The moral right of Pelagius to a fair hearing should be asserted, despite the shadow cast by Augustine of Hippo (entry no. 46). The former was pushed off the ideological map by the latter. Indeed, Augustine composed fifteen anti-Pelagian treatises. An antique Calvinist print (to left) supplies an imaginary depiction of Pelagius, along with hostile emphases influenced by orthodox stigmas.
Pelagius was born in Britain at circa 350/360 CE. “He seems to have been one of the earliest, if not the very earliest, of that remarkable series of men who issued from the monasteries of Scotland and Ireland, and carried back to the Continent in a purified form the religion they had received from it” (quote from Pelagius). Augustine and Jerome referred to Pelagius as a monk, a description which has been questioned.
His early life is very obscure. Different assessments have ascribed his move to Rome as dating to the 380s or circa 405. In Rome, Pelagius gained profile as an ascetic and moral reformer; he was well read and composed a commentary on the Pauline Epistle to the Romans. Pelagius denied any hereditary transmission of sin devolving from the fall of Adam; instead, he maintained that sin was caused solely by wrong choices and voluntary will.
Shortly before the invasion of Rome by the Goths in 410, Pelagius moved to Sicily and Carthage, finally settling at Palestine. He lived in relative peace until 415, when Augustine sent two letters (via a Spanish priest named Orosius) warning Jerome against him. By 417, Pelagianism had become an obsession for Jerome. “All the eloquence and violence of his invective were now aimed at these pestilential Pelagians and especially at the man whom he believed to be their leader” (Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic, p. 17).
Jerome (d. 419) was a Latin ascetic and savant well known for his polemical attacks on dissenters. This period saw the inception of a dogmatic Latin theology, in which Augustine figured as a seminal influence, even more so than his ally Jerome. In his status role as Bishop of Hippo, Augustine supplied an inflexible cordon against heretics and pagans, meaning the doctrine of predestination. This disconcerting persuasion has been described in terms of:
“In pressing his case on the need for salvation even if it meant applying coercion, on the eternal damnation of infants dying unbaptised, on the absolute necessity for regeneration through baptism within the church, on the exclusive power of divine grace to save or destroy, on a form of predestination which limited the number of the saved right from the moment of creation... he [Augustine] was impelled to adopt extreme positions in order to buttress his own arguments” (ibid., p. 17).
Described by some scholars as a reformer of Christian morals, Pelagius became “the leader of a large and influential circle of loyal adherents comprising not only educated aristocrats, many of them women, but also clerics who were later to form the nucleus of the opposition to his final condemnation in 418” (ibid., p. 19).
Pelagius advocated that the church should be formed of “perfect Christians,” as distinct from nominal Christians who retained pagan habits. Yet it was not merely the aggregate Christians who were under criticism here; the official church hierarchy were also implied as compromising with self-indulgence and the values of mammon. Pelagius has been described as the last exponent of the ancient Christianity, in contrast to the conveniences implemented by the clerics. In more recent times, the original or “primitive” Christianity has been discerned as something overlaid by what the status exponents chose to substitute.
Pelagius was a baptised layman, and did not seek ordination as a cleric. Although sometimes described as a monk, he was “neither a monk nor a priest” (ibid., p. xiv). In Rome and elsewhere, laymen and women gained prominence in the multi-faceted ascetic movement, a phenomenon which Augustine and Jerome tried to influence. However, the predestination dogma was not accepted by many monks. Pilgrims from all over the Christian world passed through the homes and meeting places of the radical Christian laypeople in Rome.
Similar to Augustine, Pelagius resisted the Manichaean doctrine. Yet he was very different in other ways. Jerome composed Against the Pelagians, censuring those who taught apatheia (freedom from passions), which entailed a belief in the attainment of spiritual perfection; this concept was deemed heretical, and is now associated with Stoics, Manichaeans, and Origen. The heresy was deemed a threat to the mediation of sacraments by the clergy, who maintained a stifling ritualism.
Pelagius wrote formal letters of exhortation to the perfect Christian life. He attracted patrons and inspired young disciples from educated families. A fair number of the latter seem to have renounced the world in a monastic spirit, including Celestius, possibly an Italian, who opted to join the clerical status programme by receiving ordination. The latter was censured in 412 by a synod in Carthage for holding Pelagian views.
Freedom of choice was an important aspect of Pelagian teaching. Nothing could make sense without this component. The individual had to create better values in the decadent Roman society, and not rest content with the conventional habits. Numerous pagans in Rome had recently become Christians, but the general tendency of these converts was to maintain former customs. Many of them were members of a ruling class desiring to protect their extensive properties at any cost to society. This was the underlying rationale for the imperial laws which exacted brutal punishments. These upper class “good Christians” of Rome “were capable of discussing at the dinner-table both the latest theological opinion, on which they prided themselves as experts, and the kind of judicial torture they had just inflicted on some poor wretch” (Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p. 347).
Unlike the layman Pelagius, the prestigious Bishop Augustine was insensitive to the fact that crude dogmas of salvation could endorse injustices. The elect Christians could so easily abuse dissident Christians and pagans who were sentenced to damnation by predestination. Meanwhile, the Pelagian cause agitated at the public executions maintained by Roman ruling class barbarity at the expense of the poor and discontented.
The last decade of the fourth century CE saw many imperial edicts against paganism and heresy. Hereditary occupations were enforced in a milieu “where the secret police (agentes in rebus) seemed ubiquitous, and where the screams of those under judicial torture and the gibbets of arbitrary executions were common sounds and sights” (Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 222).
“Pelagius wanted every Christian to be a monk” (Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p. 348). His precise relation to monasticism is uncertain, but his ascetic outlook is evident. “To sell all one’s possessions, as he himself had done; to refrain even from what was permitted; to be content, like pilgrims, with bare necessities; and to live in celibacy – these were his ideals” (quote from Pelagius). In contrast, Augustine favoured the affluent and married Christian layman disposed to vendettas and keen to fight for his property (Brown, op. cit., p. 348). In many ways, the African bishops represented underlying Roman Empire social attitudes.
“For the Pelagians, man had no excuse for his own sins, nor for the evils around him” (ibid., p. 349). Augustine invented a new excuse, that of heavenly predestination for the baptised elect. He asserted the transmission of hereditary sin, and urged that pagan virtues were annulled by sin. Only divine grace for the elect counted.
Many Pelagians wished to part with their enormous wealth in the pursuit of renunciation, a factor basically foreign to the pedagogical and episcopal outlook. Pelagians asserted that the (Christian) rich were damned, in contrast to the clerical insistence that non-Christians are eternally blighted. Augustine and other churchmen counteracted excess wealth being given to the poor by the pious injunction to endow Catholic monasteries (ibid., p. 350). The clergy and establishment monks depended on wealthy landowners, who were thus screened from criticism.
The letters of Augustine to the Roman noblewoman Proba have been viewed with caution; he did not exhort Proba to change her situation, but merely to dwell on pious themes like corruptibility. Yet she was “the heiress of a vast agricultural empire, acquired by rapine and maintained with a selfishness that had aggravated the miseries and resentments of the Gothic disaster” (ibid., p. 351).
The Bishop of Hippo missed out basic causality in his deceptive attitude to Roman life, whereas the Pelagians began to perceive the realistic deficit of huge problems underlying social and political existence.
In 418, the Emperor Honorius ordered the banishment of Pelagius and Celestius from Rome (wrongly assuming they were still in that city), and condemned all those who denied the Fall (meaning original sin). In unison, the Council of Carthage issued a series of nine canons against Pelagianism. Pope Zosimos, under pressure from the conservative African bishops and Roman opponents, condemned and excommunicated the heretics. Augustine, the chief instigator, made further hostile gestures, with the result that Pelagius was expelled from Palestine, seeking refuge in Egypt, an event leading to his oblivion.
Meanwhile, eighteen Italian bishops appealed against the condemnation, only to find themselves condemned, excommunicated, and banished from their homeland (Rees, 1988, p. 141). The repressive clerical programme lasted in variants for over a thousand years.
See further Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber, 1967); Theodore de Bruyn, trans., Pelagius’ Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Oxford University Press, 1998): Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967; revised edn, 1993); R. F. Evans, Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals (New York, 1968); Evans, Four Letters of Pelagius (London, 1968); J. Ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study (Cambridge, 1956); B. R. Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1988); Rees, Pelagius: Life and Letters (Boydell, 2004).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 47
Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.