Pelagianism is a theological theory named after Pelagius (AD 354 – AD 420/440), although he denied, at least at some point in his life, many of the doctrines associated with his name. It is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special Divine aid. Thus, Adam's sin was "to set a bad example" for his progeny, but his actions did not have the other consequences imputed to original sin. Pelagianism views the role of Jesus as "setting a good example" for the rest of humanity (thus counteracting Adam's bad example) as well as providing an atonement for our sins. In short, humanity has full control, and thus full responsibility, for obeying the Gospel in addition to full responsibility for every sin (the latter insisted upon by both proponents and opponents of Pelagianism). According to Pelagian doctrine, because humans are sinners by choice, they are therefore criminals who need the atonement of Jesus Christ. Sinners are not victims, they are criminals who need pardon.

Pelagianism stands in contrast to two other prominent theological theories: Semipelagianism and Total Depravity.



Pelagius was opposed by Saint Augustine, one of the most influential early Church Fathers. When Pelagius taught that moral perfection was attainable in this life without the assistance of divine grace through human free will, Saint Augustine contradicted this by saying that perfection was impossible without grace because we are born sinners with a sinful heart and will. The Pelagians charged Augustine on the grounds that the doctrine of original sin amounted to Manichaeism: the Manichaeans taught that the flesh was in itself sinful (and they denied that Jesus came in the flesh) – and this charge would have carried added weight since contemporaries knew that Augustine himself had been a Manichaean layman before his conversion to Christianity. Augustine also taught that a person's salvation comes solely through an irresistible free gift, the efficacious grace of God, but that this was a gift that one had a free choice to accept or refuse.[1]

Pelagianism was attacked in the Council of Diospolis (also known as Lydda; modern Lod)[2] and condemned in 418 at the Council of Carthage.[3] These condemnations were ratified at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The strict moral teachings of the Pelagians were influential in southern Italy and Sicily, where they were openly preached until the death of Julian of Eclanum in 455, and in Britain until the coming of Saint Germanus of Auxerre.[4]

In De causa Dei contra Pelagium et de virtute causarum, Thomas Bradwardine denounced Pelagians in the 14th century and Gabriel Biel did the same in the 15th century.[3]


Little or nothing is known about the life of Pelagius. Although he is frequently referred to as a British monk, it is by no means certain what his origins were. Augustine says that he lived in Rome "for a very long time" and referred to him as "Brito" to distinguish him from a different man called Pelagius of Tarentum. Bede refers to him as "Pelagius Bretto".[5] St. Jerome suggests he was of Scottish descent but in such terms as to leave it uncertain as to whether Pelagius was from Scotland or Ireland. He was certainly well known in the Roman province, both for the harsh asceticism of his public life, as well as the power and persuasiveness of his speech. Until his more radical ideas saw daylight, even such pillars of the Church as Augustine referred to him as “saintly.”

Pelagius taught that the human will, as created with its abilities by God, was sufficient to live a sinless life, although he believed that God's grace assisted every good work. Pelagius did not believe that all humanity was guilty in Adam's sin, but said that Adam had condemned humankind through bad example, and that Christ’s good example offered humanity a path to salvation, through sacrifice and through instruction of the will. Jerome emerged as one of the chief critics of Pelagianism, because, according to him, sin was a part of human nature and we couldn't help but to sin.

Comparison of teaching

Church Fathers on free will

Many of the Church Fathers taught that humans have the power of free will and the choice over good and evil. Justin Martyr said that 'every created being is so constituted as to be capable of vice and virtue. For he can do nothing praiseworthy, if he had not the power of turning either way'. 'Unless we suppose man has the power to choose the good and refuse the evil, no one can be accountable for any action whatever.' (The First Apology, 43). Tertullian also argued that no reward can be justly bestowed, no punishment can be justly inflicted, upon him who is good or bad by necessity, and not by his own choice. (Doctrine of the Will by Asa Mahan, p. 61). Likewise Origen,[6] and Clement of Alexandria[7]

Justin Martyr said, “Let some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever occurs happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain. We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Now, if this is not so, but all things happen by fate, then neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it is predetermined that this man will be good, and this other man will be evil, neither is the first one meritorious nor the latter man to be blamed. And again, unless the human race has the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions.”[8]

Justin Martyr said, “I have proven in what has been said that those who were foreknown to be unrighteous, whether men or angels, are not made wicked by God’s fault. Rather, each man is what he will appear to be through his own fault.”[9]

Tatian said, “We were not created to die. Rather, we die by our own fault. Our free will has destroyed us. We who were free have become slaves. We have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God. We ourselves have manifested wickedness. But we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it.”[10]

Melito said, “There is, therefore, nothing to hinder you from changing your evil manner to life, because you are a free man.”[11]

Theophilus said, “If, on the other hand, he would turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he would himself be the cause of death to himself. For God made man free, and with power of himself.”[12]

Irenaeus said, “But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect similar to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself his own cause that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff.”[12]

Irenaeus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds’…And ‘Why call me, Lord, Lord, and do not do the things that I say?’…All such passages demonstrate the independent will of man…For it is in man’s power to disobey God and to forfeit what is good.”[13]

Clement of Alexandria said, “We…have believed and are saved by voluntary choice.”[14]

Tertullian said, “I find, then, that man was constituted free by God. He was master of his own will and power…For a law would not be imposed upon one who did not have it in his power to render that obedience which is due to law. Nor again, would the penalty of death be threatened against sin, if a contempt of the law were impossible to man in the liberty of his will…Man is free, with a will either for obedience or resistance.[15]

Pelagius's views

Regarding this issue, Pelagius taught:

“Whenever I have to speak on the subject of moral instruction and conduct of a holy life, it is my practice first to demonstrate the power and quality of human nature and to show what it is capable of achieving, and then to go on to encourage the mind of my listener to consider the idea of different kinds of virtues, in case it may be of little or no profit to him to be summoned to pursue ends which he has perhaps assumed hitherto to be beyond his reach; for we can never end upon the path of virtue unless we have hope as our guide and compassion…any good of which human nature is capable has to be revealed, since what is shown to be practicable must be put into practice."[16]

"It was because God wished to bestow on the rational creature the gift of doing good of his own free will and the capacity to exercise free choice, by implanting in man the possibility of choosing either alternative...he could do either quite naturally and then bend his will in the other direction too. He could not claim to possess the good of his own volition, unless he was the kind of creature that could also have possessed evil. Our most excellent creator wished us to be able to do either but actually to do only one, that is, good, which he also commanded, giving us the capacity to do evil only so that we might do His will by exercising our own. That being so, this very capacity to do evil is also good - good, I say, because it makes the good part better by making it voluntary and independent, not bound by necessity but free to decide for itself."[17]

"Those who are unwilling to correct their own way of life appear to want to correct nature itself instead."[18]

"And lest, on the other hand, it should be thought to be nature's fault that some have been unrighteous, I shall use the evidence of the scripture, which everywhere lay upon sinners the heavy weight of the charge of having used their own will and do not excuse them for having acted only under constraint of nature."[19]

"Yet we do not defend the good of nature to such an extent that we claim that it cannot do evil, since we undoubtedly declare also that it is capable of good and evil; we merely try to protect it from an unjust charge, so that we may not seem to be forced to do evil through a fault of our nature, when, in fact, we do neither good nor evil without the exercise of our will and always have the freedom to do one of the two, being always able to do either."[19]

"Nothing impossible has been commanded by the God of justice and majesty...Why do we indulge in pointless evasions, advancing the frailty of our own nature as an objection to the one who commands us? No one knows better the true measure of our strength than he who has given it to us nor does anyone understand better how much we are able to do than he who has given us this very capacity of ours to be able; nor has he who is just wished to command anything impossible or he who is good intended to condemn a man for doing what he could not avoid doing."[20]

"Grace indeed freely discharges sins, but with the consent and choice of the believer."[21]

"Obedience results from a decision of the mind, not the substance of the body."[22]

An unknown Pelagian taught:

"Is it possible then for a man not to sin? Such a claim is indeed a hard one and a bitter pill for sinners to swallow; it pains the ears of all who desire to live unrighteous. Who will find it easy now to fulfil the demands of righteousness, when there are some who find it hard even to listen to them?"[23]

"When will a man guilty of any crime or sin accept with a tranquil mind that his wickedness is a product of his own will, not of necessity, and allow what he now strives to attribute to nature to be ascribed to his own free choice? It affords endless comfort to transgressors of the divine law if they are able to believe that their failure to do something is due to inability rather than disinclination, since they understand from their natural wisdom that no one can be judged for failing to do the impossible and that what is justifiable on grounds of impossibility is either a small sin or none at all."[24]

"Under the plea that it is impossible not to sin, they are given a false sense of security in sinning...Anyone who hears that it is not possible for him to be without sin will not even try to be what he judges to be impossible, and the man who does not try to be without sin must perforce sin all the time, and all the more boldly because he enjoys the false security of believing that it is impossible for him not to sin...But if he were to hear that he is able not to sin, then he would have exerted himself to fulfil what he now knows to be possible when he is striving to fulfil it, to achieve his purpose for the most part, even if not entirely."[25]

"Consider first whether that which is such that a man cannot be without it ought to be described as sin at all; for everything which cannot be avoided is now put down to nature but it is impious to say that sin is inherent in nature, because in this way the author of nature is being judged at fault… how can it be proper to call sin by that name if, like other natural things, it cannot be avoided, since all sin is to be attributed to the free choice of the will, not to the defects of nature?"[26]

Later reactions

How to react to Pelagius has remained a question in Christian theology. Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1290-1349) wrote De causa Dei contra Pelagium et de virtute causarum ad suos Mertonenses.[27] Johann Pupper, also known as Johannes von Goch (c. 1400-1475), an Augustinian, recommended a return to the text of the Bible as a remedy for Pelagianism.[28]

Later writers, such as Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-1564), and Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638) reacted in different ways against Pelagianism, and evaluations of Lutheran, Reformed, and Jansenist theologies have often turned on the question of what is or is not Pelagian.[29]

Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

Unconventional Mormon theologian Sterling M. McMurrin stated “The theology of Mormonism is completely Pelagian”, i.e., Mormons do not believe in original sin.[30] It is doubtful that many Latter-day Saints would think of themselves as "Pelagians," or express their beliefs in the traditional terms used in the theological debates surrounding Pelagianism. However, McMurrin's statement is true to the extent that they do not believe in "original sin." However, Latter-day Saints' belief differs from Pelagianism in that they believe that personal, individual perfection is only possible through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

A statement of faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding the doctrine of original sin reads as follows: "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression."[31]

See also


  1. ^ The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. 2001. , eds. Eleonore Stump, Norman Kretzmann. New York: Cambridge University Press. 130-135.
  2. ^ *Transcript From The Council of Diospolis (Lydda) Against Pelagius, 415AD
  3. ^ a b Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion by William L Reese, Humanities Press 1980 p.421
  4. ^ Unitarian Universalism
  5. ^ Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary
  6. ^ said, “The soul does not incline to either part out of necessity, for then neither vice nor virtue could be ascribed to it; nor would its choice of virtue deserve reward; nor its declination to vice punishment.”(The Works of the Reverend John Fletcher p.212) Again, “How could God require that of man which he [man] had not power to offer Him?” (Doctrine of the Will by Asa Mahan, p. 62, published by Truth in Heart)
  7. ^ “Neither promises nor apprehensions, rewards, no punishments are just if the soul has not the power of choosing and abstaining; if evil is involuntary.” (Doctrine of the Will by Asa Mahan, p. 63, published by Truth in Heart)
  8. ^ Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 95
  9. ^ Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 140
  10. ^ Address to the Greeks, 11
  11. ^ c.170, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 286, published by Hendrickson Publishers
  12. ^ a b c.180, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 286, published by Hendrickson Publishers
  13. ^ c.180, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 287, published by Hendrickson Publishers
  14. ^ c.195, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 287, published by Hendrickson Publishers
  15. ^ c.207, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 288, published by Hendrickson Publishers
  16. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 36-37, published by The Boydell Press
  17. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 38, published by The Boydell Press
  18. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 39, published by The Boydell Press
  19. ^ a b The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 43, published by The Boydell Press
  20. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 53-54, published by The Boydell Press
  21. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 92, published by The Boydell Press
  22. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 90, published by The Boydell Press
  23. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 167, published by The Boydell Press
  24. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 167-168, published by The Boydell Press
  25. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 168, published by The Boydell Press
  26. ^ The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers by B. R. Rees, pg 168-169, published by The Boydell Press
  27. ^ Heiko Oberman (1957), Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, a Fourteenth Century Augustinian: A Study of His Theology in Its Historical Context, Utrecht: Gemink & Zoon.
  28. ^ "Johannes von Goch", in Webster's Biographical Dictionary (1960), Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.
  29. ^ Bernard Cottret, Monique Cottret, and Marie-José Michel, edd. (2002), Jansénisme et puritanisme: Actes du colloque du 15 septembre 2001, tenu au Musée National des Granges des Port-Royal-des-Champs, Paris: Nolin.
  30. ^ McMurrin, Sterling M. The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion 1965
  31. ^ 2, Articles of Faith, LDS Church.

Further reading

Writings by Pelagius

External links

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  • pelagianism — pelagianísm s. n. (sil. gi a ) Trimis de siveco, 10.08.2004. Sursa: Dicţionar ortografic  PELAGIANÍSM s.n. Doctrină eretică creştină care nega urmările păcatului originar, susţinând că oamenii pot săvârşi binele şi fără graţia divină. [pron. gi… …   Dicționar Român

  • Pelagianism — Pe*la gi*an*ism, n. [Cf. F. p[ e]lagianisme.] The doctrines of Pelagius. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Pelagianism — Pe·la·gi·an·ism (pə lāʹjē ə nĭz əm) n. The theological doctrine propounded by Pelagius, a British monk, and condemned as heresy by the Roman Catholic Church in A.D. 416. It denied original sin and affirmed the ability of humans to be righteous by …   Universalium

  • Pelagianism — noun Date: 1583 the teaching of Pelagius or Pelagians …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • pelagianism — noun A Christian belief that denies the view of original sin and the necessity of grace, asserting that man is capable of achieving salvation by his own efforts …   Wiktionary

  • Pelagianism — Pelagius was a Welsh cleric, active in Rome, North Africa, and the Middle East at the beginning of the 5th century. He denied the transmission of original sin, and denied that baptism is necessary to be freed from it. He held the view that man… …   Philosophy dictionary

  • Pelagianism —  (Cap.) A heresy …   Bryson’s dictionary for writers and editors

  • PELAGIANISM —    the teachings of the British Monk PELAGIUS and his school concerning the relationship between divine GRACE and the FREE WILL. Pelagius seems to have denied the doctrine of ORIGINAL SIN arguing that it denied the FREEDOM of the WILL. AUGUSTINE… …   Concise dictionary of Religion

  • Pelagianism —    The teachings associated with the heretic pelagius …   Who’s Who in Christianity

  • Pelagianism — the belief that original sin did not taint human nature (which, being created from God, was divine), and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without Divine aid. • Semipelagianism a Christian theological understanding about… …   Mini philosophy glossary

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