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In our preceding article, we noted that the scene had shifted to Rome, in connection with the historical development of the Pelagian controversy, as presented by Philip Schaff in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, 797 ff. Pope Innocent expressed full agreement with the condemnation of Pelagius, Coelestius, and their adherents. However, Innocent died in 417 and Pope Zosimus, who succeeded him, at first agreed with the Pelagians and condemned the North African bishops for their attack upon and condemnation of Pelagius. The Africans, however, were too sure of their cause to yield submission to so weak a judgment as that of Zosimus, which was also in manifest conflict with that of Innocent. In a council of Carthage, in 417 or 418, they protested against this decision and gave him to understand that he was allowing himself to be greatly deceived by the indefinite explanations of Coelestius. Subsequently, Zosimus changed his opinion and pronounced the anathema upon Pelagius and Coelestius. We now conclude this historical presentation by Philip Schaff.

Julian, Coelestius, and other leaders of the exiled Pelagians, were hospitably received in Constantinople, in 429, by the patriarch Nestorius, who sympathized with their doctrine of the moral competency of the will, though not with their denial of original sin, and who interceded for them with the emperor and with Pope Celestine, but in vain. Theodosius, instructed by Marius Mercator in the merits of the case, commanded the heretics to leave the capital (429). Nestorius, in a still extant letter to Coelestius, accords to him the highest titles of honor, and comforts him with the examples of John the Baptist and the persecuted apostles. Theodore of Mapsuestia, the author of the Nestorian Christology, wrote in 419 a book against the Augustinian anthropology, of which fragments only are left. 

Of the subsequent life of Pelagius and Coelestius we have no account. The time and place of their death are entirely unknown. Julian is said to have ended his life a schoolmaster in Sicily, A.D. 450, after having sacrificed all his property for the poor during a famine. 

Pelagianism was thus, as early as about the year 430, externally vanquished. It never formed an ecclesiastical sect, but simply a theological school. It continued to have individual adherents in Italy till towards the middle of the fifth century, so that the Roman bishop, Leo the Great, found himself obliged to enjoin on the bishops by no means to receive any Pelagian to the communion of the church without an express recantation. 

At the third ecumenical council in Ephesus, A.D. 431 (the year after Augustine’s death), Pelagius (or more properly Coelestius) was put in the same category with Nestorius. And indeed there is a certain affinity between them: both favor an abstract separation of the divine and the human, the one in the person of Christ, the other in the work of conversion, forbidding all organic unity of life. According to the epistle of the council to Pope Celestine, the Western Acta against the Pelagians were read at Ephesus and approved, but we do not know in which session. We are also ignorant of the discussions attending this act. In the canons, Coelestius, it is true, is twice condemned together with Nestorius, but without statement of his teachings. 

The position of the Greek church upon this question is only negative; she has in name condemned Pelagianism, but has never received the positive doctrines of Augustine. She continued to teach synergistic or Semi-Pelagian views, without, however, entering into a deeper investigation of the relation of human freedom to divine grace.

Before we discuss the teachings of Pelagianism, we wish to make a remark in connection with the fact that Pelagianism has continued to assert itself throughout the history of the Church of God. It is true that the Pelagian system had been vanquished by Augustine, and rejected and condemned as heresy by the church. This result, however, did not in itself necessarily imply the complete approval of the Augustinian system. Many, even opponents of Pelagius, recoiled from a position so wide of the older fathers as Augustine’s doctrines of the bondage of man and the absolute election of grace, and preferred a middle ground. And it is simply a fact that Semi-Pelagianism let its presence be known in the church throughout the ages. And we are all familiar-with the fact that Roman Catholicism is certain Pelagian in its conception of sin and grace. Heresies never die; they will continue as long as man continues in the midst of this world. 


In an introductory statement, Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, 802, writes the following:

The peculiar anthropological doctrines (the doctrines concerning man—H.V.), which Pelagius clearly apprehended and put in actual practice, which Coelestius dialectically developed (logically developed), and bishop Julian most acutely defended, stand in close logical connection with each other, although they were not propounded in systematic form. They commend themselves at first sight by their simplicity, clearness, and plausibility, and faithfully express the superficial, self-satisfied morality of the natural man. They proceed from a merely empirical (experiential) view of human nature, which, instead of going to the source of moral life, stops with its manifestations, and regards every person, and every act of the will, as standing by itself, in no organic connection with a. great whole.

And then Philip Schaff proceeds to arrange the several doctrines of this Pelagian system according to the, great stages of the moral history of mankind. 

We wish to make a few comments at this time in connection with the above quoted paragraph. How true that the Pelagian system commends itself “at first sight by its simplicity and plausibility, and that it expresses the superficial and self-satisfied morality of the natural man! How simple and plausible Pelagianism is at first sight, and when viewed superficially! Pelagianism and Arminianism appear, at first glance, to be so logical! It is this view that emphasizes and does justice to man’s responsibility! How can man be responsible if the Lord be sovereign? How can the gospel be preached to him if he cannot will to be saved? How can he be held accountable for any action if it be impossible for him to do otherwise? To maintain the responsibility of man it is certainly necessary, is it not, to maintain the freedom of the will! Otherwise man is reduced to a stock and block! Of course, Pelagianism does not go through to the source of life, stops only with its manifestations. It does not consider the truth of Scripture, and the reality of life, that man is conceived and born dead in sins and in trespasses. And it certainly does not take into account the Scriptural truth that the Lord is God and He alone! How truly illogical it is to maintain that the dead sinner can choose both the good and the evil and determine his own destiny, and to deny the truth that the Lord is God and He alone! 

Concerning the Pelagian conception of the primitive state of mankind, and the doctrine of Freedom, Schaff writes the following, Vol. III, 802, ff.:

The doctrine of the primitive state of man holds a subordinate position in the system of Pelagius, but the doctrine of freedom is central; because in his view the primitive state substantially coincides with the present, while freedom is the characteristic prerogative of man, as a moral being, in all stages of his development.

This is understandable. Pelagius did not emphasize man’s original state, IN DICTINCTION FROM what man is now. He did not draw this distinction between what man was and what he is now. Fact is, according to Pelagius, man remained essentially the same, retained the same freedom of the will. Why, then, should he stress man’s original righteousness?

Adam, he taught, was created by God sinless, and entirely competent to all good with an immortal spirit and a mortal body. He was endowed with reason and free will. With his reason he was to have dominion over irrational creatures; with his free will he was to serve God. Freedom is the supreme good, the honor and glory of man, the corium naturae, that cannot be lost. It is the sole basis of the ethical relation of man to God, who would have no unwilling service. It consists, according to Pelagius, essentially in the liberum arbitrium, or the possibilitas boni et mali: the freedom of choice, and the absolutely equal ability at every moment to do good or evil. The ability to do evil belongs necessarily to freedom, because we cannot will good without at the same time being able to will evil. Without this power of contrary choice, the choice of good itself would lose its freedom, and therefore its moral value. Man is not a free, self-determining moral subject, until good and evil, life and death, have been given into his hand. Against this view of Pelagius, Augustine cites the declaration of our Lord,

Matt. 7:18,

that ‘a good tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor a corrupt tree good fruit.’

This is the only conception of freedom which Pelagius has. We realize, of course, that this is not the conception of freedom which is according to the Scriptures. For, in the first place, God is free. God Himself is free, is free in the highest, the absolute sense of the word. And that God is free certainly does not and cannot mean that He is free to do both, the good and the evil. Besides, the child of God will be free in the perfect sense of the word in everlasting and immortal glory. Now it is true that also Pelagius speaks of the blessed freedom of the children of God in the heavenly and everlasting state of glory. We will comment on this, the Lord willing, in our following article. We may observe at this time that Pelagius’ conception of this everlasting state of freedom is a far cry from that conception as taught us in the Word of God. Be all this as it may, the freedom of man as taught by Pelagius and advocated so universally today is surely not supported by the Word of God. 

According to Pelagius, freedom is in perpetual equipoise between good and evil, ready at any moment to turn either way. As Schaff expresses it: “It is without past or future; absolutely independent of everything without or within; a vacuum, which may make itself a plenum (fulness), and then become a vacuum again; a perpetual tabula rasa, upon which man can write whatsoever he pleases; a restless choice, which, after every decision, reverts to indecision and oscillation. The human will is, as it were, the eternal Hercules at the cross-road, who takes first a step to the right, then a step to the left, and ever returns to his former position. Pelagius knows only the antithesis of free choice and constraint; no stages of development, no transitions. He isolates the will from its acts, and the acts from each other, and overlooks the organic connection between habit and act.”