On July 3, 529, Caesarius of Arles presided over a synod in southern France that was intended to promote the teachings of his favorite theologian, Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Caesarius thought that his fellow church leaders in France had slipped from rigorous Augustinian orthodoxy toward the ideas of Augustine's most bitter enemy, Pelagius. The Synod of Orange was supposed to right the ship and dash Pelagianism once and for all. It didn't.
Augustine was notoriously pessimistic about the human capacity for good. He believed that original sin irreparably tainted all people, so that the only good they could ever do was the good God chose to do through them. He also believed that humans lack the sense or strength to turn to God. Thus it's entirely up to God to save whomever he elects (the doctrine of predestination).
Pelagius didn't like where this thinking led. He particularly objected to Augustine's prayer, "Command what you will, and give what you command." If good will and good action come only from God, Pelagius wondered, are people literally good for nothing? And won't people who are taught that they can't do anything right anyway respond with bad behavior? To preserve morality, and to give humanity some purpose, Pelagius taught that salvation and the Christian life require good use of human free will. He also denied both original sin and predestination.
After 25 years of verbal warfare, Augustine succeeded in getting Pelagianism condemned at the 431 Council of Ephesus. Pelagius, who had never been as "Pelagian" as his followers, had already retreated to a nomad's life in the East. The theology, though, lingered on as "Semi-Pelagianism." As David Allen wrote for Christian History's recent issue on Augustine:
In Provence, an area of southern France, a group of monks who had all spent time in the important monastery on the Isle of Lérins (opposite the modern resort of Cannes) set about correcting what they saw as the extremism of both Pelagius and Augustine.
John Cassian (360-433), while visiting Egypt to learn spiritual secrets from its famed monks and hermits, heard this from a wizened monk named Chaeremon: 'The grace of God always cooperates with our will for its advantage … and sometimes requires and looks for some effort of good will from it that it may not appear to confer its gifts on the sluggish.'
This is the earliest expression of what came to be known as Semi-Pelagianism—a view that Cassian embraced and later began to propagate. The key word is cooperation: no one can save himself but, by cooperating with the grace of God, salvation can be appropriated by anyone.
Other men, notably Vincent of Lérins and Faustus of Riez, took up Cassian's theme. Both of these men were dead by the time Caesarius and other Augustinians fought back at Orange, but Semi-Pelagianism had spread further than Caesarius realized—into the Augustinian camp. Allen notes, "even the synod backed away from some of Augustine's more extreme views: his belief that God's grace cannot be resisted and his severe interpretation of predestination were quietly dropped."
Eventually, more Augustinian objections to Pelagius were quietly dropped. A millennium after Orange, Martin Luther and company accused the entire Roman Catholic Church of going soft on sin and of diluting predestination with emphasis on good works. It seemed to Luther that while Augustine had won every specific battle with Pelagius, he had lost the war for orthodoxy. Whatever your view of Pelagianism, it shows that you just can't some ideas down.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
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Very little primary source material from Pelagius survives, except in fragments from Augustine, Jerome, and other anti-Pelagian writers.
The debate continues. See, for example, C. Stephen Evans's Books & Culture review of R.C. Sproul's Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Severe Success | Bernard of Clairvaux was a tough act to follow—yet thousands of Christians walked his path. (June 21, 2002)
Coming to America | Commentators who call proposed INS policies an unprecedented invasion of privacy forget what foreign visitors were asked 80 years ago, and why. (June 14, 2002)
When Pacifists Attack | 350 years ago, George Fox launched a powerful, peace-loving movement with an assault on established Christianity. (June 7, 2002)
Captive Christians | Views from inside Roman, English, and German prisons give a sense of how kidnapped missionaries might feel. (May 31, 2002)
Of Church, State, and Taxes | If you want to know what the establishment of religion looks like, check out church history, not American tax law. (May 17, 2002)
Mom, We Salute You | Mother's Day and Memorial Day were meant to go together. (May 10, 2002)
Christ, Culture, and History | Is the "main character" in the church's story God, transforming faith, or an inspired yet wayward community? (May 3, 2002)
Moving Targets | Evangelizing on-the-go Americans only seems harder than it used to be. (Apr. 26, 2002)
The Profligate Provocateur | In the twelfth century, an intellectual challenge to church authority proved much more dangerous than a sex scandal. (Apr. 19, 2002)
'Hier Stehe Ich!' | When Martin Luther stood up for his ideas at the Diet of Worms, did he really say, "Here I stand"? (April 12, 2002)
National Makeover | Washington's struggle to sell the American image overseas illustrates how sharply today's reality differs from seventeenth-century ideals. (Apr. 5, 2002)
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