Pelagius: a sadly traduced theologian

by frankbeswick

Pelagius was a religious thinker who clashed with Augustine and had his history written by his enemies, quite unfairly it seems.

Pelagius was a man who could evoke strong emotions. A Briton of the Irish race, according to his enemy Jerome, he had moved to Rome, where he had quite a following in Roman society from people who valued his learning and skill. But he could arouse contrary emotions, and he crossed the puritanical Augustine, who used his aristocratic connections to get Pelagius condemned and exiled. Furthermore, Pelagius' history was written by an unsympathetic writer, who may well have traduced him unfairly. Yet he was never condemned by the eastern churches and is still regarded as a saint by the orthodox church.

The Protagonists

Augustine versus Pelagius

Christian theology was not delivered in final form by Christ. It is a response to the presence of the divine in Christ, and so it has evolved with time. Each theology is individual to the theologian who creates it, but some gain mass popularity. Every theological thought system is born of the Christian tradition, the philosophical background of the theologian and the theologian's own personal character and religious and spiritual development. The early fifth century saw a clash between two theologians, one of whom had a positive view of human nature, whereas the other had a negative view. These two were Pelagius and Augustine. The negative view won, and it has had detrimental consequences on Western Christian thought over the centuries since.

Who were these two? Let's begin with Augustine. Augustine was a Roman aristocrat born in North Africa, whose progress through life was somewhat interesting. A teacher of rhetoric, he had begun as a sexually dissolute member of the Eversores, young men at Carthage  known for sexual excess. Then he converted to Manichaeism, a religion that saw the world as a clash between good and evil. In this view the material world was created by the devil and the spiritual one by God. Augustine moved on from Manichaeism and became a Neoplatonist, whose system of mysticism was an improvement on the negativity of Manichaeism, but in 386 converted to Christianity. By 391 he had become a priest and by 395 a bishop. He was a prolific writer on theological matters and was responsible for formulating key elements in the doctrine of the Trinity, and his theory of grace, which was the cause of his clash with Pelagius, many years later gave us Protestantism.

Pelagius was, according to Jerome a Briton of the Irish race. This tells us little: there were Christians in Ireland before Patrick, mainly in the south, where there was a form of Christianity that owed much to Egypt; but there were also Irishmen in Britain, mainly in the south west. We do know that Pelagius was a scholar fluent in Greek and Latin, and that he went to Rome as a teacher of ascetism, where he became popular. Eventually in response to the Pelagian issue he went on to Jerusalem and thence to Egypt, where he was to settle after his condemation. 



‘Heresy’ deals with the struggle for control of the Christian faith in the fourth century CE between Augustine and Pelagius, an Irish scholar, as seen through the eyes of Pelagi...

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The issues

The issue was about grace, the divine influence of God in human lives.

Augustine was a pessimist about human nature, which I believe was the legacy of his sexual excess in youth, which gave him a jaundiced view of human potentiality. Augustine invented the modern doctrine of original sin. In this view Adam and Eve sinned and thus the whole of human nature was corrupted ever after. Death came into the world through this sin, and infected all Adam's descendants. Sin also introduced concupiscence, which was so powerful that it overwhelmed the will. We can see the legacy of Augustine's degenerate youth here, he knew that he was overwhelmed by sexual desire and thought that his experience was universal. Furthermore, human will was in this view ineffective. Humans could do no good from their own corrupt will, and are incapable of making any movement to their own salvation. Every act performed by an unbaptized human is sin against a God who is wrathful against all men for their ancestor's sin. Worse, unbaptized babies go to Hell, as they fall under the condemnation of Adam.

Humans come into the world so ruined by sin [Augustine's words] that they are incapable of good by their own efforts. Furthermore, the individual does not count. For Augustine humans were made simply to fill in the places in heaven left by Satan's fallen angels, and as the number of places was finite, so there were many who would not go to heaven. You were either predestined to heaven or not. Babies who die before baptism are simply among the damned. Furthermore, the whole of creation is sullied by Adam's sin. This view makes little sense, even when you think in terms of a tiny world, but now we know that there is a large universe it is beyond credibility. 

There were theological novelties here, as there had been other theories of original sin, such as those by Irenaeus and Origen; and not all Christians took this negative view of nature. It is also worth noting that this set of ideas did not come from Jesus. who never mentioned original sin and certainly would not have considered sending any baby to Hell. Augustine is a classic example of a cleric who invents religious theories not authorized by Jesus and then demands that they be taken as faith. How many schisms have been caused by clerics who behave like this?

Pelagius, though, took a more positive view of human nature.For Pelagius the human nature was not totally corrupt. Adam's sin had not ruined it, but it had become worse through an accumulation of evil in the world. Original sin was a social influence, the pressure of sin in the world making people worse. Bad example really. Pelagius based his theology on the logos, the eternal word of God incarnate in Christ. This was the divine  word of creation, and so there was a grace built into the creation of human nature, a grace that had not been taken away, so human nature was capable of goodness.  But be clear, this goodness derives from God. There is the grace of revelation, which is found in the Old Testament, and there is the grace of forgiveness that comes with Christ and is given at baptism. Pelagius' theory did not lead him to think that unbaptized babies went to Hell.

Augustine's accusation was that Pelagius claimed that humans can be saved by their own efforts, rather than through God's grace. This is surely a false accusation, as Pelagius' belief that God had built grace into nature implies that God's first gift, the first move as we might say, was at creation, which was not sullied by Adam's sin.

Church history

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The conflict

In 411 Augustine became alarmed by Pelagius' views and those of his ally Celestius, and was openly critical, writing Against the Definitions of Caelestius. Pelagius thought it advisable to travel to North Africa, where he met Augustine. To be fair, Augustine spoke well of Pelagius' character, but could not agree with him and in 412 summoned a  council of bishops at his base in Carthage and had Pelagius condemned.

Undeterred, Pelagius went to Jerusalem. There he met the eastern patriarch John, who struck up a friendship with his Irish guest and decided that there was nought unchristian in Pelagius' views. However, at a nearby monastery the vitriolic Jerome was unimpressed. A staunch supporter of Augustine, his spleen became intense. Pelagius was "An ignorant traducer...who thought it worth his while to censure my commentaries..... labouring under his load of Scots porridge." "He barks like a mountain dog of immense bodily size." an allusion to the huge frame of this wandering Irish ascetic. Nice man, Jerome!

Augustine sent after Pelagius, and despatched his young assistant Orosius to challenge his enemy at Jerusalem. Orosius could only speak Latin, and the meeting was in Greek, so he had to have his words translated. Pelagius answered in fluent Greek, and won his case. The council decided that as the protagonists  were Latin Christians they would refer the issue to the Latin church, so another council  was  held at Diospolis later that year under Latin jurisdiction. Again, Pelagius won his case.

Augustine, not to be thwarted and demanding his own way, convened a synod of bishops at Carthage, without Pelagius' presence to defend himself, and surprise, surprise, Pelagius was condemned. But Augustine played hardball. Having got the condemnation that he wanted, he wrote to the pope, Innocent the First, to confirm the condemnation. Innocent duly approved it, keen to be seen as the highest court of appeal in the church. But having judged Pelagius, he died shortly afterwards. His successor, Zozimus was not convinced. He reversed the decision. It was at this point that Roman politics intervened. Honorius, the emperor based at Ravenna, took the side of Augustine and made  Zozimus an offer he could not refuse: reinstate the condemnation or I send my troops into Rome. The pope, responsible for maintaining the safety of the city and still trying to recover from Alaric's attack in 410 was intimidated by the threat of more rape and pillage on his burdened population and yielded to pressure. Pelagius' condemnation was reinstated. The Irishman was allowed to settle in Egypt, but disappears from history after that.

Honorius followed by a campaign against the Pelagians. All bishops in Italy had to sign a letter against Pelagius, Epistola contra Pelagium,  and those seventeen who refused were exiled. These included the moderate and scholarly Julian of Eclanum, who disappears from history at this point.

Ecclesistical history

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The condemnation of Pelagius was worsened by the faking of his writings. Several of his works are considered to have been rewritten by one Primarius, who altered them to make Pelagius appear guilty. Due to lies and fanaticism, the Irishman has gone down in history as an arch-heretic, even though many Christians thought that he was correct. 

Pelagius's story shows several important points about church history. First fanaticism always contradicts itself. Fanatics are so ruthless in achieving their goals they deny their own principles. Primarius resorted to lies to bolster his case. Augustine had once asserted "Rome has spoken, the matter is settled." which pleased the papacy enormously, but then he was prepared to tolerate the intimidation of the pope when it suited him! As a Catholic, the idea of intimidating a pope is abhorrent to me. Allowing the intrusion of civil power into the church is never right. Political interference in religious matters is never profitable, just look at the antics of Henry at the reformation.

There is also the problem of selecting your sources of authority to suit yourself. Several local church councils supported Pelagius, but one did not, so Augustine relied on that one. His fanaticism led him to an inconsistent view of authority.

There is also the problem of uncritical acceptance of authority and the texts that it produces. Augustine was the dominant thinker for many centuries in the history of the Latin church, and clerics simply accepted his views as authoritative. I am afraid that clerics are often over-dependent on ancient sacred texts, that they read uncritically. I can recall being taught at school Augustine's theories of original sin [though unbaptized babies only went to Limbo, some evidence of critical thinking at least.]

The trouble is that the wrong side won. Pelagius was no heretic, just the victim of fanatics with political influence. A vital Christian belief is that there is no salvation without God and that human initiative cannot save. God must make the first move, but Pelagius'view is that the initiative began with God's act of creation. There is nothing wrong or unchristian about this.Furthermore, the idea that death came into the world through Adam is clearly wrong. There were millions of years of evolution before humans, and that there was death is proved by fossils. That there are good people who are not baptized is evidenced by the kind and gentle non-Christians that I have met. I cannot accept the view advanced by many evangelicals  that any act by a non-baptized person is inherently evil. Pelagius' view that there is a grace built into creation makes much sense.

Some religious thinkers want to reinstate the unfortunate Irishman. They would have the orthodox church on their side, as these still regard him highly. 

Further reading

The Sun and the Cross, Jacob Streit, Floris books.

A  History of the Church, volume 2, Philip Hughes, Sheed and Ward

Updated: 04/10/2014, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 12/22/2023

The initial evangelism of IRELAND PROBABLY CAME FROM Egyptian

DerdriuMarriner on 12/21/2023

The information about southern Ireland as under the influence of Egypt-originated Christianity intrigues me.

Were the missionaries referenced by your comment March 5, 2023, in answer to my previous question March 4, 2023, Egyptians or Irishmen?

frankbeswick on 03/05/2023

Ships from the Mediterranean region could easily visit southern Ireland, stopping off in Spain or southern Gaul. The trade route to the south of Ireland was well known several hundred years before Christ. Missionaries could get a ride on a cargo ship.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/04/2023

Your first subheading, The protagonists, contains, in its third paragraph, the observation that "there were Christians in Ireland before Patrick, mainly in the south, where there was a form of Christianity that owed much to Egypt; but there were also Irishmen in Britain, mainly in the south west."

Do we know why it was that southern Ireland had a Christianity influenced by Egypt?

frankbeswick on 04/28/2014

Protestantism grew out of the devotion of Luther and Calvin to Augustine, and it is Augustinian theology as understood by these two. The Mennonite movement was part of the Baptist movement, which became blended with Protestantism and took up its ideas, so it accepted Augustinianism, so Baptists now see themselves as Protestants.

I am surprised that your tutors did not mention Pelagius, but not all theology courses are honestly presented. Why do you think I gave up my Ph.D studies with an evangelical university? I knew that the course materials that I was studying was not intellectually honest. But that's a different story.

Ember on 04/28/2014

I asked Jo forever ago about Pelagians, and she linked me here and I must've not book marked it because I only remembered about it yesterday.

I read a lot of Augustine in college (I attended a menonite bretheren university). They really liked Augustine (we read him in our required history courses, in our lit courses, etc.), so I find it interesting although I guess really not too surprising that I'd never even once heard of Pelaganism until recently. And, this debate still thrives, doesn't it? I remember I focused on Augustine a lot when I wrote a paper on the fallacy of works righteousness, as I called it. It is amusing to me now that I basically wrote an entire paper arguing against the essence of Pelagianism and managed to not even once come across it in all the literature I picked up from my university's library. I believe I even complained that I didn't fully understand where the theology had come from, and I can't remember my professors answer now but it apparently wasn't the full answer.

This was interesting, thank you! :D

frankbeswick on 04/13/2014

I got the story from, I think, Halliday Sutherland's Hebridean Journey,and this book says that it was missing when the Cromwellians attacked, but I also typed in Cairn na Burg Mor+Iona+library into the search engine. There is a mention of manuscripts being destroyed. So there are conflicting tales. There was time for it to be moved, as there were seventy years between the two events.

JoHarrington on 04/13/2014

Now I'm seriously intrigued! I'd not heard that story before.

frankbeswick on 04/13/2014

I have hard different accounts of the library. Some say that there is no mention of its destruction, but others think that it was destroyed without further comment

frankbeswick on 04/13/2014

I doubt the Druid conspiracy theory, but Irish Christianity was influenced by druidical thought. This is shown in the Celtic cross, whose circle round the cross represents God as known through nature, in the light of the sun, which the druids saw as revelation, a pagan view. This druidical contribution would have led Pelagius to take a more positive view of human nature than the pessimistic Augustine took.

As for copies of Gildas' letters, they could have existed, but there were layers of destruction. The Vikings destroyed Celtic monasteries, and then the Reformation finished off their successors. But there is a mystery that would interest a historian like yourself. There is a tale that the great library of Iona was rescued, as it had been moved ere the reformers came to destroy it. The Scots monasteries were left to decay and were less likely to be destroyed than the English, Irish and Welsh ones were. The library was taken to the island fortress of Cairn na Burg Mor in the Western Isles.But when this fortress fell to the Cromwellians, no library was there. So where did it go? Is it still kept intact somewhere?

The Vatican has been collecting documents for hundreds of years. Any reputable historian would be entitled to apply to research the library and archives. Just get a letter from a reputable scholar to back up your application.

I can see what the fuss was about. It is the pride of clerics who like to think that they have authority to impose their views and decisions upon others.

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