Although he is one of the most famous Christian heretics, very little is actually known about Pelagius. He left us with relatively few theological works, but we do know that he was born sometime around AD 350 on the British Isles, probably in modern-day Wales. Though a theologian in his own right, Pelagius was never a priest, bishop, or monk. Instead, he was part of a rising class of lay-theologians whose popularity at the end of the 4th century was growing immensely. From the few writings we do have from him, we know he was well catechized and well educated. Augustine, even though he was Pelagius’ greatest adversary, lauds and magnifies the rhetorical elegance of his epistles. Pelagius spent the majority of his life in the church of Rome currying favor with the local politicians and religious elites, and it’s here that the trouble for Pelagius begins.
Once in Rome, Pelagius had the opportunity to hear people discuss churchly matters from all over the civilized world. Unfortunately, what he learned about the state of Christendom left him greatly troubled. Moral corruption and spiritual laxity were the standard fare and, in the face of this passivity, Pelagius perceives the need for a more fruitful and genuine Christianity. Thus, he diagnoses a law problem with a law solution.
A high anthropology is Pelagius’ theological starting point. In the spirit of Matthew 7, Pelagius conceives of man as a tree. Since God creates man, he is, at his roots, good, and endowed with a free will: in other words, there is no such thing as original sin. Man is able to make decisions from this root of goodness which blossom into habits, which are then nourished in a particular habitat. According to Pelagius, you are what you repeatedly do. So instead of sin being something that we inherit, it is transmitted by example. A sinful example develops into a sinful habit, and this sinful habit bears fruit in the habitat of the world. To be a righteous person, therefore, the Christian must make righteous use of his will and develop righteous habits. These righteous habits are nourished and grow in the habitat of righteousness, namely, the church.
According to Pelagius, you are what you repeatedly do.
This emphasis on the active versus the passive life orients Pelagius to read the Gospel accounts through the lens of example rather than gift. He believes the primary purpose of Christ is to give us an example of righteous decisions, which then inculcate habits of righteousness in us. We see these habits grow in the apostles, the saints, and eventually blossom into the habitat of the church. For Pelagius, this duality between the habitat of sin and the habitat of righteousness, between the world and the church, is everything. To be a Christian, a break with the world is necessary because the church is antithetical to the world. It is for this reason that Pelagius confesses the centrality of infant baptism. Even though he denies original sin, he believes that baptism is necessary as the act of breaking from the world and being united to the church in obedience to Christ.
At first glance, Pelagius’ endorsement of infant baptism appeared to many of his contemporaries as a sign of orthodoxy, which made declaring him a heretic a harder sell. Furthermore, Pelagius found a way to confess with orthodox theologians that good works resulted from the grace of God. However, by the “grace of God,” Pelagius meant that God graciously created man good and with a free will. In addition to this gracious, creative act, God also gifts man with the law which instructs and enables him to do the will of God, rather than hinders and kills him as Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 3 and Romans 5. In this way, Pelagius maintained an orthodox appearance while rejecting original sin and the distinction between law and gospel.
To rise against the tide of heresy, Augustine came to the defense of the church. In contrast to Pelagius, Augustine claimed that actions aren’t a result of choice or the will, but the passions which are a part of our very nature. Sin is a passionate affair, and at our root, our passions are sinfully turned in on themselves. In Adam, we are creatures of lust at our very core. From this sinful root, habits of sin develop and breed a culture of sin. When we do make choices, according to Augustine, it’s as people enslaved to our sinful passions. What we need is not simply a better example, more law, or a different habitat. We need an entirely different root. We need to be slain in our sin and raised by the Holy Spirit as a new person, as Paul says in Romans 6. It isn’t what you repeatedly do that defines you, but being rooted in Christ, being justified by faith, which defines a person and gives shape to the whole life. The life of the Christian, therefore, is a passionate internal battle between these two roots: sinner and saint.
Pelagius maintained an orthodox appearance while rejecting original sin and the distinction between law and gospel.
After years of examination and accusation, Pelagius was finally excommunicated on January 27, 417, by the Bishop of Rome, Innocent I. A year later, at the Council of Carthage, Pelagius was publicly condemned as a heretic for denying original sin and confessing the freedom of the will. Even though Pelagianism was “defeated” in the 5th century and orthodoxy ruled the day, the teachings of Pelagius have continued to be preached throughout history, even today. With Augustine and the sacred Scriptures, however, we are bound to confess that all we have to offer to God is sin and resistance. Fortunately, what Christ alone has to offer is much greater.