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Pelagius
the Briton who almost saved the church

Introduction

This page is not so much about "proving" anything, but it is a tribute to a hero of mine. Outside the restored gospel I have two heroes. One was Michael Faraday. The other is Pelagius – though his real name was Morgan, and his friends called him Brito.

At first it might seem that Pelagius is not as important to the prophecies of the Dark Ages as Constantine or Augustine or Gregory. But unlike them he shines as a beacon of light in the darkness. He offered one last chance for the church to escape from the jaws of The Beast. Truth is always more important than error. So Pelagius stands head and shoulders above all the other figures in the crucial period of decline, AD 100 to 570.

He is of special personal interest to me because, like me, he was tall, overweight, and British. I hope I can become like him –a man of great integrity and wisdom, admired by all who knew him, yet genuinely not wanting admiration. He focuses on one or two key issues that have concerned me personally (I will not bore you with which ones). As a man of outstanding learning, ability, modesty and righteousness at a key moment in history, he deserves to be remembered.

Unless stated, the quotations on this page are from the Celtic Orthodox Christianity website at http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~ai598/pelagius.htm . If that site is down, much the same material can be found at http://www.brojed.org/pelagius.html

Quotations, as usual, are in blue.

Grace and works

Pelagius should be of special interest to Mormons. Like us, he believed that both grace and works are necessary for salvation. Like us, he opposed much of Augustine's teachings as being opposed to the spirit and the letter of the original gospel. But like us, he is falsely accused of believing in salvation by works alone, and of opposing orthodox Christian teachings.

 


Who was he?

Augustine’s "chief opponent", condemned as "the West's chief heresiarch."

Around the year 400, Saint Augustine created the theology on which all Catholicism and Protestantism is based. Pelagius was Augustine’s "chief opponent". While Augustine taught that mankind is basically evil and his works do not count toward salvation, Pelagius was horrified to see the practical effects of this: wickedness in Rome. People did not try too hard, and righteousness declined. Pelagius spent his life teaching that righteousness is essential to the gospel. Pelagius taught that when Jesus said "be ye therefore perfect", he meant it.

As a person

"Tall in stature and portly in appearance (Jerome, loc. cit., 'grandis et corpulentus'), Pelagius was highly educated, spoke and wrote Latin as well as Greek with great fluency and was well versed in theology. Though a monk and consequently devoted to practical asceticism, he never was a cleric; for both Orosius and Pope Zosimus simply call him a 'layman'. In Rome itself he enjoyed the reputation of austerity, while St. Augustine called him even a 'saintly man'…" - From the Catholic Encyclopedia.

"[contemporary] commentators have described Pelagius as 'a cultivated and sensitive layman,' 'an elusive and gracious figure, beloved and respected wherever he goes,' always 'silent, smiling, reserved,' certainly a 'modest and retiring man.' "


In context

His background

"He inherited in his theological formation the Romanised Celtic tradition, 'with its emphasis on faith and good works, on the holiness of all life and the oneness of all.' Consequently, once in Rome, he became impatient with the moral laxity that surrounded him. The Christianization of the Empire was not making true Christians of people, he believed, only 'conforming pagans.' "

This is important to any LDS readers who are expecting to read about a prototype Joseph Smith. I am not saying that Pelagius received new revelation. He was simply a righteous man who could not ignore the most serious falsehoods when he saw them. He did not concern himself with other doctrines. So, for example, he accepted the prevailing beliefs regarding the trinity.

This is rather like the church in the 1830s. An atheist friend of mine used to delight in showing me hymns in the first LDS hymnbook that referred to "three in one". But we must remember God does not reveal all the truth all at once. We could not accept it if he did. Truth must be revealed "line upon line", "milk before meat". Clearly the falsehood of the "trinity" doctrine was less important compared to more pressing matters.

"The main focus of his preaching was never theological, but practical moral advice."


His teachings and the opposition they aroused

His teachings

"The first hint of theological controversy came around 405, when Pelagius heard someone reading from Augustine's Confessions, 'Give me what you command and command what you will.' This verse annoyed Pelagius very much; he believed this and other Augustinian teachings contradicted the traditional Christian understanding of grace and free will, turning man into a 'mere marionette, a robot.' Soon after, he wrote his famous Commentary on the Pauline Epistles, in which he set out his opposition to such Augustinian doctrines as the inherited guilt of original sin, rigid predestination, and the necessity of baptism to spare infants from hell."

Powerful Opposition

"Unsurprisingly, Jerome and Augustine were not convinced by the conclusions at Jerusalem and Diospolis. They decided to direct all their energies to attacking Pelagius and the British monk soon found himself 'out-maneuvered and out-gunned.' "

"After the Synod of Ephesos in 431, it became a crime to be in possession of any Pelagian works, so they were transmitted under others' names. The great irony of this letter is that for centuries it [Letter to Demetrias] was considered to be one of the works of Jerome and was included in his corpus of writings."

His simple message – righteousness – was a threat to the church

"Today, historians of the Church realise that Pelagius was not condemned simply on theological grounds. Rather, Pelagius's teaching was seen as a threat, a 'potentially dangerous source of schism in the body social and politic.' His central message that there is only one authentic Christian life, the path to perfection, left no room for nominal Christians. If he had gone off into the Syrian or Egyptian desert, he would probably have been a revered 'abba.' Instead, he clashed with the comfortable Christianity which had become the basis of unity in the Imperial Church, and, as a result, he has gone down as the West's chief heresiarch."


In his own words (in italics)

A great believer in faith, repentance, baptism, and eternal progress

"This theme of baptismal rebirth is taken up again as a direct exhortation to the young Demetrias:"

"Consider, I beseech you, that high rank with which you have been made glorious before God and through which you were reborn in baptism to become a daughter of God."

"Another dominant theme from Scripture is Pelagius's stress that progress in the spiritual life is all-important. . . . No hour should go by for a Christian, he insists, without some measure of spiritual growth."

His central teachings: keep the commandments

"There is nothing that Pelagius abhors more than people forsaking the path to life because it is too hard or difficult, because 'we are but men, we are encompassed by frail flesh' (16:2). To deny, as Augustine and Jerome did, man's innate goodness and capacity to live a holy life is not only moral pessimism, it is real blasphemy: for it means that God does not know what he has done or commanded, or that he does not remember the human frailty which he created, or that God has 'commanded something impossible' and therefore seeks not our salvation but our punishment and damnation (16:2).

"The Lord of Justice wished man to be free to act and not under compulsion; it was for this reason that 'he left him free to make his own decisions' and set before him life and death, good and evil, and he shall be given whatever pleases him."

"His central argument, though, is from the Old Testament; he produces a lengthy roll-call of the patriarchs and Old Testament saints (5:1ff) whose examples of holiness prove that it is possible to follow the commandments. Again, Pelagius emphasizes the practical moral implications of this doctrine of human goodness:

"We can never enter upon the path of virtue, unless we have hope as our guide and companion and if every effort expended in seeking something is nullified in effect by despair of ever finding it."

"The view of his opponents that there is something in nature which compels human beings to sin strikes Pelagius as 'blaming nature' for what is really the choice of free human persons. He writes:

"If it should be thought to be nature's fault that some have been unrighteous, I shall use the evidence of the scriptures, which everywhere lay upon sinners the heavy weight of the charge of having used their own will and do not excuse them for having acted only under the constraint of nature."

"For the British monk, it was not true to say as Augustine did that all men sinned in Adam and thus inherit his guilt; human beings of their own free will simply imitate Adam and re-enact the Fall in themselves."


What he did NOT say

Pelagianism

Some of those who heard him were so impressed that they went further. So it is important to note that Pelagius did not go as far as some "Pelagians" who denied the central role of God’s grace in salvation. And he did not agree with his friend Celestius who believed that, since we are not guilty of "original sin", then Adam was just like us and was mortal right from the start. In fact, most of what we know about Pelagius comes from his enemies, so we have to be very careful what we attribute to him.

"Few churchmen have been so maligned as Pelagius in the Christian West. For nearly 1,500 years, all that anyone has known of the British monk's theology has come from what his opponents said about him — and when one's opponents are as eminent as Augustine and Jerome, the chance of getting a fair hearing is not great. Consequently, it has been easy to lay all manner of pernicious heresies at Pelagius's doorstep. Only in the last couple of decades have scholars been able to recover and examine Pelagius's works directly. What they have found is that very little of what has historically passed for 'Pelagian' heresy was actually taught by him."

He did not make wild claims

"I did indeed say that a man can be without sin and keep the commandments of God, if he wishes, for this ability has been given to him by God. However, I did not say that any man can be found who has never sinned from his infancy up to his old age, but that, having been converted from his sins, he can be without sin by his own efforts and God's grace, yet not even by this means is he incapable of change for the future."

"While he was totally committed to the possibility of a completely sinless life, Pelagius was thus reluctant to admit anyone had ever achieved it."

Pelagius is remembered as an ascetic - one who lives on the simplest of material goods and fasts a great deal. But even here he did not go to extremes.

"The reason for moderation is clear: 'the body has to be controlled, not broken' (21:2)."


Conclusion

Pelagius - Morgan the Briton - was the only man who could usefully oppose the great Augustine. His message was profoundly positive. You are a child of God. You are not basically evil, and you can live righteously if you choose. He preached this for twenty years in Rome. But Rome did not want it. Pelagius was condemned him as a heretic and his writings were banned. Like Ezekiel a thousand years before, he had stood as the watchman. He had seen the approaching destruction and had warned the people. What more could he do?

In summary

"He began preaching with the fervent desire to lead everyone to live an authentic Christian life according to the Gospel. Pelagius believed that the grace and renewing power of baptism had brought the opportunity to struggle on the path to perfection; but instead, he saw Christians squandering their baptism and 'lapsing back into their old, comfortable habits of self-indulgence and careless pursuit of Mammon.' "

A hundred years after he was silenced, there was one last attempt to reform the church

"Pelagius's lonely and thankless struggle against the novel doctrines of Augustine and Jerome was eventually taken up by monks in southern Gaul. … They saw the Augustinian theological system as a threat to grace as synergy, as a partnership between God and man. … These noble Gallic monks were later branded 'Semi-Pelagians,' and their doctrine of synergy was condemned at the Synod of Orange in 529."

 

 

2000 years of "Christianity"

 

References

For more details, see "A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius" on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library server, from Wheaton College at http://ccel.wheaton.edu/fathers/NPNF1-05/c5.1.htm

The Celtic Orthodox Christianity website at http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~ai598/pelagius.htm with a similar article at http://www.brojed.org/pelagius.html



the bottom line

God did not leave the world helpless to its fate. Even at its eleventh hour, he sent a teacher of righteousness. But he was ignored and rejected, as were the prophets who were before him.

 

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