Pelagius: The Conflict and the Consequence

Few names in Church history carry greater consternation than that of Pelagius (c. 350-420). Modern readers may not be able to grasp the intense outrage which some theologians of Pelagius' day felt toward his views on God, the fall, sin, grace, and salvation. Many Christian people today in the West even find calling a minister a heretic taboo (John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg come to mind); but this is not the case in the early Church.

By mid-fourth century, the Church has already had her fair share of false teachers and would-be prophets. Though by this time the Church has not yet necessarily dotted all her i's and crossed all her t's theologically, the controversy which surrounds Pelagius forever settles the matter for the Church regarding God's grace in salvation. But who is this man, Pelagius?

Pelagius is born in 350 CE in Britain.1 Little is actually known about his early life because many records (including his writings) are burned or destroyed by his opponents Sts. Jerome, Augustine, and others. What we do know of him and his followers comes directly from his opponents, which means that we are not granted an unbiased and objective opinion. Pelagius is thought to have been a monk. However, noted Pelagius scholar B.R. Rees, author of Pelagius: Life and Letters, states that "Pelagius was not a monk in the sense that he belonged to a religious community. . . ."2 He was, however, active 
as a Bible teacher in Rome just prior to the conquest of Rome by Alaric in 410 -- the stunning event that prompted Augustine to write his magnum opus defending the role played by Christianity in history, The City of God (413-26). Even more so than was the case with those condemned as heretics in the Trinitarian and Christological controversies, the details of Pelagius' life and works have been obscured by the hostility of his opponents.3
As a Bible teacher in Rome, Pelagius has earned a "high reputation" among the Christians -- the "very same circles once dominated by Jerome!"4 Rees further comments: 
In fact, it was just the right moment for him to arrive in Rome, where a new Christianized aristocracy had now grown up, pious, ascetically minded and dedicated to the study of the Bible: the place that Jerome had filled was vacant, and Pelagius was soon to gather around himself an influential band of supporters, among them members of the wealthiest families and even of the clergy, and it was to their recommendations that Augustine was referring when, as late as 411, he described him [that is, Pelagius] as "a holy man, who, I am told, has made no small progress in the Christian life."5 
Rees continues, "Even in 413, when he had already written his first two anti-Pelagian works, he could address his future opponent as 'My lord greatly beloved and brother greatly longed for' in his reply to a letter received from Pelagius, now in Palestine." Only two years later the two are embroiled in a heated dispute over the sovereignty of God, the fallen state and free will of humanity, grace and salvation. The earmark for the Pelagian controversy begins when Pelagius reads a prayer of Augustine's from his Confessions, which states, "Give me what You command and command what You will." This type of language concerning God and His governance of the world is obnoxious to Pelagius. The thought of God ruling people in this manner is completely unacceptable; and worse, he figures, it is unbiblical. 

Calvinist R.C. Sproul comments, "Pelagius raised this question: Is the assistance of grace necessary for a human being to obey God's commands? Or can those commands be obeyed without such assistance? For Pelagius the command to obey implies the ability to obey."6 Pelagius does, indeed, believe that people are capable of obeying God's laws. He teaches that God has endowed mankind, inherently by nature, with a true and genuine freedom of the will to choose the good and eschew all evil. People are responsible for their own actions and choices, since God has granted humanity the inherent ability to choose the good. Again, Sproul comments, "For Pelagius, nature does not require grace in order to fulfill its obligations. Free will, properly exercised, produces virtue, which is the supreme good and is justly followed by reward."7


Lest we paint too grim a portrait of Pelagius, we must be aware that St Augustine is not without his own theological shortcomings and heresies, however. Many today consider the teaching of baptismal regeneration intolerable, for example, yet this doctrine belongs to and is developed by Augustine himself. But Pelagius receives a tongue-lashing from his opponent, Augustine, on this issue as well.

Again, Rees writes, "For Augustine baptism made available to man a means of grace by which he could be set free from the penalty attached to original sin as well as the sins which he had actually committed."8 Pelagius exposes Augustine's inconsistency by asking how it is that an infant -- whose parents had both been baptized, and, according to his theory, had original sin washed away -- could be guilty of original sin? For, if parents have original sin washed away from them, then should not their offspring be free from original sin -- such being transmitted via conception)?

Being the bold and arrogant man that is St Augustine, he lashes out at Pelagius, proclaiming to everyone that he did not believe that people were born sinful. Rees quotes Bonner as admitting, "Perhaps, indeed, the clue to Pelagius' orthodoxy or unorthodoxy lies not so much in his concept of grace as in that other, vehemently debated topic, the baptism of infants in remissionem peccatorum, 'for the remission of their sins.'"9 But Pelagius has every right to question Augustine's teaching, for he, too, is a great and respected Bible teacher throughout Rome.

Augustine's own errors regarding original sin are all too easy to detect where such intersects with human sexuality. Brown observes, "For Augustine, original sin was intellectual or spiritual -- although it quickly led to inordinate desire and has made all human sexuality basically excessive and sinful."10 Yet, God does not curse sexual relations between a husband and his wife; God even expects such from a married couple (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5). Augustine's views on human sexuality (himself a recovering sexual deviant from his life before Christ) leads him down a path theologically that is not based upon Scripture, but in light of his own dark conscience. But the challenge to Augustine's authority in the Church and in society by Pelagius offends the Bishop of Hippo far more than a challenge to any particular doctrine of his.

Pelagius never considers himself a heretic, but a Bible-believing follower of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. He loves his Lord and he loves the Church. His unfortunate meeting with Jerome and Augustine forever shrouds him with epitaphs of heretic. Even men such as Jacob Arminius -- whom Calvinists have disdained since the sixteenth century -- names Pelagius a heretic for his supposed deficient views on grace and free will.11 Arminian scholar Roger E. Olson writes: "He [Pelagius] did not intend to preach a false gospel or any other gospel than the one he learned growing up in Britain. He did not ever actually deny any doctrine or dogma of the Christian faith -- at least not any that had already been declared orthodox. He was fundamentally a Christian moralist. . . ."12

My goal is not to exonerate Pelagius of heresy charges; I am not trying to make innocent the guilty. I have no vested interest in condemning him to hell, either. Though he denies infant baptism's effect of washing away original sin, he does not oppose baptizing infants (though he also baptizes adults upon conversion). He does reject the notion, however, of original sin; but so do many others of his time: he is not alone, though he alone is condemned for the denial.13

Pelagius is accused of heresy in c. 415, but is later exonerated. Furious, Augustine sets out to have him tried for heresy. Two North African councils convened in c. 416 and both condemn Pelagianism as heretical. Sproul writes: 
Pope Innocent was pleased to be consulted, and he expressed his full agreement with the condemnation of Pelagius and Coelestius [Pelagius' follower and successor]: "We declare in virtue of our Apostolic authority that Pelagius and Coelestius are excluded from the communion of the Church until they deliver themselves from the snares of the devil."14
Pope Innocent dies the next year and is succeeded by Pope Zosimus in c. 417. Pelagius tries to defend himself in Rome to the new Pope, and it works! Zosimus hardly believes that two men of such genuine character and faith in Christ can be excommunicated and slandered.

However, Pope Zosimus does not have the last word on this matter. Sproul explains that the "North African church convened a general council at Carthage in 418 attended by over two hundred bishops. The council issued several canons against Pelagianism . . ."15 and Pope Zosimus recants his recommendation of the beloved Pelagius. Little is known of the subsequent life of Pelagius after the conclusion of this council. Where do heretics flee?

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1 Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999), 268.

2 B. R. Rees, Pelagius: Life and Letters (New York: The Boydell Press, 1991), 2.

3 Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 1988), 200.

4 Rees, 2.

5 Ibid.

6 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 34.

7 Ibid., 35.

8 Rees, 76.

9 Ibid., 78.

10 Brown, 204.

11 James Arminius, "Apology Against Thirty-One Theological Articles: Disputation XV," The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:15.

12 Olson, 268.

13 Ibid.

14 Sproul, 43.

15 Ibid., 44.