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Pelagius and the Controversy over Free-will

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The Pelagian controversy was an example of the continuing debate between free-will and determinism, which has taxed the minds of philosophers and theologians for centuries. Theologically, the issue arises from the paradox between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.

Pelagius (?-c.419) was a British monk, probably with Welsh or Irish ancestry, who came to Rome around 400 and was shocked by the low moral state of the church. He also objected to a prayer in Augustine’s Confessions, “Give what Thou commandest and command what Thou wilt.” To him, this left all initiative in the hands of God, and removed all responsibility for personal holiness from mankind. In response, Pelagius began to preach a message giving more emphasis to man’s efforts in attaining holiness, reminding them of their own responsibility and inherent ability to change themselves. This was in contradiction to Augustine’s view that mankind could do nothing to help themselves, but were completely dependent on the grace of God.

Unfortunately, as so often happens, in reacting to the situation in Rome, he went too far, saying that people cold put themselves right with God, if they made enough effort. This effectively removed the need for a supernatural act of God to achieve salvation, and severely weakened the concept of redemption by the death of Jesus. He denied the doctrine of original sin, saying that Adam was created as a mortal being, and that his sin only harmed himself. Children, he said, were born innocent, and sinned by following Adam’s example. His views were supported and developed further by Celestius, one of his followers.

From Rome, Pelagius moved to the east, where his teaching was received more sympathetically because the doctrine of grace was less defined in the Eastern Church. The Pelagian teachers were given hospitality by Nestorius. Celestius went to Africa, where he was excommunicated in 411. Augustine also contacted Jerome in the east to secure the excommunication of Pelagius, but this effort failed, when he was acquited by the synod of Lydda in 415. Pope Innocent I condemned Pelagius in 416, following his condemnation by two synods in Africa. However, his successor, Pope Zosimus, had some sympathy with Pelagius’ teaching and reversed the decision in 417. Probably under the influence of Augustine, Emperor Honorius intervened and banished Pelagius in 418, with the agreement of the Pope. However 19 Italian bishops refused to sign the condemnation. In 420 Pelagius died and his teaching was finally rejected by the Council of Ephesus in 431.

The debate continued after the death of Augustine and the decline of the North African Church, when southern Gaul (France) became the intellectual centre of the Western Church. Some teachers there like John Cassian had difficulty in accepting Augustine’s teaching on irresistible grace (as has most of the church), saying that man’s free will always remained free. Because of this, he also denied the predestination of unbelievers to Hell. He later added that men could make the first steps towards their own salvation without any special gift of grace from God (prevenient grace). In later centuries, this teaching became to receive the label ‘Semi-Pelagian’ and is still very common today.