Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pelagius

PELAGIUS (fl. 400?), heresiarch, was probably born about 370. His British birth is asserted by Prosper, Gennadius, Marius Mercator, Orosius, and St. Augustine; a tradition records his native name to have been Morgan, of which ‘Pelagius’ (‘Seaborn’) was the Greek translation. Jerome more precisely calls him a ‘Scot’—i.e. an Irishman. It is stated that he was a monk; and, according to one account, he was once at Bangor monastery; but both Pope Zosimus and Augustine's friend Orosius speak of him as a layman. It is improbable that he is the Pelagius whose desertion St. John Chrysostom lamented in a letter (to Olympias) of 405; but it is certain that he came to Rome early in the fifth century, and almost immediately became prominent as a theological disputant.

Mercator says he borrowed his ‘distinctive doctrines’ from Rufinus the Syrian. According to Jerome, Rufinus was a theologian of Aquileia, a pupil of the famous Theodore of Mopsuestia, and a student of Origen. Rufinus visited Rome while Anastasius was pope, i.e. between 398 and 402. Pelagius doubtless met Rufinus in the capital not later than 401, and it appears that he did not leave till 409. While he resided at Rome Pelagius made the acquaintance of Augustine and Paulinus of Nola, who spoke of him with great respect.

It was probably at Rome that Pelagius wrote his three works, ‘On the Trinity,’ ‘On Testimonies’ (Eulogiarum or Testimoniorum Liber, arranged after the model of St. Cyprian's ‘Testimonia’), and ‘On St. Paul's Epistles.’ It was also during his stay at Rome that he made the acquaintance of Celestius, afterwards his foremost disciple, and began by writings, especially letters, to show plainly that he had rejected the dominant theology upon the points of human freewill and divine grace.

Pelagius's doctrines dealt with six chief points, as his opponents sometimes divided them: original sin, infant baptism, the effect of the fall of Adam, freewill in man, divine grace, and predestination; but the gist of them all is contained in the single point on which the ninth article of the English church condemns his followers as ‘talking vainly,’ viz. whether or not ‘the condition of man after the fall is such that he … has no power to do good works without the grace of God.’ He annulled that grace, said Augustine, by representing it as the payment of what was strictly due. His position certainly rested on two particular denials—first of the necessity of supernatural and directly assisting grace in order to any true service of God; secondly, of the transmission of the corruption of human nature and of physical death to the descendants of the first man, in consequence of his transgression. Personally he wrote in support of the divinity of Christ, but some of his followers were less explicit, and after his death his party became somewhat connected with the Nestorian. As to the necessity of infant baptism, Pelagius distinguished between an eternal life that the unbaptised could possibly enter, and a kingdom of heaven that was closed to them.

About 409 Pelagius went with Celestius to Sicily, to escape Alaric's attack upon Rome, and soon after passed on to Africa, missing St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, in his own city, but meeting him in Carthage, where the bishop was then busy with the Donatist controversy. Thence Pelagius sailed to Palestine, where he met Jerome at Bethlehem; while Celestius, staying behind in Africa, and going beyond his leader in the boldness and definiteness of his heresy, was accused, tried, and condemned, on seven counts of false doctrine, by a synod at Carthage (412). At the same time Augustine, though strongly opposed to ‘Pelagianism,’ as doctrines in favour of the freedom of the will came to be called, received a letter from Pelagius himself, to which he replied in ‘friendly terms.’ But a little later he received another work by Pelagius, with a letter, from two ‘youths,’ Timasius and James, asking him to satisfy them on various points in it, and this book seems to have alarmed him.

Next year accordingly (415) Orosius, sent by Augustine to Palestine to watch Pelagius, accused him of heresy before a synod at Jerusalem (28 July 415). Pelagius was at first disposed to question the right of the African church to dictate in the matter, but finally decided to plead, and justified his doctrines at length. The presiding bishop, John of Jerusalem, showed him some favour; and the result was the acquittal of Pelagius of any definite false doctrines. On this the ‘Augustinians’ appealed to Rome, declaring that Pelagius's Latin was not properly understood in Syria; that his interpreter was incompetent; and that the Eastern judges had not grasped the facts.

The appeal to Rome was allowed, as a compromise, by the synod of Jerusalem; but at the end of 415 Pelagius was again indicted before a synod at Diospolis, or Lydda, in Palestine, by two (deposed) western prelates—Heros of Arles, and Lazarus of Aix. Fourteen bishops again met together to decide upon an appeal really coming, as was supposed, from Jerome and his party at Bethlehem. The ‘miserable conventicle of Diospolis’ as Jerome calls it, came to the same result as the synod of Jerusalem, and the main hope of the predestinarian party now rested on the expected sympathy and support of Innocent I. The Roman appeal was accordingly repeated in 416 by over sixty-nine bishops in the synod of Carthage, and by sixty-one more in a synod in Numidia; and a letter was addressed to the great western see by Augustine and four other bishops (Aurelius, Alypius, Evodius, and Possidius), who also forwarded to Rome the book of Pelagius which Timasius and James had before sent to Augustine, with the latter's answer in the treatise ‘De Natura et Gratia.’

Innocent answered these various addresses by three letters, written on 27 Jan. 417, in which he condemned Pelagius's distinctive doctrines without reserve, and called upon him to abjure his heresy, or to leave the communion of the church.

But on the death of the ‘first great pope,’ 12 March 417, his successor Zosimus showed a very different spirit. He was mystified, it was said, by Celestius, whose plausible tongue smoothed away difficulties, and who offered boldly to condemn all that Innocent or the apostolic see judged heretical. To the pope his statement appeared to be ‘catholic, plain, and explicit.’ Accordingly Zosimus deprived and anathematised Heros and Lazarus, and, without fully acquitting Pelagius, blamed the African bishops for undue haste; finally, on receiving the accused's confession from Palestine, with a letter in his favour from Praylius, the new bishop of Jerusalem, he declared him entirely cleared (417).

The African bishops, in answer, reiterated their charges before the end of 417, and again more solemnly in the next year (1 May 418) in a synod of 214 (or 224) prelates at Carthage. Furthermore, they now began also to set in motion the civil power, probably by means of Augustine's friend, Count Valerius.

Representations were made to the emperors Theodosius and Honorius. Pelagius was consequently banished from Rome, and sentence of confiscation and banishment was passed upon all his followers. Zosimus himself found it convenient to reconsider the matter, summoned Celestius before him, and, on the withdrawal of the latter, condemned Pelagianism by a circular letter (‘Epistola Tractoria’). Subscription to its terms was enforced throughout Italy and Africa, and eighteen bishops were deprived for refusing their assent; chief among these was Julian, bishop of Eclanum in Apulia, the great defender of Pelagianism in the next generation.

The personal history of Pelagius, after his condemnation in 418, is very obscure. He is said to have died at the age of over seventy, in a small Syrian town. He is described by Jerome and Orosius as tall, stout, and elderly at the time of his visit to Palestine.

Pelagius specially enraged Jerome and the high monastic party by his opposition to the extreme celibate ideals. ‘The virginal life,’ he was accused of saying, ‘is not commanded,’ and his system was condemned as a ‘philosophy of this world,’ that is, essentially rationalistic; but the charges of folly and luxuriousness, brought by Jerome and Orosius, seem to have been rooted mainly in ‘odium theologicum,’ and to be inconsistent with the strong language of Augustine and Paulinus in praise of his piety and virtue. His temper was rather studious than active; he thought and wrote, while Celestius and others undertook the business of public disputation. His life shows the first sign of the intellectual activity of the Celtic church, which afterwards bore fruit in the Irish missions. Pelagius journeyed from end to end of the Roman empire in order to propagate his opinions, and his activity and that of his friends was very probably what turned afresh the attention of catholic Christianity upon our islands, and led, among other things, to the Irish mission of Palladius [q. v.] in 431.

Throughout the middle ages theological controversy tended to revert to the questions raised by Pelagius, and Thomas Bradwardine [q. v.], one of the most famous of fourteenth century English doctors, celebrated by Chaucer as proverbially learned, left a great treatise on the subject—‘De Causa Dei contra Pelagium.’

[Pelagius's own writings, as mentioned in text: with additional Letters and Libelli, e.g. to Paulinus, Pope Innocent, &c. A book of his, in 4 parts, on Freewill is referred to by Augustine, De Gratia Christi, § 45, and Ep. 186, § 34, cf. Tillemont, xiii. 687; St. Jerome, esp. On Jeremiah, bks. i. iii. and preface; Jerome's Letters, e.g. 133, cf. his Collected Works (Benedictine ed.), v. 57, &c.; Gennadius, c. xlii. of De Viris Illustribus; Orosius's Apology, cc. 2, 4, 12, 29, 31, cf. Gallandius's Bibliotheca Vet. Patrum, vol. ix.; Orosius, De Arbit. Lib., cf. Tillemont, xiii. 562–5, &c., 687, &c.; Augustine (Benedictine ed.), vols. ii. x.; Bright's Select Anti-Pelagian Treatises of St. Augustine (viz., De Spiritu et Littera, De Natura et Gratia, De perfectione Justitiæ Hominis, De Gestis Pelagii, De Gratia Christi et de Peccato Originali, Contra duas Epistolas Pelagianorum); Marius Mercator's Adv. Pel. in Gallandius, viii. 615, &c.; Commonit. ii. 2; Prosper of Aquitaine, Works, i. 399–400, iii. 69–70 (ed. of 1782); Bede on Canticles, iv. 719 (Giles's Bede, ix. 195); Gildas's Hist. § ix.; Bright's Church Hist. pp. 249, 269, 276–9, 285; Robertson's Church Hist. ii. 139–54; Haddan and Stubbs, under A.D. 415, &c.; Stokes's Ireland and Celtic Church, pp. 20–2; Reeves's Adamnan; Ussher's Works, ed. Elrington, passim; notice by Professor Ince in Dictionary of Christian Biography.]

C. R. B.