The British theologian Pelagius (died ca. 430) held that the human will is free to do either good or evil and taught that divine grace only facilitates what the will can do itself. Pelagianism was condemned by the Church.

Soon after 400 Pelagius appeared in Rome. Widespread evidence indicates that he came originally from the British Isles. Whatever his origin, when Pelagius arrived in Rome, he was a layman. Perhaps it was his style of life or the nature of his moral teachings that caused others to refer to him as a monk, but he belonged to no monastic order or community. Even Augustine, who became Pelagius's severest critic, both referred to him as a monk and praised the upstanding character of his life.

While in Rome, Pelagius first heard of Augustine through his reading of a prayer from Augustine's Confessions: "Give what Thou commandest and command that Thou wilt." To Pelagius, the philosophy expressed in this prayer sounded like the total abandonment of human responsibility and a denial of the ethical dimensions of the Christian faith. If all moral action, thought Pelagius, depends solely on God—both the commanding as well as the ability to obey—God is either an arbitrary tyrant or else man is a creature deprived of free will. Pelagius conducted his teaching along these lines while he was in Rome, and it was to this teaching that an able lawyer, Caelestius, responded, leaving his profession of advocacy and becoming Pelagius's disciple, companion, and the popularizer of his views.


Travel to Africa

In 409 Alaric the Goth threatened Rome with his barbarian armies. Before he sacked Rome in 410, Pelagius and Caelestius had left Italy, staying in Sicily for a while and then sailing to North Africa. Their ship landed at Hippo, the see city of Augustine. Pelagius hoped to meet Augustine, but unfortunately he was away on business. Their arch-rivalry might have turned into a friendship had these two theologians ever met. Leaving Hippo, Pelagius and his lawyer friend moved to Carthage, where soon their views found loyal adherents as well as bitter opponents. But it was not until 411, after Pelagius had departed for the East leaving Caelestius behind, that the Pelagian controversy broke out and Augustine was enlisted as its chief theological prosecutor.

Caelestius was charged first and subsequently given a hearing at a Carthaginian synod under Bishop Aurelius. The heretical doctrine he was alleged to hold was that Adam, even before the Fall, was mortal and would have died even if he had not sinned. This doctrine, in the mind of the Africans, implied that Caelestius believed neither in original sin nor in the necessity of infant baptism. He was said, further, to have taught that man's sin is his own and not inherited from Adam. Against these and other charges Caelestius defended himself but to no avail; the synod excommunicated him, and he left North Africa.

But Caelestius's Pelagian views continued to spread, and soon Augustine was preaching and writing with intense fervor against this new heresy, arguing that the whole lump of humanity is infected with sin and that only the grace administered in baptism can wash away the guilty stain. In spite of these admonitions from the Doctor of Grace, the controversy continued, and it was not long before the articulate bishop of Eclanum, Julian, stepped in to argue the Pelagian cause, forcing Augustine, by the clarity of his logic, into positions regarding the doctrines of grace and predestination that have been burdensome to Western Christendom ever since.


Theological Controversy

The major events connected with the outbreak in North Africa of Pelagianism all occurred after Pelagius's departure. Leaving Africa, Pelagius went to Palestine. He found in John, the bishop of Jerusalem, one who not only sympathized with his views but who became a political ally as well. His chief enemy was Jerome, the scholarly ascetic who had left Rome to establish a monastery in Bethlehem and who, by disposition, was critical of Pelagius and his views. This disposition was not alleviated when Pelagius openly attacked Jerome's asceticism, especially his views on marriage. Soon after Pelagius's arrival in Palestine, Orosius, a zealous defender of the faith from Spain, arrived in Bethlehem to confer with Jerome. He brought with him news of Augustine's anti-Pelagian views and of the Carthaginian condemnation of Caelestius and Pelagianism. Orosius's news caused such a furor that John called a diocesan synod to examine the issues, allowing each side to present its case. However, in spite of Orosius's accusations, John was unmoved by the Western arguments and was in no way willing to accept the ecclesiastical authority of Augustine. "I am Augustine here!" he said. So the zealous Orosius lost the debate, and Pelagius's position seemed secure—at least in the East.

The turning point came, however, when the Augustinians presented a brief to Rome, requesting judgment on the validity of the condemnation of Pelagianism, in 411. Pope Innocent I expressed his sympathy with the North Africans and with Orosius and stated his views in a letter of excommunication of Pelagius, which reached Jerusalem in the winter of 417. Pelagius's cause was further harmed when news reached Innocent that Jerome's monastery had been sacked by an angry mob; it was unjustly assumed that Pelagius had participated in the violence. The letter of excommunication was followed by another sent directly to the bishop of Jerusalem decrying both the attack on the monastery and the fact that John was harboring a heretic in his midst.

Pelagius's fortunes seemed definitely on the wane. One glimmer of hope, however, occurred when the news of Innocent's death in March 417 arrived in Palestine. Perhaps his successor, Zosimus, might be more sympathetic to Pelagius's views. Therefore, Caelestius presented himself to Zosimus and argued his case. The Pope was impressed and for some time contemplated lifting the excommunication against them and pronouncing both Caelestius and Pelagius orthodox. But persuasive letters from North African bishops, as well as from Jerome, convinced him to rescind his tentative pronouncement in favor of Pelagianism. When Praylius, John's successor in Jerusalem, joined in Zosimus's final condemnation, Pelagius was beaten. Weary of the conflict, he left Palestine. History does not record where he went or what happened to him thereafter.

The theological question to which Pelagius addressed himself had to do with man's created capacity for good. Was it possible to lead a sinless life? Augustine answered No (with the exception of the Virgin Mary, whose sinlessness Augustine did assert); for Augustine divine grace must precede every virtuous act. Pelagius said that it was possible for man not to sin, but Augustine asserted that it was not possible for man not to sin. The caricature of Pelagianism found in many orthodox textbooks and devotional manuals is hardly one that Pelagius would recognize. He never, for instance, denied the need for grace or for infant baptism; he never accepted the position that man can, by his own moral efforts, achieve his salvation. On basic doctrinal issues, Pelagius was certainly orthodox; and on matters of Christian morality his chief concern was to foster among Christian people a right regard for the ethical responsibilities he saw as inherent in the Gospel message.


Further Reading on Pelagius

The few surviving works of Pelagius cannot be found in English translation except where they are quoted by an author, such as Augustine, whose works have been translated. Two modern studies of Pelagius and Pelagianism in English deserve special notice: John Ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study (1956), and Robert F. Evans, Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals (1968). A good introductory survey of the course of the Pelagian controversy and of the issues involved can be found in Gerald Bonner, Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (1963).

Additional Biography Sources

Rees, B. R. (Brinley Roderick), Pelagius, a reluctant heretic, Woodbridge, Suffolk; Wolfeboro, N.H.: Boydell Press, 1988.