Quoting Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church in connection with the history of this Pelagian controversy, we were calling attention in our preceding article to this controversy as it developed in Palestine. We called attention to a diocesan synod which was convoked by the bishop John of Jerusalem in June of 415. At this synod a certain Orosius appeared against Pelagius, and he gave information that a council at Carthage had condemned Coelestius (a disciple of Pelagius), and that Augustine had written against his errors. Pelagius answered with evasion and disparagement: “What matters Augustine to me?” John was a great admirer of the condemned Origen, and cared little for the authority of Augustine. After much discussion it was resolved that the matter should be laid before the Roman bishop, Innocent, since both parties in the controversy belonged to the Western church. And both parties were admonished to refrain from further attacks upon each other. We now continue with this quotation in regard to this controversy in Palestine.
A second Palestinian council resulted still more favorably to Pelagius. This consisted of fourteen bishops, and was held at Diopolis or Lydda, in December of the same year (415), under the presidency of Eulogius, bishop of Caesarea, to judge of an accusation preferred by two banished bishops of Gaul, Heros and Lazarus, acting in concert with Jerome. The charges were unskillfully drawn up, and Pelagius was able to avail himself of equivocations, and to condemn as folly, though not as heresy, the teachings of Coelestius, which were also his own. The synod, of which John of Jerusalem was a member, did not go below the surface of the question, nor in fact understand it, but acquitted the accused of all heresy. Jerome is justified in calling this a “miserable synod”; although Augustine is also warranted in saying: “It was not heresy, that was there acquitted, but the man who denied the heresy.”
Jerome’s polemical zeal against the Pelagians cost him dear. In the beginning of the year 416, a mob of Pelagianizing monks, ecclesiastics, and vagabonds broke into his monastery at Bethlehem, maltreated the inmated, set the building on fire, and compelled the aged scholar to take to flight. Bishop John of Jerusalem let this pass unpunished. No wonder that Jerome, even during the last years of his life, in several epistles indulges in occasional sallies of anger against Pelagius, whom he calls a second Catiline.
Let us pause here in this quotation and make a few remarks. Striking is the observation of Augustine, that not heresy but the man was acquitted at this council held in December of 415. Notice, too, that Pelagius was able to avail himself of equivocations. How often does it not happen in the history of the church that heretics are judged, either condemned or acquitted and justified, not in the light of their heretical teachings, but in the light of their personalities! As Augustine remarked: It was not heresy that was there acquitted, but the man who denied the heresy. And how often it has happened in the history of the church that heretics avail themselves of equivocations, of using terminology that permits more than one meaning! The apostle Paul refers exactly to this when he writes in Eph. 4:14: “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” Literally, in this text, the apostle speaks of heretics that they exercise sleight and cunning craftiness, that, in cunning craftiness, they imply deceit, introducing into the church of God a method of error, and drawing it up in such a way that it is difficult for the people of God to discern truth from error. They do this deliberately. Pelagius was guilty of the same hypocrisy.
Now the scene shifts once more to Rome. Writing on the position of the Roman Church and of the condemnation of Pelagianism, Schaff writes as follows (we understand, of course, that the “Roman Church” here does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church but to the church at Rome in those early days of the New Dispensation):
The question took another turn when it was brought before the Roman see. Two North African synods, in 416, one at Carthage and one at Mileve (now Mela), again condemned the Pelagian error, and communicated their sentence to pope Innocent. A third and more confidential letter was addressed to him by five African bishops, of whom Augustine was one. Pelagius also sent him a letter and a confession of faith, which, however, were not received in due time.
Innocent understood both the controversy and the interests of the Roman see. He commended the Africans for having addressed themselves to the church of St. Peter, before which it was seemly that all the affairs of Christendom should be brought; he expressed his full agreement with the condemnation of Pelagius, Coelestius, and their adherents; but he refrained from giving judgment respecting the synod of Diopolis.
But soon afterwards (in 417) Innocent died, and was succeeded by Zosimus, who was apparently of Oriental extraction (417-418). At this juncture, a letter from Pelagius to Innocent was received, in which he complained of having suffered wrong, and gave assurance of his orthodoxy. Coelestius appeared personally in Rome, and succeeded by his written and oral explanations to satisfy Zosimus. He, like Pelagius, demonstrated with great fulness his orthodoxy on points not at all in question, represented the actually controverted points as unimportant questions of the schools, and professed himself, if in error, to be corrected by the judgment of the Roman bishop.
We wish to pause here a moment. How characteristic of heretics! Coelestius demonstrated with great fulness his orthodoxy on points not at all in question! This means, of course, that he evaded the question. He declared that the points of controversy were unimportant questions of the schools, not at all basic! And, in all humility, he declared himself ready, if in error, to be corrected by the judgment of the Roman bishop! It is always the sleight of men and their cunning craftiness which operate in all the activities of these heretics. And now we continue with the quotation.
Zosimus, who evidently had no independent theological opinion whatever, now issued (417) to the North African bishops an encyclical letter accompanied by the documentary evidence, censuring them for not having investigated the matter more thoroughly, and for having aspired, in foolish, overcurious controversies, to know more than the Holy Scriptures. At the same time he bore emphatic testimony to the orthodoxy of Pelagius and Coelestius, and described their chief opponents, Heros and Lazarus, as worthless characters, whom he had visited with excommunication and deposition. They in Rome, he says, could hardly refrain from tears, that such men, who so often mentioned the gratia Die and the adjutorium divinum, should have been condemned as heretics. Finally he entreated the bishops to submit themselves to the authority of the Roman see.
This temporary favor of the bishop of Rome towards the Pelagian heresy is a, significant presage of the indulgence of later popes for Pelagianizing tendencies, and of the papal condemnation of Jansenism (Jansen, born in 1585, because of his continuous reading of the writings of Augustine, came to the conviction that the Roman Catholic theologians had departed from the doctrines of the primitive Church, and in 1621 he resolved to work for reform.—H.V.).
The Africans were too sure of their cause, to yield submission to so weak a judgment, which, moreover, was in manifest conflict with that of Innocent (Rome today teaches that the popes are and have always been infallible. How, then, could these 2 popes contradict each other?—H.V.). In a council at Carthage, in 417 or 418, they protested, respectfully but decidedly, against the decision of Zosimus, and gave him to understand that he was allowing himself to be greatly deceived by the indefinite explanations of Coelestius. In a general African council held at Carthage in 418, the bishops, over two hundred in number, defined their opposition to the Pelagian errors, in eight (or nine) Canons, which are entirely conformable to the Augustinian view. They are in the following tenor:
1. Whosoever says, that Adam was created mortal, and would, even without sin, have -died by natural necessity, let him be anathema.
2. Whoever rejects infant baptism, or denies original sin in children, so that the baptismal formula, “for the remission of sins,” would have to be taken not in a strict, but in a loose sense, let him be anathema.
3. Whoever says, that in the kingdom of heaven, or elsewhere, there is a certain middle place, where children dying without baptism live happy, while yet without baptism they cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven, i.e., into eternal life, let him be anathema (How striking this is! The Romish church of today teaches this. Is it not striking that this current error of Rome should have been advanced by the Pelagians, by Pelagius and Coelestius?—H.V.).
The fourth canon condemns the doctrine that the justifying grace of God merely effects the forgiveness of sins already committed; and the remaining canons condemn other superficial views of the grace of God and the sinfulness of man.
At the same time the Africans succeeded in procuring from the emperor Honorius edicts against the Pelagians.
These things produced a change in the opinions of Zosimus, and about the middle of the year 418, he issued an encyclical letter to all the. bishops of both East and West, pronouncing the anathema upon Pelagius and Coelestius (who had meanwhile left Rome), and declaring his concurrence With the decisions of the council of Carthage in the doctrine of the corruption of human nature, of baptism, and of grace. Whoever refused to subscribe the encyclical, was to be deposed, banished from his church, and deprived of his property.
Eighteen bishops of Italy refused to subscribe, and were deposed. Several of these afterwards recanted, and were restored.
The most distinguished one of them, however, the bishop Julian, of Eclanum, a small place near Capua in Campania, remained steadfast till his death, and in banishment vindicated his principles with great ability and zeal against Augustine, to whom he attributed all the misfortunes of his party, and who elaborately confuted him. Julian was the most learned, the most acute, and the most systematic of the Pelagians, and the most formidable opponent of Augustine; deserving respect for his talents, his uprightness of life, and his immovable fidelity to his convictions, but unquestionably censurable for excessive passion and overbearing pride.
The Lord willing, we will conclude this history of the Pelagian controversy in our following article, and then call attention to the Pelagian system.