Before his tribunal the whole Pelagian question was now opened once more and discussed in all its bearings. The occasion for this was the statements which both Pelagius and Caelestius submitted to the Roman See in order to justify themselves. Though the previous decisions of Innocent I had removed all doubts about the matter itself, yet the question of the persons involved was undecided, viz. Did Pelagius and Caelestius really teach the theses condemned as heretical? Zosimus' sense of justice forbade him to punish anyone with excommunication before he was duly convicted of his error. And if the steps recently taken by the two defendants were considered, the doubts which might arise on this point were not wholly groundless. In 416 Pelagius had published a new work, now lost, "De libero arbitrio libri IV", which in its phraseology seemed to verge towards the Augustinian conception of grace and infant baptism, even if in principle it did not abandon the author's earlier standpoint. Speaking of Christian grace, he admitted not only a Divine revelation, but also a sort of interior grace, viz. an illumination of the mind (through sermons, reading of the Bible, etc.), adding, however, that the latter served not to make salutary works possible, but only to facilitate their performance. As to infant baptism he granted that it ought to be administered in the same form as in the case of adults, not in order to cleanse the children from a real original guilt, but to secure to them entrance into the "kingdom of God". Unbaptized children, he thought, would after their death be excluded from the "kingdom of God", but not from "eternal life". This work, together with a still extant confession of faith, which bears witness to his childlike obedience, Pelagius sent to Rome, humbly begging at the same time that chance inaccuracies might be corrected by him who "holds the faith and see of Peter". All this was addressed to Innocent I, of whose death Pelagius had not yet heard. Caelestius, also, who meanwhile had changed his residence from Ephesus to Constantinople, but had been banished thence by the anti-Pelagian Bishop Atticus, took active steps toward his own rehabilitation. In 417 he went to Rome in person and laid at the feet of Zosimus a detailed confession of faith (Fragments, P. L., XLV, 1718), in which he affirmed his belief in all doctrines, "from the Trinity of one God to the resurrection of the dead" (cf. St. Augustine, "De peccato orig.", xxiii).

Highly pleased with this Catholic faith and obedience, Zosimus sent two different letters (P. L., XLV, 1719 sqq.) to the African bishops, saying that in the case of Caelestius Bishops Heros and Lazarus had proceeded without due circumspection, and that Pelagius too, as was proved by his recent confession of faith, had not swerved from the Catholic truth. As to Caelestius, who was then in Rome, the pope charged the Africans either to revise their former sentence or to convict him of heresy in his own (the pope's) presence within two months. The papal command struck Africa like a bomb-shell. In great haste a synod was convened at Carthage in November, 417, and writing to Zosimus, they urgently begged him not to rescind the sentence which his predecessor, Innocent I, had pronounced against Pelagius and Caelestius, until both had confessed the necessity of interior grace for all salutary thoughts, words, and deeds. At last Zosimus came to a halt. By a rescript of 21 March, 418, he assured them that he had not yet pronounced definitively, but that he was transmitting to Africa all documents bearing on Pelagianism in order to pave the way for a new, joint investigation. Pursuant to the papal command, there was held on 1 May, 418, in the presence of 200 bishops, the famous Council of Carthage, which again branded Pelagianism as a heresy in eight (or nine) canons (Denzinger, "Enchir.", 10th ed., 1908, 101-8). Owing to their importance they may be summarized:

  • Death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin.
  • New-born children must be baptized on account of original sin.
  • Justifying grace not only avails for the forgiveness of past sins, but also gives assistance for the avoidance of future sins.
  • The grace of Christ not only discloses the knowledge of God's commandments, but also imparts strength to will and execute them.
  • Without God's grace it is not merely more difficult, but absolutely impossible to perform good works.
  • Not out of humility, but in truth must we confess ourselves to be sinners.
  • The saints refer the petition of the Our Father, "Forgive us our trespasses", not only to others, but also to themselves.
  • The saints pronounce the same supplication not from mere humility, but from truthfulness.
  • Some codices containing a ninth canon (Denzinger, loc. cit., note 3): Children dying without baptism do not go to a "middle place" (medius locus), since the non reception of baptism excludes both from the "kingdom of heaven" and from "eternal life".

These clearly worded canons, which (except the last-named) afterwards came to be articles of faith binding on the universal Church, gave the death blow to Pelagianism; sooner or later it would bleed to death.

Meanwhile, urged by the Africans (probably through a certain Valerian, who as comes held an influential position in Ravenna), the secular power also took a hand in the dispute, the Emperor Honorius, by rescript of 30 April, 418, from Ravenna, banishing all Pelagians from the cities of Italy. Whether Caelestius evaded the hearing before Zosimus, to which he was now bound, "by fleeing from Rome" (St. Augustine, "Contra duas epist. Pelag.", II, 5), or whether he was one of the first to fall a victim to the imperial decree of exile, cannot be satisfactorily settled from the sources. With regard to his later life, we are told that in 421 he again haunted Rome or its vicinity, but was expelled a second time by an imperial rescript (cf. P. L., XLV, 1750). It is further related that in 425 his petition for an audience with Celestine I was answered by a third banishment (cf. P. L., LI, 271). He then sought refuge in the orient, where we shall meet him later. Pelagius could not have been included in the imperial decree of exile from Rome. For at that time he undoubtedly resided in the Orient, since, as late as the summer of 418, he communicated with Pinianus and his wife Melania, who lived in Palestine (cf. Card. Rampolla, "Santa Melania giuniore", Rome, 1905). But this is the last information we have about him; he probably died in the orient. Having received the Acts of the Council of Carthage, Zosimus sent to all the bishops of the world his famous "Epistola tractoria" (418) of which unfortunately only fragments have come down to us. This papal encyclical, a lengthy document, gives a minute account of the entire "causa Caelestii et Pelagii", from whose works it quotes abundantly, and categorically demands the condemnation of Pelagianism as a heresy. The assertion that every bishop of the world was obliged to confirm this circular by his own signature, cannot be proved, it is more probable that the bishops were required to transmit to Rome a written agreement; if a bishop refused to sign, he was deposed from his office and banished. A second and harsher rescript, issued by the emperor on 9 June, 419, and addressed to Bishop Aurelius of Carthage (P. L., XLV, 1731), gave additional force to this measure. Augustine's triumph was complete. In 418, drawing the balance, as it were, of the whole controversy, he wrote against the heresiarchs his last great work, "De gratia Christi et de peccato originali" (P. L., XLIV, 359 sqq.).

The Disputes of St. Augustine with Julian of Eclanum (419-428)

Through the vigorous measures adopted in 418, Pelagianism was indeed condemned, but not crushed. Among the eighteen bishops of Italy who were exiled on account of their refusal to sign the papal decree, Julian, Bishop of Eclanum, a city of Apulia now deserted, was the first to protest against the "Tractoria" of Zosimus. Highly educated and skilled in philosophy and dialectics, he assumed the leadership among the Pelagians. But to fight for Pelagianism now meant to fight against Augustine. The literary feud set in at once. It was probably Julian himself who denounced St. Augustine as damnator nupitarum to the influential comes Valerian in Ravenna, a nobleman, who was very happily married. To meet the accusation, Augustine wrote, at the beginning of 419, an apology, "De nuptiis et concupiscentia libri II" (P. L., XLIV, 413 sqq.) and addressed it to Valerian. Immediately after (419 or 420), Julian published a reply which attacked the first book of Augustine's work and bore the title , "Libri IV ad Turbantium". But Augustine refuted it in his famous rejoinder, written in 421 or 422, "Contra Iulianum libri VI" (P. L., XLIV, 640 sqq.). When two Pelagian circulars, written by Julian and scourging the "Manichaean views" of the Antipelagians, fell into his hands, he attacked them energetically (420 or 421) in a work, dedicated to Boniface I, "Contra duas epistolas Pelagianorum libri IV" (P. L., XLIV, 549 sqq.). Being driven from Rome, Julian had found (not later than 421) a place of refuge in Cilicia with Theodore of Mopsuestia. Here he employed his leisure in elaborating an extensive work, "Libri VIII ad Florum", which was wholly devoted to refuting the second book of Augustine's "De nuptiis et concupiscentia". Though composed shortly after 421, it did not come to the notice of St. Augustine until 427. The latter's reply, which quotes Julian's argumentations sentence for sentence and refutes them, was completed only as far as the sixth book, whence it is cited in patristic literature as "Opus imperfectum contra Iulianum" (P. L., XLV, 1049 sqq.). A comprehensive account of Pelagianism, which brings out into strong relief the diametrically opposed views of the author, was furnished by Augustine in 428 in the final chapter of his work, "De haeresibus" (P. L., XLII, 21 sqq.). Augustine's last writings published before his death (430) were no longer aimed against Pelagianism but against Semipelagianism.

After the death of Theodore of Mopsuestia (428), Julian of Eclanum left the hospitable city of Cilicia and in 429 we meet him unexpectedly in company with his fellow exiles Bishops Florus, Orontius, and Fabius, and the Court of the Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, who willingly supported the fugitives. It was here, too, in 429, that Caelestius emerged again as the protégé of the patriarch; this is his last appearance in history; for from now on all trace of him is lost. But the exiled bishops did not long enjoy the protection of Nestorius. When Marius Mercator, a layman and friend of St. Augustine, who was then present in Constantinople, heard of the machinations of the Pelagians in the imperial city, he composed towards the end of 429 his "Commonitorium super nomine Caelestii" (P. L., XLVIII, 63 sqq.), in which he exposed the shameful life and the heretical character of Nestorius' wards. The result was that the Emperor Theodosius II decreed their banishment in 430. When the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) repeated the condemnation pronounced by the West (cf. Mansi, "Concil. collect.", IV, 1337), Pelagianism was crushed in the East. According to the trustworthy report of Prosper of Aquitaine ("Chronic." ad a. 439, in P. L., LI, 598), Julian of Eclanum, feigning repentance, tried to regain possession of his former bishopric, a plan which Sixtus III (432-40) courageously frustrated. The year of his death is uncertain. He seems to have died in Italy between 441 and 445 during the reign of Valentinian III.

Last Traces of Pelagianism (429-529)

After the Council of Ephesus (431), Pelagianism no more disturbed the Greek Church, so that the Greek historians of the fifth century do not even mention either the controversy of the names of the heresiarchs. But the heresy continued to smoulder in the West and died our very slowly. The main centres were Gaul and Britain. About Gaul we are told that a synod, held probably at Troyes in 429, was compelled to take steps against the Pelagians. It also sent Bishops Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes to Britain to fight the rampant heresy, which received powerful support from two pupils of Pelagius, Agricola and Fastidius (cf. Caspari, "Letters, Treatises and Sermons from the two last Centuries of Ecclesiastical Antiquity", pp. 1-167, Christiana, 1891). Almost a century later, Wales was the centre of Pelagian intrigues. For the saintly Archbishop David of Menevia participated in 519 in the Synod of Brefy, which directed its attacks against the Pelagians residing there, and after he was made Primate of Cambria, he himself convened a synod against them. In Ireland also Pelagius's "Commentary on St. Paul", described in the beginning of this article, was in use long afterwards, as is proved by many Irish quotations from it. Even in Italy traces can be found, not only in the Diocese of Aquileia (cf. Garnier, "Opera Marii Mercat.", I, 319 sqq., Paris, 1673), but also in Middle Italy; for the so-called "Liber Praedestinatus", written about 440 perhaps in Rome itself, bears not so much the stamp of Semipelagianism as of genuine Pelagianism (cf. von Schubert, "Der sog. Praedestinatus, ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Pelagianismus", Leipzig, 1903). A more detailed account of this work will be found under the article Predestinarianism. It was not until the Second Synod of Orange (529) that Pelagianism breathed its last in the West, though that convention aimed its decisions primarily against Semipelagianism.

Portions of this entry are taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.
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Simple English

Pelagianism is a theory named after Pelagius. It is the belief that people are not born with original sin and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without Divine aid. For this reason, Adam's sin was there to set a bad example for those that came after him; other than that it had no consequences. Jesus was there to set a good example, much like Adam's bad example; but again without consequences. Christians that do not follow Pelagianism today believe that Jesus' death was special, in some way. Pelagians do not believe that.

Pelagianism was condemned as heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Today there are no Pelagians left

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