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Pelagius (ca. AD 354 – ca. AD 420/440) was an ascetic who denied the doctrine of original sin, later developed by Augustine of Hippo, and was declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage. 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, which his teachings clearly reflect. He was not, however, a cleric. He was certainly well known in Romemarker, both for the harsh asceticism of his public life as well as the power and persuasiveness of his speech. His reputation in Rome 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 in order to avoid public condemnation. Most of his later life was spent defending himself against other theologians and the Catholic Church.


Pelagius was born about 354. While his exact birthplace is not known, the Encyclopedia of World Biography states that, "wide spread evidence indicates that he came originally from the British Isles." He was referred to as a "monk" by his contemporaries, though there is no evidence that he was associated with any monastic order (the idea of monastic communities was still quite new during his lifetime; solitary asceticism was more typical) or that he was ordained to the priesthood. He became better known c. 380 when he moved to Rome to write and teach about his ascetic practices. There, he wrote a number of his major works — "De fide Trinitatis libri III (On Faith In The Trinity: Three Books)," "Eclogarum ex divinis Scripturis liber primus (Excerpts Out Of Divine Scriptures: One Book-a.k.a. Chapters)," and "Commentarii in epistolas S. Pauli (Commentary On The Epistles Of Saint Paul)". Unfortunately, most of his work only survives in the quotations of his opponents.

In Rome, Pelagius became concerned about the moral laxity of society. He blamed this laxity on the theology of divine grace preached by Augustine, among others.

Around 405, it is said that Pelagius heard a quotation from Augustine's work Confessions, 'Give me what you command and command what you will.' This verse concerned Pelagius because it seemed from this verse that Augustine was teaching doctrine contrary to traditional Christian understandings of grace and free will, turning man into a mere automaton.

When Alaric sacked Rome in 410, Pelagius and his close follower Caelestius fled to Carthage where he continued his work and briefly encountered St. Augustine in person. He is subsequently in Palestine as late as 418.


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 Catholic Church denounced his ideas and yet the Reformation accused Catholics of adhering to his beliefs and condemned both Pelagius and the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, the Eastern Orthodox Church is silent. Regardless, Pelagius stands, both in reality and in icon, as a radical dissenter from the traditional view of original sin and the means of salvation. In the past century only have works attributable to Pelagius been identified as such. Currently available in English, is Pelagius' Commentary on Romans - translated by Theodore De Bruyn (Clarendon Press, 2002) and a collection of other writings by Pelagius himself translated into English by B. R. Rees (The Boydell Press, 1998).

Augustine of Hippo

Pelagianism quickly spread, especially around Carthagemarker, which is one reason the opponents acted so promptly and firmly. Augustine wrote four letters specifically on Pelagianism, "De peccatorum meritis et remissione libri III" (Three Books on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins) in 412, "De spiritu et litera" (On the Spirit and the Letter) and "Definitiones Caelestii" (Caelestius's Definitions) in 414, and "De natura et gratia" (On Nature and Grace) in 415. 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's works are intended in part for the common people and thus do not address Pelagius or his disciple Caelestius (except for the Definitiones Caelestii) by name. One can find little of Pelagius' works in print save his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, which is similar to Antiochian writings of the same age.


Pelagius soon left for Palestine, befriending the bishop there. Jerome, who lived there, became involved as well. 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 Diospolismarker (Lydda) under a Cesarean bishop was called by two deposed bishops who came to Palestine. 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 also 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."

Pope Innocent I

When Orosius returned to Africa, two local synods condemned Pelagius and Celestius without their presence. Because the synods did not have complete authority without papal approval, Augustine and four other bishops wrote a letter urging Pope Innocent I to condemn Pelagianism. He agreed without much persuading.

Pope Zosimus

Pelagius' guilt in the eyes of the Church, however, was undecided. Pelagius wrote a letter and statement of belief showing himself to be orthodox and sent them to Innocent I. In these he articulated his beliefs so as not to contradict what the synods condemned. Zosimus had become Pope by the time the letter reached Rome in 417. Zosimus was duly impressed and declared him innocent.

St. Augustine, shocked that Pelagius and Celestius were not denounced as heretics, called the Council of Carthage in 418 and stated nine beliefs of the Church that Pelagianism denied:

  1. Death came from sin, not man's physical nature.
  2. Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin.
  3. Justifying grace covers past sins and helps avoid future sins.
  4. The grace of Christ imparts strength and will to act out God's commandments.
  5. No good works can come without God's grace.
  6. We confess we are sinners because it is true, not from humility.
  7. The saints ask for forgiveness for their own sins.
  8. The saints also confess to be sinners because they are.
  9. Children dying without baptism are excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life.

Every one of these was accepted as a universal belief of the Church and all Pelagians were banished from Italy.

The last canon is no longer widely accepted; for example, current Roman Catholic Church doctrine states that children who die without baptism are entrusted to the mercy of God ( CCC 1261); thus leaving the salvation of unbaptized infants still in question.

Pelagius and the doctrine of free will

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 Manicheanism by elevating evil to the same status as God and teaching pagan fatalism as if it were a Christian doctrine.

Augustine had been converted to Christianity from the religion of Manicheanism, which stressed that the spirit was God-created, while the flesh was corrupt and evil, since it had not been created directly by God. Pelagius argued that Augustine's doctrine that humans went to hell for doing what they could not avoid (sin) was tantamount to the Manichean belief in fatalism and predestination, and took away all of mankind's free will.

Pelagius and his followers saw remnants of this fatalistic belief in Augustine's teachings on the Fall of Adam, which was not a settled doctrine at the time the Augustinian/Pelagian dispute began. Their view that mankind can avoid sinning, and that we can freely choose to obey God's commandments, stand at the core of Pelagian teaching, and comes through even in the writings of Pelagius' opponents.

An illustration of Pelagius' views on man's "moral ability" not to sin can be found in his Letter to Demetrias. He was in Palestine 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 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, ironically, thought to be a letter by Jerome for centuries, though Augustine himself references it in his work, "On the Grace of Christ."

Death and later

After being banished from Rome, Pelagius headed east. He probably died in Palestine around 420, as reported by some. Others mention him living as many as twenty years later. The cause of his death is unknown.

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, it is possible that some of his doctrines 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, Palestine and North Africa.

Possible influences on Pelagius

It is likely that Pelagius and Pelagianism were influenced by both Pelagius's Celtic ancestry and his Greek styled learning. Greek thought emphasized punishment over guilt, as the Latin church did; thus Pelagius tried to hold humanity up to a greater responsibility for individual actions. Celtic paganism championed a human's ability to triumph even over the supernatural, which Pelagius may have applied to sin, to some extent. The Greek philosophy of Stoicism was said to be an influence leading to his ascetic lifestyle.

Pelagius in literature and film

In Hilaire Belloc's The Four Men, the Sailor leads his companions in the "Song of the Pelagian Heresy for the Strengthening of Men's Backs and the very Robust Out-thrusting of Doubtful Doctrine and the Uncertain Intellectual".

The Pelagius Book by Paul Morgan is a historical novel that presents Pelagius as a gentle humanist emphasizing individual responsibility in contrast to Augustine's fierce fatalism.

Pelagius is referred to in Stephen Lawhead's book, The Black Rood, and makes an appearance in Patrick where he has a discussion with the Hiberno-British saint.

Pelagius is frequently referred to in Jack Whyte's series of books known as A Dream of Eagles, where a major character's belief in Pelagius' ideas of Free Will and the laxity of the Roman Catholic Church eventually cause him to come into conflict with Church representatives.

John Cowper Powys' novel Porius (1951) features the conflict between Augustian/Pelagian beliefs,with the eponymoushero being a follower of Pelagius.Powys referred approving to Pelagianism in his non-fiction book Obstinate Cymric (1947).

The Saint Augustine/Pelagius debate is mockingly discussed in the novel by Flann O'Brien titled The Dalkey Archive, wherein Saint Augustine actually makes a ghostly appearance.

The government of the English-Speaking Union (Enspun) in Anthony Burgess' The Wanting Seed is locked in a perpetual cycle, rotating between the 'Pel-Phase', named after Pelagius, and an Augustinian phase. The former is one of police and social services, the latter is characterized by martial law. Burgess took up the Augustine/Pelagius theme again in The Clockwork Testament.

Pelagius features in the movie King Arthur. Although not a major character, nor appearing on-screen, he is portrayed as the mentor of young Lucius Artorius Castus, or Arthur. Throughout the film, Artorius/Arthur champions Pelagius' ideas, such as believing that every person is not inherently sinful, and that we are capable of attaining grace through good works. This leads him to oppose the practices of more "mainline" Roman Christian authorities, who believe that the inherent sinfulness of everyone is justification for torturing native Celts into conversion. Upon hearing of Pelagius's excommunication and murder in Romemarker, Arthur's affection for the monk leads him to realize that the ideal of "Rome" he believed in doesn't exist anymore, break off loyalty with the Roman Empire, and help the Britons fight the Saxon invaders.

Pelagius is the subject of a poem by the Glasgowmarker poet Edwin Morgan ('Cathures', Carcanet 2002) which imagines that Pelagius has returned to his native Glasgow ('Cathures') and that his Celtic name was 'Morgan'.

Stephen Baxter, in his book "Emperor," imagines how time's tapestry would have looked had Pelagius' views and not Augustine's influenced the evolution of Christianity. He also portrays the Emperor Constantine's actions as having had dealt a harsh blow, but not necessarily a mortal one, to Pelagius' teaching that humans are free and sin is not inherent in us.

See also

Writings By Pelagius


  1. Paula K. Byers; 1998, Encyclopedia of World Biography, Page 189 - Pelagius, ISBN 0-7876-2553-1
  2. "Pelagius and Pelagianism", Catholic Encyclopedia

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