Pelagius was likely born in the British Isles sometime between AD 360-370. He belonged to the Celtic tradition and is known to be practicing ascetic life. His Celtic theology sharply contrasts with the predominantly North African Christianity of Augustine and the Christianity of Jerusalem led by Jerome. Pelagius is important because of his theological insights and because he touched on a problem that remains perennial, namely, the problem of free will. In this respect, he was a precursor to a secular liberal West emphasising individual autonomy and free choice. He anticipated the Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant.
Pelagius advocated three things that got him into trouble with the established church. Firstly, his emphasis was on action over belief. In a letter to Demetrias, a new convert to Christianity, he wrote, “You realise that the doctrines are the inventions of human minds, as it tries to comprehend the mysteries of God. You will realise that the Scripture itself is the work of human minds, recording the examples and teachings of Jesus. Thus, it is not what you believe that matters. It is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters, it is becoming like him”.
He goes on to make a case for a relative morality, claiming that the same actions of someone of wealth and influence are worst than those same actions done by someone in poverty. He pointed out that if someone is rich and refuses to give food to the hungry may cause more damage than the cruellest criminal. One can imagine that this would have been controversial in a world where bishops and priests sat upon mounts of wealth and power. He was quick to express his annoyance: “Do you consider him a Christian who oppresses the wretched, who burdens the poor, who covets others’ property, who makes several poor so that he may make himself rich, who rejoices in unjust gains, who feeds on others’ tears…who, when ordered to distribute his own possessions, seizes others’ instead? And a man of this kind has the audacity to go to church and thoughtlessly and inappropriately stretches out his impious hands….”
The second thing that got him into trouble was that he was not opposed to teaching women. He was mocked by Jerome for the idea that women could be taught to read and interpret the Bible, which was a guarded knowledge at the time. In contrast, Pelagius taught the goodness of creation. His writings contain rhetoric of seeing God in all creation, including nature. For Pelagius, if we look at the world through God’s eyes, nothing is ugly, and this would apply to Jesus’ teaching to love your neighbours. Except the neighbour includes the whole of creation.
And lastly, what got him into trouble the most also made him discover his most important and controversial idea. It concerned Augustine’s contention that a Christian could be saved only through God’s grace. Without grace, the sin of Adam or the original sin plagued humanity. Pelagius countered that through free will, we could choose not to sin if assisted by grace. For him, God’s creation was good, and he had made humankind in his image. In his writing Da Natura, Pelagius maintained that a child is born free from sin and that human nature is a God’s gift, consisting “primarily of the feeling, choosing, and doing the good”. To Pelagius, human beings are not irreducibly bound to the sin of Adam. We can choose good over evil.
Pelagius was seen as a threat to the expansion of a global church. He had to be ousted, and Augustine had the political power to outmanoeuvre his opponent. After repeated hearings in AD 418, Pope Zosimus issued a letter condemning Pelagius’s theology as heretical. But despite the official decree, Pelagius’s ideas have prevailed in the secular liberal humanist culture of the West, where we believe in free will and freedom of choice. In the writings of Pelagius, we discover a theological defence of human freedom, including the freedom to disagree without the inference of state or church. To some extent, our modern freedom was born out of this defence. If humans were free enough to save themselves, they must be given social and political freedom to actualise it fully.
*First Published in Touchstone June 2023