THE “BY-YOUR-OWN-BOOTSTRAPS” HERETIC
By KARL KEATING
BEGINNING his life with the given name of Morgan, this future heresiarch was known by the Romans as "the man of the sea," Pelagius. He was born in
Jerome, perhaps in anticipation of Samuel Johnson's ribbing of James Boswell's national origin, ridiculed Pelagius as a Scot who, "stuffed with Scottish porridge" ( "Scotorum pultibus praegravatus"), suffered from a weak memory. It may have been that the "Scots" of those days were really the Irish, in which case Pelagius's true home is to be found in
Pelagius was tall and fat ( "grandis et corpulentus," said Jerome) and was well educated, speaking and writing both Latin and Greek well; although extremely polemical in nature, he was trenchant and concise as a writer. Never a priest, he was a monk devoted to practical asceticism. In
Beyond this, little is known of his early years. He came to
For his part, Pelagius traveled on to
In Jerusalem Pelagius became friends with the bishop, John, who befriended him against accusations by Orosius and some Latin exiles. At this time Pelagius was a leader of the Origenist party in
In 415 charges were brought against him at Diospolis, the ancient city of
Pelagius distanced himself from Caelestius, who was less the politician, and spoke in terms of a theoretical, as distinguished from a practical, possibility of impeccability, and he either denied teaching the more clearly heretical doctrines or offered orthodox explanations. (Yet Augus-tine quotes Pelagius as saying, "I teach that it is possible for men to live without sin"--a blunt, unequivocal line.)
Pelagius was helped by the fact that his accusers failed to show up for the hearing, and he "turn[ed] to his advantage the inexperience of Easterners for whom these problems were quite new and strange." [Jean Danielou and Henri Marrou, The First Six Hundred Years (New York: Paulist Press, 1964), 403]. Thus he avoided condemnation at Diospolis. After his acquittal, which his supporters took to be a vindication of his theses themselves, Pelagius wrote Chartula defensionis, a self-justifying piece, which a deacon from Hippo, Carus, sent to Augustine. The great duel was joined.
Before considering further the interplay of the personalities, we should examine in more detail Pelagius's theological system. Much of its appeal lay in Pelagius's zeal: "[H]e set to work preaching against the lukewarm morality that had entered so many Christian circles. Soon the stricter Christians were flocking to his sermons." [Walter Nigg, The Heretics (1962; reprint,
The moral attractiveness was joined with another kind, the denial of original sin. "Pelagianism was based on a very respectable moral rigorism, but its anxiety to champion man's free will and to urge him on to sanctity resulted in its denying original sin and the necessity of divine grace: For the Pelagian, access to the Kingdom is made possible by baptism, and since perfect sanctity is an obligation and a possibility for everyone, it rests with each individual Christian to merit eternal life by his conduct, modeled on the precepts and example of Christ." [Jean-Remy Palanaque, The Dawn of the Middle Ages (New York: Hawthorn, 1960), 36-37].
According to Pelagius the human will is free and is equally capable of choosing good or evil: "God, desiring to endow the rational creature with the function of voluntary goodness and the power of free will, and by implanting in man the possibility of both, makes it man's special character that he wills, so that he is naturally capable of both good and evil, and he may be inclined to the willing of either." [Pelagius, Epistula ad Demetriandem 3].
This freedom would be destroyed if the will were inclined to evil for any reason (or to good, for that matter). Grace is entirely external and merely facilitates what the will can do on its own. Grace is a help, not a necessity.
From such considerations Pelagius drew certain conclusions.
Adam's sin was purely personal, and it therefore would have been unjust for God to punish the entire human race for Adam's sin. Since God is not unjust, he did not so punish us, and this suggests death is not a punishment handed down from the first man, but is a necessary part of human nature. It would have been with us even if Adam had not sinned. Other disabilities conventionally associated with Adam's sin could not have been imposed as punishments, and this meant there could have been no primitive paradise because Adam's personal sin could not have lost it, and concupiscence, the existence of which Pelagius did not deny, must have been part of the human make-up from the first. In this Pelagius agreed with Julian of Eclanum, who, reported Augustine, claimed that concupiscence was created by God together with the body and that only a Manichaean would see it as an evil and a consequence of sin. [Augustine, Contra Julianum 2:71].
Since Adam's sin was personal, argued Pelagius, everyone is born sinless, there being no such thing as original sin. (In modern parlance, we are all immaculately conceived.) This makes infant baptism useless; a child, being incapable of sin, needs no washing away of sin, and an infant who dies goes immediately to heaven. Baptism should be reserved for adults.
Then why, one might ask, is sin so prevalent? Pelagius speculated that, from childhood, we contract the habit of sinning and this habit become second nature. The newborn child is as pure as Adam and Eve at their creation, but, as he advances in age, the child learns to sin from those around him. Specifically, he learns from the bad examples of his elders, and then he becomes a bad example himself. If he were isolated from the "contagion," he could grow into a sinless adult, but no one grows up in complete isolation. Pelagius's problem, wrote a historian of dogmas, is that "[h]e saw only guilty individuals, not a whole sinful human race." [Joseph Tixeront, History of Dogmas (1914; reprint,
Since the human race does not labor under original sin or any other consequences of the Fall (since the Fall affected only Adam and Eve), there was no need for a redemption as such--there was nothing to be redeemed from. Why did Christ come then? To give us an example, to be a role model. Adam was the bad role model, Christ the good.
Even before Christ there were men who lived sinless lives, said Pelagius. This seems to be a necessary, even an inescapable, consequence of his teaching. It would hardly do to say that, although men always have been able to live sinlessly, not a single one has. Pelagius does not seem to have claimed that any particular individuals after the appearance of Christ lived sinless lives--at least he did not make that claim for himself. Anyway, if sinlessness had occurred before the time of Christ, it could be the state of mankind again.
From what Catholic historian Newman Eberhardt has indicated, it would seem that Pelagius would not have been the confessor of choice for many people: "As spiritual director, he became tired of hearing men excuse themselves for sin and tepidity on the plea of human frailty. To such alibis he gradually developed the retort that these were but excuses for indolence [and that] every man is quite capable of perfection by his own efforts provided that he only apply them to action." [Newman Eberhardt, A Summary of Catholic History (St. Louis: Herder, 1961), 1:231]. Here we have a foreshadowing, perhaps, of today's "power of positive thinking."
The upshot of this system was the elimination of any need for grace. God takes no active role in human salvation, since men do not need his grace; he is, instead, something of a spectator, watching the human drama from afar but not involving himself in it after setting it on its course. We see in Pelagianism a kind of early Deism: The divine clock maker winds up the universe and then leaves it alone.
Pelagius lived in an era when grace was still vague and undefined. Not even another millennium proved to be enough time for the doctrine of grace to be worked out fully--consider the seventeenth-century heresy of Jansenism, merely one example of continuing confusions. In Pelagius's time it was generally understood that some sort of assistance was necessary for salvation and was given freely by God, but the nature of that assistance had not been thought out rigorously. Pelagius thought about it and concluded the assistance did not exist.
To Caelestius must go much of the credit (or blame, however one sees it) for the spread of Pelagianism. Without him the heresy may have been short-lived and of modest effect. An untiring propagandist, he was its principal exponent. Even though his real position was demonstrated in debates as early as 411 by adversaries such as Paulinus, Caelestius's position advanced. [Fernand Mourret, History of the Catholic Church (St. Louis: Herder, 1935), 2:514]. He tried to transform the practical maxims learned from Pelagius into theoretical principles, and it was these he propagated.
The battle against Pelagianism was waged on several fronts. The greatest champion of the orthodox cause was Augustine, [Augustine wrote "innumerable refutations of the Pelagian heresy--15 treatises, amounting in all to 35 books, excluding letters and sermons." Danielou and Marrou, 402], whose territory Pelagius and Caelestius had invaded on leaving the sacked capital. In 412 Augustine wrote two works, De peccatorum meritis and De spiritu et littera, which emphasized that man's will had been weakened through original sin and that that weakness made necessary God's help. In 417 Augustine wrote an account of the council of Diospolis and showed that Pelagius had been forced to disavow some of what Caelestius had been teaching.
Augustine's position may be summarized this way: God created our first parents in a state of innocence and gave them super- and preternatural gifts, including infused knowledge and freedom from death and illness. They were "able not to sin." Despite these advantages, man fell, and by falling he lost the gifts. His state degenerated to one in which he was "not able not to sin." His redemption would come only with the Savior, the New Adam, who, being at once God and man, was "not able to sin."
Another opponent of Pelagianism was Orosius, a young Spanish priest sent by Augustine to
That very year Jerome--probably an octogenarian, but "still full of fire" [Warren Carroll, The Building of Christendom (Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press, 1987), 86]--entered the fray with two treatises against Pelagius and his followers: one a letter to
When the bishops of
The struggle with Pelagianism then entered its Roman phase. In March 417 Innocent died. His successor was Zosimus. After reading Pelagius's profession of faith, he restored him to unity with the Church. As for Caelestius, the Pope wrote to the bishops of
The African bishops met in synod in November and composed a letter to Zosimus, asking him to withhold final disposition of the case until Pelagius and Caelestius had confessed the necessity of grace. By a rescript issued the next March, Zosimus said he had not yet pronounced definitively, [This shows what his intentions were regarding whether the earlier letter was an exercise in infallibility--it could not have been, if Zosimus claimed not to be teaching definitively], and he forwarded to Africa all documents bearing on Pelagianism so a new investigation could be made. There followed a council at
When the acts of the council were forwarded to Zosimus, he confirmed them in a letter in which he gave a summary of Pelagianism's history and errors and in which he renewed the excommunication of Pelagius and Caelestius. He ordered all bishops of the Church to sign the letter. When Theodotus, patriarch of
After 418 the leader of the Pelagians was Julian, bishop of Eclanum. "A formidable dialectician and of a pugnacious turn of mind," [Danielou and Marrou, 404], he and 17 other bishops of
The two exchanged salvos repeatedly. Julian concluded that orthodoxy, as defined by Augustine and Zosimus, "represented a crude form of pietism, from which he must rescue Christianity at all costs, if it was to keep hold of cultivated people." [B. J. Kidd, A History of the Church to A.D. 461 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922), 3:124]. Dismissing his opponents in general as "uneducated and stupid" and Augustine as "that Punic preacher, dullest and most stupid of men," [Ibid. 3:128], Julian, after being driven from Roman territory, found refuge in
Pelagianism was not finally crushed in the East until the ecumenical Council of Ephesus, held in 431, confirmed the condemnation pronounced by the Western bishops. After
Semi-Pelagianism did not arise only at the end of the struggle. Augustine had to deal with it a century earlier than did the bishops at
If it can be said that some good arises out of every evil, the good that arose out of Pelagianism was a study of original sin and the Redemption and the affirmation that salvation is entirely gratuitous, that man can do nothing to earn salvation. Moderns are apt to regard original sin as an outmoded consideration of theology, but this attitude is by no means new. (It may, though, be peculiar to our culture as a generalized motif ["Pelagianism was--many say still is--a heresy of a Western type which could not have happened in the East." David Christie-Murray, A History of Heresy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 87]. More than three centuries ago Pascal noted that "undoubtedly nothing offends us more than this doctrine. And yet without this obscurest of all mysteries, we are the greatest of enigmas to ourselves." [Blaise Pascal, Pensees, fragment 443]