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{{redirect|Pelagians|the Italian movement of lay mystics known as Pelagians|Pelagians (Quietism)}}{{For|the indigenous inhabitants of the Aegean Sea region before the advent of the Greek language|Pelasgians}}Pelagianism, also called Pelagian heresy, is the Christian theological position that the original sin did not taint human nature and mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid or assistance. This theological theory is named after the British monk Pelagius ({{circa|AD 360}} â€“ 418), although he denied, at least at some point in his life, many of the doctrines associated with his name. Pelagius taught human will, as created with its abilities by God, was sufficient to live a sinless life, although he believed God's grace assisted every good work. Pelagianism has come to be identified with the view (whether taught by Pelagius or not) human beings can earn salvation by their own efforts.


File:Nuremberg chronicles f 135r 2.jpg|thumb|right|Pelagius Hereticus and John Chrysostom depicted in the Nuremberg ChronicleNuremberg ChronicleAccording to Augustinian theologians, Pelagius rejected the Biblical concept of grace.{{citation|last=González|first=Justo|authorlink=Justo L. González|title=Essential Theological Terms|url=|accessdate=4 April 2013|year=2005|publisher=Westminster John Knox Press|isbn=978-0-664-22810-1|page=128|contribution=Pelagianism}} According to his opponents, Pelagius taught moral perfection was attainable in this life without the assistance of divine grace through human free will. Augustine contradicted this by saying 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 the doctrine of original sin amounted to Manichaeism, which taught that the flesh was in itself sinful (and thus denied Jesus came in the flesh). This charge would have carried added weight since contemporaries knew Augustine had himself been a Manichaean layman before converting to Christianity. Augustine also taught a person's salvation comes solely through a free gift, the efficacious grace of God, but this was a gift one had no free choice to accept or refuse.The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 2001, eds. Eleonore Stump, Norman Kretzmann. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 130–135.{{anchor|Council of Diospolis}}Pelagianism was attacked in 415 at the Council of Diospolis (also known as Lydda or Lod),*Jennings, Daniel R., Transcript From The Council of Diospolis (Lydda) Against Pelagius, 415AD which found Pelagius to be orthodox.BOOK, Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 1918, 187, But it was later condemned at the Council of Carthage (418)Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion by William L Reese, Humanities Press 1980 p.421 and this condemnation was ratified at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The strict moral teachings of the Pelagians were influential in southern Italy, where they were openly preached until the death of Julian of Eclanum in 455; in Sicily, where the anonymous "Sicilian Briton" wrote; and in Britain until the coming of Saint Germanus of Auxerre c 429.Knowles, George, Unitarian Universalism 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.{{sfnp|Cohen|2016|p=523}}In De causa Dei contra Pelagium et de virtute causarum, Thomas Bradwardine denounced Pelagianism in the 14th century, as did Gabriel Biel in the 15th century.


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.)"Pelagianism", Augnet 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".Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary 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.H. Zimmer, "Pelagius in Ireland", p.20, Berlin, 1901 Other sources place his origins in Brittany.The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies 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".[Letter CCVI. To Mr. Alexander Coates. July 7, 1761]


The teachings of Pelagius are generally associated with the rejection of both original sin and infant baptism.Pohle, Joseph "Pelagius and Pelagianism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 26 Oct. 2014 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:
  1. Death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin.
  2. New-born children must be baptized on account of original sin.
  3. Justifying grace not only avails for the forgiveness of past sins, but also gives assistance for the avoidance of future sins.
  4. The grace of Christ not only discloses the knowledge of God's commandments, but also imparts strength to will and execute them.
  5. Without God's grace it is not merely more difficult, but absolutely impossible to perform good works.
  6. Not out of humility, but in truth must we confess ourselves to be sinners.
  7. The saints refer the petition of the Our Father, "Forgive us our trespasses", not only to others, but also to themselves.
  8. The saints pronounce the same supplication not from mere humility, but from truthfulness.{{sfn|Denzinger|1908|pp=101–83}}
Some codices containing a ninth canon:{{sfn|Denzinger|1908|loc=note 3}} Children dying without baptism do not go to a "middle place" (), 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."Pelagianism". Oxford Index 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.Pohle, Joseph. "Pelagius and Pelagianism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 27 Oct. 2014Pelagius wrote:"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 â€“ 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."{{sfn|Rees|p=38}}"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."{{sfn|Rees|p=43}}"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."{{sfn|Rees|pp=53-54}}}}A follower of Pelagius{{who|date=October 2015}} taught:"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."{{sfn|Rees|p=168}}}}

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. Jerome (d. 420) emerged as one of the chief critics of Pelagianism, because, according to him, sin was an unavoidable part of human nature.{{Citation needed|date=May 2018}}

Later responses

Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1290–1349) wrote De causa Dei contra Pelagium et de virtute causarum ad suos Mertonenses.Heiko Oberman (1957), Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, a Fourteenth Century Augustinian: A Study of His Theology in Its Historical Context, Utrecht: Gemink & Zoon. 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."Johannes von Goch", in Webster's Biographical Dictionary (1960), Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster.


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.Bernard Cottret, Monique Cottret, and Marie-José Michel, edd. (2002), Jansénisme et puritanisme: Actes du colloque du 15 septembre 2001, tenu au Musée National des Granges des Port-Royal-des-Champs, Paris: Nolin.

Contemporary responses

In the book Guardare Cristo: Esercizi di fede, speranza e carità (Looking at Christ: Exercises of faith, hope and charity),Ratzinger, J., Guardare Cristo. Esercizi di fede, speranza e carità, 1 September 1989 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 ..."Tornielli, Andrea. "Francis, Ratzinger and the Pelagianism risk", Vatican Insider/La Stampa, June 12, 2013In 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 ..."Winters, Michael Sean. "Pope Francis on Pelagians, Gnostics and the CDF", National Catholic Reporter, June 12, 2013 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."Letter Placuit Deo To the Bishops of the Catholic Church On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation, February 22, 2018

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The second Article of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states that "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression." The Book of Mormon states that the "original sin" allowed humanity to progress in the Plan of Salvation.(2 Nephi 2:22-26)Mormon philosopher Sterling M. McMurrin, argued that "[t]he theology of Mormonism is completely Pelagian."{{citation |last= McMurrin |first= Sterling M. |authorlink= Sterling M. McMurrin |title= The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion |year= 1965 |place= Salt Lake City |publisher= University of Utah Press |lccn= 65026131 |oclc= 1636293 |page= }}{{page needed|date=October 2014}} 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."2 Nephi {{lds||2-ne|2|26}}, Book of Mormon 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".2 Nephi {{lds||2-ne|2|8}}, Book of Mormon Pelagianism is not the official stance of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.{{citation |url=weblink |title= What do Mormons believe concerning the doctrine of grace? |work= |publisher= LDS Church }}{{citation |author= "James" |date= n.d. |url=weblink |title= A Review of Pelagianism |work= Lehi's Library |type= blog }}{{unreliable source?|date=October 2014}}

See also




  • Bercot, David. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, Hendrickson Publishers
  • {{citation|author=Denzinger|title="Enchir"|edition=10th|year=1908|ref=harv}}
  • {{citation|last=Rees|first=B. R.|title=The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers|publisher=The Boydell Press|ref=harv}}
  • BOOK, Cohen, Samuel, Religious Diversity, Jonathan J. Arnold, M. Shane Bjornlie, Kristina Sessa, harv, A Companion to Ostrogothic Italy, 2016, Brill Publishers, Leiden, Boston, 978-9004-31376-7, 503–532,

Further reading

Writings by Pelagius

External links

{{Heresies condemned by the Catholic Church}}{{History of Catholic theology}}{{Authority control}}

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