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Pelagius and Pelagianism


A fifth-century heresy, Pelagianism was concerned with grace and freedom of the will; it is named after Pelagius, its principal author.


Born probably in Britain c. 354, Pelagius arrived in Rome c. 380, and although not a priest became a highly regarded spiritual director for both clergy and laity. His followers were few but influential, and their rigorous asceticism was a reproach to the spiritual sloth of many of their fellow Catholics. Before the capture of Rome by Alaric (410), Pelagius left for Africa with Coelestius, a close friend and collaborator. The latter remained there in the hope of becoming a priest, while Pelagius proceeded to Palestine, which became his home until 418, after which date he disappears from history.

Pelagius had received a solid training in the classics and achieved a fairly good knowledge of the Bible and the works of the Greek and Latin theologians. Many of his writings were formerly attributed to augustine, jerome, and other orthodox scholars. Some of his works, such as De fide Trinitatis, have disappeared. Three have been preserved: Expositiones XIII Epistularum Pauli (completed by 405); Epistola an Demetriadem (414), and Libellus fidei (addressed to Pope innocent i in 417). There remain only fragments of some letters as well as of his De natura (414), De libero arbitrio (416), and Liber testimoniorum, a methodical collection of texts from Sacred Scripture. C. Caspari and G. de Plinval regarded him as the author of other anonymous or pseudonymous letters and treatises.

Pelagian Theological System. The doctrine of Pelagius, which can be reconstructed from his authentic writings, rests on freedom of the will and divine grace. According to him the human will is completely free and is equally ready to do either good or evil. This freedom would be destroyed if the will were inclined to evil because of another's sin or had to be strengthened by another's help. Divine grace is for him something external, as the free will itself, or the precepts of the Old and the New Testaments. Its purpose is merely to facilitate what the will can do by itself, and it is always given in proportion to one's merits.

These two basic principles led to the following conclusions: Adam's sin was purely personal; therefore it would be unjust for God to punish the human race for his transgression. Death is not a punishment of sin, but a necessity of human nature. Since all are born without sin, infant baptism is useless, and infants who die without the Sacrament go immediately to heaven. The Redemption does not give new life to the human race; Christ merely helps by His good example. Prayer for the conversion of others is futile since it cannot help them in saving their souls.

Pelagianism, therefore, denied the supernatural order, explained away the mystery of predestination, and made God only a spectator in the drama of human salvation.

Opposition to Pelagianism. These doctrines created no stir in Rome because Pelagius seems to have taught them only to a carefully selected audience, but soon after his departure from the city they were proclaimed openly in many parts of the Christian world. This was due mainly to the untiring propaganda of Coelestius. The first opposition was raised in 411 when Aurelius, Bishop of Carthage, summoned Coelestius to a local council. He was there ordered to retract his statements rejecting original sin and infant baptism. On his refusal, he was excommunicated and forced to leave the country.

Augustine. Augustine was not present at this council but, as he claims in his Retractationes (1.9.6), he was the enemy of Pelagianism long before it appeared. In 412 he wrote De peccatorum meritis and De spiritu et littera. In them, as in all his later anti-Pelagian writings, he emphasizes the weakness of man's will as a result of original sin and man's continuous need of God's help in order to be saved; and insists that grace is something personal, intrinsic, and above all a gratuitous gift of God, for if it were not gratuitous it would no longer be grace.

Orosius. While Coelestius was under excommunication, Pelagius was being honored and consulted by the clergy and laity of Palestine, and even demetrias in Rome sought his advice before dedicating herself to a life of virginity. In 414 Augustine sent a young and intelligent Spanish priest named orosius to alert Jerome in Bethlehem and the hierarchy of the Holy Land to the dangers of the new heresy.

Orosius and Pelagius appeared before a meeting of bishops at Jerusalem on July 28, 415, where Orosius charged Pelagius with heresy. As Orosius did not know Greek, he was hindered in his presentation of the evidence, and Pelagius, who had become fluent in this language, easily refuted him by his equivocal statements. Bishop John of Jerusalem decided to refer the matter to the Holy See, urged both men to remain silent, and hinted that Orosius himself was not above suspicion. The latter professed his orthodoxy in his Liber apologeticus and also insisted that Pelagius should be condemned.

Jerome. In this same year Jerome wrote two treatises against the Pelagians: one is in a letter to Ctesiphon and the other is called Dialogus adversus Pelagianos. In both he weakened the force of his arguments by the use of vituperation and violent personal allusions. Jerome also exaggerated when he addressed Pelagius: "You boast a justice in men which is perfect and equal to that of God Himself" (Epistolae 133). Pelagius never went that far, for he carefully reminded his followers that they were inferior to God. His mistake, as Augustine repeatedly pointed out, was in teaching that man could acquire even a relative degree of justice by his own unaided efforts.

Synod of Diospolis. Eulogius, Metropolitan of Caesarea, did not wait for Rome's reply to the hierarchy of Palestine. Urged on by two exiled bishops of Gaul, Heros and Lazarus, he summoned Pelagius before a council of 14 bishops at Diospolis (ancient Lydda) on Dec. 20, 415. Since no accuser appeared, Pelagius was questioned about the doctrines attributed to him. When the incriminating passages were read he either denied that he had ever taught them or else offered an orthodox explanation. The bishops therefore exonerated him from the charge of heresy. Augustine later wrote a detailed account of this council, De gestis Pelagii, in 417, and showed that Pelagius had been forced to disavow Coelestius in some points of doctrine and to anathematize one of his essential principles: that grace is given according to man's merits.

The African Bishops. When the hierarchy of Africa first heard of this council they believed that it had given its approval to Pelagianism. Therefore, in 416 sixty-seven bishops from the province of Africa assembled at Carthage and fifty-eight from the province of Numidia at Milevis. Both councils sent letters to Pope Innocent I in which they pointed out the errors of the Pelagians concerning freedom of the will, the futility of prayer, and infant baptism, and implored him to condemn its two principal leaders. On Jan. 27, 417, the Pope wrote three letters in reply. In them he approved of what the African bishops had written and excommunicated Pelagius and Coelestius.

Commenting on this exchange of letters Augustine declared: "The reports of two councils concerning this case [Pelagianism] were sent to the Apostolic See. From there replies have come; the case is closed" (Serm. 131). This was later popularized as "Rome has spoken, the case is closed." Pelagius at once forwarded a profession of faith, Libellus fidei, to Rome, and Coelestius went there in person to vindicate himself.

Roman Phase. When Innocent died on March 12, 417, the matter was brought to the attention of zosimus, his successor.

Pope Zosimus. The new Pope was satisfied with the orthodoxy of Pelagius after reading his profession of faith and restored him to unity with the Church. He was also lenient with Coelestius, but warned him not to teach in public. Through his correspondence with the hierarchy of Africa, however, he became aware of the real danger of the doctrines that Pelagius and Coelestius had concealed by their ambiguous language. He was also disillusioned by the disobedience of Coelestius, who challenged his opponents to debates that often ended in riots. With the Pontiff's approval, therefore, the Emperor honorius expelled the Pelagian leaders from Rome on April 30, 418.

The following day, 214 African bishops assembled for the Sixteenth Council of Carthage. They condemned nine specific errors of Pelagius on original sin and its transmission (c. 13), the nature and necessity of grace (c. 46), and human impeccability (c. 79). In the summer of this year Zosimus issued the so-called Epistola tractoria in which he gave a brief history of Pelagianism, pointed out its falsehoods, ratified the acts of the Council of Carthage, and renewed his predecessor's excommunication of Pelagius and Coelestius. All the bishops of the Church were ordered to sign this letter.

A council at Antioch summoned by the Patriarch Theodotus accepted the letter of the Pope and Pelagius was expelled from Palestine; he disappeared from history leaving only conjectures about his subsequent fate. Coelestius refused to accept the verdict of the Holy See, escaping punishment because of his protectors.

Julian of Eclanum. The leader of the Pelagians after 418 was julian, Bishop of Eclanum. He and 17 other bishops of Italy would not sign the epistola tractoria and demanded that a general council should be summoned to reopen the case. All were excommunicated, deposed, and exiled, and Julian began a literary war with Augustine in defense of the condemned heresy. He was more radical than Pelagius or Coelestius and was quoted as saying: "The freedom of the will is that by which man is freed from God" (Contra Iulianum, opus imperfectum, Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 187890] 45:1102), but his principal argument is that original sin, as approved at Carthage and Rome, was a revival of manichaeism.

Augustine refuted Julian in four major works: De nuptiis et concupiscentia (419420), Contra duas epistolas Pelagianorum (420), Contra Iulianum (421), and his final work, begun in 429 and not finished at the time of his death (430), Contra Iulianum opus imperfectum.


In his last years Augustine had to refute the teachings of the monastic leaders, such as John cassian, who repudiated Pelagianism but taught that man was capable of making an initial act of faith without the aid of divine grace. They also objected to Augustine's theory of predestination

Against these Semi-Pelagians (see semi-pelagianism), as they were later called, Augustine wrote De gratia et libero arbitrio and De correptione et gratia in 427, and De predestinatione sanctorum and De dono perseverantiae in 428 or 429. Despite the cogency of his arguments, the struggle against Semi-Pelagianism did not end until the Second Council of Orange (529).

Some of the bishops who had resisted the order of Pope Zosimus eventually made their submission. The rest were forced into exile in the East where they were befriended by theodore of mopsuestia. In 428 or 429 Julian of Eclanum and three other bishops arrived in Constantinople, where they met Coelestius and were received by nestorius who had just become bishop there (April 428).

The Council of Ephesus. In 431 the general council, which Julian had demanded in 418, met at ephesus. It condemned not only Nestorianism, but Pelagianism as well (c. 1 and 4), and in the synodal letter of July 22 the bishops ratified the deposition of the "impious Pelagians." This council gave the deathblow to Pelagianism, for East and West were now united against it, and it ceased to exist as an organized movement.

Later History. There is no further mention of Coelestius after 431, and Julian, disgraced and discredited, died c. 455. Some traces of the heresy persisted, however, as is clear from a letter of Pope gelasius i to the bishops of Picenum on Nov. 1, 493. Either before or during his pontificate, Gelasius also wrote the Dicta adversus pelagianam haeresim. No papal pronouncements against Pelagianism were necessary in the sixth century.

The Pelagian heresy led Catholic theologians to make a profound study of original sin and the Redemption of Christ, but its principal result was a vindication of the supernatural character of Christianity, and the unqualified assertion that grace is a gratuitous and undeserved gift of God. The Church of Africa was the uncompromising foe of Pelagianism from the beginning, and its most illustrious member, Augustine, has been called "the Doctor of Grace" because his teachings on this dogma have been adopted in great part by the Catholic Church.

Bibliography: r. hedde and É. amann, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 12.1:675715. augustine, Gest. Pelag., ed. c. f. urba and j. zycha (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum [Vienna 1866] 42; 1902); C. Pelag., ed. c. f. urba, and j. zycha (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 60; 1913). pelagius, Expositions of the Thirteen Epistles of St. Paul, ed. a. souter, 3 v. (Texts and Studies 9.19.3; Cambridge, Eng. 192231). c. caspari, Briefe, Abhandlungen, Predigten (Oslo 1890). g. de plinval, Pélage: Ses écrits, sa vie et sa réforme (Lausanne 1943). j. ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study (Cambridge, Eng. 1956). j. tixeront, A Handbook of Patrology (St. Louis 1930). e. portaliÉ, A Guide to the Thought of St. Augustine (Chicago 1960). t. de bruyn, Pelagius's Commentary on St Paul's Epistle to the Romans: Translated with Introduction and Notes (Oxford; New York 1993). b. r. rees, Pelagius: Life and Letters (Rochester, N.Y. 1998); Pelagius, a Reluctant Heretic (Wood-bridge 1988). j. ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study (New York 1978). r. f. evans, Four Letters of Pelagius (New York 1968); Pelagius; Inquiries and Reappraisals (New York 1968). c. c. burnett, God's Self-revelation in the Theology of Pelagius (diss.; Catholic University of America 1998).

[s. j. mckenna]

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