Writing on the external history of the Pelagian Controversy, A.D. 411-431, Philip Schaff, in Vol. III of his History of the Christian Church, 790ff., writes as follows:
Pelagius was a simple monk, born about the middle of the fourth century in Britain, the extremity of the then civilized world. His British name is said to have been Morgan, that is, of the sea. He was a man of clear intellect, mild disposition, learned culture, and spotless character; even Augustine, with all his abhorrence of his doctrines, repeatedly speaks respectfully of the man. Yet Augustine, not without reason, accused him of duplicity, on account of his conduct at the synod of Diopolis in Palestine, and Wiggers says of him: “It must be admitted that Pelagius was not always sufficiently straight forward; that he did not always express his views without ambiguity; that, in fact, he sometimes in synods condemned opinions which were manifestly his own.” He studied the Greek theology, especially that of the Antichian school, and early showed great zeal for the improvement of himself and of the world. But his morality was not so much the rich, deep life of faith, as it was the external legalism, the ascetic self-discipline and self-righteousness of monkery, It was characteristic, that, even before the controversy, he took great offence at the well-known saying of Augustine: “Give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt.” He could not conceive, that the power to obey the commandment must come from the same source as the commandment itself. Faith, with him, was hardly more than a theoretical belief; the main thing in religion was moral action, the keeping of the commandments of God by one’s own strength (of course, this is impossible. If and when we attempt to keep the commandments of the Lord in our own strength, then the fruit will be a merely external deportment, and this is an abomination in the sight of God—H.V.). This is also shown in the introductory remarks of his letter to Demetrias, a noble Roman nun, of the gens Anicia, in which he describes a model virgin as a proof of the excellency of human nature: “As often as I have to speak concerning moral improvement and the leading of a holy life, I am accustomed first to set forth the power and quality of human nature, and to show what it can accomplish. For never are we able to enter upon the path of the virtues, unless hope, as companion, draws us to them. For every longing after anything dies within us, so soon as we despair of attaining that thing.”
In the year 409, Pelagius, already advanced in life, was in Rome, and composed a brief commentary on the Epistles of Paul. This commentary, which has been preserved among the works of Jerome, displays a clear and sober exegetical talent. He labored quietly and peacefully for the improvement of the corrupt morals of Rome, and converted the advocate Coelestius, of distinguished, but otherwise unknown birth, to his monastic life, and to his views. It was from this man, younger, more skillful in argument, more ready for controversy, and more rigorously consistent than his teacher, that the controversy took its rise. Pelagius was the moral author, Coelestius the intellectual author, of the system represented by them. They did not mean actually to found a new system, but believed themselves in accordance with Scripture and established doctrine. They were more concerned with the ethical side of Christianity than with the dogmatic; but their endeavor after moral perfection was based upon certain views of the natural power of the will, and these views proved to be in conflict with anthropological principles which had been developed in the African church for the previous ten years under the influence of Augustine.
In the year, 411, the two friends, thus united in sentiment, left Rome, to escape the dreaded Gothic King Alaric, and went to Africa. They passed through Hippo, intending to visit Augustine, but found that he was just then at Carthage, occupied with the Donatists. Pelagius wrote him a very courteous letter, which Augustine answered in a similar tone; intimating, however, the importance of holding the true doctrine concerning sin. “Pray for me,” he said, “that God may really make me that which you already take me to be.” Pelagius soon proceeded to Palestine. Coelestius applied for presbyters’ orders in Carthage, the very place where he had most reason to expect opposition. This inconsiderate step brought on the crisis. He gained many friends, it is true, by his talents and his ascetic zeal, but at the same time awakened suspicion by his novel opinions.
The deacon Paulinus of Milan, who was just then in Carthage, and who shortly afterwards at the request of Augustine wrote the life of Ambrose, warned the bishop Aurelius against Coelestius, and at a council held by Aurelius at Carthage in 412, appeared as his accuser. Six or seven errors, he asserted he had found in the writings of Coelestius:
1. Adam was created mortal, and would have died, even if he had not sinned.
2. Adam’s fall injured himself alone,’ not the human race.
3. Children come in the world in the same condition in which Adam was before the fall.
4. The human race neither dies in consequence of Adam’s fall, nor rises again in consequence of Christ’s resurrection.
5. Unbaptized children, as well as others, are saved.
6. The law, as well as the gospel, leads to the kingdom of heaven.
7. Even before Christ there were sinless men.
The principal propositions were the second and third, which are intimately connected, and which afterwards became the especial subject of controversy.
Coelestius returned evasive answers. He declared the propositions to be speculative questions of the schools, which did not concern the substance of the faith, and respecting which different opinions existed in the church. He refused to recant the errors charged upon him, and the synod excluded him from the communion of the church. He immediately went to Ephesus, and was there ordained presbyter.
Augustine had taken no part personally in these transactions. But as the Pelagian doctrines
found many adherents even in Africa and in Sicily, he wrote several treatises in refutation of them so early as 412 and 415, expressing himself, however, with respect and forbearance.
Then, writing on the Pelagian Controversy in Palestine, Philip Schaff continues and writes as follows:
Meanwhile, in 414, the controversy broke out in Palestine, where Pelagius was residing, and where he had aroused attention by a letter to the nun Demetrias. His opinions gained much wider currency there, especially among the Origenists; for the Oriental church had not been at all affected by the Augustinian views, and accepted the two ideas of freedom and grace, without attempting to define their precise relation to each other. But just then there happened to be in Palestine two Western theologians, Jerome and Orosius; and they instituted opposition to Pelagius (how Divinely providential, that these men “happened” at that time to be in Palestine—H.V.).
Jerome, who lived a monk at Bethlehem, was at first decidedly favorable to the synergistic theory of the Greek fathers (that God and man must cooperate. The freedom of the will was rather widely accepted in the very early church—H.V.), but at the same time agreed with Ambrose and Augustine in the doctrine of the absolutely universal corruption of sin. But from an enthusiastic admirer of Origen he had been changed to a bitter enemy. The doctrine of Pelagius concerning free will and the ,moral ability of human nature he attributed to the influence of Origen and Rufinus; and he took as a personal insult an attack of Pelagius on some of his writings. He therefore wrote against him, though from wounded pride and contempt he did not even mention his name; first in a letter answering inquiries of a certain Ctesiphon at Rome (415; then more at length in a dialogue of three books against the Pelagians, written towards the end of the year 415, and soon after the acquittal of Pelagius by the synod of Jerusalem. Yet in this treatise and elsewhere Jerome himself teaches the freedom of the will, and only a conditional predestination of divine foreknowledge, and thus, with all his personal bitterness against the Pelagians, stands on Semi-Pelagian ground, though Augustine eulogizes the dialogue.
A young Spanish ecclesiastic, Paul Orosius, was at that time living with Jerome for the sake of more extended study, and had been sent to him by Augustine with letters relating to the Origenistic and Pelagian controversy.
At a diocesan synod, convoked by the bishop John of Jerusalem in June, 415, this Orosius appeared against Pelagius, and gave information that a council at Carthage had condemned Coelestius, and that Augustine had written against his errors. Pelagius answered with evasion and disparagement: “What matters Augustine to me?” Orosius gave his opinion, that a man who presumed to speak contumeliously of the bishop to whom the whole North African church owed her restoration (alluding apparently to the settlement of the Donatist controversies), deserved to be excluded from the communion of the whole church. John, who was a great admirer of the condemned Origen, and made little account of the authority of Augustine, declared: “I am Augustine,” and undertook the defense of the accused. He permitted Pelagius, although only a monk and layman, to take his seat among the presbyters. Nor did he find fault with Pelagius’ assertion, that man can easily keep the commandments of God, and become free from sin, after the latter had conceded, in a very indefinite manner, that for this the help of God is necessary. Pelagius had the advantage of understanding both languages, while John spoke only Greek, Orosius only Latin, and the interpreter often translated inaccurately. 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. Meanwhile these should refrain from all further attacks on each other.
The Lord willing, we will continue with this in our following article. This Pelagian controversy, also as far as its historical development is concerned, must be of great interest to us. At this time, we would make one remark. John, we read, did not find fault with Pelagius’ assertion that man can easily keep the commandments of God, and become free from sin, after Pelagius had conceded, in a very indefinite manner, that for this the help of God was necessary. This only proves that we must be so very careful when dealing with heretics. We must never be led astray by any pious remarks which they may make. These so-called pious remarks can never undo the wrong they declare and teach.