Pelagius: Wikis


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The love of God did man predestinate."

Pelagius (ca. AD 354 – ca. AD 420/440) was an ascetic who denied the doctrine of original sin as developed by Augustine of Hippo, and was declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage. His interpretation of a doctrine of free will became known as Pelagianism. He was well educated, fluent in both Greek and Latin, and learned in theology. He spent time as an ascetic, focusing on practical asceticism, which his teachings clearly reflect. He was certainly well known in Rome, both for the harsh asceticism of his public life as well as the power and persuasiveness of his speech. His reputation in Rome earned him praise early in his career even from such pillars of the Church as Augustine, who referred to him as a "saintly man." However, he was later accused of lying about his own teachings in order to avoid public condemnation. Most of his later life was spent defending his doctrine against theologians teaching the Catholic Faith. They held that Catholicism came from the apostles and that Pelagius was spreading novelties in the Faith unknown to the apostolic tradition.

Due to his status as a heretic little of his work has come down to the present day except in the quotes of his opponents. However, more recently some have defended Pelagius as a misunderstood orthodox:[1]

Recent analysis of his thinking suggests that it was, in fact, highly orthodox, following in the tradition established by the early fathers and in keeping with the teaching of the church in both the East and the West.... From what we are able to piece together from the few sources available... it seems that the Celtic monk held to an orthodox view of the prevenience of God's grace, and did not assert that individuals could achieve salvation purely by their own efforts...



Pelagius was born about 354. While his exact birthplace is not known, the Encyclopedia of World Biography states that, "wide spread evidence indicates that he came originally from the British Isles"[2], although a few sources suggest he may have been born in Brittany in modern France. He was a Culdee Monk and wore the moon shaped tonsure of that ascetic Celtic Johannine Christian Order. He became better known c. 380 when he moved to Rome to write and teach about his ascetic practices.[3] There, he wrote a number of his major works: "De fide Trinitatis libri III" ("On Faith In The Trinity: Three Books"), "Eclogarum ex divinis Scripturis liber primus" ("Excerpts Out Of Divine Scriptures: One Book"), and "Commentarii in epistolas S. Pauli" ("Commentary On The Epistles Of Saint Paul"). Unfortunately, most of his work survives only in the quotations of his opponents.

In Rome, Pelagius became concerned about the moral laxity of society. He blamed this laxity on the theology of divine grace preached by Augustine, among others.

Around 405, it is said that Pelagius heard a quotation from Augustine's Confessions: "Give me what you command and command what you will". This verse concerned Pelagius because it seemed that Augustine was teaching doctrine contrary to traditional Christian understandings of grace and free will, turning man into a mere automaton.

When Alaric sacked Rome in 410, Pelagius and his close follower Caelestius fled to Carthage where he continued his work and briefly encountered St. Augustine in person. He is subsequently in Palestine as late as 418.[3]


An objective view of Pelagius and his effect is difficult. His name has been used as an epithet for centuries by both Protestants and Catholics, and he has had few defenders. The Catholic Church denounced his ideas and yet the Reformation accused Catholics of adhering to his beliefs and condemned both Pelagius and the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, the Eastern Orthodox Church is silent. Regardless, Pelagius stands, both in reality and in icon, as a radical dissenter from the traditional view of original sin and the means of salvation. Only in the past century have works attributable to Pelagius been identified as such. Pelagius's commentary on Romans is currently available in English, as translated by Theodore De Bruyn (Clarendon Press, 2002), as well as a collection of other writings by Pelagius himself, translated into English by B. R. Rees (The Boydell Press, 1998).


Augustine of Hippo

Pelagianism quickly spread, especially around Carthage, which is one reason the opponents acted so promptly and firmly. Augustine wrote four letters specifically on Pelagianism, "De peccatorum meritis et remissione libri III" (Three Books on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins) in 412, "De spiritu et litera" (On the Spirit and the Letter) and "Definitiones Caelestii" (Caelestius's Definitions) in 414, and "De natura et gratia" (On Nature and Grace) in 415. In these he strongly affirmed the existence of original sin, the need for infant baptism, the impossibility of a sinless life without Christ, and the necessity of Christ's grace. Augustine's works are intended in part for the common people and thus do not address Pelagius or his disciple Caelestius (except for the Definitiones Caelestii) by name. One can find little of Pelagius' works in print save his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, which is similar to Antiochian writings of the same age.


Pelagius soon left for Palestine, befriending the bishop there. Jerome, who lived there, became involved as well. Jerome wrote against Pelagius in his "Letter to Ctesiphon" and "Dialogus contra Pelagianos." With Jerome at the time was Orosius, a visiting pupil of Augustine, with similar views on the dangers of Pelagianism. Together they publicly condemned Pelagius. Bishop John of Jerusalem, a personal friend of Pelagius, called a council in July 415. Church sources claim Orosius' lack of fluency in Greek rendered him unconvincing and John's Eastern background made him more willing to accept that humans did not have inherent sinfulness. Yet the council rendered no verdict and passed the controversy to the Latin Church because Pelagius, Jerome, and Orosius were all Latin.


A few months later in December of 415, another synod in Diospolis (Lydda) under the bishop of Cæsarea was called by two deposed bishops who came to Palestine. However, neither bishop attended for unrelated reasons and Orosius had left after consultation with Bishop John. Pelagius explained to the synod that he did believe God was necessary for salvation because every human is created by God. He also claimed that many works of Celestius did not represent his own views. He also showed letters of recommendation by other authoritative figures including Augustine himself who, for all their disagreements, thought highly of Pelagius' character.

The Synod of Diospolis therefore concluded: "Now since we have received satisfaction in respect of the charges brought against the monk Pelagius in his presence and since he gives his assent to sound doctrines but condemns and anathematises those contrary to the faith of the Church, we adjudge him to belong to the communion of the Catholic Church."

Pope Innocent I

When Orosius returned to Africa, two local synods condemned Pelagius and Celestius without their presence. Because the synods did not have complete authority without papal approval, Augustine and four other bishops wrote a letter urging Pope Innocent I to condemn Pelagianism. He agreed without much persuading.

Pope Zosimus

Pelagius' guilt in the eyes of the Church, however, was undecided. Pelagius wrote a letter and statement of belief showing himself to be orthodox and sent them to Innocent I. In these he articulated his beliefs so as not to contradict what the synods condemned. Zosimus had become Pope by the time the letter reached Rome in 417. Zosimus was duly impressed and declared him innocent.

St. Augustine, shocked that Pelagius and Celestius were not denounced as heretics, called the Council of Carthage in 418 and stated nine beliefs of the Church that Pelagianism denied:

  1. Death came from sin, not man's physical nature.
  2. Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin.
  3. Justifying grace covers past sins and helps avoid future sins.
  4. The grace of Christ imparts strength and will to act out God's commandments.
  5. No good works can come without God's grace.
  6. We confess we are sinners because it is true, not from humility.
  7. The saints ask for forgiveness for their own sins.
  8. The saints also confess to be sinners because they are.
  9. Children dying without baptism are excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life.

Every one of these was accepted as a universal belief of the Church and all Pelagians were banished from Italy.[citation needed] However, it has also been claimed that after the Pope refused to condemn Pelagius, Augustine instead had the state government banish Pelagius as a disturber of the peace, and the state Church was therefore required to follow this condemnation.[4] It is worth noting, also, that in the extant letters of Pelagius and his followers, they claim to believe that all good works are done only with the grace of God (which he saw as enabling, but not forcing, good works), that infants must be baptized for salvation, and that the saints were not always sinless, but that some at least have been able to stop sinning. It is not clear therefore whether these statements reflect the beliefs of Pelagius himself. Augustine did accuse Pelagius specifically of thinking of God's grace as consisting only of external helps: "God’s grace lies in the fact that we have been so created as to be able to do this by the will, and in the further fact that God has given to us the assistance of His law and commandments, and also in that He forgives their past sins when men turn to Him... [and] in these things alone." However, Pelagius himself may not have believed that this was the extent of grace. He instead said that "This grace we for our part do not, as you suppose, allow to consist merely in the law, but also in the help of God. God helps us by His teaching and revelation, whilst He opens the eyes of our heart; whilst He points out to us the future, that we may not be absorbed in the present; whilst He discovers to us the snares of the devil; whilst He enlightens us with the manifold and ineffable gift of heavenly grace." In a letter to the Pope defending himself he stated that "This free will is in all good works always assisted by divine help," and in an accompanying confession of faith, "Free-will we do so own, as to say that we always stand in need of God’s help," However, he affirmed that "We do also abhor the blasphemy of those who say that any impossible thing is commanded to man by God; or that the commandments of God cannot be performed by any one man" (which the pope approved of upon receiving the letter), whereas Augustine famously stated "non possum non peccare" ("It is not possible to not sin"). The Council in Africa was in any case specifically concerned with the suspected errors of Celestius.

The last canon is no longer widely accepted; for example, current Roman Catholic Church doctrine states that children who die without baptism are entrusted to the mercy of God (CCC 1261); thus leaving the salvation of unbaptized infants still in question.

Pelagius and the doctrine of free will

After his acquittal in Diospolis, Pelagius wrote two major treatises which are no longer extant, "On Nature" and "Defense Of The Freedom Of The Will." In these, he defends his position on sin and sinlessness, and accuses Augustine of being under the influence of Manicheanism by elevating evil to the same status as God and teaching pagan fatalism as if it were a Christian doctrine.

Augustine had been converted to Christianity from the religion of Manicheanism, which stressed that the spirit was God-created, while the flesh was corrupt and evil, since it had not been created directly by God. Pelagius argued that Augustine's doctrine that humans went to hell for doing what they could not avoid (sin) was tantamount to the Manichean belief in fatalism and predestination, and took away all of mankind's free will.

Pelagius and his followers saw remnants of this fatalistic belief in Augustine's teachings on the Fall of Adam, which was not a settled doctrine at the time the Augustinian/Pelagian dispute began. Their view that mankind can avoid sinning, and that we can freely choose to obey God's commandments, stand at the core of Pelagian teaching, and comes through even in the writings of Pelagius' opponents. However, a careful reading of Pelagius' own statements indicates that he believed that God's grace assists all right action.

An illustration of Pelagius' views on man's "moral ability" not to sin can be found in his Letter to Demetrias He was in Palestine when, in 413, he received a letter from the renowned Anician family in Rome. One of the aristocratic ladies who had been among his followers, Anicia Iuliana, was writing to a number of eminent Western theologians, including Jerome and possibly Augustine, for moral advice for her 14-year-old daughter, Demetrias. Pelagius used the letter to argue his case for morality, stressing his views of natural sanctity and man's moral capacity to choose to live a holy life. It is perhaps the only extant writing in Pelagius' own hand, and it was, ironically, thought to be a letter by Jerome for centuries, though Augustine himself references it in his work, "On the Grace of Christ."

Pelagius on Animals

  • "There is no creature on Earth in whom God is absent... When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that his hand had fashioned every creature: it was that his breath had brought every creature to life..." [5]

Death and later

After being banished from Rome, Pelagius headed east.[6] He probably died in Palestine around 420, as reported by some.[citation needed] Others mention him living as many as twenty years later.[citation needed] The cause of his death is unknown.

His death did not end his teachings, although those who followed him may have modified those teachings. Because little information remains with regard to Pelagius' actual teachings, it is possible that some of his doctrines were subject to revision and suppression by his enemies (followers of Augustine and the Church leadership as a whole at that time).

Belief in Pelagianism and Semipelagianism was common for the next few centuries, especially in Britain, Palestine and North Africa.

Possible influences on Pelagius

It is likely that Pelagius and Pelagianism were influenced by both Pelagius's Celtic ancestry and his Greek styled learning. Greek thought emphasized punishment over guilt, as the Latin church did; thus Pelagius tried to hold humanity up to a greater responsibility for individual actions. Celtic paganism championed a human's ability to triumph even over the supernatural, which Pelagius may have applied to sin, to some extent. The Greek philosophy of Stoicism was said to be an influence leading to his ascetic lifestyle.

Pelagius in literature and film

In Hilaire Belloc's The Four Men, the Sailor leads his companions in the "Song of the Pelagian Heresy for the Strengthening of Men's Backs and the very Robust Out-thrusting of Doubtful Doctrine and the Uncertain Intellectual".

The Pelagius Book by Paul Morgan is a historical novel that presents Pelagius as a gentle humanist emphasizing individual responsibility in contrast to Augustine's fierce fatalism.

Pelagius is referred to in Stephen Lawhead's book, The Black Rood, and makes an appearance in Patrick where he has a discussion with the Hiberno-British saint.

Pelagius is frequently referred to in Jack Whyte's series of books known as A Dream of Eagles, where a major character's belief in Pelagius' ideas of Free Will and the laxity of the Roman Catholic Church eventually cause him to come into conflict with Church representatives.

John Cowper Powys' novel Porius (1951) features the conflict between Augustian/Pelagian beliefs,with the eponymous hero being a follower of Pelagius.Powys referred approving to Pelagianism in his non-fiction book Obstinate Cymric (1947).

The Saint Augustine/Pelagius debate is mockingly discussed in the novel by Flann O'Brien titled The Dalkey Archive, wherein Saint Augustine actually makes a ghostly appearance.

The government of the English-Speaking Union (Enspun) in Anthony Burgess' The Wanting Seed is locked in a perpetual cycle, rotating between the 'Pel-Phase', named after Pelagius, and an Augustinian phase. The former is one of police and social services, the latter is characterized by martial law. Burgess took up the Augustine/Pelagius theme again in The Clockwork Testament.

Pelagius features in the movie King Arthur. Although not a major character, he is portrayed as the mentor of young Lucius Artorius Castus, or Arthur. Throughout the film, Artorius/Arthur champions Pelagius' ideas, such as believing that every person is not inherently sinful, and that we are capable of attaining grace through good works. This leads him to oppose the practices of more "mainline" Roman Christian authorities, who believe that the inherent sinfulness of everyone is justification for torturing native Celts into conversion (a practice which Augistine did approve of, to some extent, and which others used his teachings to justify[7]). Upon hearing of Pelagius's excommunication and murder in Rome, Arthur's affection for the monk leads him to realize that the ideal of "Rome" he believed in doesn't exist anymore, break off loyalty with the Roman Empire, and help the Britons fight the Saxon invaders.

Pelagius is the subject of a poem by the Glasgow poet Edwin Morgan ('Cathures', Carcanet 2002) which imagines that Pelagius has returned to his native Glasgow ('Cathures') and that his Celtic name was 'Morgan'.

Stephen Baxter, in his book "Emperor," imagines how time's tapestry would have looked had Pelagius' views and not Augustine's influenced the evolution of Christianity. He also portrays the Emperor Constantine's actions as having had dealt a harsh blow, but not necessarily a mortal one, to Pelagius' teaching that humans are free and sin is not inherent in us.

See also

Writings By Pelagius


  1. ^ Rev. Dr. Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way, 1993, p. 62
  2. ^ Paula K. Byers; 1998, Encyclopedia of World Biography, Page 189 - Pelagius, ISBN 0-7876-2553-1
  3. ^ a b Fletcher, Richard (1989). Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England. Shepheard-Walwyn. pp. 11–12. ISBN 0-85683-089-5. 
  4. ^ Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings From the Northumbria Community, pg. 135
  5. ^ The Peaceable Table, December 2009.
  6. ^ "Pelagius and Pelagianism", Catholic Encyclopedia
  7. ^ Paul Marston, Roger Forster, God's Strategy in Human History, 2000

External links

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