Pelagius (; fl. c. AD 390 – 418) was a theologian who advocated free will and asceticism. He was accused by Augustine of Hippo and others of denying the need for divine aid in performing good works. They understood him to have said that the only grace necessary was the declaration of the law; humans were not wounded by Adam's sin and were perfectly able to fulfill the law without divine aid. Pelagius denied Augustine's theory of original sin. Adherents of Pelagius cited Deuteronomy 24:16 in support of their position. Pelagius was declared a heretic by the Council of Ephesus in 431. His interpretation of a doctrine of free will became known as Pelagianism.
He was well educated, fluent in both Greek and Latin, and learned in theology. He spent time as an ascetic, focusing on practical asceticism. He was well known in Rome, both for the harsh asceticism of his public life and the power and persuasiveness of his speech. His reputation earned him praise early in his career even from such pillars of the Church as Augustine, who referred to him as a "saintly man." However, he was later accused of lying about his own teachings to avoid public condemnation. Most of his later life was spent defending his doctrine against Christian theologians who held that Pelagius was spreading novelties in the Faith unknown to the apostolic tradition.
Despite being considered an arch-heretic for more than a thousand years, Pelagius and his teachings have been reevaluated in the twentieth century.
Pelagius was active between about 390 and 418. He is said by his contemporaries, such as Augustine of Hippo, Prosper of Aquitaine, Marius Mercator, and Paul Orosius, to have been of Celtic British origin. Jerome apparently thought that Pelagius was Irish, suggesting that he was "stuffed with Irish porridge" (Scotorum pultibus praegravatus). He was tall in stature and portly in appearance. Pelagius was also highly educated, spoke and wrote Latin and Greek with great fluency, and was well versed in theology. His name has traditionally been understood as a Graecized form (from pélagos, "sea") of the Welsh name Morgan ("sea-born"), or another Celtic equivalent.
Pelagius became better known around 380 when he moved to Rome. There he enjoyed a reputation of austerity; he also corresponded with St. Paulinus of Nola. Pelagius became concerned about the moral laxity of society. He blamed this laxity on the theology of divine grace preached by Augustine, among others. He began to teach a very strict, rigid moralism, emphasizing a natural, innate human ability to attain salvation. Twenty-five years after the fact, Augustine related that Pelagius had reacted strongly to Augustine's Confessions (397–401) the statement "Give what you command and command what you will", as he believed that it undermined human responsibility. However, this incident's historicity is questioned by scholars.
Pelagianism quickly spread, especially around Carthage. Augustine wrote "De peccatorum meritis et remissione libri III" (Three Books on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins) in 412, and "De spiritu et littera" (On the Spirit and the Letter) in 414. When in 414 disquieting rumours arrived from Sicily and the so-called "Definitiones Caelestii", said to be the work of Caelestius, were sent to him, he at once (414 or 415) published the rejoinder, "De perfectione justitiae hominis." In these, he strongly affirmed the existence of original sin, the need for infant baptism, the impossibility of a sinless life without Christ, and the necessity of Christ's grace. Augustine stands as an important source on the life and theology of Pelagius, and wrote about him extensively.
Pelagius soon left for Palestine, befriending the bishop there. Jerome, who also lived there, became involved, as well. Pelagius had criticized his commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians. Jerome wrote against Pelagius in his "Letter to Ctesiphon" and "Dialogus contra Pelagianos". With Jerome at the time was Orosius, a visiting pupil of Augustine, with similar views on the dangers of Pelagianism. Together, they publicly condemned Pelagius. Bishop John of Jerusalem, a personal friend of Pelagius, called a council in July 415. Church sources claim Orosius' lack of fluency in Greek rendered him unconvincing and John's Eastern background made him more willing to accept that humans did not have inherent sinfulness, yet the council rendered no verdict and passed the controversy to the Latin Church because Pelagius, Jerome, and Orosius were all Latin.
A few months later in December of 415, another synod in Diospolis (Lydda) under the bishop of Cæsarea was called by two deposed bishops who came to the Holy Land. However, neither bishop attended for unrelated reasons and Orosius had left after consultation with Bishop John. Pelagius explained to the synod that he did believe God was necessary for salvation because every human is created by God. He also claimed that many works of Celestius did not represent his own views. He showed letters of recommendation by other authoritative figures including Augustine himself, who for all their disagreements, thought highly of Pelagius' character.
The Synod of Diospolis therefore concluded: "Now since we have received satisfaction in respect of the charges brought against the monk Pelagius in his presence and since he gives his assent to sound doctrines but condemns and anathematises those contrary to the faith of the Church, we adjudge him to belong to the communion of the Catholic Church."
After his acquittal in Diospolis, Pelagius wrote two major treatises which are no longer extant, On Nature and Defense of the Freedom of the Will. In these he defends his position on sin and sinlessness, and accuses Augustine of being under the influence of Manichaeism by elevating evil to the same status as God and teaching pagan fatalism as if it were a Christian doctrine.
Manichaeism stressed that the spirit was God-created, while material substance was corrupt and evil. Theologian Gerald Bonner felt that part of Pelagius' analysis was an over-reaction to Manicheanism. Pelagius held that everything created by God was good, therefore, he could not see how God had made humans fallen creatures. (Augustine's teaching on the Fall of Adam was not a settled doctrine at the time the Augustinian/Pelagian dispute began.)
The view that mankind can avoid sinning, and that humans can freely choose to obey God's commandments, stands at the core of Pelagian teaching. Pelagius stressed human autonomy and freedom of the will.
An illustration of Pelagius' views on man's "moral ability" not to sin can be found in his "Letter to Demetrias". He was in the Holy Land when, in 413, he received a letter from the renowned Anician family in Rome. One of the aristocratic ladies who had been among his followers, Anicia Juliana, was writing to a number of eminent Western theologians, including Jerome and possibly Augustine, for moral advice for her 14-year-old daughter, Demetrias. Pelagius used the letter to argue his case for morality, stressing his views of natural sanctity and man's moral capacity to choose to live a holy life. It is perhaps the only extant writing in Pelagius' own hand, and it was thought to be a letter by Jerome for centuries, though Augustine himself references it in his work, On the Grace of Christ.
For Pelagius, "grace" consisted of the gift of free will, the Law of Moses, and the teachings of Jesus. With these, a person would be able to perceive the moral course of action and follow it. Prayer, fasting, and asceticism supported the will to do good. Augustine accused Pelagius of thinking of God's grace as consisting only of external helps.
Extant letters of Pelagius and his followers claim that all good works are done only with the grace of God (which he saw as enabling, but not forcing, good works), that infants must be baptized for salvation, and that the saints were not always sinless, but that some at least have been able to stop sinning.
He instead said, "This grace we for our part do not, as you suppose, allow to consist merely in the law, but also in the help of God. God helps us by His teaching and revelation, whilst He opens the eyes of our heart; whilst He points out to us the future, that we may not be absorbed in the present; whilst He discovers to us the snares of the devil; whilst He enlightens us with the manifold and ineffable gift of heavenly grace." In a letter to the Pope defending himself, he stated, "This free will is in all good works always assisted by divine help", and in an accompanying confession of faith, "Free-will we do so own, as to say that we always stand in need of God's help." However, he affirmed that "We do also abhor the blasphemy of those who say that any impossible thing is commanded to man by God; or that the commandments of God cannot be performed by any one man" (a statement which the pope approved of upon receiving the letter), whereas Augustine famously stated "non possum non peccare" ("I cannot not sin").
In the fall of 416, Augustine and four other bishops wrote a letter urging Pope Innocent I to condemn Pelagianism. Innocent I responded by rejecting the Pelagian teachings and excluding Pelagius and Celestius from communion with the Catholic Church until they should recant. Shortly after this, Innocent I died in March of 417.
Seeking to undo his condemnation, Pelagius wrote a letter and statement of belief to Pope Zosimus, Innocent I's successor, arguing that he was orthodox. In these he articulated his beliefs so as not to contradict what the synods condemned. Zosimus was persuaded by Celestius to reopen the case, but opposition from the African bishops and Emperor Honorius forced Zosimus to condemn and excommunicate Celestius and Pelagius in 418.
Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418. Augustine, shocked that Pelagius and Celestius were not denounced as heretics, had called the Council of Carthage in 418 and stated nine beliefs of the Church that Pelagianism denied:
His death did not end his teachings, although those who followed him may have modified those teachings. Because little information remains with regard to Pelagius' actual teachings, some of his doctrines possibly were subject to revision and suppression by his enemies (followers of Augustine and the Church leadership as a whole at that time).
Belief in Pelagianism and Semipelagianism was common for the next few centuries, especially in Britain, the Holy Land, and North Africa. St Germanus visited Britain to combat Pelagianism in or around AD 429. In Wales, Saint David was credited with convening the Synod of Brefi and the Synod of Victory against the followers of Pelagius in the sixth century.
Because of the fifth-century condemnations of him, Pelagius became known as "a heresiarch of the deepest dye". Evaluation of him changed after the publication of a 1943 biography by Georges de Plinval and more recent scholars have viewed him as an orthodox Christian theologian who was a victim of denunciation. His Pauline commentaries were popular during the Middle Ages but frequently claimed to be the work of other authors.
An objective view of Pelagius and his effect is difficult. His name has been used as an epithet for centuries by both Protestants and Catholics, and he has had few defenders. The very early church denounced his ideas and the Reformation accused Roman Catholics of adhering to his beliefs and condemned both Pelagius and the Catholic Church. Modern scholarship suggests that Pelagius did not take the more extreme positions later associated with his followers. Ronald Hutton describes him as "a first-rate theologian".
The theologian Carol Harrison commented that Pelagius presented "a radically different alternative to Western understandings of the human person, human responsibility and freedom, ethics and the nature of salvation" which might have come about if Augustine had not been victorious in the Pelagian controversy. According to Harrison, "Pelagianism represents an attempt to safeguard God's justice, to preserve the integrity of human nature as created by God, and of human beings' obligation, responsibility and ability to attain a life of perfect righteousness." However, this is at the expense of downplaying human frailty and presenting "the operation of divine grace as being merely external". According to the scholar Rebecca Weaver, "what most distinguished Pelagius was his conviction of an unrestricted freedom of choice, given by God and immune to alteration by sin or circumstance."
If a heretic is one who emphasizes one truth to the exclusion of others, it would at any rate appear that [Pelagius] was no more a heretic than Augustine. His fault was in exaggerated emphasis, but in the final form his philosophy took, after necessary and proper modifications as a result of criticism, it is not certain that any statement of his is totally irreconcilable with the Christian faith or indefensible in terms of the New Testament. It is by no means so clear that the same may be said of Augustine.
Pelagius wrote: De fide Trinitatis libri III ("On Faith in the Trinity: Three Books"), Eclogarum ex divinis Scripturis liber primus ("Excerpts out of Divine Scriptures: Book One"), and Commentarii in epistolas S. Pauli ("Commentary on the Epistles of Saint Paul"). Unfortunately, most of his work survives only in the quotations of his opponents. Only in the past century have works attributable to Pelagius been identified as such.
Other writings include On Nature, parts of which are quoted in Augustine's On Nature and Grace, and Defense of the Freedom of the Will, quoted in Augustine's On the Grace of Christ. Also surviving are his letter to Demetrias, along with fragments of other letters, and the written statement of faith which was received by Pope Zosimus.