Pelagianism and Apologetics for Today

Pelagianism is a heresy that began in the 4th century, denying original sin and the necessity of grace. Pelagianism bares the name of moralist and theologian, Pelagius. While little is actually known about Pelagius we can come to understand his teachings from letters and books by his opponents: Augustine, Jerome, and others. It is thought that Pelagius is from Britain or Ireland although he spent much of his adult life in Rome and Palestine. Although he wasn’t a priest he was viewed as a learned and holy man. As a theologian he was concerned with man’s nature, relationship to God, and his moral obligation. Pelagius was well versed in Greek and Latin. He was well read in regard to the works of Augustine, Jerome, Rufinus, and Origen. In fact, it was from Augustine’s book Free Choice (written between 388-395) that Pelagius got many of his ideas and thoughts regarding free will and the nature of man. Pelagius was a strong opponent of the Manicheans, arguing with Augustine against their determinism and fatalism, while in Rome from 380-411 AD. After the destruction of Rome in 410 he briefly stopped in Northern Africa. From there he went to Palestine where his views were more accepted, until confrontations arose with Jerome. Jerome saw Pelagius’ beliefs as extensions of those of Origen and Rufinus. Jerome argued vehemently against Pelagius concerning his viewpoints of man’s capacity of sinlessness apart from Christ.

It was Pelagius’s debates with the Manicheans and reading the works of Augustine that he began taking the free will of man and meritorious salvation to an extreme. He started espousing his beliefs that: 1) Adam was mortal and thus would have died regardless of his sin. 2) Sin is not passed through the seed of Adam, but rather passed through man’s imitation of him. Adam’s sin harmed only himself, not the human race. 3) Children at birth are in the same state as Adam before his fall. 4) Christ sets an example for us to follow in being obedient to the Lord and following His law. Humans are not infused with righteousness, grace works externally not internally. Grace exists only externally, such as giving us examples and guides to follow e.g. in the Old Testament, the commandments and the example set forth by Moses, and in the New Testament, the new law and example set forth by Jesus Christ. The fact that God gave man free will was a grace in and of itself. 5) Man can achieve salvation apart from God by his own merits. 6) Man can be sinless apart from Christ, as was done in the Old Testament by following the commandments of God.

Denying original sin led to Pelagius’s logical conclusion that infant baptism was unnecessary. Baptism was necessary only for adults in that it removed their “personal” sin. It did not remove the sin of one’s parents. Pelagius denied that grace was infused at baptism. It was the Catholic belief then as it is now that at Baptism (see BAPTISM) one’s original and actual sins are forgiven (CCC no. 1263). It is then that grace is infused into the newly baptized, and now with this grace one is inclined towards good (God), not evil. (CCC no. 1265-1266) Augustine, whom debated the necessity of baptism earlier with the Donatists, was alarmed and wrote against Pelagianist thinking.

Pelagius wrote many letters and works. Two of the most significant are his commentary on Paul and his book entitled On Nature in 415AD. On Nature prompted a book in response by Augustine in the same year entitled On Nature and Grace. This was partly written because of the statements Pelagius made opposing grace in addition to denying original sin, and partly because he used orthodox scholars such as Augustine in defending them. Augustine labeled Pelagius’s opinions, “evil views by which the coming of the Savior is made void.” (Aug., EP. 186.2) Four bishops highlighted the parts they felt heretical and sent the copy to Pope Innocent I. For the next three years (415-418) the controversy over Pelagiansim intensified. Also during this period that the doctrine of original sin (CCC no. 396-412) and the necessity of grace became ever more defined. During these years the Pelagians committed the gravest error in not submitting to the doctrinal decisions of the Church. In 415 Pelagius was called to the Synod of Diospolis. He was acquitted there due to his clever rhetoric as well as blaming certain accusations on his friend Caelestius. His acquittal distressed the bishops of North Africa who then called two synods simultaneously depending on the local region, one at Carthage and the other at Mileve. Both synods rejected the views of Pelagius and Caelestius. Both synods wrote to Innocent I requesting his approval. In 417 Innocent I defined the Church’s teaching on original sin and grace as well as excluding Pelagius and Ceaelestius from communion until they submitted to the Church’s doctrinal assertions. Innocent I died shortly after, and Zosimus succeeded him. Zosimus reopened the Pelagain controversy, willing to hear arguments on both sides. After the insistence of the African bishops, Zosimus commanded a joint investigation of the matter, the Council of Carthage. In eight of its canons this council named Pelagianism a heresy. Among them were:

  • Death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin.
  • New-Born children must be baptized on account of original sin.
  • Justifying grace not only avails for the forgiveness of past sins, but also gives assistance for the avoidance of future sins.
  • The grace of Christ not only discloses the knowledge of God’s commandments, but also imparts strength to will and execute them.
  • Without God’s grace it is not merely more difficult, but absolutely impossible to perform good works.       Condemned by two popes Pelagians were then forced from Italy by the Emperor.   The Pelagian debate did not end with the Council of Carthage. The dispute continued between St. Augustine and Julian of Eclanum from 419-428. Julian was one of several bishops who refused to agree with the Pope and the Church by refusing to sign the papal decree (Epistola tractoria) which spelled out the controversy and condemned Pelagianism. Pelagianism was defeated in the West, but it was yet to be tackled in the East until the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) repeated the condemnation pronounced at Carthage.


Semi-Pelagianists take a middle of the road approach between Augustianism on the one hand and Pelagianism on the other. They taught that man was capable of making an initial act of faith, without divine grace, in that way attaining justification before God. God would look at man’s merit and then send His supernatural grace, as argued Abbot John Cassian. Cassian used biblical examples such as Zacchaeus and the Good Thief to make his point. Augustine responded citing St. Paul (1 Cor.,4:7), “thinking that the faith, but which we believe in God, is not the gift of God, but is in us of ourselves, and that through it we obtain the gifts whereby we may live temperately, justly, and piously in this world.” He said that grace preceding faith must be an interior awakening and strengthening. Grace must proceed faith.

Augustine died in 430 leaving his disciples Hilarius and Prosper to carry on the fight against semi-pelagianism. Prosper especially defended Augustine and his views tirelessly. The debate raged on for the next hundred years until it finally was addressed at the Second Synod of Orange where it was condemned as a heresy. In twenty-five canons the Synod defined doctrines such as the necessity of grace at the beginning of faith and final perseverance. Pope Boniface II ratified the decrees in 530 making the synod an ecumenical council and condemning semi-pelagianism as a heresy. Augustine had won.

Apologetic Treatment

The ideas of grace, original sin, free will, predestination, merits, works, and faith between Pelagius and Augustine would resurface during the Reformation. The Reformers would interpret Augustinian principles incorrectly in defending their positions. Because Augustine argued for original sin and the necessity of grace they assumed that man’s free will and freedom, while they were so corrupted and tainted, made it impossible for man to cooperate with God. We have a choice, but we will choose the evil every time. Or, as a contemporary evangelical R.C. Sproul puts it, “The state of original sin leaves us in the wretched condition of being unable to refrain from sinning. We still are able to choose what we desire, but our desires remain chained by our evil impulses (“Augustine and Pelagius”,” Because of this, salvation must be by “faith alone”. Augustine repudiated this exact charge in his work, “On Grace and Freewill.”

Catholics are often accused by their critics of Pelagianism. They claim Catholicism is a works-based theology which believes man can merit heaven apart from God. Catholics do not believe that man can merit heaven. Catholics believe in grace alone and under this umbrella of grace comes faith working through love. Humans must cooperate with this grace of God’s. Furthermore, Catholics need to defend their faith by holding up the Doctor of Grace, Augustine, and show that not only is he Catholic, but a representative of the Catholic Church. “Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due….Our merits are God’s gifts (Aug., Sermo 298, 4-5: PL 38, 136).” See COUNCIL OF ORANGE Canon 7 and COUNCIL OF TRENT (1545-63) Chapter 5.

Augustine, whom earlier in his life had argued for the free will of man, argued for the necessity of grace by God during the Pelagian controversy. Catholic objectors contend Augustine changed his position from a convert who believed in meritorious salvation to a wiser Bishop who now understood that salvation was due to God’s grace and not man’s own merits. Calvinist theologians used the works of Augustine during the Pelagian controversy in defending their beliefs. In fact, Jean Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other in defending his beliefs of total depravity, irresistible grace, predestination, and the perseverance of saints. Calvinists even assume Augustine to be arguing for “total depravity” as he argues against Pelagius for original sin. Calvin defined total depravity as the absolute corruption of man. Man is 100% evil and it is by the grace of God that one is saved. Augustine did not believe, nor did he ever argue for, a total depravity viewpoint. In arguing against Pelagius, Augustine argued that at birth man was inclined to do evil, but not inherently, 100% evil (CCC no. 405). Pelagius argued, on the other hand, that God was a just God and so would not condemn someone for the sin of another. He thought that man was totally good, as was Adam in the garden before the fall, and man had the free will to be perfect, as well as to remain sinless or fall into sin, as did Adam.  One who studies Augustine will learn that he does not believe or write two mutually exclusive series of works. Rather there is a unity in thought in Augustian thinking as there is a unity in doctrine within the Catholic Church. He argued against both the Manchinean’s predestination alone, and against the free will alone of the Pelagians. He is arguing for a both/ and approach to the matter; man cooperates with God in attaining salvation, but it begins with God choosing us.

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