Pelagius (c.350-c.418)



Who was Pelagius?

Born: c. 350-380, British Isles
Died: c. 418, Egypt

Pelagius was a British monk and Christian teacher whose views on original sin, grace, and predestination were vehemently opposed by Saint Augustine. "Pelagianism," which was condemned as heresy in 418, played a large part in shaping Augustine's influential doctrines on these topics.

Life of Pelagius

The early life of Pelagius is largely a mystery, but scholars are generally agreed that he was born in the British Isles sometime between 350 and 380 AD. {1} He was well-educated, with a solid knowledge of the Scriptures and an acquaintance with many of the classics. Pelagius was also 'a man of trained ability in exposition,' a quality possibly acquired in legal training, and one which would make him a formidable enemy of orthodoxy. {2} While Pelagius was often referred to as a monk by his contemporaries, there is no clear evidence that he belonged to any monastic community. {3}

While our primary sources concerning Pelagius' physical appearance are the polemical writings of two of his most bitter enemies (Paul Orosius and Jerome), who were far from complimentary, it seems clear that he was large in size, and slow of gait. {4} His character was also belittled by his loquacious opponents, but there is little doubt he was in fact quite a virtuous man. Even Augustine described Pelagius as 'a holy man, who, I am told, has made no small progress in the Christian life.' {5}





At some point Pelagius left Britain, perhaps to seek further education. {6} His presence is first recorded in Rome in 405, when his controversy with Augustine begins. Pelagius' time in Rome was primarily spent teaching members of the Christian aristocracy and writing. He had completed his Pauline commentary by 409 when he fled Rome, which was under threat by Alaric the Goth.

Pelagius went first to Sicily with his disciple Caelestius, then spent a short time in Hippo, but Augustine was unfortunately absent at the time. They moved on to Carthage, where Caelestius remained and enthusiastically disseminated "Pelagianism," but Pelagius himself continued on to Palestine. He remained there until 418, when he was excommunicated and expelled from Palestine.

The monk vanishes from history after this, but it is generally thought that he sought refuge in Egypt with a small group of supporters and died not long after his arrival. {7}

Teachings of Pelagius

It is unlikely that Pelagius sought to begin a new religious or theological movement. Furthermore, Pelagianism, like "Calvinism," may not be an entirely accurate representation of the views of its founder and namesake. The notion of Pelagianism as a system comes from Augustine, not Pelagius {8}; and it incorporates not only the teachings of Pelagius, but also ideas elaborated by his two main disciples, Caelestius and Julian, some of which Pelagius even publicly condemned (though his sincerity in doing so may well be questioned).

In fact, it is probably Caelestius who is mostly responsible for the propagating of Pelagianism, as Pelagius himself "does not in general appear as one who regards his views on sin and grace as a Gospel to be blazoned from the housetops."{9} Pelagianism was not "a party with a rigidly defined doctrinal system,"{10} so it would be difficult to assess the particular tenets of the movement as a whole. Pelagius himself was primarily interested in Christian morality, which then led him to his affirmation of free choice, while his followers "took a more speculative interest" in the Pelagian doctrines {11}.

Though he was labeled a heretic by many prominent leaders of the Catholic Church, Pelagius saw himself simply as a reformer and always argued for the orthodoxy of his views {12}. While Augustine and his fellow Africans certainly regarded Pelagianism as a threat to faith and doctrine, and some recent scholars still do {13}, many modern scholars are now more sympathetic to the views of this underdog of Christian history. {14}

Pelagius was fully in line with orthodoxy with respect to Christology and the Trinity{15} and, like Augustine, he fought passionately against the heresy of Manichaeism {16}. Pelagius also pointed out that even if his views on such issues as the Fall and original sin were incorrect or foolish, they could not be considered heretical - for at the time there was no official teaching of the Church on these matters {17}. Caelestius added out that there were some clergyman who held Pelagian views {18}. In addition, the bishop of Rome the Synod of Diospolis in 415 believed Pelagius' views to be 'essentially sound.' {19}

Pelagius' thought on such issues as free will, sin and grace has been summarised as "Western, legalistic, and moralistic while at the same time finding sustenance in Eastern views of creation and freedom" {20}. The focus of Pelagius' theological system is theological anthropology, as "the nature of the human being and humanity's moral obligations to God are his primary concerns" {21}.

Pelagius was motivated by a passion for the moral purity of all Christians, not only for an ascetic elite. And in the context of the newly Christianized Roman Empire, this was a timely message. By the time of Pelagius, Christianity had become not only permissible, but socially advantageous - leading, of course, to a great number of merely nominal Christians. Exacerbating this problem, to Pelagius' mind, was an exaggerated view of human weakness taught by the church, which he saw utilized as an excuse for moral laxity.

Pelagius was outraged by this moral complacency. To combat it, he fervently insisted on the ability of every man to avoid sin if he so wished, and denied that man's wickedness could be blamed on either human nature or God. This led to a strict moral rigorism - since we can avoid sin, we must do so {22}. Thus Pelagius focused his attention on practicalities that assist in living the moral life - penance for forgiveness, discipline to undo bad habits, and teaching, revelations, and exhortation to assist perseverance in good works.



Notes

  1. Speculations abound as to his specific place of origin (Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have all been suggested) as well as the circumstances of his early life (he is variously asserted to be of humble origins, from a wealthy family, or the son of a Greek doctor). See Ferguson, Pelagius, 40-41, and Rees, Pelagius, xii-xv.
  2. Ferguson 42.
  3. In fact, the description monachus originally only meant 'unmarried,' and for Latin writers the term included those who simply led a chaste life. In addition, the sole evidence for this is a single remark from Jerome that a certain monk "had abandoned the law and turned his attention to the Church" (Rees, xiv). See Theodore De Bruyn, Pelagius's Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (New York, 1993) 11, n. 63. See also Rees xiv.
  4. Ferguson, 45; Rees, xii.
  5. Augustine, from Rees, Letters, 2; See also De gest. Pel. 22.46, 27-8.52; Ep. 186:1; De nat. et grat. 1.1, 61.71; De dono pers. 53; De pecc. mer. 2.25, 3.5.
  6. Ferguson 44.
  7. Rees, Pelagius xii.
  8. Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 345.
  9. Ferguson 48, 70. See also TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian, 76, and Williams, The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin, 337.
  10. Bonner, "Rufinus of Syria and African Pelagianism," 31.
  11. TeSelle, "Pelagius, Pelagianism."
  12. Evans, Pelagius, 92.
  13. For example, Hodgson, 29: "There is no form of Christianity which cannot be perverted and debased if Pelagianism be not checked."
  14. For example, Bonner, 352: "Pelagianism, dangerous as its thought was and disastrous as its triumph would undoubtedly have been for Christian devotion and dogma, sprang from principles which were, in themselves, generous and even noble."
  15. See Phipps, 125.
  16. De Bruyn notes that 'in fact, Pelagius appears to have developed his theological tenets precisely to counter Manichaean (or virtually Manichaean) notions of creation, sin, redemption, and beatitude' (16).
  17. On the Proceedings of Pelagius 6.
  18. On Original Sin 3.
  19. Lang, "Influential Antagonists," 33.
  20. Duffy, 84.
  21. Duffy, 84.
  22. Brown, 350; Portalie, 188.
  23. Burns, 95.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Augustine, Four Anti-Pelagian Writings. Trans. John A. Mourant and William J. Collinge. Ed. William J. Collinge. Fathers of the Church 86 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1992).
  • Augustine, Writings Against the Pelagians. Trans. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 5 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989).
  • Gerald Bonner, "How Pelagian was Pelagius?" Studia Patristica 9 (1966): 350-58.
  • Gerald Bonner, "Pelagianism and Augustine." Augustinian Studies 23 (1992): 33-51.
  • Gerald Bonner, God's Decree and Man's Destiny: Studies on the Thought of Augustine of Hippo (London: Variorum Reprints, 1987).
  • Gerald Bonner, St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (Norwich: Canterbury, 1963).
  • Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (London: Fraser, 1967).
  • J. Patout Burns, The Development of Augustine's Doctrine of Operative Grace. (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1980).
  • J. Patout Burns, "Grace."A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979).
  • J. Patout Burns, "The Interpretation of Romans in the Pelagian Controversy." Augustinian Studies 10 (1979): 43-54.
  • R.F. Evans, Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals (New York: Seabury, 1968).
  • Leonard Hodgson, The Grace of God in Faith and Philosophy. Bishop Paddock Lectures xvi (London: Longmans, 1936).
  • J. Stephen Lang, "Influential Antagonists." Christian History 19 (2000): 33-36.
  • Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 4 vols. (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1971-83).
  • William E. Phipps, "The Heresiarch: Pelagius or Augustine?" Anglican Theological Review 62 (1980): 124-33.
  • B.R. Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1988).
  • Eugene TeSelle, "Pelagius, Pelagianism." A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979).
  • Eugene TeSelle, "Rufinus the Syrian, Caelestius, Pelagius: Explorations in the Prehistory of the Pelagian Controversy." Augustinian Studies 3 (1972): 61-95.
  • N.P. Williams, The Grace of God (London: Longmans, 1930).
  • N.P. Williams, The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin: A Historical and Critical Study. Bampton Lectures xxxv (London: Green, 1927).