The Pelagian Controversy
The Pelagian controversy, in which the characteristic teaching of
Augustine found its best expression, may be divided into three periods. In
the first period, beginning about 411, Pelagius and Caelestius, who had
been teaching at Rome unmolested since 400 and had come to Carthage,
probably on account of the barbarian attack upon Rome, are opposed at
Carthage, and six propositions attributed to Caelestius are condemned at a
council there, where he attempted to be ordained. Caelestius leaves for the
East and is ordained at Ephesus, 412, and Pelagius soon after follows him.
In the second period, 415-417, the controversy is in the East as well as
in the West, as Augustine by letters to Jerome gave warning about
Pelagius, and councils are held at Jerusalem and Diospolis, where Pelagius
is acquitted of heresy. This was probably due as much to the general
sympathy of the Eastern theologians with his doctrine as to any alleged
misrepresentation by Pelagius. But in North Africa synods are also held
condemning Pelagius, and their findings are approved by Innocent of Rome.
But Pelagius and Caelestius send confessions of faith to Zosimus (417-418),
Innocent's successor, who reproves the Africans and acquits Pelagius and
Caelestius as entirely sound. In the third period, 417-431, the attack on
Pelagius is taken up at Rome itself by some of the clergy, and an imperial
edict is obtained against the Pelagians. Zosimus changes his opinion and
approves the findings of a general council called at Carthage in 418, in
which the doctrines of original sin and the need of grace are asserted.
The last act of the controversy in its earlier form, after the deposition
of the leading Pelagians, among them Julian, of Eclanum, their theologian,
is the condemnation of Pelagius at the Council of Ephesus, in 431. V.
infra, § 89.
Additional source material: See A. Bruckner, Quellen zur
Geschichte des pelagianischen Streites (in Latin), in Krueger's
Quellenschriften, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, 1906. The principal
works of Augustine bearing on the Pelagian controversy may be
found in PNF, ser. I, vol. V.
(a) Augustine, Ep. 146, ad Pelagium. (MSL, 33:596.)
This was probably written before the controversy. As to its use
later, see Augustine, De gestis Pelagii, chs. 51 (26) f. (PNF)
I thank you very much that you have been so kind as to make me glad by
your letter informing me of your welfare. May the Lord recompense you with
those blessings that you forever be good and may live eternally with Him
who is eternal, my lord greatly beloved and brother greatly longed for.
Although I do not acknowledge that anything in me deserves the eulogies
which the letter of your benevolence contains about me, I cannot, however,
be ungrateful for the good-will therein manifested toward one so
insignificant, while suggesting at the same time that you should rather
pray for me that I may be made by the Lord such as you suppose me already
(b) Augustine. De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione et de Baptismo
Parvulorum. (MSL, 44:185, 188.)
Augustine's testimony as to the character of Pelagius.
This work was written in 412, after the condemnation of Caelestius
at Carthage. It was the first in the series of polemical writings
against the teaching of Pelagius. The first book is especially
important as a statement of Augustine's position as to the nature
of justifying grace.
It should be recalled that Pelagius was a monk of exemplary life,
and a zealous preacher of morality. It may be said that in him the
older moralistic tendency in theology was embodied in opposition
to the new religious spirit of Augustine. Cf. Bruckner, op.
cit., n. 4.
III. 1. However, within the last few days I have read some writings of
Pelagius, a holy man, as I hear, who has made no small progress in the
Christian life, and these writings contain very brief expositions of the
Epistles of Paul the Apostle.(176)
III. 3. But we must not omit that this good and praiseworthy man (as they
who know him describe him as being) has not advanced this argument against
the natural transmission of sin in his own person.
(c) Pelagius, Fragments, in Augustine's De Gratia Christi et de
Peccato Originali. (MSL, 44:364, 379.)
The teaching of Pelagius can be studied not only in his opponent's
statements but in his own words. These are to be found in his
commentary (see note to previous selection), and also in fragments
found in Augustine's writings and several minor pieces (see
I. 7. Very ignorant persons think that we do wrong in this matter to
divine grace, because we say that it by no means perfects sanctity in us
without our will: as if God could impose any commands upon His grace and
would not supply also the help of His grace to those to whom He has given
commands, so that men might more easily accomplish through grace what they
are required to do by their free will. And this grace we do not for our
part, as you suppose, allow to consist merely in the law, but also in the
help of God. God helps us by His teaching and revelation when He opens the
eyes of our heart; when He points out to us the future, that we may not be
absorbed in the present; when He discovers to us the snares of the devil;
when He enlightens us with manifold and ineffable gifts of heavenly grace.
Does the man who says this appear to you to be a denier of grace? Does he
not acknowledge both man's free will and God's grace?
I. 39. Speaking of the text Rom. 7:23: "But I see another law in my
members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into
captivity to the law of sin which is in my members."
Now what you [i.e., Augustine, whom he is addressing] wish us to
understand of the Apostle himself, all Church writers assert that he spoke
in the person of the sinner, and of one still under the law, who by reason
of very long custom of vice was held bound, as it were, by a certain
necessity of sinning, and who, although he desired good with his will in
practice, indeed, was driven into evil. In the person, however, of one man
the Apostle designates the people who sinned still under the ancient law,
and this people, he declares, are to be delivered from this evil of custom
through Christ, who first of all remits all sins in baptism, to those who
believe on Him, and then by an imitation of Himself incites them to
perfect holiness, and by the example of virtues overcomes the evil custom
(d) Pelagius, Epistula ad Demetriadem. (MSL, 33:1100 ff.)
This epistle, from which selections are given, was written
probably about 412 or 413. As it gives a statement of the teaching
of Pelagius in his own words, it is of especial historical
interest. Demetrias was a virgin, and probably under the spiritual
direction of Pelagius, though little is known of her. Text in
Bruckner, op. cit., n. 56.
Ch. 2. As often as I have to speak of the principles of virtue and a holy
life, I am accustomed first of all to call attention to the capacity and
character of human nature, and to show what it is able to accomplish; then
from this to arouse the feelings of the hearer, that he may strive after
different kinds of virtue, that he may permit himself to be roused to acts
which perhaps he had regarded as impossible. For we are quite unable to
travel the way of virtue if hope does not accompany us. For all attempts
to accomplish anything cease if one is in doubt whether he will attain the
goal. This order of exhortation I follow in other minor writings and in
this case also. I believe it must be kept especially in mind where the
good of nature needs to be set forth the more in detail as the life is to
be more perfectly formed, that the spirit may not be more neglectful and
slow in its striving after virtue, as it believes itself to have the less
ability, and when it is ignorant of what is within it, think that it does
not possess it.
Ch. 3. One must be careful to see to it that one does not think that a
man is not made good because he can do evil and is not compelled to an
immutable necessity of doing good through the might of nature. For if you
diligently consider it and turn your mind to the subtler understanding of
the matter, the better and superior position of man will appear in that
from which his inferior condition was inferred. But just in this freedom
in either direction, in this liberty toward either side, is placed the
glory of our rational nature. Therein, I say, consists the entire honor of
our nature, therein its dignity; from this the very good merit praise,
from this their reward. For there would be for those who always remain
good no virtue if they had not been able to have chosen the evil. For
since God wished to present to the rational creature the gift of voluntary
goodness and the power of the free will, by planting in man the
possibility of turning himself toward either side, He made His special
gift the ability to be what he would be in order that he, being capable of
good and evil, could do either and could turn his will to either of them.
Ch. 8. We defend the advantage of nature not in the sense that we say it
cannot do evil, since we declare that it is capable of good and evil; we
only protect it from reproach. It should not appear as if we were driven
to evil by a disease of nature, we who do neither good nor bad without our
will, and to whom there is always freedom to do one of two things, since
always we are able to do both. Nothing else makes it difficult for us to
do good than long custom of sinning which has infected us since we were
children, and has gradually corrupted us for many years, so that afterward
it holds us bound to it and delivered over to it, so that it almost seems
as if it had the same force as nature.
If before the Law, as we are told, and long before the appearance of the
Redeemer, various persons can be named who lived just and holy lives, how
much more after His appearance must we believe that we are able to do the
same, we who have been taught through Christ's grace, and born again to be
better men; and we who by His blood have been reconciled and purified, and
by His example incited to more perfect righteousness, ought to be better
than they who were before the Law, better than they who were under the
(e) Marius Mercator, Commonitorium super nomine Caelestii, ch. 1. (MSL,
48:67.) Cf. Kirch, nn. 737 ff.
The Council of Carthage and the opinions of Caelestius condemned at
that council, 411.
Marius Mercator, a friend and supporter of Augustine, was one of
the most determined opponents of Pelagianism, as also of
Nestorianism. His dates are not well determined. In 418 he sent
works to Augustine to be examined by the latter, and he seems to
have lived until after the Council of Chalcedon, 451. The work
from which the selection is taken was written, 429, in Greek, and
translated and republished in Latin, 431 or 432. With the
following should be compared Augustine's De Gratia Christi et
Peccato Originali, II, 2f., and Ep. 175:6; 157:3, 22.
A certain Caelestius, a eunuch from his mother's womb, a disciple and
auditor of Pelagius, left Rome about twenty years ago and came to
Carthage, the metropolis of all Africa, and there he was accused of the
following heads before Aurelius, bishop of that city, by a complaint from
a certain Paulinus, a deacon of Bishop Ambrose of Milan, of sacred memory,
as the record of the acts stands in which the same complaint is inserted
(a copy of the acts of the council we have in our hands) that he not only
taught this himself, but also sent in different directions throughout the
provinces those who agreed with him to disseminate among the people these
things, that is:
1. Adam was made mortal and would have died whether he had sinned or had
2. The sin of Adam injured himself alone, and not the human race.
3. New-born children are in that state in which Adam was before his fall.
4. Neither by the death and sin of Adam does the whole race die, nor by
the resurrection of Christ does the whole race rise.
5. The Law leads to the kingdom of heaven as well as the Gospel.
6. Even before the coming of the Lord there were men without sin.
(f) Pelagius. Confessio fidei. (MSL, 45:1716 f.) Hahn, § 209.
The confession of faith addressed to Innocent of Rome, but
actually laid before Zosimus, in 417, consists of an admirably
orthodox statement of the doctrine of the Trinity and of the
incarnation, an expansion of the Nicene formula with reference to
perversions of the faith by various heretics, and in conclusion a
statement of Pelagius's own opinions regarding free will, grace,
and sin. It is due to the irony of history that it should have
been found among the works of both Jerome and Augustine, long
passed current as a composition of Augustine, Sermo CCXXXVI, and
should have been actually quoted by the Sorbonne, in 1521, in its
articles against Luther. It also appears in the Libri Carolini,
III, 1, as an orthodox exposition of the faith. The passages which
bear upon the characteristic Pelagian doctrine are here given.
Fragments of the confessions of other Pelagians, e.g.,
Caelestius, and Julius of Eclanum, are found in Hahn, §§ 210 and
211. For the proceedings in the East, see Hefele, § 118.
We hold that there is one baptism, which we assert is to be administered
to children in the same words of the sacrament as it is administered to
We execrate also the blasphemy of those who say that anything impossible
to do is commanded man by God, and the commands of God can be observed,
not by individuals but by all in common, also those who with the
Manichaeans condemn first marriages or with the Cataphrygians condemn
second marriages. We so confess the will is free that we say that we
always need the aid of God, and they err who with the Manichaeans assert
that man cannot avoid sins as well as those who with Jovinan say that man
cannot sin; for both take away the liberty of the will. But we say that
man can both sin and not sin, so that we confess that we always have free
(g) Augustine, Sermo 131. (MSL, 38:734.) Cf. Kirch, n. 672.
Causa finita est.
Late in 416 synods were held in Carthage and Mileve condemning
Pelagianism. On January 27, 417, Innocent wrote to the Africans,
approving their councils and condemning Pelagianism, incidentally
stating the supreme authority of the Roman See and requiring that
nothing should ever be definitively settled without consulting the
Apostolic See (text of passage in Denziger. ed. 1911, n. 100).
September 23 of the same year, about the time when Pelagius and
Caelestius were at Rome with Zosimus seeking to rehabilitate
themselves in the West, Augustine delivered a sermon in which he
made the following statement. It is the basis of the famous phrase
Roma locuta, causa finita est, a saying which is apocryphal,
however, and not found in the works of Augustine.
What, therefore, is said concerning the Jews, that we see in them [i.e.,
the Pelagians]. They have the zeal for God; I bear witness, that they have
a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. Why is it not according to
knowledge? Because, being ignorant of the justice of God and wishing to
establish their own, they are not subject to the righteousness of God
[Rom. 10:2 f.]. My brethren, have patience with me.
When you find such, do not conceal them, let there be not false mercy in
you. Most certainly when you find such, do not conceal them. Refute those
contradicting, and those resisting bring to me. For already two councils
about this case have been sent to the Apostolic See, whence also rescripts
have come. The case has been ended; would that the error might some time
end! Therefore let us warn them that they pay attention; let us teach them
that they may be instructed; let us pray that they may be changed.
(h) Zosimus, III Ep. ad Episcopos Africae de causa Caelestii A. D. 417.
(MSL, 45:1721.) Cf. Bruckner, op. cit., n. 28.
Fragments of his later Epistula tractoria together with other
letters may be found in Bruckner, op. cit.
Likewise Pelagius sent letters also containing an extended justification
of himself, to which he added a profession of his faith, what he condemned
and what he followed, without any dissimulation, so that all subtilities
of interpretation might be avoided. There was a public recitation of
these. They contained all things like those which Caelestius had previously
presented and expressed in the same sense and drawn up in the same
thoughts. Would that some of you, dearest brethren, could have been
present at the reading of the letters. What was the joy of the holy men
who were present; what was the admiration of each of them! Some of them
could scarcely restrain themselves from tears and weeping, that such men
of absolutely correct faith could have been suspected. Was there a single
place in which the grace of God or his aid was omitted?
(i) Council of Carthage, A. D. 418, Canons. Bruns, I, 188.
These canons of the Council of Carthage, A. D. 418, were
incorporated in the Codex Canon Ecclesiae Africanae adopted at the
Council of Carthage A. D. 419. The numbers given in brackets are
the numbers in that Codex. Interprovincial councils were known in
North Africa as "general councils."
In the consulate of the most glorious emperors, Honorius for the twelfth
time and Theodosius for the eighth, on the calends of May, at Carthage in
the Secretarium of the Basilica of Faustus, when Bishop Aurelius presided
over the general council, the deacons standing by, it pleased all the
bishops, whose names and subscriptions are indicated, met together in the
holy synod of the church of Carthage:
1 . That whosoever should say that Adam, the first man, was created
mortal, so that whether he had sinned or not, he would have died in the
body--that is, he would have gone forth of the body, not because of the
desert [or merit] of sin, but by natural necessity, let him be anathema.
2 . Likewise that whosoever denies that infants newly from their
mother's womb should be baptized, or says that baptism is for remission of
sins, but that they derive from Adam no original sin, which is removed by
the layer of regeneration, whence the conclusion follows that in them the
form of baptism for the remission of sins is to be understood as false and
not true, let him be anathema.
For not otherwise can be understood what the Apostle says, "By one man sin
has come into the world,(177) and so it passed upon all men in that all
have sinned," than as the Catholic Church everywhere diffused has always
understood it. For on account of this rule of faith, even infants, who
could have committed no sin themselves, therefore are truly baptized for
the remission of sins, in order that what in them is the result of
generation may be cleansed by regeneration.
3 . Likewise, that whoever should say that the grace of God, by which
a man is justified through Jesus Christ our Lord, avails only for the
remission of past sins, and not for assistance against committing sins in
the future, let him be anathema.
4 . Also, whoever shall say that the same grace of God through Jesus
Christ our Lord helps us not to sin only in that by it are revealed to us
and opened to our understanding the commandments, so that we may know what
to seek, what we ought to avoid, and also that we should love to do so,
but that through it we are not helped so that we are able to do what we
know we should do, let him be anathema. For when the Apostle says, "Wisdom
puffeth up, but charity edifieth," it were truly infamous were we to
believe that we have the grace of Christ for that which puffeth us up, but
have it not for that which edifieth, since each is the gift of God, both
to know what we ought to do, and to love it so as to do it; so that wisdom
cannot puff us up while charity is edifying us. For as it is written of
God, "Who teacheth man knowledge," so also it is written, "Love is of
5 . It seemed good that whosoever should say that the grace of
justification is given to us only that we might be able more readily by
grace to perform what we were commanded to do through our free will; as if
when grace was not given, although not easily, yet nevertheless we could
even without grace fulfil the divine commandments, let him be anathema.
For the Lord spake concerning the fruits of the commandments, when he
said, "Without me ye can do nothing," and not "Without me ye can do it but
6 . It seemed also good that as St. John the Apostle says, "If ye
shall say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not
in us"; whosoever thinks that this should be so understood as to mean that
out of humility we ought to say that we have sin, and not because it is
really so, let him be anathema. For the Apostle goes on to add, "But if we
confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to
cleanse us from all iniquity," where it is sufficiently clear that this is
said not only in humility but also in truth. For the Apostle might have
said, "If we shall say we have no sins we shall extol ourselves, and
humility is not in us"; but when he says, "we deceive ourselves and the
truth is not in us," he sufficiently intimates that he who affirmed that
he had no sin would speak not that which is true but that which is false.
7 . It has seemed good that whosoever should say that when in the
Lord's Prayer, the saints say, "Forgive us our trespasses," they say this
not for themselves, because they have no need of this petition, but for
the rest who are sinners of the people; and that therefore none of the
saints can say, "Forgive me my trespasses," but "Forgive us our
trespasses"; so that the just is understood to seek this for others rather
than for himself, let him be anathema.
8 . Likewise it seemed good, that whosoever asserts that these words
of the Lord's Prayer when they say, "Forgive us our trespasses," are said
by the saints out of humility and not in truth, let them be anathema.
The following canon, although it seems to have been enacted for
the case of Apiarius, is nevertheless often cited in the same
connection as the eight against Pelagius, and is therefore given
here for the sake of convenience.
18 . Likewise, it seemed good that presbyters, deacons, or other of
the lower clergy who are to be tried, if they question the decision of
their bishops, the neighboring bishops having been invited by them with
the consent of their bishops shall hear them and determine whatever
separates them. But should they think that an appeal should be carried
from them, let them not carry the appeal except to African councils or to
the primates of their provinces. But whoso shall think of carrying an
appeal across the seas, shall be admitted to communion by no one in