(This is a paper that I wrote for my graduate degree in Christian Ministry.)
Who was Pelagius?
Pelagius was an ascetic Christian from the British Isles who withstood Augustine of Hippo’s doctrines on free will, human nature, and salvation, causing a firestorm of persecution toward Pelagius by prominent Roman Catholic bishops and leaders of the time. Pelagius was eventually labeled a heretic and excommunicated from the Church.
Born circa 354 AD, Pelagius, in his twenties, “became a highly regarded spiritual director for both clergy and laymen” in Rome. The moral permissiveness he saw demonstrated by the Roman Christians around him offended his moral sensibilities, and his scrupulous standards for Christian behavior and virtue became a thorn in the side of many Roman Christians. Pelagius attributed the moral negligence he saw to doctrines propagated by Augustine at the time, including the notion that continence (or self-control) came only from the grace that was allotted to humanity by God at any given time. Pelagius believed that this way of thinking afforded humanity a means of escaping accountability for their own lack of temperance (by attributing it a grace that could be given or not given at random by God.) He “feared that people influenced by such teaching tend to dismiss any responsibility for their own actions.” Though he “agreed with Augustine that God has made us free, and that the source of evil is in the will,” he believed that “this meant human beings always have the ability to overcome their sin.”
Pelagius’ objections to Augustine’s teaching “on the grounds that it imperilled the entire moral law” attracted enough attention to gain a foothold in the city of Rome (and a follower who was an attorney named Celestius). As Pelagius’ influence grew, so, too, did his circle of critics. His most vocal and prolific opponent became Augustine of Hippo, whose own doctrinal power and sway with the Church had the potential of being undercut by Pelagius’ teachings. Jerome also had a negative opinion of Pelagius’ teachings and wrote against him in 415.
Though most of Pelagius’ writings are now strangely non-extant (whereas we have volumes of Augustine’s work,) much has been asserted about what Pelagius believed and taught. Indeed, it seems Augustine constructed an entire doctrinal empire simply out of his refutations of Pelagius’ teachings. Some scholars have even suggested that, were it not for Pelagius, Augustine may never have solidified his doctrine of Original Sin.
However, since there exists at least one document attributed to Pelagius’ “own hand,” let us examine Pelagius’ beliefs in his own words (from his “Letter to Demetrias in 413”.)
On Free Will
Pelagius addresses the free will of the “rational creature” to do good:
It was because God wished to bestow on the rational creature the gift of doing good of his own free will and the capacity to exercise free choice, by implanting in man the possibility of choosing either alternative, that he made it his peculiar right to be what he wanted to be, so that with his capacity for good and evil he could do either quite naturally and then bend his will in the other direction too. He could not claim to possess the good of his own volition, unless he were the kind of creature that could also have possessed evil. Our most excellent creator wished us to be able to do either but actually to do only one, that is, good, which he also commanded, giving us the capacity to do evil only so that we might do his will by exercising our own.
In this passage, Pelagius asserts that, in order for God to give humanity credit for doing good, humanity must also be capable of doing evil. Later, he will go on to argue that God would not have asked humans to do righteously if they were not capable of doing so.
Moreover, the Lord of Justice wished man to be free to act and not under compulsion; it was for this reason that he left him free to make his own decisions and set before him life and death, good and evil, and he shall be given whatever pleases him. Hence, we read in the Book Deuteronomy also: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you may live (Dt.30.19).
Here, Pelagius addresses the true nature of choice: if humanity was not given free choice of the will by God, they would be acting “under compulsion” to do good. To this day, we do not “give credit” or assign accountability to a soldier who “was only following orders.” Therefore, no reward, nor any consequence, would be properly assigned to a human race that was acting under a compulsion to do either good or (as Augustine will later assert,) evil. Pelagius affirmed that “men had been endowed by God with free will, so that they should follow His law and live perfect lives” in Christ.
On Human Nature
Augustine taught that human nature was already fallen, or defiled, by the Fall of Adam and Eve. Here, Pelagius very plainly refutes that teaching:
First, then, you ought to measure the good of human nature by reference to its Creator, I mean God, of course: if it is he who, as report goes, has made all the works of and within the world good, exceeding good, how much more excellent do you suppose that he has made man himself, on whose account he has clearly made everything else? And before actually making man, he determines to fashion him in his own image and likeness and shows what kind of creature he intends to make him.
Pelagius argues that if everything else God made was good (and he emphasizes that all of it was distinctly made for humanity’s sake,) how much more would God ensure that humanity was made “excellent?”
Furthermore, he contends that even the pagans are capable of showing Godly behavior and attributes:
For how many of the pagan philosophers have we heard and read and even seen for ourselves to be chaste, tolerant, temperate, generous, abstinent and kindly, rejecters of the world's honours as well as its delights, lovers of justice no less than knowledge? Whence, I ask you, do these good qualities pleasing to God come to men who are strangers to him? Whence can these good qualities come to them, unless it be from the good of nature? …But if even men without God can show what kind of creatures they were made by God, consider what Christians are able to do whose nature and life have been instructed for the better by Christ and who are assisted by the aid of divine grace as well.
Indeed, Pelagius’ contention is supported by the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 2:14-15:
For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness…
Pelagius also recalls Old Testament individuals who were described in the Scriptures as righteous, blameless, or perfect. Noah (Genesis 6:9 These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God,) Enoch, Job (Job 1:1 There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil,) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all mentioned by Pelagius as saints who kept the Commandments of God (pre-incarnate Christ) and upheld His righteousness out of their own volition and knowledge of the good.
Pelagius continues on with this theme in this section:
Even before the law was given to us, as we have said, and long before the arrival of our Lord and Saviour some are reported to have lived holy and righteous lives; how much more possible must we believe that to be after the light of his coming, now that we have been instructed by the grace of Christ and reborn as better men: purified and cleansed by his blood, encouraged by his example to pursue perfect righteousness, we ought surely to be better than those who lived before the time of the law, better even than those who lived under the law, since the apostle says: For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (Rom.6.14).
This again echoes Paul’s sentiments in Chapter 2 of Hebrews:
Hebrews 2:2-4: For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward; How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?
Perhaps this next section is the most brilliant and effective refutation of Augustine’s assertion of man’s natural inability to incline toward good (and hence, keep the Commandments of God):
Nothing impossible has been commanded by the God of justice and majesty…. Why do we indulge in pointless evasions, advancing the frailty of our own nature as an objection to the one who commands us? No one knows better the true measure of our strength than he who has given it to us nor does anyone understand better how much we are able to do than he who has given us this very capacity of ours to be able; nor has he who is just wished to command anything impossible or he who is good intended to condemn a man for doing what he could not avoid doing.
Clearly, God would not have given us commandments we couldn’t possibly keep; otherwise, Jesus, who was given all things under his feet to judge, would never have taught that “if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.”
Echoing James’ exhortation (James 1:22: But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves,) Pelagius charges his reader to:
Read the holy scriptures in such a way that you never forget that they are the words of God, who commands us that we should not only know his law but also fulfil it; for it is of no advantage to have learned what has to be done, if we then fail to do it.
At the heart of Pelagianism is the belief that humanity can “avoid sinning, and can freely choose to obey God's commandments.”
Diane Leclerc, Ph.D. writes: “From Augustine, we get the idea that we are born depraved; we inherit a carnal nature that is completely incapable of God. Pelagius believed that the only effect of the original sin of Adam and Eve was mortality. In this, Pelagius is not saying anything different than what was understood prior to Augustine’s invention.” Author Michael Lodahl argues that:
"Pelagius did not do justice to the reality of our solidarity…the world into which we come is already a history filled with sin, manifested in war, bloodshed, slavery, abuse, torture, fear, and a thousand other nightmares. It is this reality, already there before us and into which we are thrown at birth, that Pelagius apparently failed to appreciate.”
However, in his letter, Pelagius deals with this very topic when he writes:
Noah is said to have been 'a righteous man, blameless in his generation' (Gen.6.9), and his holiness is all the more to be admired in that he alone was found to be righteous, when literally the whole world was declining from righteousness, nor did he seek a model of holiness from another but supplied it himself. And for that reason, when the destruction of the whole world was imminent, he alone of all men was found worthy to hear the words: Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation (Gen.7.1).
(One has to wonder how much worse of a world a child could be born into than the one into which Noah was born – which necessitated the flooding of the entire earth to eradicate such an entrenched evil! And yet, somehow Noah managed to maintain his righteousness before God.)
In 411, Pelagius’ friend and follower Celestius was bidden to appear in Carthage to answer for six theses attributed to his writings which were deemed heretical by the bishop Aurelius (and later condemned by the Church.) According to New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, though they were penned and defended by Celestius alone, these theses “clearly contain the quintessence of Pelagianism.” The theses are as follows:
1) Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died.
2) Adam's sin harmed only himself, not the human race.
3) Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall.
4) The whole human race neither dies through Adam's sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of Christ.
5) The Law is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel.
6) Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin.
When Pelagius was confronted with these doctrines, he denied originating them and even refuted them in testimony at a synod of fourteen bishops held in Diospolis in December, 415: “Of other doctrines with which he had been charged, he said that, formulated as they were in the complaint, they did not originate from him, but from Caelestius, and that he also repudiated them.” He was exonerated of the charges of heresy brought against him by Orosius and others, and, at this point, “the Orient had now spoken twice and had found nothing to blame in Pelagius.”
Eventually, however, Pelagius would be ex-communicated from the Church and his doctrines condemned by the Council of Carthage (which was sanctioned by the Council of Ephesus in 431.)
The Council of Orange
Pelagianism, having already been condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418, nonetheless continued on in a form labelled as “semi-pelaginanism,” which rejected Augustine’s doctrine of predestination. “An outgrowth of the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius,” the Council of Orange convened in 529 (long after the deaths of both of its original subjects.) They argued over the degree of responsibility a person had for their own salvation and the degree to which the catalyst was the grace of God. Because the Pelagians rejected the doctrine of Original Sin, they believed that “children have no sin until they, on their own free will, decide to sin.” This belief (along with an Old Testament laden with examples of those walking uprightly according to God,) led them to conclude that sinless perfection was attainable in this life. “The Council of Orange dealt with the Semi-Pelagian doctrine that the human race, though fallen and possessed of a sinful nature, is still ‘good’ enough to able to lay hold of the grace of God through an act of unredeemed human will.” Rejecting this premise, the Council held to Augustine's view, renounced Pelagius, and was well on their way to the formation of the doctrine of Total Depravity.
Wesley on Pelagius
Through his doctrine of “entire sanctification,” Wesley echoed some Pelagian-esque sentiments of man’s ability to achieve sinless perfection. However, Wesley did hold to Augustine’s doctrine of the fallen state of humankind. Addressing this, he pioneered a doctrine of “prevenient grace,” which teaches that “it is only God’s holy, loving presence in human life that enables us to choose against the chains of sin.”
In Wesley’s own words:
I verily believe, the real heresy of Pelagius was neither more nor less than this: The holding that Christians may, by the grace of God, (not without it; that I take to be a mere slander,) ‘go on to perfection;’ or, in other words, ‘fulfill the law of Christ.'
Though he was persecuted, condemned, and excommunicated, clearly Pelagius had a very good sense of the “whole counsel of God” and offered Scriptural interpretations that are valuable to consider even to this day. After reading his actual letter to Demetrias, I feel certain Pelagius was unfairly maligned by the Church and its Councils. Of course, he is not the first to be persecuted and condemned by the religious leaders of his day. Perhaps -- as he charged us to do – Pelagius was just walking in the very footsteps of Christ. In his words:
You will realise that doctrines are the invention of the human mind, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. You will realise that scripture itself is the work of human recording the example and teaching of Jesus. Thus it is not what you believe (in your head) that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters, but becoming like him.
Indeed, from James 2:19:
Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
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