The first great purely Latin heresy, based on the belief that man was capable, in theological terms, of taking the first essential steps toward salvation by the correct use of his free will. Socially it was a movement of protest and reform against abuses by articulate members of the literate classes in the western part of the Roman empire.
The teaching was first formulated in Rome by Pelagius, possibly of British origin, who had settled in the city by 390 (if not before) and had become chaplain to the noble Christian house of the Anicii. In the first years of the fifth century Augustine’s Confessiones began to circulate in Rome, and Pelagius read the somewhat careless phrase used by Augustine (Confessiones 10.33), “Give what thou commandest and command what thou wilt.” This seemed to him a stark and fatalistic injunction from a contemporary whose works he otherwise admired. For Pelagius, in any moral action there were three distinct elements: first, one must be able to do it; second, one must be willing to do it; and third, the action must be carried out (Pelagius, cited in Augustine, De gratia Christi 4.5).
Pelagius taught that the first of these, the possibility (posse), was part of man’s natural endowment derived from God; the second and third, will (velle) and effect (esse in effectu), were of man, the result of his free choice. Thus every person’s sin was his own, not derived from Adam’s fall but the result of his weakness and lack of will. Moreover, God did not command the impossible. Pelagius wrote to one noble correspondent, Demetrias, about 414, “No one knows better the measure of our strength, and no one has better understanding of the resources within our power [than God]” (Letters to Demetrias 16). There was no “great sin” (sexual activity) behind the misery of the human condition. Adam’s responsibility was confined to setting humanity a bad example.
Outside North Africa, most of the contemporaries of Pelagius would have agreed with him. Pelagius was on terms of friendship with Paulinus of Nola and other influential south Italian bishops. His social teaching that wealth and power were hindrances to the Christian life was accepted with enthusiasm in Sicily, Gaul, and perhaps in Britain. To Augustine, Pelagius was known as a “holy man” who had made no small progress in the Christian life (De peccatorum meritis 3.1). Had it not been for the sack of Rome by Alaric and his Goths on 24 August 410, which forced Pelagius into exile, his teaching might well have escaped condemnation.
Pelagius and his immediate associates arrived as refugees in North Africa in the autumn of 410. He had a brief contact with Augustine before passing on to Palestine. His disciple Celestius stayed behind, and in 411 applied to the church in Carthage for ordination. Unfortunately, his views, outlined in the course of an examination before Bishop Aurelius, proved unsatisfactory to his hearers: Adam was made mortal and would have died in any event.
Eve’s sin affected only herself. Infants were born in exactly the same state as Adam had been before he had sinned. They needed baptism in order to share in humanity’s regeneration, but this had nothing to do with original sin transmitted from Adam. Law and Gospel were of equal value as guides toward salvation. There were sinless persons before Christ. The rich, unless they gave their goods to the poor, could not obtain salvation. These beliefs seemed to deny the value of Christ’s resurrection in reversing the effects of Adam’s sin, and the need for divine grace in every moral act. Celestius was refused ordination and condemned.
Augustine’s De spiritu et littera, written for a friend, the tribune Marcellinus, answered the Pelagian assertion that it was possible, with grace, for men to live in a sinless state, and that law and Gospel were of equal value. He pointed out that the Holy Spirit of the Gospel gave life, while the Mosaic Law, though stating what man ought to do, had no power of itself to do this. Later, on 27 June 413, he proclaimed in a sermon (Sermo 294) preached at Carthage that infants must be baptized as soon as possible to “free them from the infection of the ancient death drawn from their first birth” (Adam’s) and quoted Cyprian (Letter 64.5) in justification.
It was the arrival of Pelagius in Palestine that stirred the Pelagian controversy. There he quarreled with Jerome, not on the question of grace but on whether individuals (e.g., monks following an ascetic life) could attain a state of sinlessness. By coincidence, at this moment, in 415, an emissary of Augustine, the Spanish presbyter Paulus Orosius, arrived in Palestine on a mission to Jerome. The two allied against Pelagius, but the latter defended himself ably and was formally acquitted of charges of heresy at the Synod of Diospolis (Lydda) held by Bishop John of Jerusalem on 20 December 415.
It was at this stage that the church in Egypt became involved.
Augustine heard the news of Pelagius’ acquittal on Paulus Orosius’ return to North Africa in the summer of 416. He immediately wrote to Atticus, archbishop of Constantinople, and CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA. These two letters, discovered by Johannes Divjak in the 1970s among thirty hitherto unrecognized letters and memoranda of Augustine, show that Augustine went to great pains to convince the leaders of the Eastern churches of the dangers of Pelagius’ teaching.
Augustine thereby revived the contacts between Carthage and Alexandria that had existed in Cyprian’s time during the Baptismal Controversy of 255-256 (see Conybeare, 1910). While no reply from Cyril survives, it is clear that Augustine gained at least the benevolent neutrality of Alexandria in the struggle with Pelagius that developed. Pelagius was condemned by Pope Innocent I in January 417 and, after considerable hesitation, by his successor, Zosimus, in the summer of 418. His supporters in south Italy were deprived of their sees and were exiled. In the East, Pelagianism was finally condemned at the Council of EPHESUS in 431. It may be that Augustine’s invitation to that council was a result of the links he had been able to establish with the major Eastern sees, including Alexandria, fifteen years before.
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- Souter, A. “The Character and History of Pelagius’ Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul.” Proceedings of the British Academy 7 (1915-1916):261-96.
W. H. C. FREND