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§ 147. External History of the Pelagian Controversy, A.D. 411–431.


Pelagius17061706    His British name is said to have been Morgan, that is, Of the sea, Marigena, in Greek Πελάγιος. was a simple monk, born about the middle of the fourth century in Britain, the extremity of the then civilized world. 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.17071707    Comp. the passages where Augustinespeaks of Pelagius, in Wiggers, l. c. i. p. 35 f. Yet Augustine, not without reason, accuses him of duplicity, on account of his conduct at the synod of Diospolis in Palestine. Wiggers (i. p. 40) says of him: “it must be admitted that Pelagius was not always sufficiently straightforward; that he did not always express his views without ambiguity; that, in fact, he sometimes in synods condemned opinions which were manifestly his own. This may have arisen, it is true, in great part from his love of peace and the slight value which he attached to theoretical opinions.” He studied the Greek theology, especially that of the Antiochian 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.”17081708    “Da quod jubes, et jube quod vis,” Confess. l. x. c. 29, et passim. Augustinehimself relates the above-mentioned fact, De dono persev. c. 20 (or § 53, tom. x. f. 851): “Quae mea verba, Pelagius Romae, cum a quodam fratre et coëpiscopo meo fuissent eo praesente commemorata, ferre non potuit, et contradicens aliquanto commotius pene cum eo, qui illa commemoraverat, litigavit.” 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. 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.17091709    “Soleo prius humanae naturae vim qualitatemque monstrare, et quid efficere possit, ostendere.” Ep. ad Demetr. c. 2. 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.17101710    It found its way among the works of Jerome(tom. xi. ed. Vallars., and in Migne’s edition, tom. xi. f. 643-902) before the breaking out of the controversy, but has received doctrinal emendations from Cassiodorus, at least in the Epistle to the Romans. The confounding of Pelagius with Jeromearose partly from his accommodation to the ecclesiastical terminology, partly from his actual agreement with the prevailing tendency of monasticism. It is remarkable that both wrote an ascetic letter to the nun Demetrias. Comp. Jerome, Ep. 130 (ed. Vallarsi, and Migne, or 97 in the Bened. ed.) ad Demetriadem de servanda Virginitate (written in 414). She had also correspondence with Augustine. Semler has published the letters of Augustine, Jerome, and Pelagius to Demetrias in a separate form (Halle, 1775). Some have also ascribed to Pelagius the ascetic Epistola ad Celantiam matronam de ratione pie vivendi, which, like his Ep. ad Demetriadem, has found its way into the Epistles of Jerome(Ep. 148 in Vallarsi’s ed. tom. i. 1095, and in Migne’s ed. tom. i. 1204). The monasticism of Pelagius, however, was much cooler, more sober, and more philosophical than that of the enthusiastic Jerome, inclined as he was to all manner of extravagances. 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 skilful 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.17111711    To this extent Pelagius and Coelestius appear to sustain a relation to Pelagianism similar to that which Dr. Pusey and John Henry Newman did to Puseyism. Jerome(in his letter to Ctesiphon) says of Coelestius, that he was, although the disciple of Pelagius, yet teacher and leader of the whole array (magister et totius ductor exercitus). Augustinecalls Pelagius more dissembling and crafty, Coelestius more frank and open (De peccato orig. c. 12). Marius Mercator ascribes to Coelestius an incredibilis loquacitas. But Augustineand Julianof Eclanum also mutually reproach each other with a vagabunda loquacitas. 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 412,17121712    According to Mansi and the common view. The brothers Ballerini and Hefele (ii. 91) decide in favor of the year 411. The incomplete Acta of the council are found in Mansi, tom. iv. fol. 289 sqq., and in the Commonitorium Marii Mercatoris ibidem, f. 293. 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 into 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.17131713    Marius Mercator, it is true, does not cite this proposition among the others, f. 292, but he brings it up subsequently, f. 296: “In ipsa autem accusatione capitulorum, quae eidem Pelagio tum objecta sunt, etiam haec continentur, cum aliis execrandis, quae Coelestius ejus discipulus sentiebat, id est, infantes etiamsi non baptizentur, habere vitam aeternam.”

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.17141714    De peccatorum meritis et remissione; De spiritu et liters; De natura et gratia; De perfectione justitiae hominis.



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