That’s right. I meant hearsay, not heresy.
Occasionally, in conversations with conservative Christians, I have been accused of embracing the Pelagian Heresy. I gave these claims little thought, not having known much about Pelagius or his teachings. (There are so many ‘heretics’ in church history it’s hard to keep track.) Besides, the other heretic I kept being linked to was Arminius, and I rather liked what he had to say.
Now I realize that these people were probably right. I am a Pelagian at heart. I have been reading a book called “Christ of the Celts” by J Phillip Newell and in it he talks a bit about Pelagius, who was a Celt himself. Rather than being incorporated in the burgeoning Christian empire that was based in Rome, the Celts were pushed out to the fringes and by the fouth century were mostly contained in what is now Scotland and Ireland. They embraced Christianity but were afforded some insulation from the empire-supporting church doctrines which have shaped the majority of western Christianity. This Celtic Christianity is much more in tune with nature, much less overburdened with doctrines and dogmas and has a reputation that is, in my opinion, much more in in accord with the true teachings of Jesus. Their theology relies heavily upon the thinking of Pelagius, who was a monk and a mystic that understood the underrated role that nature plays when encountering God.
This is what the conservative Christian Apologetics Research Ministry has to say about Pelagianism:
Pelagianism derives its name from Pelagius who lived in the 5th century A.D. and was a teacher in Rome, though he was British by birth. It is a heresy dealing with the nature of man. Pelagius, whose family name was Morgan, taught that people had the ability to fulfill the commands of God by exercising the freedom of human will apart from the grace of God. In other words, a person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God and/or to do good or bad without the aid of Divine intervention. Pelagianism teaches that man’s nature is basically good. Thus it denies original sin, the doctrine that we have inherited a sinful nature from Adam. He said that Adam only hurt himself when he fell and all of his descendents were not affected by Adam’s sin. Pelagius taught that a person is born with the same purity and moral abilities as Adam was when he was first made by God. He taught that people can choose God by the exercise of their free will and rational thought. God’s grace, then, is merely an aid to help individuals come to Him.
Which sounds pretty reasonable to me. Not having to rationalize ponderous and often inexplicable church doctrines allows the believer to focus more on the authentic Good News of Jesus Christ. Of course, freedom of thought and expression are not things that popes, bishops, kings and governments are fond of, therefore Pelagius’ ideas have been smeared by both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. The convoluted machinations of his theological adversary, Augustine of Hippo, were much more conducive to authoritarian Church control of the peasantry, and consequently Augustine is called a saint and Pelagius a heretic.
Again, according to CARM:
Pelagius has been condemned by many councils throughout church history including the following:
* Councils of Carthage (412, 416 and 418 )
* Council of Ephesus (431)
* The Council of Orange (529)
* Council of Trent (1546) Roman Catholic
* 2nd Helvetic (1561/66) 8-9. (Swiss-German Reformed)
* Augsburg Confession (1530) Art. 9, 18 (Lutheran)
* Gallican Confession (1559) Art. 10 (French Reformed)
* Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 15 (Lowlands, French/Dutch/German Reformed)
* The Anglican Articles (1571), 9. (English)
* Canons of Dort (1618-9), 3/4.2 (Dutch/German/French Reformed)
It’s nice to see that the Catholics and Protestants do agree on some things, as the above list shows. Some church leaders have even gone so far as to claim that nothing authored by Pelagius is in existence, requiring that we make up our minds about him through the writings of his adversaries. (The winners always get to write history.) One of the common accusations pointed at Pelagius was that he denied the saving grace of God. Yet on that subject, Pelagius had this to say:
“I anathematize the man who either thinks or says that the grace of God, whereby Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,’ is not necessary not only for ever hour and for every moment, but also for every act of our lives: and those who endeavor to disannul it deserve everlasting punishment.”
Not too radical.
Fortunately, some of his works survive. His dissertation on Nature presents a concise summation of his theology and is well worth checking out. It’s a shame that the Church has done it’s best to deny its lay members the opportunity to hear from Pelagius and other daring thinkers.
If you would like to learn more about the Pelagian “Heresy” you can check out the links to these pages that attempt to refute Pelagian theology. You may find their criticism are not strong enough to convincingly condemn Pelagius and why it required the strength of empire to squash him. Don’t rely upon hearsay, decide for yourself.