views updated May 18 2018


PELAGIANISM . The term Pelagianism designates both the teachings of Pelagius, a fourth-century Christian monk, and any teaching that minimizes the role of divine grace in salvation. Few of the ideas associated with Pelagianism in the latter sense can be directly traced to Pelagius, but because he was opposed by the great North African bishop Augustine, whose influence on Western Christian theology has been far-reaching, he has come to stand for an insufficient and erroneous doctrine of grace. Some have suggested that Pelagianism was the creation of Augustine and not Pelagius. But it was Pelagius's views on the Christian life, his moral rigorism, his high regard for the law, and his emphasis on discipline and the human will that laid the foundation for the controversy that gave birth to what has come to be known as Pelagianism.

Pelagius (d. 418), a monk from Britain, was living in Rome at the end of the fourth century when he came in contact with wealthy and aristocratic Romans who had lapsed into Christianity through marriage or political expedience. Adopting Christianity had done little to change their lives. Baptism, which had been thought to signify a clean break with one's past, was becoming a polite convention. Only the ascetics seemed to take seriously the radical demands of the gospel. Pelagius, however, believed that the law of the gospel should be imposed on all members of the church, not just on the monks. The word of Jesus, "Be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect," was addressed to all Christians; thus, according to Pelagius, "since perfection is possible for humans, it is obligatory."

As a moral reformer Pelagius met with success among a circle of supporters in Rome, but his notion of the church as a society of pure and authentic Christians had an old-fashioned ring to it at a time when the level of commitment among Christians was in decline because of a large influx into the church of merely nominal converts. He was offended when he read in Augustine's Confessions that humans must necessarily and inevitably sin even after baptism. Augustine's phrase "Give what you command and command what you will" seemed to him to undermine the moral law and the quest for perfection, because it placed responsibility for righteousness on God rather than on the human will.

Pelagius did not, as is often thought, deny the necessity of grace. Grace was to be understood as the revelation of God's purpose and will, the wisdom by which humans are stirred to seek a life of righteousness. It was God's way of helping humankind and was found in (1) the endowment of a rational will and the capacity to choose good or evil, (2) the law of Moses, (3) the forgiveness of sins in the redemptive death of Christ, (4) the teaching of Christ, and (5) the example of Christ. Pelagius saw no opposition between the laws of the old covenant and the gospel. He saw grace as precept and example, a view that led him to overestimate human capability and thus to invite criticism.

The controversy began in 412, at a council in Carthage, in North Africa, with the condemnation of Celestius, a supporter of Pelagius, for holding the views that (1) Adam was created mortal and would have died whether or not he was a sinner; (2) Adam's sin injured himself alone, and not the human race; (3) infants at birth are in that state in which Adam was before his sin; (4) the whole human race neither died on account of Adam nor rises on account of Christ; (5) the law as well as the gospel admits a person to the kingdom of heaven; (6) before the advent of Christ there were humans who did not sin; (7) a person can be without sin and keep the divine commands. This is not Pelagianism, but Pelagius would have agreed with some of these propositionsfor example, that sinless human beings had lived before the coming of Christ. He pointed to "gospel men before the gospel" such as Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, and Job.

As a result of the condemnation of Celestius, Pelagius, who had traveled to Palestine, was forced to defend himself in the East. His most vehement critics, however, were Westerners such as Jerome. Significantly, at two councils in Palestine in 415 he was acquitted by bishops from the East. In the meantime Augustine opened up a literary campaign against Pelagius, and this led Augustine to produce the theological works that would define Pelagianism for Western Christian theology and to formulate the objections that would lead to Pelagius's condemnation. Under Augustine's influence Pelagius was condemned by two African councils, and in 417 Pope Innocent I ratified the anathema.

After Pelagius's death in 418 (or shortly thereafter) his followers, often under much hardship, continued to defend his teachings. One of these, the gifted and articulate bishop Julian of Eclanum, a town in Apulia (southeastern Italy), though banished from his see, traveled and wrote extensively. He vigorously opposed the new ideas of Augustine, seeing in them the specter of Manichaean dualism. In a modified form Pelagius's teachings were embraced by John Cassian (360435), a monastic writer from Marseilles (France) who is sometimes called the founder of semi-Pelagianism, though this term only came to be used in the sixteenth century. Other exponents were Vincent of Lerins (d. 450) and Faustus of Riez (408490), both from southern France. The focus of discussion centered on the necessity of human cooperation with divine grace in salvation, and since then these questions have been central to the history of theology in the West. The dispute finally ended at the Council of Orange (429), which condemned the writings of Faustus and upheld most of the teachings of Augustine.

Only in recent years has there been a serious effort to understand the historical Pelagius and the circumstances surrounding his teaching. More often Pelagianism has been used as an epithet to vilify one's foes whenever there is a suggestion that human efforts displace the role of grace. In the Middle Ages Thomas Bradwardine (12901349), archbishop of Canterbury, wrote against the "Pelagians," meaning those of his contemporaries who subverted God's grace by stressing free will. Peter Abelard (10791142) has sometimes been called a Pelagian because of his view of the exemplary as distinct from the redemptive character of Christ's life and death. In the sixteenth century the Protestant reformers charged their opponents with Pelagianism because of their belief that one could prepare for grace by doing good works: Martin Luther called Erasmus a Pelagian. In Roman Catholicism Luis de Molina, a sixteenth-century Jesuit, was suspected of Pelagian convictions because he taught that God's foreknowledge of human cooperation is itself a sign of grace. The term semi-Pelagian arose from this controversy. Although Pelagianism has had little direct influence on Eastern Christian thought, which also never adopted Augustine's ideas, aspects of Orthodox Christian theology have been held to possess a Pelagian tinge from the perspective of Western Christian theology.

See Also

Augustine of Hippo; Pelagius.


Bonner, Gerald. Augustine and Modern Research on Pelagianism. Villanova, Pa., 1972.

Brown, Peter. Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine. London, 1972.

Evans, Robert F. Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals. New York, 1968.

Robert L. Wilken (1987)


views updated May 29 2018

Pelagianism. The Christian heresy which holds that a person can come to salvation by her or his own efforts apart from God's grace; or in co-operation with grace. It is named from the British theologian Pelagius, who taught in Rome in the 4th–5th cents. Pelagius' teaching was ascetic and moral, arguing that human nature is created by God in such a way that individuals are free to choose good or evil. Pelagianism was finally condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Its influence continued, especially in the S. of France in the form of a movement now called ‘semi-Pelagianism’. First expounded by John Cassian, this was a doctrine midway between Augustine and Pelagius, mainly in opposition to Augustine's extreme views of predestination. It held that the first steps toward the Christian life were taken by the human will, God's grace supervening only later. After its condemnation in 529, Augustine's teaching on grace and free will prevailed everywhere in the Christian West.