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The Great Heresies: Pelagianism (1)

Category Articles
Date October 18, 2017

Pelagianism can be regarded as the last of the ‘Great Heresies’; after Pelagius, heretics have, for the most part, been either reworking old heresies, or have been very limited in their influence. Pelagius, on the other hand, created a false teaching that challenged the Church to consider issues that had previously been taken for granted, and continues to have massive influence today. Indeed, while he was denounced as a heretic, it may be said that some version of Pelagius’ teaching is regarded by many Christians as orthodoxy – and this is a serious problem, because Pelagianism represents a serious deviation from the teaching of Scripture.

Each of the Great Heresies deals with a specific vital part of Christian doctrine, beginning with the challenge to the doctrine of God by the Gnostics, through false teaching on the person of Christ. In Pelagius, we meet a heresy that is concerned primarily with the nature of man, specifically the question of the effects of the Fall, and the nature of man’s will. The question in the end is whether salvation is ultimately a matter of God’s will or the will of man. Does God merely make an offer of salvation that human beings can choose to accept or reject, or does God actually save people?


Pelagius is the Latin version of the name of a British monk whose original name was probably Morgan. He came from modern-day Wales, and seems to have been associated with the monastery at Bangor-on-Dee, not far from Wrexham. He was born in about 360 AD, and died in 418. As a devout monk, he was devoted to the ascetic lifestyle, seeking to live a holy life. He was also a learned man, as many of the monks of that age were, a student of theology and of the learned languages; he is reported to have been fluent in Latin and Greek as well as in his own British tongue.

Pelagius had looks on his side as well, he was a tall, handsome man, with a melodious voice that he used with great skill. In that age in particular, he attracted people both by his personal qualities and by the rigor of his monastic life. In 380 he moved from Britain to Rome, the capital of the Western Roman Empire and a major ecclesiastical center, and there he found a wider audience for his eloquent preaching. It seems to have been largely moralistic in nature, urging people to live a good, self-controlled, godly life. While Rome had ceased to be the capital of the Empire, it was still a great city, and people flowed into it from all across the Empire, from Europe, Africa, and Asia. Some were devout like Pelagius, but others were the very reverse, morally depraved. Like all great cities, Rome had its ugly side, and Pelagius preached vehemently against the sin and vice that he saw around him, rampant in all strata of society.

Thus far he was in the right, but in looking around for the reason for the sinfulness of Rome, he made a fatal misstep. At the time, the writings of Augustine of Hippo, the great African theologian, were very popular. Following the Apostle Paul, Augustine emphasized the sovereignty of God’s grace in salvation, and in the Christian life. One phrase in particular caught Pelagius’ attention, ‘O God, command what you will, and give what you command.’ Like Paul’s opponents, Pelagius became concerned that all this talk about how we are saved by grace and not by works might suggest that our works do not matter at all. In fact, if God’s grace is glorified in the salvation of sinners, might that not be used as an excuse for sin? Paul’s response to such an abuse of the doctrines of grace was, ‘whose damnation is just’ (Romans 3:8), but Pelagius thought that was insufficient.

Pelagius, decided that the abuse meant that Augustine had to be wrong, and man’s salvation must, after all, depend on something in man; God commands us to do good works, he reasoned, therefore we must have the ability to perform them, and our performance must contribute to our salvation. Not only did this appear to him to solve the problem of people abusing the grace of God, but it appealed to his ascetic monastic temperament. Every Christian, he taught, should live like a monk.

At the root of this error was that Pelagius suffered from a fatally simplistic understanding of sin; in fact he had no idea of sin as such, only of sins, individual and separate acts of disobedience to God’s good Law. He taught that every man is created like Adam, free from sin and equally capable of choosing either good or evil. He denied such a thing as an inborn bent to sin, and attributed the observable fact that everyone sins to the force of bad example. Not only that, but he really attached no weight to the question of human moral character; yet this is a vital point, for our moral choices are not isolated acts of a will that is balanced between good and evil, but acts of a person who has a history, preferences, desires, and moral bent. If, on the other hand, sin is a matter of individual and separate acts of the will, and people sin because of bad examples around them, then virtue is also a matter of individual and separate acts of the will, guided by good examples. This, in Pelagius’ teaching, was the function of the Scriptures. The Law tells us what we should do, and the Gospel shows us the good example of Christ’s obedience. It is ‘good news’ because it tells us that we can keep the law after all, not because it is the unveiling of a righteousness which is from God as a free gift. He even taught that some Biblical characters, like Daniel, had lived free from sin all their lives.

The inner logic of this false position was that it was not only possible, but absolutely necessary, for people to cease from sinning altogether. Having thus ceased from sin, a Christian would be acceptable to God in his own right. The Christian who continued to struggle with sin and also to regard himself as a sinner saved by grace was, according to Pelagius, no different from the pagan who wallowed in sin. While he said that Christians need the grace of God for salvation, in reality he redefined the grace of God to mean the free-will that God gave all people and the gift of the perfect moral law and example of Christ. The grace of God was in other words a matter of gifts that were common to all mankind.

In 410 AD, Rome was attacked by a force of Visigoths under Alaric, who were seeking revenge for atrocities committed against them at the instigation of the Emperor Honorius, who had incited the Romans to murder the families of Goths serving with the Roman military. The resulting sack of Rome was quite mild by ancient standards, only a few buildings were burned, churches were spared, and there was no mass slaughter; nevertheless, it had a huge psychological impact, and many people left the city afterwards, Pelagius among them. He was one of those who crossed the Mediterranean to Carthage in north Africa, not far from Hippo Regius, where Augustine had been bishop since 395.


Augustine of Hippo is quite simply the great figure of Western Christianity; all subsequent theology in the West builds upon his work. His history is well known; most likely of Berber extraction, he was born in Thagaste, in modern-day Algeria, in 354. His mother, Monica, was a Christian, his father, Patricius, was not. A brilliant man, he was a wild rebel in his youth, but did not squander his talents. He trained as a teacher of rhetoric, and was converted in 386, when he was living and working in Milan. Augustine had returned to Africa in 388, and in 391 had been ordained a Presbyter in the city of Hippo Regius (also in modern-day Algeria), where he acted as assistant bishop until he was consecrated as the city’s bishop in 395. Always a deep thinker, by 410 he was already the leading Western theologian.

Augustine was a very different man from Pelagius. Whereas Pelagius was one of those people who have very little sense of sin, and had been a monk from an early age, Augustine had the bitter memories of an early life filled with sin, and mourned that he had sought God so late in his life. The result of this was that he had a very vivid sense of the sinfulness of man and the corresponding greatness of God’s grace, while Pelagius did not; this is one of the reasons that Augustine’s Confessions is one of the great spiritual autobiographies. ‘All good things come from you, O God, and from my God is my whole salvation,’ he wrote (Confessions 1.6.7). Where Pelagius saw all children as born innocent and pure as Adam was created, Augustine wrote, ‘children are innocent only because they do not yet have any physical strength; their minds are not innocent’ (Confessions 1.7.11). The only ‘innocence’ that even children have, he realized, was innocence of outward acts of sin, and that was just because they did not have the physical strength to commit them! As a result of his struggles against sin, he also had a far less simplistic understanding of the nature of the human will. While for Pelagius the problem was that people sinned, for Augustine it was that people are sinners, a far more profound insight.


It was inevitable that as soon as he heard the opposition of Pelagius, Augustine would take up his pen in reply; and that is what he did. While the quarrel between Nestorius and Cyril was dominated by politics and took place more in the political than the theological sphere, Augustine addressed Pelagius almost entirely in the theological arena. Pelagius was a false teacher, and so it was the teaching and not the man that had to be opposed.

Pelagius did not come to North Africa alone; he came attended by many of his disciples, among whom was a brilliant ex-lawyer called Celestius. Celestius’ logical legal mind made him a much more extreme, because logical, teacher than Pelagius – a reminder that logical consistency is not necessarily a good thing, for it is possible to be logically consistent and completely wrong. In an effort to extend the influence of his master’s teaching, Celestius sought ordination as a Presbyter in North Africa; Augustine made sure that he was not ordained, but condemned as a heretic.

Drawing on his considerable ability in Biblical scholarship, Augustine produced a stream of books and tracts, On Nature and Grace, On the Grace of Christ and Original Sin, and On the Spirit and the Letter. God’s grace, he pointed out, is not said in the Bible to make sinners saveable, but to actually save sinners; it is not man’s will, but God’s grace that is sovereign in our salvation. As he dug into the Scriptures to answer Pelagius and Celestius, the great African theologian saw more and more clearly that salvation is after all, ‘all of grace.’

Against Pelagius’ contention that we are all born innocent and pure as Adam was created, Augustine pointed out that the Bible teaches that we all fell in Adam, and that Adam’s fall has affected all his descendants. One of the key texts was Romans 5:14-19:

Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgement was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as by the offence of one judgement came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

Here it is clearly stated that Adam’s sin did not just affect him, but it affected all of his progeny. ‘By one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.’ Augustine understood this to mean that in some mysterious yet very real manner, all of Adam’s descendants were actually present in Adam, and so shared in his transgression; it would not be until much later that the Federal Theology would be developed, understanding being ‘in Adam’ as a matter of federal headship.

This is what is called ‘original sin,’ as expounded in Article 9 of the Anglican 39 Articles, ‘Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.’1 G.K. Chesterton once remarked in his hyperbolic way, that original sin is ‘the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,’ at least in terms of the personal experience of all men. Citing a catena of Scriptural citations, in Romans 3:10-19, Paul writes,

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes. Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

It was this that Pelagius denied, not because of the Bible, but because he was worried that the Bible’s teaching might encourage people to sin because ‘they could do no better.’ In other words, the flagrant abuse of the doctrine was, for Pelagius, reason enough to oppose it. We find people doing the same thing today, appealing not to the Bible, but to what they fear the consequences of a doctrine might be, irrespective of whether the Bible teaches it or not.

In 411 a local Council of African bishops was convened at Carthage to consider the teaching of Pelagius. With Augustine, the greatest theologian of the age, as the Prosecutor, the verdict was practically a foregone conclusion; Pelagius was condemned as a heretic who was teaching contrary to Scripture. There was now no opening for him to teach in Africa unless he recanted, which he was quite unwilling to do; his only remaining option was to leave for another part of the Empire.

And that is what he did; leaving North Africa, Pelagius traveled to Palestine, where he soon became friends with Bishop John of Jerusalem. On the other hand, Pelagius and his followers clashed publicly with Jerome, the great Bible translator, who lived in a monastery in Bethlehem. Both men were then advocates of the monastic life, but Jerome (as might be expected from a man who knew the Bible intimately in the original languages) found Pelagius’ exaltation of man’s will deeply troubling. Jerome was more favorable to the idea of human free will than Augustine, yet even he found the idea that the achievements of holiness among the monks and nuns were ultimately the result of the decisions of those who dedicated themselves to that life disturbing. If that was the case, then what praise was to be given to God?

In early 415 a Spanish priest called Paul Orosius arrived at Bethlehem from North Africa. Orosius had been staying with Augustine in Hippo, and brought to Jerome news of his African friend. He also brought with him copies of Augustine’s writings against Pelagius, including Nature and Grace. He passed on the African bishop’s condemnation of Pelagius, and so on 28th July, Bishop John held an informal meeting at Jerusalem with Orosius and Pelagius. The British monk defended himself vigorously, and Orosius was not equal to the task of opposing him. A formal synod held at Diospolis in December pronounced Pelagius to be orthodox, much to the disgust of Jerome, who at that time was engaged in writing a Dialogue Against the Pelagians, a work he described as a ‘spiritual bludgeon.’2 Jerome pointed out that not one of the Biblical saints was perfect, and appealed to the Bible’s plain teaching against Pelagius’ philosophical speculation. However, he did err; in an excess of zeal he suggested that Jesus himself needed divine aid to remain perfect, a statement that Pelagius and his supporters picked up on eagerly.

The declaration of Pelagius’ orthodoxy at Diospolis was obtained by a combination of Pelagius’ artful oratory and the personal influence of Bishop John, who liked Pelagius personally. It was a great disappointment to Jerome and Orosius. As soon as the travelling season reopened, Orosius set off back to Hippo with a letter from Jerome to Augustine, in which were given details of what had happened in Palestine. While Orosius was in Hippo, news came that supporters of Pelagius had attacked Jerome’s monastery at Bethlehem and burned it to the ground. While Pelagius did not approve the action, it nevertheless told against him.

For a variety of reasons, including the ongoing controversy over the person of Christ which culminated in the Council of Chalcedon, and the difficulty of communication, the Pelagian controversy was an issue of the Western Church, not the Eastern. For this reason it was one which directly affected the See of Rome. While the idea of Papal Supremacy was still unknown in the 5th century, the See of Rome did enjoy a primacy of leadership in the Western Church, and in local controversies, appeal was often made to Rome. Therefore following the decision of the Palestinian Synod at Diospolis to go against the condemnation of Pelagius at Carthage in 411, the African Churches held their own synods and also appealed to Innocent I, bishop of Rome 401-417. When he heard not only of the decision at Diospolis, but also of the attack on the monastery at Bethlehem, Innocent pronounced Pelagius and Celestius heretics and excommunicate unless they returned to the true and orthodox faith.

Innocent’s death in March 417, however, brought uncertainty into the whole issue; where Innocent had condemned Pelagius, his successor, Zosimus, reopened the matter, and allowed himself to be swayed by correspondence from Pelagius, and a personal argument from the talented ex-lawyer Celestius. Zosimus announced that he was reversing his predecessor’s verdict, and criticized the African bishops. But Augustine and his African fellows were not to be cowed by the Pope, and replied that Innocent’s sentence must stand, confirming it at a Synod in 418. They even appealed over his head to the Emperor, forcing Zosimus into a swift U-turn. With no other option, he repeated Innocent’s condemnation of Pelagius, and declared that he was indeed excommunicate and a heretic. He continued to quarrel with the African Church until he fell ill in late 418, and the illness swiftly terminated in his death on 26th December. The matter was not reopened by his successor. Pelagius left Palestine for Egypt, and thereafter vanishes from history. In 431 both Pelagius and Celestus were condemned as heretics by the Council of Ephesus.

The second part of this article can be found here.

This article first appeared in the current edition of Peace & Truth and has been reproduced with permission.


  1. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 2, in Collected Works Vol. 1 (San Francisco, Ignatius, 1986) p217.
  2. J.N.D. Kelly Jerome (London, Duckworth, 1975) p319.

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