BEGINNING his life with the given name of Morgan, this future heresiarch was known by the Romans as "the man of the sea," Pelagius. He was born in Britain around 354, the year Augustine, his great opponent, was born at Tagaste in Numidia. His British birth is partly deduced from his cognomen of Britannicus and from the fact that a town in Wales has long claimed to be his birthplace.

Jerome, perhaps in anticipation of Samuel Johnson's ribbing of James Boswell's national origin, ridiculed Pelagius as a Scot who, "stuffed with Scottish porridge" ( "Scotorum pultibus praegravatus"), suffered from a weak memory. It may have been that the "Scots" of those days were really the Irish, in which case Pelagius's true home is to be found in Ireland.

Pelagius was tall and fat ( "grandis et corpulentus," said Jerome) and was well educated, speaking and writing both Latin and Greek well; although extremely polemical in nature, he was trenchant and concise as a writer. Never a priest, he was a monk devoted to practical asceticism. In Rome he enjoyed a reputation of austerity, and Augustine even called him a saintly man.

Beyond this, little is known of his early years. He came to Rome either between 380 and 384 under Pope Anastasius, at which time he was baptized, or between 375 and 380 during the first years of Gratian. In all likelihood he studied law. While in the capital he composed several works which were termed by Gennadius "indispensable reading matter for students." Some of his writings formerly were attributed to Augustine, Jerome, and other orthodox scholars. Only three have been preserved in their entirety. Fragments of still other early works of his are preserved in the writings of his opponents.

When Rome fell in 410, Pelagius sought refuge at Carthage. With him was his close friend and collaborator, Caelestius, who remained there hoping to become a priest. Caelestius was not able to have himself ordained in Carthage, "as he had imbibed and taught more openly than Pelagius the latter's heresy." So says Louisa Cozens in her Handbook of Heresies. Caelestius went on to Ephesus and was ordained there, the Ephesians evidently being more open-minded, or themselves perhaps less orthodox, than the Carthaginians.

For his part, Pelagius traveled on to Jerusalem, which became his home until 418, after which point there is no further information about him. (In The Faith of the Early Fathers William Jurgens makes this safe statement: "Pelagius disappears from history after 418 and has long since been presumed dead." One would hope so.)

In Jerusalem Pelagius became friends with the bishop, John, who befriended him against accusations by Orosius and some Latin exiles. At this time Pelagius was a leader of the Origenist party in Jerusalem. Origen (185-254), the most prolific of early Christian writers (he was said to have written 800 works, but few of them survive), had attempted to synthesize Christianity with Neoplatonism and Stoicism, but he was not entirely successful. He was unreliable, at times heterodox; he favored, for instance, the apokatastasis, the notion that in the end even hell will dissolve and all creatures, including damned men and angels, will be saved and united with God in heaven. Controversies arising from his teachings lasted centuries longer than did the leaves of paper that enshrined most of his writings. As a partisan of Origen, Pelagius seems to have been schooled in less-than-orthodox thinking. He was ripe for trouble.

In 415 charges were brought against him at Diospolis, the ancient city of Lydda, based on six propositions culled from his works. His accusers were two exiled Gallic bishops, Heros of Arles and Lazarus of Aix. Pelagius's propositions affirmed the real possibility of man's impeccability (capacity not to sin). This possibility arose out of man's free will, which, Pelagius asserted, could be so guided as to permit man always to obey God's commandments.

Pelagius distanced himself from Caelestius, who was less the politician, and spoke in terms of a theoretical, as distinguished from a practical, possibility of impeccability, and he either denied teaching the more clearly heretical doctrines or offered orthodox explanations. (Yet Augus-tine quotes Pelagius as saying, "I teach that it is possible for men to live without sin"--a blunt, unequivocal line.)

Pelagius was helped by the fact that his accusers failed to show up for the hearing, and he "turn[ed] to his advantage the inexperience of Easterners for whom these problems were quite new and strange." [Jean Danielou and Henri Marrou, The First Six Hundred Years (New York: Paulist Press, 1964), 403]. Thus he avoided condemnation at Diospolis. After his acquittal, which his supporters took to be a vindication of his theses themselves, Pelagius wrote Chartula defensionis, a self-justifying piece, which a deacon from Hippo, Carus, sent to Augustine. The great duel was joined.

Before considering further the interplay of the personalities, we should examine in more detail Pelagius's theological system. Much of its appeal lay in Pelagius's zeal: "[H]e set to work preaching against the lukewarm morality that had entered so many Christian circles. Soon the stricter Christians were flocking to his sermons." [Walter Nigg, The Heretics (1962; reprint, New York: Dorset Press, 1990), 133]. (Here we see a foreshadowing of the appeal of present-day Fundamentalism, which may be weak theologically, but is strong morally--and therefore attractive.)

The moral attractiveness was joined with another kind, the denial of original sin. "Pelagianism was based on a very respectable moral rigorism, but its anxiety to champion man's free will and to urge him on to sanctity resulted in its denying original sin and the necessity of divine grace: For the Pelagian, access to the Kingdom is made possible by baptism, and since perfect sanctity is an obligation and a possibility for everyone, it rests with each individual Christian to merit eternal life by his conduct, modeled on the precepts and example of Christ." [Jean-Remy Palanaque, The Dawn of the Middle Ages (New York: Hawthorn, 1960), 36-37].

According to Pelagius the human will is free and is equally capable of choosing good or evil: "God, desiring to endow the rational creature with the function of voluntary goodness and the power of free will, and by implanting in man the possibility of both, makes it man's special character that he wills, so that he is naturally capable of both good and evil, and he may be inclined to the willing of either." [Pelagius, Epistula ad Demetriandem 3].

This freedom would be destroyed if the will were inclined to evil for any reason (or to good, for that matter). Grace is entirely external and merely facilitates what the will can do on its own. Grace is a help, not a necessity.

From such considerations Pelagius drew certain conclusions.

Adam's sin was purely personal, and it therefore would have been unjust for God to punish the entire human race for Adam's sin. Since God is not unjust, he did not so punish us, and this suggests death is not a punishment handed down from the first man, but is a necessary part of human nature. It would have been with us even if Adam had not sinned. Other disabilities conventionally associated with Adam's sin could not have been imposed as punishments, and this meant there could have been no primitive paradise because Adam's personal sin could not have lost it, and concupiscence, the existence of which Pelagius did not deny, must have been part of the human make-up from the first. In this Pelagius agreed with Julian of Eclanum, who, reported Augustine, claimed that concupiscence was created by God together with the body and that only a Manichaean would see it as an evil and a consequence of sin. [Augustine, Contra Julianum 2:71].

Since Adam's sin was personal, argued Pelagius, everyone is born sinless, there being no such thing as original sin. (In modern parlance, we are all immaculately conceived.) This makes infant baptism useless; a child, being incapable of sin, needs no washing away of sin, and an infant who dies goes immediately to heaven. Baptism should be reserved for adults.

Then why, one might ask, is sin so prevalent? Pelagius speculated that, from childhood, we contract the habit of sinning and this habit become second nature. The newborn child is as pure as Adam and Eve at their creation, but, as he advances in age, the child learns to sin from those around him. Specifically, he learns from the bad examples of his elders, and then he becomes a bad example himself. If he were isolated from the "contagion," he could grow into a sinless adult, but no one grows up in complete isolation. Pelagius's problem, wrote a historian of dogmas, is that "[h]e saw only guilty individuals, not a whole sinful human race." [Joseph Tixeront, History of Dogmas (1914; reprint, Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1984), 2:447].

Since the human race does not labor under original sin or any other consequences of the Fall (since the Fall affected only Adam and Eve), there was no need for a redemption as such--there was nothing to be redeemed from. Why did Christ come then? To give us an example, to be a role model. Adam was the bad role model, Christ the good.

Even before Christ there were men who lived sinless lives, said Pelagius. This seems to be a necessary, even an inescapable, consequence of his teaching. It would hardly do to say that, although men always have been able to live sinlessly, not a single one has. Pelagius does not seem to have claimed that any particular individuals after the appearance of Christ lived sinless lives--at least he did not make that claim for himself. Anyway, if sinlessness had occurred before the time of Christ, it could be the state of mankind again.

From what Catholic historian Newman Eberhardt has indicated, it would seem that Pelagius would not have been the confessor of choice for many people: "As spiritual director, he became tired of hearing men excuse themselves for sin and tepidity on the plea of human frailty. To such alibis he gradually developed the retort that these were but excuses for indolence [and that] every man is quite capable of perfection by his own efforts provided that he only apply them to action." [Newman Eberhardt, A Summary of Catholic History (St. Louis: Herder, 1961), 1:231]. Here we have a foreshadowing, perhaps, of today's "power of positive thinking."

The upshot of this system was the elimination of any need for grace. God takes no active role in human salvation, since men do not need his grace; he is, instead, something of a spectator, watching the human drama from afar but not involving himself in it after setting it on its course. We see in Pelagianism a kind of early Deism: The divine clock maker winds up the universe and then leaves it alone.

Pelagius lived in an era when grace was still vague and undefined. Not even another millennium proved to be enough time for the doctrine of grace to be worked out fully--consider the seventeenth-century heresy of Jansenism, merely one example of continuing confusions. In Pelagius's time it was generally understood that some sort of assistance was necessary for salvation and was given freely by God, but the nature of that assistance had not been thought out rigorously. Pelagius thought about it and concluded the assistance did not exist.

To Caelestius must go much of the credit (or blame, however one sees it) for the spread of Pelagianism. Without him the heresy may have been short-lived and of modest effect. An untiring propagandist, he was its principal exponent. Even though his real position was demonstrated in debates as early as 411 by adversaries such as Paulinus, Caelestius's position advanced. [Fernand Mourret, History of the Catholic Church (St. Louis: Herder, 1935), 2:514]. He tried to transform the practical maxims learned from Pelagius into theoretical principles, and it was these he propagated.

The battle against Pelagianism was waged on several fronts. The greatest champion of the orthodox cause was Augustine, [Augustine wrote "innumerable refutations of the Pelagian heresy--15 treatises, amounting in all to 35 books, excluding letters and sermons." Danielou and Marrou, 402], whose territory Pelagius and Caelestius had invaded on leaving the sacked capital. In 412 Augustine wrote two works, De peccatorum meritis and De spiritu et littera, which emphasized that man's will had been weakened through original sin and that that weakness made necessary God's help. In 417 Augustine wrote an account of the council of Diospolis and showed that Pelagius had been forced to disavow some of what Caelestius had been teaching.

Augustine's position may be summarized this way: God created our first parents in a state of innocence and gave them super- and preternatural gifts, including infused knowledge and freedom from death and illness. They were "able not to sin." Despite these advantages, man fell, and by falling he lost the gifts. His state degenerated to one in which he was "not able not to sin." His redemption would come only with the Savior, the New Adam, who, being at once God and man, was "not able to sin."

Another opponent of Pelagianism was Orosius, a young Spanish priest sent by Augustine to Jerusalem to alert Jerome and the bishops there of the dangers of the heresy. This journey was made while Pelagius was being honored in Palestine, Caelestius having been excommunicated at Carthage before moving on to Ephesus. In 415 Orosius and Pelagius appeared before a council of bishops at Jerusalem. The event was inconclusive, since Orosius knew little Greek and Pelagius, who was proficient in it, was able to sway the bishops by his equivocations. Bishop John referred the matter to Rome.

That very year Jerome--probably an octogenarian, but "still full of fire" [Warren Carroll, The Building of Christendom (Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press, 1987), 86]--entered the fray with two treatises against Pelagius and his followers: one a letter to Ctesiphon, the other called Dialogus adversus Pelagianos. It is said he weakened the force of his argument by that vituperousness to which he was accustomed; by exaggerating Pelagius's claims, he undercut his own case. (From his misjudgment today's apologists should take a cue.)

When the bishops of Africa heard of the council of Diospolis, they thought it had given its approval to Pelagianism. In 416 councils convened at Carthage and Milevis; each council sent letters to Pope InnocentI, pointing out errors of the Pelagians and urging him to condemn Pelagius and Caelestius. Early the next year the Pope replied, approving what the bishops had done and excommunicating Pelagianism's two leaders. From Augustine's comments on this exchange of letters has come the maxim, "Rome has spoken; the case is closed." ["Iam enim de hac causa duo concilia missa sunt ad Sedem apostolicam, inde etiam rescripta venerunt; causa finita est." Serm. 131, 10 in Conradus Kirch, Enchiridion Symbolorum (Barcelona: Editorial Herder, 1947), 436]. But Augustine was mistaken. The case was not closed yet. Pelagius forwarded a profession of faith to Rome, and Caelestius went to the capital in person.

The struggle with Pelagianism then entered its Roman phase. In March 417 Innocent died. His successor was Zosimus. After reading Pelagius's profession of faith, he restored him to unity with the Church. As for Caelestius, the Pope wrote to the bishops of Africa, saying Heros and Lazarus had acted hastily and that the bishops should either exonerate Caelestius or prove his heresy in the presence of the Pope. The letter "amounted to a panegyric of Pelagius and Caelestius, in which they figured as the calumniated victims of the malice of the bishops!" [Philip Hughes, A History of the Church (London: Sheed and Ward, 1948), 2:17. It should be noted that this incident cannot be used against the doctrine of papal infallibility, and that for two reasons: (1) The letter by Zosimus does not meet the requirements for an infallible papal decree, as outlined at Vatican I, in that it is not a declaration made to the whole world, and (2) Zosimus drew his conclusions based on Pelagius's confession of faith; at most Zosimus was saying that the confession of faith was orthodox; lacking convincing evidence to the contrary, Zosimus was bound to take the confession as an accurate representation of Pelagius's opinions].

The African bishops met in synod in November and composed a letter to Zosimus, asking him to withhold final disposition of the case until Pelagius and Caelestius had confessed the necessity of grace. By a rescript issued the next March, Zosimus said he had not yet pronounced definitively, [This shows what his intentions were regarding whether the earlier letter was an exercise in infallibility--it could not have been, if Zosimus claimed not to be teaching definitively], and he forwarded to Africa all documents bearing on Pelagianism so a new investigation could be made. There followed a council at Carthage. The bishops again branded Pelagianism a heresy and affirmed the following points, among others, as elements of the true faith: (1) Death came through sin, (2) newborns must be baptized because of original sin, (3) justifying grace assists the Christian in avoiding sin, (4) grace imparts a strength of will to avoid sin, (5) without grace meritorious good works are impossible, (6) all men are sinners.

When the acts of the council were forwarded to Zosimus, he confirmed them in a letter in which he gave a summary of Pelagianism's history and errors and in which he renewed the excommunication of Pelagius and Caelestius. He ordered all bishops of the Church to sign the letter. When Theodotus, patriarch of Antioch, received the Pope's letter, he summoned a council, and Pelagius was expelled from Palestine and entirely disappeared from history. Caelestius refused to accept Rome's judgment, but escaped punishment because of his protectors.

After 418 the leader of the Pelagians was Julian, bishop of Eclanum. "A formidable dialectician and of a pugnacious turn of mind," [Danielou and Marrou, 404], he and 17 other bishops of Italy declined to sign Zosimus's letter and insisted a general council be convened to reconsider the case afresh. All 18 were excommunicated, deposed, and exiled, giving Julian the freedom to commence a literary war with Augustine.

The two exchanged salvos repeatedly. Julian concluded that orthodoxy, as defined by Augustine and Zosimus, "represented a crude form of pietism, from which he must rescue Christianity at all costs, if it was to keep hold of cultivated people." [B. J. Kidd, A History of the Church to A.D. 461 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922), 3:124]. Dismissing his opponents in general as "uneducated and stupid" and Augustine as "that Punic preacher, dullest and most stupid of men," [Ibid. 3:128], Julian, after being driven from Roman territory, found refuge in Cilicia with Theodore of Mopsuestia. After Theodore's death in 428, he went to Constantinople, and after that he too disappeared from history (and is also now presumed dead). Warren Carroll says that "Bishop Julian revealed, in his methods of debate as in much of its substance, the intellectual arrogance to which the denial of the doctrine of original sin often quickly leads." [Carroll, 89].

Pelagianism was not finally crushed in the East until the ecumenical Council of Ephesus, held in 431, confirmed the condemnation pronounced by the Western bishops. After Ephesus the heresy is almost unmentioned in the East, but it still smoldered in the West, its main centers being Gaul and (appropriately, since it was Pelagius's home) Britain. Not until the Second Council of Orange (529) [The council's second canon proclaimed, "If anyone maintains that the Fall harmed Adam alone and not his descendants, or declares that only bodily death which is the punishment of sin, but not sin itself, which is the death of the soul, was passed on to the whole human race by one man, he ascribes injustice to God." J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church (New York: Alba House, 1982), 135] did the heresy die out in the West, though that synod aimed its decisions at Semi-Pelagianism more than at Pelagianism outright.

Semi-Pelagianism did not arise only at the end of the struggle. Augustine had to deal with it a century earlier than did the bishops at Orange. He found himself forced to refute teachings of writers such as John Cassian, who repudiated Pelagianism in part but taught man was capable of making an initial act of faith without grace. Once in the state of justification, argued Semi-Pelagians, man needed supernatural grace to be saved, but no special grace to persevere. As a middle position, Semi-Pelagianism proved to have, in many ways, a popularity greater than Pelagianism itself enjoyed.

If it can be said that some good arises out of every evil, the good that arose out of Pelagianism was a study of original sin and the Redemption and the affirmation that salvation is entirely gratuitous, that man can do nothing to earn salvation. Moderns are apt to regard original sin as an outmoded consideration of theology, but this attitude is by no means new. (It may, though, be peculiar to our culture as a generalized motif ["Pelagianism was--many say still is--a heresy of a Western type which could not have happened in the East." David Christie-Murray, A History of Heresy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 87]. More than three centuries ago Pascal noted that "undoubtedly nothing offends us more than this doctrine. And yet without this obscurest of all mysteries, we are the greatest of enigmas to ourselves." [Blaise Pascal, Pensees, fragment 443]