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Pelagianism

Updated: Feb 10

January 28, 2024


This week as we move on from the Arian heresy, we see that it was not long before another large heresy came up. This next erroneous theology belonged to the Pelagian heresy and the Semi-Pelagian heresy that followed it. So let’s get down to business.


Pelagianism takes its name from the British monk Pelagius who started the heresy. He was born around 350 AD and he dies around 420 AD. He was never ordained a priest but was highly educated and lived a very austere life. He spent many years teaching in Rome and even for a time possessed a reputation as being “holy”. In the year 417 Pelagius and two of his followers are excommunicated and the following year, 418, Pelagianism is officially condemned by the Church at the Council of Carthage and it was condemned once again in 431 at the Council of Ephesus.


The question you have I suppose would be: What brought that about? The Church at that time was really starting to strictly define most theological and sacramental teachings after coming through the great Christological heresies like Arianism and the rest we have already discussed. Now that much of the theology is defined as to who God is – in the Trinity and in the Three Divine Persons – and having a more refined theology of Mary and the saints, we now see the role of man being expounded upon more. The good and evil, the necessity for grace and the sacraments, the goal of life and the great love that God has for us. Those concepts are some of the different facets of the discussions taking place. The Church had pretty much already defined and understood the concept of original sin along with its consequences and the brokenness we are born with. The term “concupiscence” is later used to describe that bend of the damaged human will towards sin we all experience due to the sin of our first parents.


The heresy of Pelagius is summed up by Catholic Encyclopedia as: “Pelagius denied the primitive state in paradise and original sin, insisted on the naturalness of concupiscence and the death of the body, and ascribed the actual existence and universality of sin to the bad example which Adam set by his first sin. As all his ideas were chiefly rooted in the old, pagan philosophy, especially in the popular system of the Stoics, rather than in Christianity, he regarded the moral strength of man's will, when steeled by asceticism, as sufficient in itself to desire and to attain the loftiest ideal of virtue. The value of Christ's redemption was, in his opinion, limited mainly to instruction and example, which the Savior threw into the balance as a counterweight against Adam's wicked example, so that nature retains the ability to conquer sin and to gain eternal life even without the aid of grace. By justification we are indeed cleansed of our personal sins through faith alone, but this pardon implies no interior renovation of sanctification of the soul.”


In a nutshell, he believed that since there is no original sin, man can achieve perfection on his own by merely making the right choices and that the will already knows this and God’s grace can only assist in this. Basically, the idea that God’s grace is not necessary for man to make the right choices and to grow in virtue. To add on to the confusion, he also opposed infant baptism because of the fact that in his teachings, there was no original sin. This ends up giving rise to Semi Pelagianism and later on is the root of one of the main tenets of Protestantism – Sola fide (faith alone). Next week we will finish this up by showing some of the great defenders of the Faith against Pelagianism and the doctrinal clarifications that were brought about by them.


God love you, Fr. Anthony

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