Pelagius

Pelagius (354 –430?) was born in the British Isles, probably Ireland.  A well educated layman, fluent in both Greek and Latin , and knowledgeable in theology, he appeared in Rome around 380.  Although not an ordained cleric, Pelagius devoted himself to practical asceticism, which meant cultivating what he considered to be a Christian character: moderation in appetites, abundance in honesty, purity, compassion and brotherly love. After moving to Rome he became well known both for the power and persuasiveness of his speech and the harshness of his asceticism.  Pelagius and Augustine probably lived in Rome at the same time in the early ‘80s but because Augustine was not yet a Christian, it is unlikely their circles overlapped.

 

Pelagius was appalled by the decadent Christianity he encountered in Rome. His idea of salvation was deliverance from sin. But Christians in Rome complained they were too weak to overcome sin. The Church encouraged them to confess their sins again and again rather than change their ways. Pelagius argued: If God calls us to be holy, it must be possible for to live holy lives.   His reputation in Rome earned him praise early in his career even from leaders of the Church, including Augustine (after his baptism in 386) who referred to Pelagius as a "saintly man." 

 

Around 405, Pelagius read Augustine's Confessions. One particular passage – Give what you command and command what you will – indicated that Augustine’s conception of grace denied human responsibility for holy living. To Pelagius, Augustine justified lax Christians who complained that if God commanded them to be holy; He must also provide the fortitude to achieve holiness.  Pelagius believed that the command to be Holy was sufficient proof that it was possible for anyone to make a sincere effort.

 

Almost everything we know about Pelagius comes from the quills of his enemies, in particular Augustine and Jerome, both of whom were subsequently elevated to the rank of saint.  Augustine became the foremost Christian theologian of 5th century, and Jerome was the scholar commissioned to make the authorized translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.

Pelagius made enemies of the power duo at least in part by quoting from their youthful writings to defend his ‘heresies.’ Neither Augustine nor Jerome could deny their own words. (Note, these were writings Augustine made after converting to Christianity and in defence of his new faith.) Objective observers wondered: Surely if Augustine and Jerome once shared the same beliefs as Pelagius there must be some truth to them?

 

When the Goths attacked Rome in 410 Pelagius, along with many Romans, fled across the Mediterranean Sea to safety in North Africa.  Pelagius spent time in Carthage and possibly attempted to visit Augustine in his bishopric of Hippo Regius. If they ever met, no record has come down to us.  Pelagius left for Palestine but one of his followers, a brash lawyer named Coelestius, stayed in Carthage. Augustine convoked a synod and charged Coelestius with seven errors that were presumed to originate with Pelagius.  Coelestius insisted that none of these were heretical beliefs yet he was condemned and excommunicated by the African synod. Curiously, a short while later he was ordained by the Church in Ephesus. Augustine explained this incongruity by virtue of Coelestius being an incorrigible liar who had deceived the gullible church of Ephesus.

 

Augustine turned his attention back to Pelagius. When he learned that Pelagius was being sheltered by Bishop John of Jerusalem, Augustine sent emissaries to arrest the heretic. John refused to cooperate. This is curious behaviour. Bishop John spent months in close quarters with Pelagius and should have discovered if his guest was a scheming hypocrite. Or perhaps he was as gullible as the Bishop of Ephesus? In every other respect, John of Jerusalem’s judgment was held in the highest esteem by his fellow Bishops. If Pelagius was a scoundrel, how could he have so completely deceived John during months spent together conversing and praying?

 

A few months later Augustine succeeded in having Pelagius brought to trial before 14 Eastern Bishops who carefully studied the allegedly heretical writings but found Pelagius orthodox on every point.  They gave him a full acquittal. Once again, respected men who actually investigated Pelagius found nothing heretical in his beliefs.  Augustine and his allies were outraged.  They accused the Eastern Bishops of being duped. How? The 14 Eastern Bishops spoke only Greek and Augustine spoke only Latin, so the Bishops may not have fully understood the written accusations he had sent the court.  Pelagius was fluent in both languages.  Augustine claimed Pelagius was able to misinterpret his own Latin writings to conceal his heresies from the Greeks.

 

Having failed to convict Pelagius in the East, Augustine and his allies took their case to Rome, which was closer to home and conducted its business in Latin. Pope Innocent listened to Augustine’s accusation and agreed that if the charges were true Pelagius must be excommunicated, but the Pope made his decision conditional upon a trial and conviction. The provisional judgment did not presume that Augustine’s charges were proved or that Pelagius was guilty.  

 

Two years later Pope Innocent (a Latin) died and was succeeded by Pope Zosimus (a Greek). Pelagius finally travelled to Rome and presented his beliefs directly to the new pontiff, who judged him to be an orthodox teacher. Once again we have to wonder how a respected Bishop, in this case the first amongst equals, who had been thoroughly forewarned by Augustine that the accused was a lying heretic, could be convinced to reach the opposite verdict. This is curious. Augustine blamed it on the new Pope’s Greekness. (The seeds of the Great East-West Schism of 1054 were already sown.)

 

In 418 Augustine convened a war council of North African Bishops and stirred them to rebellion against the foreign Pope, whose Greek accent and moderate views made him suspect.  Augustine persuaded 200 African Bishops at Carthage to condemn Pelagius as a heretic. Their vote was in deliberate contempt of Pope Zozimus’ authority.  Curiously, the Roman Emperor blindsided the Pope shortly after the North African council voted in rebellion. It was totally unprecedented.  

 

Benjamin B. Warfield in his preface to Augustine’s collected Writings against Pelagius wrote, ‘The appeal to civil power was, of course, indefensible, although it accorded with the opinions of the day and was entirely approved by Augustine.  ...Whether this simultaneous action was the result of skilful arrangement can only be conjectured; its effect was necessarily crushing. There could be no appeal from the civil decision and it played directly in the African definition of the faith.... Pope Zosimus found himself forced either to go into banishment with the Pelagians or desert their cause. Zosimus not only condemned and excommunicated Pelagius, whom six months earlier he had pronounced ‘orthodox’ but, in accordance with the imperial decree, issued a stringent pronouncement which condemned all Pelagians.’ 

 

Persuading the Emperor to throw his full support behind a renegade council of African Bishops was a stroke of genius.  The war was over without a shot being fired. Pelagius was declared a heretic and pushed off the pages of history. The obliging Emperor and repentant Pope both agreed to support Augustine, who used original sin to impose Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Augustine had established himself as the true leader of the Catholic Church and the single most influential man in the Roman Empire.  He used the verdict against Pelagius to impose Original Sin throughout the Roman Empire. The few Christians who dared challenge Augustine were forced out of the Church.

 

What was Pelagius’ heresy?  He certainly believed that rational humans are capable of choosing between good and evil.  He also believed that God does not condemn unbaptized babies.  These do not seem like heretical ideas in the modern world.

 

For almost 1500 years, only Augustine’s side of the story was heard.  The truly ‘heretical’ argument raised against Pelagius is that he claimed human freewill was entirely sufficient for salvation and sanctification. Therefore no saviour was necessary and no divine assistance was necessary to break the bondage of sin. This is the boogeyman that Augustine needed to build a case against Pelagius and rally support for the doctrine of Original Sin.

 

There is no evidence that Pelagius ever denied the insufficiency of human will or the universality of sin: but he did insist that human will must be an active element in the process of salvation. Our salvation is neither predestined nor divinely enforced. Who in the modern world would argue that this is a heretical belief?

 

Pelagius was initially charged with seven errors.

-          That Adam would have died even if he had not sinned,

-          That the sin of Adam injured himself alone and not the human race,

-          That new born children are as innocent as Adam before he fell,

-          That the whole human race does not die because of Adam,

-          That the (Mosaic) Law gives entrance to heaven as well as the gospel,

-          This some men lived sinless lives before the incarnation of Jesus,

-          That unbaptized infants have eternal life.

 

Augustine’s doctrine of original sin required that freewill be made heresy. As medieval notions of predestination and original sin have fallen out of favour, Pelagian views about freewill and the human capacity to choose good or evil have become increasingly wide-spread, creating an uncomfortable tension between Christian theory and practice. 

 

Pelagius has always been painted as an enemy of faith while Augustine is still portrayed as a blessed saint.  When the Roman Empire collapsed, the barbarians looted its treasures and burned its books. In North Africa, as Augustine lay dying, the barbarians were literally at the gates. It is ironic that Augustine, who believed God alone determines the fortunes of men and nations, should have seen his homeland abandoned to foreign gods.  

 

Centuries of learning were wiped out throughout the Romasn Empire, except for one oasis on the outer fringe of the Empire where faithful scribes made copies of all the great writings of the ancient world, both Christian and Pagan. The sudden and inexplicable enlightenment of Ireland in the 5th century is a remarkable contrast to North Africa. Catholic records report that the Irish Church was badly infected with the Pelagian heresy just after the man Pelagius disappeared from the pages of history. 

 

 

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