Pelagianism

An ascetic movement with distinctive theological emphases, named after Pelagius, a Christian moralist. A well-educated Briton, trained in law, Pelagius was active in Rome c.383-409/10, teaching Christian perfection to aristocratic circles associated with Rufinus of Aquileia and Paulinus of Nola. He attacked Jerome's denigration of marriage, without accepting Jovinian's equation of marriage and virginity, and inveighed against the implications of Augustine's prayer (Confessions 10:29:40), “Give what you command, and command what you choose.” His Expositions of the Thirteen Epistles of Paul drew on Augustine (e.g., Free Will), “Ambrosiaster,” and Origen- Rufinus, but perhaps already criticized Augustine's opinions. He also wrote The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart; Faith in the Trinity (anti-Arian and anti-Apollinarian); Virginity; and The Law; and ascetic manifestos to Demetrias and Celantia. Pelagius sought to be a catholic teacher, opposed especially to Manichaeism, which encouraged moral pessimism and fatalism and, like Jerome's extremism, discredited asceticism. He viewed the Church as the community of the (adult) baptized committed to perfectionist ideals, and magnified man's incorruptible created capacity for freedom from sin. Grace comprised this God-given ability, the illumination of instruction and example, and forgiveness of sins.

Marius Mercator says Pelagius was inspired by Rufinus “the Syrian,”* but Rufinus's influence is more evident in Celestius* and African Pelagianism. The oriental affinities of Pelagian ideas, e.g., in Theodore of Mopsuestia,* require further investigation.

The Gothic attack on Rome dispersed Pelagius's coterie; many passed via Sicily to Africa. The subsequent presence of Pelagians (including Celestius) in Sicily is attested by Augustine and by the writings (Riches; Evil Teachers; The Possibility of Sinlessness; Chastity, etc.) of an anonymous Sicilian, who inculcated a severe asceticism, denying salvation to the rich unless they renounced their wealth.

In Carthage, Celestius's views on infant baptism and original sin were condemned by churchmen traditionally sensitive on these issues. (It was 411, when Donatists* and Catholics convened in Carthage; similarities were discernible between Donatists and Pelagians, e.g., in ecclesiology.) Paulinus of Milan was the chief prosecutor.

Augustine's notice was first caught by Celestius's assertion that infants were baptized for sanctification, not forgiveness. He wrote The Merits and Remission of Sins in defense of original sin, but remained respectful toward Pelagius, with whom he shared friends and enemies, criticizing only extravagant ascetic claims. Nature and Grace, his reply to Pelagius's Nature (which depends on The Sentences of Sextus*), still refrains from attacking Pelagius by name (415).

Pelagius quickly left Africa for Palestine, welcomed by John of Jerusalem, Jerome's old opponent. Both Pelagius and Jerome wrote to Demetrias in 414, and Jerome, who with some justice viewed Pelagius as an Origenist, began his Dialogues against the Pelagians. In 415 the Spanish heresy-hunter Orosius brought news of Africa's excommunication of Celestius and possibly suspicions of the Syrian Rufinus, Jerome's presbyter. A Jerusalem synod cleared Pelagius and others of Orosius's accusations, but resolved on a reference to Rome, while Orosius's heavy-handedness furthered the concretion of “the Pelagian heresy” out of disparate elements. Pelagius was again acquitted at the Synod of Diospolis (415), but only after equivocating and disowning Celestian views. A raid on Jerome's monastery at Bethlehem was blamed on Pelagians (416).

Palestinian developments and Celestius's ordination at Ephesus cast Eastern aspersions on Africa orthodoxy, reasserted in conciliar condemnations of Pelagius's Free Will at Carthage and Milevis (416). Pope Innocent I* obligingly excommunicated Pelagius and Celestius (417), but Pope Zosimus* lifted the ban after appeals from Celestius in person and Pelagius in writing. Against an increasingly identifiable “Pelagianism,” another Carthage council issued nine canons (418), denying salvation to unbaptized infants. Violence between Catholics and Pelagians in Rome resulted in their banishment by Honorius, which together with African pressure evoked a volte-face condemnation from Zosimus (418). Rome's rejection of Pelagian views did not endorse the full African position to whose defense Augustine progressively harnessed Catholic tradition.

The popes rejected further appeals, Boniface from Celestius

423), Sixtus III from Julian of Eclanum* (439), who led eighteen Italian bishops deposed for refusing to subscribe Zosimus's verdict. He prosecuted a polemical controversy with Augustine until the latter's death. The author of the Predestinatus was possibly an associate of Julian. (Another Italian Pelagian, Annianus, deacon of the unknown “Celeda,” was the first identifiable Latin translator of Chrysostom. Pelagian ideas were propagated in Britain by men like Agricola, Bishop Severianus his father, and Bishop Fastidius, a likely author of parts of the Pelagian corpus. The theory that Pelagianism's success in Britain was that of a movement of social protest against unjust Roman rule has been severely criticized. Gallic clergy visited Britain to eradicate the heresy, notably Germanus of Auxerre in 429 (sent by Pope Celestine) and perhaps c.447. In Gaul, too, Pelagianism found supporters, such as Leporius.*

Barred from Palestine by a synod at Antioch (424), Pelagius disappeared, and probably died in Egypt. Julian and Celestius found refuge in Nestorius's Constantinople (429), but his inquiries on their behalf, Celestine's intervention and Marius Mercator's Commonitory on the Name of Celestius led to banishment by Theodosius II and condemnation with Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus (431). Rejection was now final in East and West. Later Pope Gelasius tried to flush out Pelagian pockets in Dalmatia and central Italy and wrote a refutation of Pelagianism.

Recent research has emphasized not only Pelagianism's diversity and relation to other controversies, e.g., over Origenism,* but also its preservation of features of primitive Christianity.

F. Loofs in Realencyclopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche 15 (1904), pp. 747-774; A. Bruckner, Quellen zur Geschichte des Pelagianischen Streits (1906); G. de Plinval, Pélage: Ses Êcrits, Sa Vie et Sa Réforme (1943), and Essai sur le Style et la Langue de Pélage (1947); T. Bohlin, Die Theologie des Pelagius und ihre Genesis (1957); R. Pirenne, La Morale de Pélage (1961); R.F. Evans, Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals (1968); G. Greshake, Gnade als Konkrete Freiheit: Eine Untersuchung zur Gnadenlehre des Pelagius (1972); E. Teselle in Augustinian Studies 3 (1972), pp. 61-95; G. Bonner, Augustine and Modern Research on Pelagianism (1972); P. Brown, Religion and Society in the Age of St. Augustine (1972).