Pelagianism is the belief in Christianity that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid. This theological theory is named after the British monk Pelagius (354–420 or 440), although he denied, at least at some point in his life, many of the doctrines associated with his name. Pelagius was identified as an Irishman by Saint Jerome. Pelagius taught that the human will, as created with its abilities by God, was sufficient to live a sinless life, although he believed that God's grace assisted every good work. Pelagianism has come to be identified with the view (whether taught by Pelagius or not) that human beings can earn salvation by their own efforts.
Pelagius rejected the Biblical concept of grace. According to his opponents, Pelagius taught that moral perfection was attainable in this life without the assistance of divine grace through human free will. Augustine contradicted this by saying that perfection was impossible without grace because we are born sinners with a sinful heart and will. The Pelagians charged Augustine with departing from the accepted teaching (e.g.: John 8:11) of the Apostles and the Bible, demonstrating that the doctrine of original sin amounted to Manichaeism, which taught that the flesh was in itself sinful (and thus denied that Jesus came in the flesh). This charge would have carried added weight since contemporaries knew that Augustine had himself been a Manichaean layman before converting to Christianity. Augustine also taught that a person's salvation comes solely through a free gift, the efficacious grace of God, but that this was a gift that one had no free choice to accept or refuse.
Pelagianism was attacked in 415 at the Council of Diospolis (also known as Lydda or Lod), which found Pelagius to be orthodox. But it was later condemned at the Council of Carthage (418) and this condemnation was ratified at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The strict moral teachings of the Pelagians were influential in southern Italy and Sicily, where they were openly preached until the death of Julian of Eclanum in 455, and in Britain until the coming of Saint Germanus of Auxerre c 429. Despite repeated attempts to suppress Pelagianism and similar teachings by orthodox clergy, some followers of Pelagianism were still active in the Ostrogothic Kingdom (493–553), most notably in Picenum and Dalmatia during the rule of Theoderic the Great.
Little is known about the life of Pelagius, and although he is frequently referred to as a British monk, his origins are by no means certain. ("Pelagius" is derived from the Greek "pelagikos", meaning of the sea.) Augustine says that he lived in Rome "for a very long time" and referred to him as "Brito" to distinguish him from a different man called Pelagius of Tarentum. Bede refers to him as "Pelagius Bretto". St. Jerome suggests he was of Scottish descent which at the time would most certainly have meant he was from Ireland, since in the time of Pelagius, "Scots" referred to the Irish because Scota (source of "Scottish" or "Irish" in the early Middle Ages) was one of their matronyms; the word Irish comes from the matronym Ériu. Other sources place his origins in Brittany. He was certainly well known in the Roman province, both for the harsh asceticism of his public life, as well as the power and persuasiveness of his speech. Augustine, a pillar of the Church, referred to him as "saintly" before their falling out and John Wesley said "he was both a wise and a holy man".
The teachings of Pelagius are generally associated with the rejection of both original sin and infant baptism. Although the writings of Pelagius are no longer extant, the eight canons of the Council of Carthage (418) provided corrections to the perceived errors of the early Pelagians. These corrections include:
- Death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin.
- New-born children must be baptized on account of original sin.
- Justifying grace not only avails for the forgiveness of past sins, but also gives assistance for the avoidance of future sins.
- The grace of Christ not only discloses the knowledge of God's commandments, but also imparts strength to will and execute them.
- Without God's grace it is not merely more difficult, but absolutely impossible to perform good works.
- Not out of humility, but in truth must we confess ourselves to be sinners.
- The saints refer the petition of the Our Father, "Forgive us our trespasses", not only to others, but also to themselves.
- The saints pronounce the same supplication not from mere humility, but from truthfulness.
Some codices containing a ninth canon: Children dying without baptism do not go to a "middle place" (medius locus), since the non-reception of baptism excludes both from the "kingdom of heaven" and from "eternal life". Pelagianism stands in contrast to the official hamartiological system of the Catholic Church that is based on the theology of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Semipelagianism is a modified form of Pelagianism that was also condemned by the Catholic Church at the Council of Orange (529).
Of far-reaching influence upon the further progress of Pelagianism was the friendship which Pelagius developed in Rome with Caelestius, a lawyer of noble (probably Italian) descent. In the capacity of a lay-monk Caelestius endeavoured to convert the practical maxims learnt from Pelagius, into theoretical principles, which he then propagated in Rome. The denial of the transmission of Original Sin seems to have been introduced into Pelagianism by Rufinus the Syrian, who influenced Pelagius' supporter Celestius. Pelagius' views were sometimes misrepresented by his followers and distorted by his opponents. Pelagianism has come to mean – unfairly to its founder – the view that human beings can earn salvation by their own efforts.
Comparison of teaching
Pelagius's views on free will
Pelagius was disturbed by the immorality he encountered in Rome and saw Christians using human frailty as an excuse for their failure to live a Christian life. He taught that the human will, as created with its abilities by God, was sufficient to live a sinless life, although he believed that God's grace assisted every good work. Pelagius did not believe that all humanity was guilty in Adam's sin, but said that Adam had condemned mankind through bad example. The value of Christ's redemption was, in his opinion, limited mainly to instruction and example.
"Whenever I have to speak on the subject of moral instruction and conduct of a holy life, it is my practice first to demonstrate the power and quality of human nature and to show what it is capable of achieving, and then to go on to encourage the mind of my listener to consider the idea of different kinds of virtues, in case it may be of little or no profit to him to be summoned to pursue ends which he has perhaps assumed hitherto to be beyond his reach; for we can never end upon the path of virtue unless we have hope as our guide and compassion."
"It was because God wished to bestow on the rational creature the gift of doing good of his own free will and the capacity to exercise free choice, by implanting in man the possibility of choosing either alternative. ...He could not claim to possess the good of his own volition, unless he was the kind of creature that could also have possessed evil. Our most excellent creator wished us to be able to do either but actually to do only one, that is, good, which he also commanded, giving us the capacity to do evil only so that we might do His will by exercising our own. That being so, this very capacity to do evil is also good – good, I say, because it makes the good part better by making it voluntary and independent, not bound by necessity but free to decide for itself."
"Yet we do not defend the good of nature to such an extent that we claim that it cannot do evil, since we undoubtedly declare also that it is capable of good and evil; we merely try to protect it from an unjust charge, so that we may not seem to be forced to do evil through a fault of our nature, when, in fact, we do neither good nor evil without the exercise of our will and always have the freedom to do one of the two, being always able to do either."
"Nothing impossible has been commanded by the God of justice and majesty...Why do we indulge in pointless evasions, advancing the frailty of our own nature as an objection to the one who commands us? No one knows better the true measure of our strength than he who has given it to us nor does anyone understand better how much we are able to do than he who has given us this very capacity of ours to be able; nor has he who is just wished to command anything impossible or he who is good intended to condemn a man for doing what he could not avoid doing."
A follower of Pelagius taught:
When will a man guilty of any crime or sin accept with a tranquil mind that his wickedness is a product of his own will, not of necessity, and allow what he now strives to attribute to nature to be ascribed to his own free choice? It affords endless comfort to transgressors of the divine law if they are able to believe that their failure to do something is due to inability rather than disinclination, since they understand from their natural wisdom that no one can be judged for failing to do the impossible and that what is justifiable on grounds of impossibility is either a small sin or none at all.
Under the plea that it is impossible not to sin, they are given a false sense of security in sinning...Anyone who hears that it is not possible for him to be without sin will not even try to be what he judges to be impossible, and the man who does not try to be without sin must perforce sin all the time, and all the more boldly because he enjoys the false security of believing that it is impossible for him not to sin...But if he were to hear that he is able not to sin, then he would have exerted himself to fulfil what he now knows to be possible when he is striving to fulfil it, to achieve his purpose for the most part, even if not entirely.
Church Fathers on free will
Many of the Church Fathers before Augustine taught that humans have the power of free will and the choice over good and evil.
- Justin Martyr said that "every created being is so constituted as to be capable of vice and virtue. For he can do nothing praiseworthy, if he had not the power of turning either way".
- Theophilus (c.180) said, "If, on the other hand, he would turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he would himself be the cause of death to himself. For God made man free, and with power of himself."
- Irenaeus said, "But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect similar to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself his own cause that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff."
- Clement of Alexandria (c.195) said, "We...have believed and are saved by voluntary choice."
- Jerome (d. 420) emerged as one of the chief critics of Pelagianism, because, according to him, sin was an unavoidable part of human nature.
Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1290–1349) wrote De causa Dei contra Pelagium et de virtute causarum ad suos Mertonenses. Johann Pupper, also known as Johannes von Goch (c. 1400–1475), an Augustinian, recommended a return to the text of the Bible as a remedy for Pelagianism.
Pelagianism became a common accusation during the Protestant Reformation; Reformers often used the epithet to critique what they saw as late-medieval Catholicism's undue emphasis on doing good works. Martin Luther (1483–1546), John Calvin (1509–1564), and Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638) reacted in different ways against Pelagianism, and evaluations of Lutheran, Reformed, and Jansenist theologies have often turned on the question of what is or is not Pelagian.
In the book Guardare Cristo: esempi di fede, speranza e carità (Looking at Christ: Examples of faith, hope and charity) Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
"the other face of the same vice is the Pelagianism of the pious. They do not want forgiveness and in general they do not want any real gift from God either. They just want to be in order. They don’t want hope they just want security. Their aim is to gain the right to salvation through a strict practice of religious exercises, through prayers and action. What they lack is humility which is essential in order to love; the humility to receive gifts not just because we deserve it or because of how we act…"
In a June 2013 talk with the leadership of the Religious Confederation of Latin America and the Caribbean (CLAR), Pope Francis alluded to Pelagian tendencies when he referred to "restorationists", one group of whom sent him after his election 3,525 rosaries. The pope said he was "bothered" by this need to count prayers and labeled it "pelagianism." He went on to comment: "these groups return to practices and disciplines I lived – not you, none of you are old – to things that were lived in that moment, but not now, they aren't today...." The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith subsequently emphasised "neo-Pelagianism" in a letter of February 2018 titled Placuit Deo, stating, "A new form of Pelagianism is spreading in our days, one in which the individual, understood to be radically autonomous, presumes to save oneself, without recognizing that, at the deepest level of being, he or she derives from God and from others."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Mormon philosopher Sterling M. McMurrin, argued that "[t]he theology of Mormonism is completely Pelagian." Mormon theology teaches that the Atonement of Jesus Christ has overcome the effects of "original sin" for all mankind. For example, the Book of Mormon, a sacred text for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, teaches: "[T]he Messiah cometh in the fullness of time, that he might redeem the children of men from the fall. And because they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good and evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at that great and last day, according to the commandments which God has given." It also teaches: "there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah". Pelagianism is not the official stance of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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- Tornielli, Andrea. "Francis, Ratzinger and the Pelagianism risk", Vatican Insider/La Stampa, June 12, 2013
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- Letter Placuit Deo To the Bishops of the Catholic Church On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation, February 22, 2018
- McMurrin, Sterling M. (1965), The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, LCCN 65026131, OCLC 1636293
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- Writings by Pelagius
- The Writings of the legendary Pelagians
- Canons From The Council Of Carthage Against Pelagianism, May 1, 418
- Pelagians, Donatists, Monks, Anabaptists and other Perfectionists – a sympathetic look at Pelagianism and similar 'perfectionist' movements
- Pelagius Library: Online site dedicated to the study of Pelagius
- Pelagianism: The Religion of Natural Man – a critical look at Pelagianism
- Marcus, Gilbert. "Pelagianism and the ‘Common Celtic Church’", University of Glasgow