From New World Encyclopedia

Pelagius (ca. 354 - ca. 420/440) was an ascetic monk, theologian and reformer from the British Isles who taught that human beings were free and had to take responsibility for their own salvation. He represented Celtic Christianity which was more closely connected to the eastern rather than the western Church. Pelagius insisted that man’s moral nature was basically good, that sin was a willful act against God, and that man was responsible to voluntarily choose those actions which would promote his spiritual development. Salvation was based on individual merit although the forgiveness of sins was an unmerited act of divine grace. Christ was seen as a moral exemplar to be emulated. His ideas came to be known as Pelagianism.

The rigorous ascetic life of his adherents contrasted with the spiritual laxity of many Roman Christians. Pelagius attributed the moral irresponsibility in Rome to the doctrine of divine grace propounded by Augustine of Hippo. He was equally disturbed at the apparent infiltration of Manichaean pessimism into the Church.

Pelagius' friendship with the eastern Bishop John of Jerusalem helped him to defend himself against charges of heresy. Augustine had published a series of books criticizing Pelagian ideas and in reaction developed his own theology of original sin and grace. In fact without Pelagius it is doubtful if the doctrine of original sin would have become so prominent in western Christianity. Eventually Pelagius was denounced as a heretic at the Council of Carthage in 418. The Pope condemned Pelagianism and the Pelagians were expelled from Rome.

Pelagianism continued in Britain and several times emissaries were dispatched there from Rome to combat it. Karl Barth described Britain as incurably Pelagian [1] and F.F. Bruce described Pelagianism as the 'British heresy'. It resurfaced in the English emphasis on individual freedom, voluntary self help groups, as well as the perfectionism of Methodism. Pelagian and semi-Pelagian ideas resurfaced again and again throughout Christian history through liberal thinkers such as Erasmus. Pelagius and Augustine represented two poles within Christianity, and the western church was poorer for trying to suppress Pelagianism.


Pelagius was born c. 354. It is commonly agreed that he was born in the British Isles, but beyond that, his birthplace is not known. He was well educated, fluent in both Greek and Latin, and a learned theologian. He practiced asceticism and was referred to as a "monk" by his contemporaries, though there is no evidence that he was associated with any monastic order (the idea of monastic communities was still quite new during his lifetime) or that he was ordained to the priesthood. He became better known around 380 C.E. when he moved to Rome to write and teach about his ascetic practices, modeled after the [[|Stoicism|Stoic]]s. He attracted a large following with his optimistic teaching that Jesus intended the Sermon on the Mount to be lived and practiced as a way of life.

Nothing impossible has been commanded by the God of justice and majesty…. Why do we indulge in pointless evasions, advancing the frailty of our own nature as an objection to the one who commands us? No one knows better the true measure of our strength than he who has given it to us nor does anyone understand better how much we are able to do than he who has given us this very capacity of ours to be able; nor has he who is just wished to command anything impossible or he who is good intended to condemn a man for doing what he could not avoid doing." [2]

He also encouraged women to study the scriptures. Pelagius' desire to educate women grew from his conviction that God's image is found in every person including women. In Rome he wrote several of his major works, "De fide Trinitatis libri III," "Eclogarum ex divinis Scripturis liber primus," and "Commentarii in epistolas S. Pauli," a commentary of Paul's Epistles. Most of his work survives only in fragments cited in the works of his opponents.

Pelagius was concerned about the moral laxity of Roman Christians, a laxity which he blamed on the doctrine of divine grace preached by Augustine and others. It is said that, around 405, Pelagius heard a quotation from Augustine's work, Confessions, “Give me what You command and command what You will.” It seemed to Pelagius from this text that Augustine was teaching doctrine contrary to traditional Christian understanding of grace and free will, and undermining free will and responsibility.

When Alaric sacked Rome in 410, Pelagius and his close follower Caelestius fled to Carthage where he continued his work and may have briefly encountered Saint Augustine in person.

Saint Augustine

Pelagianism spread quickly, especially around Carthage, provoking a strong reaction from his opponents. St. Augustine devoted four letters specifically to Pelagianism, "De peccatorum meritis et remissione libri III" (On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins Book III) in 412, "De spiritu et litera" (On the Spirit and the Letter) and "Definitiones Caelestii" (The Heavenly Definitions) in 414, and "De natura et gratia" (On Nature and Grace) in 415. In them he strongly asserted the up until then undeveloped doctrine of original sin, the need for infant baptism, the impossibility of a sinless life without Christ, and the necessity of Christ's grace. Saint Augustine's works were intended for the education of the common people and did not address Pelagius or Caelestius by name.


Pelagius soon went to Palestine and befriended Bishop John of Jerusalem. Jerome who often became involved in personal disputes wrote against Pelagius in his letter to Ctesiphon and "Dialogus contra Pelagianos." With Jerome in Palestine was Orosius, a visiting pupil of Augustine with a similar apprehension of the dangers of Pelagianism. Together they publicly condemned Pelagius. Bishop John called a council in July 415. Church sources claim that Orosius' lack of fluency in Greek rendered him unconvincing, and John's Eastern background made him more willing to accept that humans did not have inherent guilt. The council did not arrive at a verdict and referred the decision to a Latin church because Pelagius, Jerome, and Orosius were all Latin.

A few months later, in December of 415, another synod formed in Diospolis (Lydda) under a Caesarean bishop and initiated by two deposed bishops who came to Palestine. However neither bishop attended, for unrelated reasons, and Orosius had left Palestine after being persecuted by Bishop John. Pelagius explained to the synod that he did believe God was necessary for salvation because every human is created by God and claimed that many works of Celestius did not represent his own views. He also showed letters of recommendation by other authoritative figures including Augustine himself who, for all their disagreements, thought highly of Pelagius' character.

The Synod of Diospolis therefore concluded: "Now since we have received satisfaction in respect of the charges brought against the monk Pelagius in his presence and since he gives his assent to sound doctrines but condemns and anathematises those contrary to the faith of the Church, we adjudge him to belong to the communion of the Catholic Church."

Pope Innocent I

When Orosius returned to Carthage, two local synods formed and condemned Pelagius and Celestius in absentia. Because the synods did not have complete authority unless approved by the papacy, Augustine and four other bishops wrote a letter urging Pope Innocent I to likewise condemn Pelagianism. Innocent I agreed without much persuasion, but Pelagius' own guilt in the eyes of the Church was undecided. Pelagius sent Innocent I a letter and statement of belief demonstrating that he was orthodox, and articulating his beliefs so that they did not correspond to the doctrine which had been formally condemned. Pope Zosimus, a Greek by birth, who had entered the office by the time the letter reached Rome in 417, was duly impressed and declared Pelagius innocent.

Saint Augustine, shocked that Pelagius and Celestius were not judged to be followers of heresy, called the Council of Carthage in 418 and clearly stated nine beliefs of the Church that he claimed Pelagianism denied:

  1. Death came from sin, not man's physical nature.
  2. Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin.
  3. Justifying grace covers past sins and helps avoid future sins.
  4. The grace of Christ imparts strength and will to act out God's commandments.
  5. No good works can come without God's grace.
  6. We confess we are sinners because it is true, not from humility.
  7. The saints ask for forgiveness for their own sins.
  8. The saints also confess to be sinners because they are.
  9. Children dying without baptism are excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life.

Every canon was accepted as a universal belief of the Church and all Pelagians were banished from Italy.

Pelagius and the Doctrine of Free Will

After his acquittal in Diospolis, Pelagius wrote two major treatises which are no longer extant, "On Nature" and "Defense Of The Freedom Of The Will." In these, he defended his position on sin and sinlessness, and accused Augustine of being under the influence of Manicheanism by elevating evil to the same status as God and teaching pagan fatalism as if it were a Christian doctrine. Augustine had been converted to Christianity from the religion of Manicheanism, which held that the spirit was created by God, while the flesh was corrupt and evil, since it had not been created directly by God. Pelagius argued that the doctrine that humans went to hell for doing what they could not avoid (sin) was tantamount to the Manichean belief in fatalism and predestination, and took away all of mankind's free will. Pelagius and his followers saw remnants of this fatalistic belief in Augustine's teachings on the Fall of Adam. The belief that mankind can avoid sinning, and can freely choose to obey God's commandments, stands at the core of Pelagian teaching.

An illustration of Pelagius' views on man's "moral ability" to avoid sin can be found in his Letter to Demetrias. He was in Palestine when, in 413, he received a letter from the renowned Anician family in Rome. One of the aristocratic ladies who had been among his followers wrote to a number of eminent Western theologians, including Jerome and possibly Augustine, for moral advice for her 14-year-old daughter, Demetrias. Pelagius used his reply to argue his case for morality, stressing his views of natural sanctity and man's moral capacity to choose to live a holy life. It is perhaps the only extant writing in Pelagius' own hand; ironically, for centuries it was thought to be authored by Jerome, though Augustine himself references it in his work, "On the Grace of Christ."


Pelagius probably died in Palestine around 420, though some mention him living as many as 20 years later. The cause of his death is unknown; it is suggested that he may have been killed by his enemies in the Catholic Church, or that he left Rome in frustration and went to North Africa or the Middle East.

Thought and Influence

The name of Pelagius has been maligned and used as an epithet for centuries by both Protestants and Catholics, with few to defend him; therefore it is difficult to form an objective view of Pelagius and his influence. The Roman Catholic Church officially denounced his doctrines, yet the Reformation accused Catholics of succumbing to his ideas, and condemned both Pelagius and the Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church is silent on the subject. Pelagius remains an icon for his articulation of an alternative theology of sin and salvation. In many ways his thought sounds very modern and liberal.

You will realise that doctrines are the invention of the human mind, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. You will realise that scripture itself is the work of human recording the example and teaching of Jesus. Thus it is not what you believe (in your head) that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters, but becoming like him.

So in evaluating his influence it is important to remember that the only record of Pelagius’ life and his teachings comes from the works of his opponents.

Belief in Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism was common for the next few centuries, especially in Britain, Palestine and North Africa. Those who came after Pelagius may have modified his teachings; since his original writings have been preserved only in the commentary of his opponents, it is possible that some of his doctrines were revised or suppressed by the followers of Saint Augustine and the leadership of the Church.

Possible Influences on Pelagius

Pelagius and Pelagianism may have been influenced by both Pelagius' Celtic ancestry and his Greek education. The British Isles, especially Ireland, were at that time the most significant centers of Greek language and culture in western Europe, celebrating Easter according to the Greek calendar. The Eastern Orthodox Churches differed on many points with the Latin Churches. They believed that Adam and Eve were created immature and that their fall was not predestined. They also believed that human beings had the capacity to make moral choices and were held to account for those choices. For example:

Justin Martyr said, “Every created being is so constituted as to be capable of vice and virtue. For he can do nothing praiseworthy, if he had not the power of turning either way.” And “unless we suppose man has the power to choose the good and refuse the evil, no one can be accountable for any action whatever.”[3]

Clement of Alexandria said, “Neither promises nor apprehensions, rewards, no punishments are just if the soul has not the power of choosing and abstaining; if evil is involuntary.” [4]

Irenaeus said, “’Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds’…And ‘Why call me, Lord, Lord, and do not do the things that I say?’…All such passages demonstrate the independent will of man…For it is in man’s power to disobey God and to forfeit what is good.” [5]

Pelagius claimed that he was merely teaching the traditional faith of the church. He challenged Christians to feel responsible for their individual actions instead of claiming that it was impossible because they were born with original sin. Celtic paganism championed a human's ability to triumph even over the supernatural, and Pelagius may have applied this concept to sin. Greek Stoicism is said to have influenced his ascetic lifestyle.

Pelagius and Augustine

The conflict between Pelagius and Augustine is one of the great struggles of church history, and one which has repeated itself several times. As early as the New Testament there was tension between Paul and the writers of the “catholic” Letters (James 2:14); a similar conflict occurred between Thomas Aquinas and the Franciscans, and between Karl Barth and present-day liberals. The main problem is the definition of human freedom, and the relationship between religion and ethics.

Pelagius was not an isolated heretic; his doctrines reflected the views of those who had been educated in Greek thought, especially in Stoic traditions, which consider freedom as the essential nature of man. As a rational being, man has the freedom to make comparisons and choices. Most of the Eastern church espoused exactly the same concept of freedom, but Pelagius developed it in a way that brought him into conflict with Augustine.

The Pelagian Controversy and the Theory of Augustine

  • Free Will

During his lifetime, Augustine fought two systems of ideas that he considered to be heresy. One was Manicheanism, a form of fatalism which upheld the total sovereignty of God and denied human freedom that he believed in as a young man but later renounced; the other was Pelagianism, which emphasized the freedom of human will while limiting the sovereignty of God. Although freedom and responsibility are important ideas especially in the Old Testament, the term “free will” is not found in the Bible. It is derived from Stoicism and was introduced into western Christianity by Tertullian (second century B.C.E.). Augustine tried to give the term a more Pauline meaning by emphasizing the limitations which sin places on free will. Augustine affirmed natural human freedom; humans do not act out of necessity, but out of choice. However, human free will has been weakened and incapacitated (but not destroyed) by sin. Natural human freedom can only be restored by the operation of divine grace.

  • Human Freedom

Augustine believed that fallen man still has a free will (liberium arbitrium) but has lost his moral liberty (libertas). This state of original sin leaves people unable to refrain from sinning. People can still choose what they desire, but their desires remain chained by evil impulses. The freedom that remains in the will always leads to sin. For Augustine man cannot move or incline himself to God. On the contrary, the initial work of divine grace by which the soul is liberated from the bondage of sin is sovereign and operative. It is possible to cooperate with this grace, but only after the initial divine work of liberation.

Pelagius believed that when God created man he did not subject him, like other creatures, to the law of nature but gave him the unique privilege of accomplishing the divine will by his own choice. This possibility of freely choosing the good entails the possibility of choosing evil. Thus people were capable of overcoming temptation and were therefore responsible for their sins. Pelagius stressed a person's ability to take the initial steps toward salvation by their own efforts, apart from any special grace. There was no need for divine grace in the sense understood by Augustine. (Pelagius had a different concept of grace).

  • The Nature of Sin

Augustine taught that due to the fall human beings were a massa peccati, a "mess of sin," incapable of raising themselves from spiritual death. Humanity had been universally affected by sin as a consequence of the fall, and that the human will had been weakened and deformed. Augustine compared original sin to a disease, to a power and to guilt. Sin was a hereditary disease, passed from one generation to another, and Christ was the divine physician. Sin was a power which held mankind in a captivity from which only Christ, the source of grace which breaks this power, could liberate it. The third concept of guilt which was inherited by one generation from another was essentially a legal concept, influenced by the emphasis on law of the later Roman Empire in which Augustine lived.

Pelagius had a different understanding of the nature of sin. Human beings were always capable of discharging their obligations towards God and their fellow men. The failure to do so could not be excused on any grounds. Sin was an act willfully committed against God; people were born sinless and sin came about through deliberate actions. Pelagius held that many Old Testament figures had actually remained sinless, and believed that only those who were morally upright could be allowed to enter the church.

  • The Nature of Grace

One of Augustine’s favorite Bible texts was John 15:5, “apart from Me you can do nothing.” According to Augustine, grace was God’s generous and unmerited attention to humanity, by which the process of healing might begin. Pelagius understood grace as free will itself and the revelation of God's law through reason. With the ignorance and confusion due to sin additional external grace is provided by God such as the law of Moses and teaching and example of Jesus.

  • The Basis of Salvation

Augustine viewed even the good works and actions of human beings as the result of God working within fallen human nature. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is enabled to deal with fallen humanity. Augustine’s commentary on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-10) indicates that an individual is rewarded by God according to the promise made to that individual. Pelagius argued that God rewards each individual strictly on the basis of merit, and spoke of salvation in Christ only in the sense of salvation through imitating the example of Christ. Though Augustinianism became dominant in western theological tradition, Pelagianism continued to influence many Christian writers.

Pelagius in Literature and Film

The Pelagius Book by Paul Morgan is a historical novel presenting Pelagius as a gentle humanist who emphasizes individual responsibility in contrast to Augustine's fierce fatalism].

Pelagius is referred to in Stephen Lawhead's historical fantasy, The Black Rood - The Celtic Crusades Book II. and makes an appearance in Patrick the historical novel by the same author where he has a discussion with the Anglo-Irish saint.

Pelagius is frequently referred to in Jack Whyte's series of science fiction and fantasy tales, building on the King Arthur legends, known as A Dream of Eagles, where a major character's belief in Pelagius' ideas of Free Will and the laxity of the Roman Catholic Church eventually cause him to come into conflict with Church representatives.

Curiously, Pelagius was the macguffin in the 2004 Adventure and Action movie “King Arthur.” Although not a major character, he is portrayed as the mentor of young Lucius Artorius Castus, or Arthur. Upon hearing of Pelagius's murder in Rome, Arthur's affection for the monk leads him to break off loyalty with the Roman Empire and help the Britons fight the Saxon invaders.


  1. [1].aislingmagazine. Retrieved March 4 2008.
  2. (B. R. Rees. The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers. The Boydell Press), 53-54
  3. (Doctrine of the Will by Asa Mahan, 61, published by Truth in Heart)
  4. (Doctrine of the Will by Asa Mahan, 63, published by Truth in Heart)
  5. (c. 180, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. by David Bercot, 287, published by Hendrickson Publishers)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Pelagius; Rees, B. R. Pelagius: Life and Letters. Boydell Press, 2004. ISBN 0851157149
  • Augustin (Saint Augustin). The Proceedings of Pelagius. reprint Kessinger Publishing, 2005
  • Davies, Oliver and Thomas O'Loughlin, Eds. Celtic Spirituality. (Classics of Western Spirituality). Paulist Press, 2000. ISBN 0809105055
  • Ferguson, John. Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study. Ams Pr Inc; 1st AMS ed edition, 1977.
  • Pelagius: De Bruyn, Theodore (Translator), Pelagius's Commentary on St Paul's Epistle to the Romans. (Oxford Early Christian Studies). Oxford University Press, USA; Reprint edition, 1998. ISBN 0198269803

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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