The word “Heretic” is pejorative. A heretic, one who dissents from established practices or doctrines, from an accepted system of ideas, is usually unpopular with the majority. He sometimes suffers condemnation, persecution, excommunication, imprisonment or even death. And those who agree with non-conformist views, for example with those of Pelagius, Peter Abelard, Martin Luther, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Johannes Kepler, Charles G. Finney, P. P. Waldenstršm, et al, may at times find themselves open to criticism, even at risk.
Dissent in human experience, both theologically and generally, nonetheless, is very important. For example, the disturbance which some of the early Christian heretics created in the Church Synods and Councils forced the orthodox majority to define both a New Testament canon and to structure the basic Christian creeds. Without the intrusive unappreciated work of Bishop Marcion (fl. CE 144) there might never have been the twenty-seven book New Testament we have. Without the persistence of the Alexandrian Priest, Arius, (256-336) there would not have been that remarkable Nicene Creed.
The British Monk, Pelagius, (360-420), was declared a heretic in his theological struggles with St. Augustine (354-430), the highly-regarded Bishop of Hippo. A person of excellent virtues with a good education in both the classics and the Scriptures, Pelagius certainly did not regard himself as unorthodox or heretical. Rather, he was a critical thinker, one concerned with finding a place for moral earnestness in common Church life. He was shocked to find moral laxity among Christians in the early 5th century. A Christian is not one, he said, who bears the name of Christ, but one who imitates Christ in all possible ways.
Before I attempt to present something of the historical context and views of Pelagius, would you, my reader, please stop for a moment and take a short quiz. The old professor surfaces!
From your perspective, is it True or False that:
1. Followers of the moral law, like Moses and Isaiah, belong to the Kingdom of Heaven as well as those who later accepted the Gospel._____
2. New-born infants are depraved and guilty before God_____
3. Adam’s sin harmed only himself, not the rest of the human race____
4. Humans are able to desire the good and do the right without the benefit of the Gospel_____
5. Infants are baptized in order to cleanse them from the sin they inherited from Adam_____
6. Christ died, not as a substitute for sinners, but to demonstrate the extremity of God’s love for sinners_____
7. Death is essential to the human condition, not a punishment for sin. Thus, Adam and Eve would have died even though they had not sinned____
Your answers could help you define some of your basic beliefs about the following subjects:
Pelagius was judged heretical for holding that Adam’s sin did not corrupt the whole human race. Sin is not a substance handed down, not an inheritance. For him #3 in our quiz is true, the sin of Adam injured himself alone, not the human race. Each person is free to obey or disobey, to direct his/her choices toward dignified, healthy ends, to build character through education, and to grow toward maturity. Each child is born in a morally neutral condition with a capacity for good and evil alike. All the good and evil for which one is praised or censured is subsequent to one’s birth. We alone are responsible for what we do or are. If you marked #2 false, old Pelagius would have agreed with you. There are enough things for which we are morally accountable, he said, without blaming us for things for which we have no responsibility. Moral progress is important—we should ponder the moral dimension day and night as we strive to overcome sinful habits and become holy, righteous, and just.
It was common in that day to believe that infants were baptized to cleanse them from the inherited sin virus. For Pelagius, infants at the moment of birth are in the same condition as Adam was before the Fall. What an infant derives from baptism is not remission of sins, but a higher sanctification through union with Christ. Infants, even though they die unbaptized, have eternal life. You scored with Pelagius if you said #5 was false.
For Augustine, the whole human race is under condemnation because of original sin. From the multitude of condemned souls, God arbitrarily elects or predestines a limited number of souls for salvation. These by His unmerited grace are destined for heaven; the rest are bound for hell. For Pelagius this scenario is intolerable. For him, each person is free to sin or not sin. Divine punishment for inevitable sin is absolutely unjust and makes a mockery of human responsibility. It is true, #4, that humans, given the power to act responsibly by God, are free to speak, think and act on their own, able to desire the good and do the right. If we attribute wrong action to ourselves, we must also attribute right action to ourselves. And we always stand in need of God’s help and grace. Though free will belongs to everyone, Christians find the grace of God an active additional benefit in their lives. And, regarding #1, those who followed the moral law before Jesus’ coming, for Pelagius, do indeed belong to the Kingdom.
For Augustine, death entered the world as a punishment for Adam’s sin. Pelagius said, yes, death did enter the world through Adam—he was the first to die—but it is definitely unconnected with his Fall. Adam was a created being and thus mortal. The Fall was neither the cause of his or our mortality. Pelagius scores # 7 as true.
Does breaking our link with Adam mean also breaking our link with Christ? Only in so far as the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is concerned, viz., that Christ was a substitute for the sinner. Other than that, a major issue for some, the essential human linkage between Adam and Christ is intact. Adam was a really bad moral example for us; Jesus, a really good one. Jesus’s death on the cross showed the depth of His love for us. He is our exemplar, the finest example ever for moral teaching and right living. Thus, Pelagius, along with more recent theologians, Abelard and Waldenstršm, would have marked #6 true had they taken our quiz. The problem, as Pelagius sees it, is that people who call Jesus Lord do not pay attention and follow His lead.
The quiz section is over and I turn now to discuss briefly the struggles on these issues between Pelagius and St. Augustine as well as between Pelagius and Church Councils. About 405, when Pelagius was 55 years old, he heard someone read from Augustine’s Confessions, “Give me what you command and command what you will.” This and other passages set him off. Are humans then simply marionettes who are predestined in their actions? To strip us of freedom is to strip us of responsibility. Pelagius wrote a Commentary on the Pauline Letters in which he challenged Augustine’s view on original sin, predestination, and other issues.
Pelagius had many followers, the most well-know was a young fellow named Celestius, who was actually a more radical defender of free will than Pelagius. Celestius wanted to become a presbyter in the Church, but a deacon charged him with various errors. When wind of these charges reached St. Augustine, he traced them back to Pelagius and a long fight began. St. Jerome (347-420) joined in the fight, and managed to have Pelagius formally charged with heresy at the Synods of Jerusalem and Diospolis. Pelagius put distance between himself and the more extreme views of his young convert, pulled out the right Scriptures, defended himself well, and was declared orthodox.
That turn of events frustrated Augustine and Jerome. They were not convinced, and in two North African Synods held in 416, one at Carthage and one at Numidia, they outmaneuvered and roundly condemned the heretic. Pope Innocent I (402-417) backed St. Augustine.
However, Pope Innocent I died a month later, and the Greek Pope, Zosimus (417-18), who succeeded him, reversed the decision. Pelagius and Celestius were judged orthodox and readmitted into the good graces of the Church.
But not for long. The African Bishops, including Augustine, informed Pope Zosimus that the edict of his predecessor, Pope Innocent I, once made must stand, and Pope Zosimus backed down. A new Synod was called in Carthage in 418 and Pelagius was condemned. It was affirmed that Adam did become mortal when he sinned, children should be baptized to take away the guilt of inherited sin, grace was necessary for right living, a good life was impossible, etc. Zosimus issued a circular letter of condemnation. The Roman Emperor Honorius, with his political clout, backed the Pope and the bishops, and banished the heretics, Pelagius and Celestius.
Pelagius disappeared soon after, but Bishop Julian of South Italy took up his cause. When Emperor Honorius in a 419 edict required the Western Church to subscribe to the condemnations of Pelagius and Celestius, Bishop Julian and 18 others refused to go along. A noble act, but after Pelagius’ death, he was condemned again at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The struggle between the parties went on. John Cassian defended the freedom of the will and argued that we can accept or reject the grace of God. A Monk, Caesarius (469-542), held a small synod in Orange in 529 where original sin and the ineffectiveness of human moral will power were emphasized. Only the free gift of grace gave humans the desire to believe. The only good in people comes from the work of God. There was some modification of Augustine’s ideas, and the notion of irresistible grace and predestination to evil were unacceptable. The Synod came to have great authority once Pope Boniface II (530-32) backed it.
Years later at the Council of Trent in 1546, the views of St. Augustine contra Pelagius were upheld by the Roman Catholic Church. Many Protestant denominations officially agree with St. Augustine against Pelagius while there are Christians in those Denominations who hold to Pelagius’ more positive views about God and human nature.
It comes down to the fundamental question of human nature, the issue involved in questions 2-4 of our quiz. When you look into the eyes of a little child, do you see, following the “orthodox” view of St. Augustine, a depraved being, one utterly lost, conceived and born in sin? Or do you see, following the “heretical” view of Pelagius, God’s amazing plan for human development at work? Do you stand in awe of the potential of a child to make free choices for good or bad and to develop strong character? Even more pointedly, when you look at a child do you see, in the light of the positive view of Jesus, one who is the “Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”