Pelagianism – A falsis principiis proficisci (Part 2)

Free Will in the Early Church

There is ample evidence that many in the early church held that humans possessed the capacity to chose good and/or evil.  Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Irenaeus all wrote comments that indicating that human free agency existed and therefore could chose to be good or bad.[1]   It also appears that the precise timing of the inclusion of the Gospel of James in to the canonical Bible seems to be a point of controversy.[2]   Specifically, the question of James is due to the abundant use of verses from James by Pelagius and there limited use by Jerome and Augustine.[3]   This would have implications later when Martin Luther responds to Desiderius Erasmus.  However, Pelagius or his name sake followers seem to have the backing of some in the early church and did not make up the doctrine of free will from whole cloth.  Theological and philosophical speculation was what dominated the late Roman Empire and so the die was cast for the principal protagonist of the doctrine of free will to clash.


Two rustics visit Rome

Rome and its empire had been in an advanced state of decline since the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus in 180 A.D.  Although it would be some time before Alaric and the Visigoths would sack the city, Rome was decaying from self inflicted political and social disregard.  Stoicism seemed to dominate the philosophical climate of the times.[4]   As a result, at least within the elite, there was a resignation to accepting as inevitability of events and actions.  Stoicism had also found its expression in the Christians of the times.[5]

Into this environment came Pelagius in 380 A.D. and then Augustine in 383 A.D.  Both came from areas on the edge of the Empire, Pelagius from Britain (or perhaps Brittany) and Augustine from Thagaste, North Africa.  While they both had come to Rome looking for civil careers and they both were appalled at the pagan morality of Roman life, their life journey before visiting Rome and after were decidedly different.[6]    Most importantly for our purposes is that for their time both men were Christians.  Also significant is that they came Rome during the evolution of the Church from a persecuted hole-in-the-wall affair to becoming the State religion.

Uncertainty exists about Pelagius’ early life due to the lack of records and the destruction of his works after he was branded a heretic.  However, it is clear that he was from the northwest of Europe, perhaps Britain, as he was referred to as Pelagius Brito or Britannicus.   Pelagius was well educated, may have been a monk and possibly studied law as well.[7]   Once in Rome, Pelagius became the leader of a reform movement.

Haight describes Pelagius’ as being:
Closely associated with the aristocratic class, he preached, against the pagan morality that had infiltrated into the Church with the conversions of convenience, a life of authentic Christianity, of Christian perfection, one that appealed to the first families who wanted to stand out above the crowd.[8]

These elite Roman Christians may have more to do with the formation of what is called Pelagianism, than Pelagius himself.

Augustine’s early life was decidedly different than Pelagius.  We are acutely aware of Augustine’s life because of his prolific writing, which most has been preserved, and specifically to his self-penned Confessiones.[9]   He was born in Thagaste into family which had been full Roman citizens for about 100 years before his birth.  His father was a pagan and his mother a Christian.  His mother, Monica, had great influence upon his life because she prayed for him constantly.  He was early educated was in Latin literature, pagan beliefs and customs.  In his teens he went to Carthage to continue his studies.  Although Monica had raised him as a Christian, during his Carthage years he began to follow the Gnostic cult of Manichaeism.   This lead to a debauched life style, which distressed Monica greatly.  A long affair with a woman resulted in the birth of a son, Adeodatus, who was greatly loved by both Augustine and Monica.

Augustine moved back to Thagaste to teach grammar then back to Carthage.  Back in  Carthage, Augustine became a well respected teacher of rhetoric.  However, he became appalled by the behavior of the students and began to drift away from Manichaeism.  Shortly after this, he won the highly visible and well placed position of professor of rhetoric to the imperial court of Milan.

While in Milan, Augustine was impressed with the local bishop, Ambrose.  Influenced by Monica and Ambrose, Augustine had a conversion experience and became a Christian.  This lead to his returning to his families property near Hippo in North Africa.  It was during a rare visit to Hippo that Augustine was convinced of the need for a bishop of the Church and thus was ordained as Bishop of Hippo.  In the position of bishop, Augustine preached and wrote a tremendous amount.  Letters, books, documents all directed at either clarifying the doctrines of or in defense of the Christian Church.


[1] Breckenridge, “Pelagius: The Making of a Heretic,” 31.
[2] Jonathan P. Yates, “The Canonical Significance of the Citation of James in Pelagius,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 78 (2002): 482-89.
[3] Yates, “The Canonical Significance of the Citation of James in Pelagius,” 487.

[4] Breckenridge, “Pelagius: The Making of a Heretic,” 30.
[5] Breckenridge, “Pelagius: The Making of a Heretic,” 31.
[6] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 27.

[7] Catholic Online.  Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company).  accessed April 16, 2014.

[8] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 29.
[9] Augustine.  The Confessions of Saint Augustine. trans. Edward B. Pusey, D.D. (Christian Classics Ethereal Library) accessed April 16, 2014.


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