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

to be.

(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

of sins.

(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

not sinned.

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 [109]. 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 [110]. 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 [111]. 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 [112]. 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 [113]. 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

with difficulty."

6 [114]. 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 [115]. 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 [116]. 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 [125]. 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