Pelagius (c. a. 354-418)

Pelagius, although little is known of him only he is thought to have come from Britain and personally played an important role in shaping the early character of the Celtic Christianity. Although a priest, Pelagius was a Celtic monk and a highly respected spiritual leader for both laymen and clergy. What is recorded of his behavior denotes his Celtic heritage. He firmly believed in the individual–his free will and his ability to better himself as a spiritual being.

These ideas pitted Pelagius directly against the Christian Church of the time. It was the time when the Church was trying to combat the heresy of the Donatists of North Africa. Simply stated the Donatists claimed the efficacy of the sacraments depended upon the spiritual state of the priest who dispensed them. Such a declaration caused a great dilemma for the Church.

For, if agreed to, it meant «the entire ceremonial edifice of the Church would be dependent on the moral character of the clergy and no one could ever be sure that a given rite had been supernaturally effective.» But, if the Donatists’ declaration was declared false then «a sacrament could be effectively administered even by a heretic or heathen. »

The defense against the heresy was to save the structure of the Church. At the time many men of the Church including Augustine were speaking out against the heresy claiming «the Church (in the word’s of Augustine’s predecessor, Optatus of Mileum) is an institution, ‘whose sanctity is derived from the sacraments, and not estimated from the pride of persons. … The sacraments are holy in themselves and not through men.’»

Needless to say, the Church’s stand would prevail. But, all Celts failed to see it that way including Pelagius and his chief disciple Caelestius who were contemporaries of the churchman Patrick in Ireland. Pelagius and Caelestius held firmly to the Storic doctrine of free will. Neither did they hold to Augustine’s doctrine of original sin which the Church adopted.

Pelagius did not believe that man’s nature was tainted by the sin of Adam; and therefore, by his own nature and efforts could only inherit hell or damnation. He dismissed Augustine’s assumption that man could only gain salvation through the Church .

He declared the doctrine of original sin abominal, detesting it completely. It is this doctrine which declares that all men are conceived in sin and can only be saved by the unmerited grace of God which is only received through Jesus Christ and His Church.

The view of Pelagius and his followers firmly held to the Storic doctrine of the free will of man and the innate goodness of nature, which they claimed, was not corrupted but only modified by sin. Such a stand put them in direct opposition to their great antagonist Augustine. However, their view served for the basis of Pelagianism.

Pelagius’ views was not the only source of his troubles with the Church. He visited Rome around 380. What he saw and heard was in direct opposition to the rigorous asceticism practiced by him and his followers. He was repelled by the grandeur of the Church hierarchy, especially the Papacy.

He » blamed Rome’s moral laxity on the doctrine of divine grace that he heard a bishop cite from the Confessions of Saint Augustine, who in his prayer for continence beseeched God to grant whatever grace the divine will determined. Pelegius attacked this teaching on the grounds that it imperiled the entire moral law.» He won a great following and met his closest friend and collaborator, a lawyer, Caelestius.

When returning to Ireland they continued to meet the criticism of Augustine, but Pelagius because of his life of asceticism and insistent preaching on «man’s basically good moral nature and on man’s own responsibility for choosing Christian asceticism for his spiritual advancement» continued to win a wider following.

Around 412 Pelagius went to Palestine where in 415 he appeared before the synod of Jerusalem accused of heresy. He succeeded in clearing himself to avoid being censured. To combat future attacks from Augustine and the Latin biblical scholar Jerome he wrote his De libero arbitrio («On Free Will») in 416, which brought about his condemnation by two African councils. Both he and Caelestius were considered for condemnations and excommunication by Pope Innocent I, but Innocent’s successor Zosimus first pronounced Pelegius innocent on the basis of his Libellus fidei («Brief Statement of Faith»), but reconsidered after the investigation was renewed by the council of Carthage in 418. Zosimus confirmed the councils nine canons condemning Pelagius. There is no further information concerning Pelagius after this date.

However, Pelagius is remembered for trying to free mankind from the guilt of Adam. He and his followers remind us once again that in the early history of the Church there were dissenters. «The great German theologian Karl Barth a few years ago described British Christianity as «incurably Pelagian.» The rugged individualism of the Celtic monk, his conviction that each person is free to choose between good and evil. And his insistence that faith must be practical as well as spiritual remain hallmarks of Christians in Britain.

An the British imagination has remained rooted in nature, witnessed by the pastoral poetry and landscape panting in which Britain excels, indeed that peculiar British obsession with gardening is Celtic in origin. Visitors to the British Isles are often shocked at how few people attend church each Sunday. Yet to the Britons, church-goers as well as absentees, the primary test of faith is not religious observance, but daily behavour towards our neighbours—and towards one’s pets, livestock and plants.» A.G.H.

Sources: 54, 23-24; 55, 386; 464-465;