PELAGIUS (c.360-c. 420), early British theologian. Of the origin of Pelagius almost nothing is known. 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. Coming to Rome in the beginning of the 5th century (his earliest known writing is of date 405), he found a scandalously low tone of morality prevalent. But his remonstrances were met by the plea of human weakness. To remove this plea by exhibiting the actual powers of human nature became his first object. It seemed to him that the Augustinian doctrine of total depravity and of the consequent bondage of the will both cut the sinew of all human effort and threw upon God the blame which really belonged to man. His favourite maxim was, “If I ought, I can.” Judging from the general style of his writings, his religious development had been equable and peaceful, not marked by the prolonged mental conflict, or the abrupt transitions, which characterized the experience of his great opponent.With no great penetration he saw very clearly the thing before him, and many of his practical counsels are marked by succinctness of a proverb (“corpus non frangendum, sed regendum est’).

The peculiar tenets of Pelagius, though indicated in the commentaries which he published at Rome previous to 409, might not so speedily have attracted attention had they not been adopted by Coelestius; probably an Italian, had been trained as a lawyer, but abandoned his profession for an ascetic life. When Rome was sacked by the Goths (410) the two friends crossed Africa. There Pelagius once or twice met with Augustine, but very shortly sailed for Palestine, where he justly expected that his opinions would be more cordially received. Coelestius remained in Carthage with the view of receiving ordination. But Aurelius, bishop of Carthage, being warned against him, summoned a synod, at which Paulinus, a deacon of Milan, charged Coelestius with holding the following six errors:

  1. that Adam would have died even if he had not sinned;
  2. that the sin of Adam injured himself alone, not the human race;
  3. that new-born children are in the same condition in which Adam was before the fall;
  4. that the whole human race does not die because of Adam’s death or sin, nor will the race rise again because of he resurrection of Christ;
  5. that the law gives entrance to heaven as well as the gospel;
  6. that even before the coming of Christ there were men who were entirely without sin.

To these propositions a seventh is sometimes added, “that infants, though unbaptized, have eternal life.” A corollary from the third. Coelestius did not deny that he held these opinions, but he maintained that they were open questions, on which the Church had never pronounced. The synod condemned and excommunicated him. Coelestius, after a futile appeal to Rome, went to Ephesus, and there received ordination.

In Palestine Pelagius lived unmolested and revered, until in 415 Orosius, a Spanish priest, came from Augustine to warn Jerome against him. The result was that in June of that year Pelagius was cited by Jerome before John, bishop of Jerusalem, and charged with holding that man may be without sin, if only he desires it. This prosecution broke down, and in December of the same year Pelagius was summoned before a synod of fourteen bishops at Diospolis (Lydda). The proceedings, being conducted in various languages and by means of interpreters, lacked certainty, and justified Jerome’s application to the synod of the epithet “miserable.” But there is no doubt that Pelagius repudiated the assertion of Coelestius, that the divine grace and help consists only in free will, and in the giving of the law and instruction; at the same time he affirmed that man is able, if he likes, to live without sin and keep the commandments of God, inasmuch as God gives him this ability. The synod was satisfied with these statements and pronounced Pelagius to be in agreement with Catholic teaching. Pelagius naturally plumed himself on his acquittal, and provoked Augustine to give a detailed account of the synod, in which he shows that the language used by Pelagius was ambiguous, but that, being interpreted by his previous written statements, it involved a denial of what the Church understood by grace and by man’s dependence on it.

The North African Church as a whole resented the decisions of Diospolis, and in 418 Zosimus, bishop of Rome, was prompted to draw up a circular inviting the bishops of Christendom to subscribe to condemnation of Pelagian opinions. Nineteen Italian bishops refused; among them Julian of Eclanum in Apulia, a man of good birth, approved sanctity and great capacity, who now became the recognized leader of the movement. But not even his acuteness and zeal could redeem a cause which was rendered hopeless when the Eastern Church (Ephesus, 431) confirmed the decision of the West. Pelagius himself disappears after 420: Coelestius was at Constantinople seeking the aid of Nestorius in 428.

The first principle of Pelagianism is a theory, which affirms the freedom of the will, in the sense that in each volition and at each moment of life, no matter what the previous career of the individual has been, the will is in equipoise, able to choose good or evil. We are born characterless (non pleni), and with no bias towards good or evil (ut sine virtute, ita et sine vitio). It follows that we are uninjured by the sin of Adam, save in so far as the evil example of our predecessors misleads and influences us (non propagine sed exemplo). These is, in fact, no such thing as original sin, sin being a thing of will and not of nature; for it could be of nature our sin would be chargeable on God the creator. This will, capable of good as of evil, being the natural endowment of man, is found in the heathen as well as in the Christian, and the heathen may therefore perfectly keep such law as they know. But, if all men have this natural ability to do and to be all that is required for perfect righteousness, what becomes of grace, of the aid of the Holy Spirit, and, in a word, of Christianity? Pelagius appears to have confused the denial of original sin (in the sense of inherited guilt) with the denial of inherited nature or disposition of any kind. Hence he vacillates considerably in his use of the word “grace”. In his most careful statements he appears to allow to grace everything but the initial determining movements towards salvation. He ascribed to the unassisted human will power to accept and use the proffered salvation of Christ. It was at this point his departure from the Catholic creed could be made apparent: Pelagius maintains, expressly and by implication, that it is the human will which takes the initiative, and is the determining factor in the salvation of the individual; while the Church maintains that it is the divine will that takes the initiative by renewing and enabling the human will to accept and use the aid or grace offered. This was the position most strongly contested by Augustine (q.v.). The result was the rise of Semipelagianism, which was an attempt to hold a middle course between the harshness of Augustinianism and the obvious errors of Pelagianism. It appeared simultaneously in North Africa and in southern Gaul. In the former Church, which naturally desired to adhere to the views of its own great theologian, the monks of Adrumetum found themselves either sunk to the verge of despair or provoked to licentiousness by his predestinarian teaching. When this was reported to Augustine he wrote two elaborate treatises to show that when God ordains the end He also ordains the means, and if any man is ordained to life eternal he is thereby ordained to holiness and zealous effort. But meanwhile some of the monks themselves had struck out a via media, which ascribed to God sovereign grace and yet left intact man’s responsibility. A similar scheme was adopted by Cassian of Marseilles (hence Semipelagians are often spoken of as Massilians), and was afterwards ably advocated by Vincent of Lerins and Faustus of Rhegium. The differentia of Semipelagianism is the tenet that in regeneration and all that results from it, the divine and the human will are co-operating (synergistic) coefficient factors. Pelagius was familiar with the Greek language and theology, and frequented Rufinus, upholder of Greek theology.

From Encyclopedia Britanica