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Pelagius (fl. c. 390-418) was a probably British-born Roman ascetic who opposed the idea of predestination and asserted a strong version of the doctrine of free will. He was accused by Augustine of Hippo and others of denying the need for divine aid in performing good works. For him (according to them), the only grace necessary was the declaration of the law; humans were not wounded by Adam's sin and were perfectly able to fulfill the law apart from any divine aid. His supporters cite Deuteronomy 24:16 to deny original sin. He denied the more specific doctrine of original sin as developed by Augustine. Pelagius 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 Catholic theologians who held that Pelagius was spreading novelties in the Faith unknown to the apostolic tradition. Many people counter by pointing out Augustine's Manichean Gnostic past which involves a doctrine called original evil that is very close to original sin.
Due to some calling him 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:
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 "widespread evidence indicates that he came originally from the British Isles", although a few sources suggest he may have been born in Brittany in modern France. He became better known c. 380 when he moved to Rome to write and teach about his ascetic practices. 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: Book One"), 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. 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).
Tall in stature and portly in appearance, Pelagius was highly educated. He spoke and wrote Latin as well as Greek with great fluency and was well versed in theology. In Rome he enjoyed a reputation of austerity; and corresponded with St. Paulinus of Nola. Pelagius became concerned about the moral laxity of society. He blamed this laxity on the theology of divine grace preached by Augustine, among others.
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 was subsequently in the Holy Land as late as 418.
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 very early church denounced his ideas and the Reformation accused Roman 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 what is now the traditional view of original sin and the means of salvation.
Pelagianism quickly spread, especially around Carthage, which is one reason the opponents acted so promptly and firmly. Augustine wrote "De peccatorum meritis et remissione libri III" (Three Books on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins) in 412, and "De spiritu et littera" (On the Spirit and the Letter) in 414. When in 414 disquieting rumours arrived from Sicily and the so-called "Definitiones Caelestii", said to be the work of Caelestius, were sent to him, he at once (414 or 415) published the rejoinder, "De perfectione justitiae hominis". 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 by name.
Pelagius soon left for Palestine, befriending the bishop there. Jerome, who lived there, became involved as well. Pelagius had criticized his commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians. 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.
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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 the Holy Land. 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."
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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 Manichaeism 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 Manichaeism, 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's opponents. However, a careful reading of Pelagius's 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 the Holy Land 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 Juliana, 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.
When Orosius returned to Africa, two local synods condemned Pelagius and Celestius in their absence. 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.
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, and he was persuaded by Celestius to reopen the case.
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:
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" ("I cannot not sin").
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, the Holy Land, and North Africa. In Wales, Saint David was credited with convening the Synod of Brefi and the Synod of Victory against the followers of Pelagius in the 6th century.
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".
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 (A Romance of the Dark Ages) (1951) features the conflict between Augustinian/Pelagian beliefs,with the eponymous hero being a follower of Pelagius. Powys referred approvingly to Pelagianism in his non-fiction book Obstinate Cymric (1947).
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.
In the movie King Arthur (2004), Pelagius is an unseen former mentor of young Lucius Artorius Castus, aka Arthur. Arthur champions Pelagius' ideals, including the belief that people are not inherently sinful, and that Grace may be attained through good works. This brings him into opposition with Roman Christian authorities, who believe that the inherent sinfulness of Man is justification for the conversion-by-torture of the Celts (a practice approved by Augustine to some extent, and used by his followers as justification for persecution of non-Christians). Upon learning of Pelagius's excommunication and murder, Arthur realizes that the Roman ideal that he supported no longer exists. He breaks ties with the Roman Empire, and leads the Britons against 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 dealt a harsh blow, but not necessarily a mortal one, to Pelagius' teaching that humans are free and sin is not inherent in us.
A facsimile of the 1808 "A Dissertation of the Pelagian Heresy and the Refutation of it al Llandewi Brevi by St David" has been printed in Carmarthen on the same street as the original.
Heresy: the Life of Pelagius (2012) by David Lovejoy, portrays Pelagius through the eyes of his (fictional) servant Arwel.
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