Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The year 2018 marked the sixteen-hundredth anniversary of the excommunication of one of Christianity’s most famous heretics: the fifth-century monk Pelagius, who gave his name to “Pelagianism,” the set of beliefs that denies the doctrine of original sin and the need for grace in order to live a virtuous life and attain salvation.

A Council of Carthage in then-Christian North Africa condemned Pelagius and Pelagianism in 418. The Council of Ephesus in 431 confirmed the condemnation. Anti-Pelagianism thrived during the Reformation and its aftermath. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England specifically rejected Pelagianism. Early Lutheran and Calvinist tracts, affirmed in a series of Protestant synods, featured denunciations of Pelagius, whose teachings were taken to be implied in the “works righteousness” (indulgences and other ­practices) of the Catholic Church in the Late Middle Ages. On the Counter-­Reformation side, in 1546, the Council of Trent denounced ­Pelagianism as well.

That was then. Recent years have seen a campaign to turn the tables on traditional orthodoxy and make Pelagius into a saint, or at least a respectable Christian. He has attracted defenders because his theological archenemy, a chief figure in the Council of Carthage, was ­Augustine (354–430), bishop of Hippo in ­Numidia (today’s Algeria). Augustine is out of favor with liberal-minded moderns these days. He taught that infants are marked by Adam’s sin, and he speculated that original sin is transmitted by the act of procreation, thus ­marring the goodness of the reproductive act. Because of Adam’s fall, human sexuality has an unruly quality that cannot be tamed by reason or the will. Without God’s grace, man is a “slave of lust.”

Augustine is at odds with our prevailing climate of opinion, which regards obedience to the will of God as servility, the idea of eternal damnation as unspeakably cruel, and mankind as essentially a race of good people held back only by reactionary political attitudes and unjust social structures. Such views have turned Pelagius into a modern hero, a progressive before his time. As Michael Axworthy wrote in the New Statesman last December, those living in the “liberal, humanist culture of western Europe today . . . believe in free will, in the perfectibility of mankind, in the ability of people to make the right choices, do good, and to make things better.” We are, in a word, Pelagians.

Axworthy is not alone. Harvard literature professor Stephen ­Greenblatt has lauded Pelagius and his followers as “moral optimists,” denying that the descendants of Adam and Eve are condemned “inescapably to sinfulness.” Pelagians rightly ask a simple question, Greenblatt insists: “Why would a benevolent God permit something so monstrous?”Scholars trace Pelagius’s origins to the British Isles. This encourages contemporary liberal Christians to associate him with the supposedly easygoing “Celtic” Christianity at odds with the rigidly hierarchical Church of Rome. Peter Berresford Ellis’s Sister Fidelma mystery series and the 2004 film King Arthur present Pelagius as a laid-back holy man, not a moralistic killjoy representing institutional Christianity. In 2011, the Episcopal diocese of Atlanta entertained a motion to reverse Pelagius’s condemnation, arguing he was a “viable theological voice within our tradition” that might “encourage a deeper understanding of sin, grace, free will, and the goodness of God’s creation.” (The motion failed.) In her 2018 book The Myth of Pelagianism, Ali Bonner, a lecturer in Celtic history at Cambridge University, administers a coup de grâce. She argues that the Pelagian heresy never actually existed, but was, rather, a polemical fabrication of Augustine, who used it to establish his own grim theology of human sin as orthodoxy.

As for the historical Pelagius, we know little about him except that he took up residence in Rome around the year 380, where he led an ascetic life and taught a growing number of disciples. After the Visigoth Alaric destroyed most of Rome in 410, ­Pelagius fled across the Mediterranean to Carthage, and then to Palestine. After his condemnation in 418, he disappears from the historical record, leaving behind a body of writings that display considerable erudition in Latin and Greek. ­Bonner argues—and she is hardly the first—that Pelagius’s teachings were perfectly orthodox, quite in line with existing ascetic traditions. A local bishops’ synod in Palestine exonerated Pelagius. Also, in a letter to Pope Zosimus (r. 417–418) Pelagius begs for a reversal of his excommunication, claiming that he did indeed see a role for God’s grace in aiding the human will. In truth, much of the fury of the North African bishops and the rancor of Augustine was directed toward two of Pelagius’s disciples, ­Caelestius and Julian of Eclanum, who were more truculently “Pelagian” than their master.

But this is not what concerns those who wish to champion Pelagius in the twenty-first century. They are not interested in Pelagius’s relationship to Christian orthodoxy. What attracts their attention is his usefulness as a stick for beating Augustine. Indeed, progressives have tended to paint Augustine’s theology of sin and predestination in dark hues that verge on caricature. Elaine Pagels followed her best-­selling The Gnostic Gospels (1979) with Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988), a study of Augustine and his effect on Western Christianity. She is one of many liberal-minded religious scholars heavily influenced by the ­theories of Walter Bauer (1877–1960), a German theologian whose most famous book, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934), argued that there was no such thing as orthodoxy or heresy during the first few centuries. Instead, there was a diversity of conflicting local belief systems (“Christianities,” as later scholars would call them) vying for dominance and deeming the others heretical to gain an upper hand. What came to be called “orthodox” was thus nothing more than the set of beliefs that won out in a political power struggle—typically because of the victors’ political power.

Pagels argues that this dynamic characterized the ascendancy of Augustine’s theology. His theory of original sin “was a radical departure from previous Christian doctrine, and many Christians found it pernicious,” she claims. Augustine’s “theory of human depravity” dovetails nicely with Augustine’s increasing awareness that he could “manipulate” an “alliance” for himself as bishop “with the repressive power of the state” to punish heretics. Augustine exploited the fact that “church and state had become ­inextricably interdependent.” ­Augustine scholar Peter Brown has taken issue with this pronouncement, arguing that paganism was still an important political and social force during the early fifth century and that the interests of church and state—terms that are in many ways ­anachronistic—were by no means congruent. But ­Pagels contends ­otherwise:

By insisting that humanity, ravaged by sin, now lies helplessly in need of outside intervention, Augustine’s theory could not only validate secular power but justify as well the imposition of church authority—by force, if necessary—as essential for human salvation.

Here, Pelagius becomes a useful bludgeon. Pagels once accepted “the conventional orthodox view of ­Pelagius and his followers as superficial rationalists who stubbornly and inexplicably resisted the deeper truths of Augustinian theology”—but after “investigating Augustine’s views,” she has changed her mind. ­Pelagius was nearer to the truth than a ­discredited Augustine.

Pagels established the template for analyzing Augustine in astonishingly negative terms. In 2005, James O’Donnell published Augustine: A New Biography. On nearly every page, O’Donnell mocks Augustine as neurotic and eccentric, refusing, for example, to dignify with an initial capital the God that ­Augustine worshiped, theorizing that, as he wrote, “Augustine’s god was off the charts,” by which he means heterodox. He summarizes Augustine’s views on predestination as the result of psychological distress: “The reverse of . . . hope, the possibility of divine arbitrariness and injustice, the possibility that suffering is arbitrary and release an illusion, is the thing Augustine most fears might be true.” In his criticisms of Pelagius’s disciple Julian, O’Donnell says that Augustine manifested “the unrealistic extremes to which he took his suspicion of marriage, sexuality, and the fundamental processes of the human body.” As for Pelagius, “A modern reader is probably inclined to root for Pelagius. Certainly very, very few readers except the most devout Calvinist will find themselves agreeing with the Augustinian view, even in a notional sense.”

Ali Bonner championed a gentle, erudite, supremely reasonable “St. Pelagius.” By her account, the Celt was relentlessly persecuted by Augustine for the sole crime of trying to persuade his readers that human beings “are inclined to moral goodness as a result of man having been ­created in God’s image.” Bonner reduces ­Augustine’s theology to what she calls “the triune”: a lethal troika consisting of rigid, heartless predestination, pessimistic original sin, and “prevenient grace” that God dispenses arbitrarily. She argues that Augustine invented ­Pelagianism as a “camouflage” for the sole purpose of imposing the ­triune and turning it into Christian orthodoxy. This is a monstrous injustice, she argues. ­Pelagius and his followers were simply urging Christians to lead Christian lives in line with Christian ascetic tradition. Pelagius was a straw man, Bonner contends, a convenient scapegoat: “In order to create rules it is imperative to secure the conviction of an individual for breaking those rules.” It was “the invention of heresy in order to relocate orthodoxy.”

In Bonner, we find the true reasons behind this historical revisionism. The rhetorical battle between Pelagius and Augustine boiled down to a political struggle between “ascetic Christians seeking imitation of Christ’s way of life as near perfect as they could achieve in a situation of autonomy,” versus “bishops wanting to extend their control over all Christians through control of access to salvation.” Augustine is the big, bad wolf of “authoritarianism,” while Pelagius is the great patron of authenticity, diversity, and other postmodern gods. The resurrection of Pelagius is, at bottom, a renunciation of Augustine’s vision of God and man, which is to say, the justification of our modern selves. 

Charlotte Allen taught medieval history and literature at the Catholic University of America.