*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 27th of January 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Let’s talk about names that can’t really be named anymore. Almost like a “he who shall not be named” situation, we probably don’t have a lot of modern Adolphs in Germany, or Benito’s in Italy. In the past few years, I’ve wondered about the difficulty of perhaps being named Katrina in parts of the south or being called Isis. And, of course, in the church, we have names that are put in the naughty box right away.
Nestorius and Eutyches aren’t favorite names after being slapped on to a few early Christological heresies. And Arius and Arian have suffered from a double helping of shame being the early Christological heresy and then swapping the I for a Y and becoming associated with the 3rd Reich. And perhaps there is no more unfortunate fate in a name in church history associated with Pelagius- an Irish monk who came to Rome as a mystery, disappeared almost as quickly as he made his entrance and has been a watchword for “bad guy” ever since.
A few years ago, a senator gave a speech called our time in America, something like “our Pelagian moment” - the dude’s name still passes as a boogeyman 1600 years later.
Pelagius was likely Irish and born around 354. We know that he came to Rome in 380- he wasn’t ordained as a priest but had taken vows as a monk. Remember Rome in 380 has recently been “Christianized” by Constantine in the last generation, but there had still been a good amount of tension about the interplay of church and state. This is the era of the Donatist controversy that asked the question- is the church Holy because its members are holy, or because it has been called out as holy regardless. This animated Augustine and others to stress the primacy of divine grace. Pelagius thought that perhaps the issue of moral laxity and confusion wasn’t on account of too little grace, but in fact, too much.
This is a common thread in the church’s history- one side condemns the other side for going too far and, in condemnation, tries to the right the course by oversteering. [This doesn’t mean the middle is always the right answer- but it shows us our propensity for dealing in extremes].
In 410, with Rome being sacked by the Goth Alaric, Pelagius and his companion Celestius moved to North Africa for safety. But this was Augustine’s North Africa, and soon Pelagius was off to Palestine in 412. The next few years would be the most critical for the Irish monk as he was challenged to defend his views and was brought up for censure at the Council of Jerusalem in 415 but was not found guilty. In 416, he wrote his “On Free Will,” trying to clarify what he taught and did not teach. His follower Celestine and others would go in their own, often more radical directions, and thus Pelagius needed to affirm what he believed.
He affirmed that humans were born morally neutral. He announced that humans required divine grace but not because of some birth stain- but rather because we have followed Adam and his sin as an example. Christ would thus become the second Adam in his example. There is plenty to talk about here- and from the perspective of traditional Tridentine Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation, this is dead wrong. And it was on this day in 417 Pope Innocent the 1st condemned and excommunicated Pelagius. The next pope, Zosimus, reopened the case, but the council of Carthage in 418 confirmed the heterodoxy of his statements, and just like that, Pelagius disappeared. He didn’t write anymore; he left town with few knowing where he went, and the historical trail on him completely disappeared.
Pelagianism would come to represent a denial of the primacy of God’s grace and was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and again at the council of Orange in 529. An ultimate ignominy was blown to the monk when in the 16th century, Theodore Beza invented a new term, “semi-Pelagian” (and this has nothing to do with the teachings of the Irish monk, but nonetheless…)
If I might- let me clarify a few things. We don’t know what happened to Pelagius, but after he was condemned, he didn’t go out and start the equivalent of an underground newspaper or new church. Maybe he was dejected to be abandoned by the Mother Church.
Next: I say “nuts!” To bad ideas but not to people for whom Christ died. If you’re so inclined to take this position: the doctrines of the primacy of Grace as outlined in Augustine and others were occasioned by an Irish monk. In a very rational way, he sought to understand the divine call to holiness. I’d suggest that it was too rational. Still, even then- the Gospel is so wild and irrationally good… perhaps we should speak of “the problem of centering the human will over divine grace” and leave Pelagius and his name in peace in peace- the man who was excommunicated on this day in 417 and subsequently vanished (except for his name is synonymous with “bad theology”).
The Last Word for today comes from 1 Corinthians 15:
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 27th of January 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who reminds you that it is illegal to name your child Monkey in Denmark. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who read that a French court recently denied a family the ability to name their new child Nutella. I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.