Pelagianism – A falsis principiis proficisci (Part 3)

The Pelagian Controversy

The stage was now set for two of the most influential men in the Christian Church to come to loggerheads over the issue of theological anthropology.  To be clear, Pelagius was in Rome and the heart of the degraded Church.  Augustine was in a far corner of the empire and in the midst of true believers.[1]   Much has been written concerning the views of each of the protagonist.

Weeping Cross at Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas

It is not at all clear that Pelagius held firmly to the doctrine of free will with regard to salvation.  But there is no doubt that he preached that a person had to make a choice of radical conversion in order to begin the new Christian life.[2]   As his message and followers spread it appealed to all who were looking for a different way of life than the degraded pagan existence most endured.[3]

However, once Pelagian teachings were brought to North Africa they were received by a intelligent and ultimately hostile Bishop of Hippo.  The North African church was well established and Augustine’s doctrines had eventually dominated in a long resistance of Donatists.  It was from here that an entirely different interpretation of man, of sin and of grace would wage a long distance struggle with Pelagianism.[4]

Pelagianism, with its Stoic motif that the freedom to do good was an essential anthropomorphic characteristic, collided with Augustine’s determination that the good was a gift from God and not intrinsically constitutional of fallen humanity.[5]   While both men preached God’s gift of divine grace, they were divided on the capacity of fallen man to contribute toward his own salvation.  Haight makes the distinction clear:
For Augustine, while free choice remained, the desire and affections of man were locked in a web of sin. The custom and habit of personal sin imprisoned free choice within the narrow confines of sensible self-seeking. For the Pelagians, religion and Christianity was mainly an affair of adults, and it meant conversion to and baptism into a radically new life. The Christian should steadily advance in perfection through his asceticism.[6]

The contrast is based upon the different views of Christian life before God.  For the Pelagians, man was free to chose to be Christian.  Whereas, for Augustine, God made men Christian through His grace, from His own will and for His own purposes.  This contrast continues to be at the heart of the distinction between the Church and the various in-name-only Christian sects.

In time, Augustine’s views held sway in the Church and as a result Pelagius was branded a heretic and his teachings were officially condemned by several councils of the Church.  However, since Pelagius had been so influential and he had followers throughout the Church, their teachings would continue to be a source of controversy.  Pelagius himself left Rome under duress and eventually died in Palestine.  Pelagius’ teachings , modified by the denial of original sin, remained real force for years after his death.  Of course, Augustine became a doctor of the Church and a saint whose influence formed and continues to guide the Church today.


[1] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 29.
[2] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 29.

[3] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 30.
[4] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 30.
[5] Breckenridge, “Pelagius: The Making of a Heretic,” 33.
[6] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 30.



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