Pelagius: the first British author.

“a natural sanctity in our minds…which favours honourable and upright actions and condemns wrong deeds…by a kind of inner law”

Pelagius is the first British author for whom we have surviving literature. He was active in the period 390-420 and is well attested in contemporary sources: primarily Jerome and Augustine of Hippo, but also others. He is best known for giving his name to the “heresy” of Pelagianism.  His works are known both through the writings of his contemporary opponents and in surviving texts (although, as in most texts from this period, “authenticity” of any particular text is always an open question, since our earliest copies are from long after they were first written).   His date of birth and death are unknown. Birth would have been in the middle of the fourth century, 350-360. His date of death would be 419 or layer, at an unknown location (although Egypt seems a plausible possibility).

Christianity in Pelagius’s Britain.

Christianity was well established in Roman Britain by the time of Pelagius.  Whilst the details of its earliest arrival in Britain are unknown to us,  there is a wealth of archaeological and historical evidence that indicates that by the fourth century there was a long-established Church in Britain with Bishops which were linked to the continental Churches. From the archaeological evidence, we have the Hinton St Mary Mosaic from a wealthy Roman villa dated to the early 4th Century, along with various Chi-rho iconography around Britain and the Sator Squares in Lancashire. From Pelagius’s own time we have the Church at Vindolanda. However, it is in the written text that we find many references to Christianity in Roman Britain.  Second century church fathers Tertullian and Origen wrote of Christian communities in Britain. In the fourth century, British Bishops attended the Council or Arles (314), and the Councils of Serdica (343) and Rimini (359).  We also have a letter to Flavius Sanctus, the Roman Governor of Rutupine (Richborough) from the middle of the 4th Century attesting to his Christianity.  Jerome writes about British pilgrims coming to Bethlehem in one of his letters which is contemporary with Pelagius .  Magnus Maximus was proclaimed Emperor in Britain and became effective ruler of Gaul and Britain in the period 383-8. He had a very orthodox view of Christianity and it was he who was behind the condemnation of the Priscillian heresy and first ever execution of a “heretic” (Priscillian), albeit under civil not church law (in fact the execution was opposed by St Martin and Ambrose who disagreed with the spilling of blood). Maximus himself died in battle in 388 with the eastern Emperor Theodosius at Save (modern day Croatia) ending his bid to become Emprror of the West.

That Pelagius was British is stated by several contemporary sources.  He was obviously well educated and highly literate so almost certainly came from a high-ranking family.  Apart from patronage, there were at the time few paths to an education unless you were born into a well-off family. It is possible that he might have had an ecclesiastical education. He is also sometimes referred to as a lawyer, which may mean he was trained as such.  Jerome referred to him as being Irish (Scotti).  This is almost impossible. The establishment of Christianity and the Church in Ireland was to happen in the fifth century and knowledge of literate Latin would not have been available in Ireland in the late fourth century. Jerome’s comment was a put down, meaning that Pelagius was “beyond the pale” and his views were not to be taken seriously.  In fact St Patrick may well have been a contemporary of Pelagius, although born somewhat later. His Irish Mission is usually dated to the mid 5th Century and was certainly post-Roman.

Pelagius’s life.

At some time in the 380s, Pelagius made the journey from Britain to Rome. This was a common path for educated intellectual provincials in the western empire. His future critics Augustine and Jerome both made the journey from their home provinces to Rome in the late 4th Century.  There was lots of potential for giving classes to the sons and daughters of the wealthy. Also, wealthy families and individuals in Rome were keen to have Christian spiritual guides.  They sought advice on how to bring up children, how to behave and how to interpret the scriptures. These included Senatorial families who had converted to Christianity after the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD, when Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the Empire’s state religion.   Whilst he might have started his career as a lawyer, by the 390s is described (by Jerome and Augustine at least) as a “Monk”. Pelagius made some very good connections whilst in Rome, including some of the same families who were connected to Jerome. The fact that he was criticised so extensively indicates that his message was popular and influential.  He also had several followers who were influential in their own right, and who became leading figures in the Pelagian controversy.  Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to disentangle what was said by Pelagius and what by his “followers”. Two of the most prominent of these were Celestius who was active in Africa and described by Augustine and Jerome as Pelagius’s pupil and Rufinus of Syria. Rufinus was based in Rome in the period 399-409 alongside Pelagius. 

When Alaric the Goth came to besiege Rome in 409, Pelagius fled along with many others. He went to Africa, via the land route of southern Italy, crossing the Mediterranean to Sicily and then on to what is now Algeria, where Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo. He arrived in Palestine sometime before 413, where he came into conflict with Jerome.  The ideas of Pelagius and his followers certainly had a popularity in many Christian communities.  This probably explains the strong response of parts of the Church against Celestius, Rufinus and eventually Pelagius himself.  Pelagius was charged with heresy at the synod of Diospolis in 415 before The Bishop of Jerusalem, John. He was acquitted after disassociating himself from some of the “extreme” views of Celestius. The African Bishops appealed to the Bishop of Rome to overturn the judgement, and a condemnation of Pelagius was issued by Bishop Innocent (in the later Papal listing, he became known as Innocent 1st), who then died and his successor Bishop Zosimos reviewed the decision in 418 and replaced it with an ambiguous opinion.  The African Bishops then appealed to the Western Emperor Honorarius based in Ravenna, and Zosimos finally condemned both Pelagius and Celestius in his 418 Epistula Tractoris. Having been condemned in the Western Church, the Eastern Church finally condemned “the opinions of Celestius” at the Council of Ephesus 431.  The decision of Zosimos in 418 was influenced by the emperor Honorius’s condemnation of Pelagius and riots in Rome by “Pelagians”. Pelagius, based in Palestine, attempted unsuccessfully to get Bishop John of Jerusalem to dissent from Zosimos and so he would have had to leave Palestine. Egypt is put forward as a possible ending location since the Bishops there might have been more sympathetic. He may well have died as early as 420, or possibly just kept a low profile and we hear nothing of him after that date.

The Writings of Pelagius.

What writings of Pelagius have survived? There are a series of 18 letters, or essays, on a variety of subjects, although some or most of these might be by his followers.  Of these, seven are more or less complete and others fragmentary. We also have the transcripts of Pelagius’s evidence given at the Synod of Diospolis. In some cases we know approximately when the letters were written. There is also a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans. In terms of style, Pelagius was a very clear and articulate writer with a direct style. This contrasts to the prolix, wordy and repetitive Augustine and the harangues of Jerome.   Even the venerable Bede recognised that although Augustine “won” the debate, Pelagius was the better writer.

The Letter to Demetrias, written in 413-14 is the best known of the letters and is almost certainly written by Pelagius himself . Demetrias was a 14 year old daughter of one of the elite families that had left Rome in 409 and who had decided to devote her life to virginity and to cancel a wedding that had been planned. The mother Juliana wrote to both Pelagius and Jerome to ask for their advice: both replies have survived. Pelagius’s letter is something of a tour de force and puts forward his theological views in a very clear and succinct manner. God made Man in his own image, free to act – “he left him free to make his own decisions” (Ecclesiasticus).  Pelagius says “”God wished to bestow on the rational creature the gift of doing good of his own free will…the capacity to do evil is also good – good I say because it makes the good part better by making it voluntary…not bound by necessity but free to decide for itself.”  Pelagius thought that there is an innate goodness in people: “a natural sanctity in our minds…which favours honourable and upright actions and condemns wrong deeds…by a kind of inner law”.  It was this inner law that enabled men to be righteous and pleasing to God even before Moses.  In particular, he quotes the Lord as saying of Job “there is none like him on earth, a man against whom there is no complaint, a true worshipper of God, keeping himself away from all evil”. Indeed, Pelagius holds up Job as an ideal example:

What a Man Job was! A man of the gospel before the gospel was known, a man of the apostles before their commands were uttered! A disciple of the apostles who, by opening up the hidden wealth of nature and bringing it out into the open, revealed by his own behaviour what all of us are capable of and has taught us how great is that treasure in the soul which we posses but fail to use and, because we refuse to display it, believe that we do not posses it either.

How does the life, death and resurrection of Christ alter things for Pelagius? He writes:

“…long before the arrival of our Lord and Saviour, some are reported to have lived holy and righteous lives. How much more possible must we believe that to be after the light of his coming, now that we have been instructed by the grace of his and reborn as better men. Purified and cleansed by his blood, encouraged by his example to pursue perfect righteousness, we ought surely to be better than those who lived before the time of the law, better even than those who lived under the law, since the Apostle says “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under Grace” (Rom 6.14).

We can see that Pelagius had a positive view of human nature. We have an innate goodness in our nature. Whilst we are free to choose evil, we are also drawn towards the good and he old Testament provides examples of men viewed as righteous by God.

The argument with Augustine and Jerome.

The argument with Augustine took some time to develop.  As we know from his autobiography, Augustin had converted to Christianity as an adult, very much inspired by Bishop Ambrose of Milan. He was very well acquainted with the “pagan” literature (philosophy) and had been a Manichean prior to becoming a Christian. The argument with Pelagius developed after 410 and played a part in the development of Augustin’s own world view. I do not seek to provide a detailed summary of Augustin’s views. However, there were two main planks involved in the debate with Pelagius. The first was his own idea of “original sin”.  The idea that humanity had suffered a fall from grace (been expelled from the Garden of Eden) was a core belief of both Christianity and Judaism.     Augustine took a much stronger view the fall of man meant that he was unable to live without sin unless there was Grace.  Secondly, since God was omnipotent and all knowing, this led him to believe in predestination: those who were to receive Grace were chosen from the beginning of time. Now of course, these views were very much flavour of the reformation a millennium after Augustine (both Luther and Calvin were inspired by him), but in the early 400s they were largely new and took to their logical conclusions some of the views found in St Pauls letters when combined with a well-articulated theology in terms of Gods omnipotence and omniscience.

The central issue of the Pelagian debate was whether human nature was inherently sinful (Augustine) or had at least some innate goodness (Pelagius).  Pelagius believed that humans were able to choose good over evil even without Christianity, but with Christian faith and the grace of the holy spirit it was even more achievable and baptism could wash away any sins that we did commit.  I think it is best to see Pelagius as a moral teacher and motivator. He was shocked by the immorality he found in Rome and sought to stress that to be a good Christian you needed to behave in a moral manner.  Augustin was a Bishop of some authority and influence. Pelagius was at something of a disadvantage and destined to be outgunned by the Bishop of Hippo once Augustine had finally decided that the views of Pelagius contradicted his own views.

Jerome, like Augustine, also had a pessimistic view of human nature. Furthermore, in siding with Augustine he was hoping to absolve himself from his own views as a young man. The Council of Constantinople in 381 had “completed” the council of Nicaea (which had adopted the consubstantiality of God the father and Jesus) by making the Holy Spirit part of the Holy Trinity, what then became a core Christian belief (as reflected in the verse it added to the original Nicene creed, which had not mention of the holy spirit).    Jerome had devoted much of his younger years to translating the works of the second century Church father Origen.  The concept of the Trinity was not part of Origen’s cosmology and so his works came to be viewed as heretical around the 400s. By association, Jerome came under suspicion and we can see fro his letters that he moved to distance himself from Origen.  Jerome needed to demonstrate his orthodoxy, and what better way than supporting Augustin against Pelagius.

It is interesting to note that Pelagius and Jerome shared many views, and indeed some of Pelagius’s writings were attributed to Jerome.  For example, they both encouraged virginity as an ideal state (and celibacy within Christian marriage). However, Jerome idealised mortification of the body and rejection of the worlds pleasures whereas Pelagius taught a more practical view that morality could be lived in normal life. There was also some personal beef between Jerome and Pelagius. Some of Pelagius’s followers trashed a monastery where Jerome was staying in Bethlehem and he had to flee for his life (on this, we only have his testimony however).

Pelagius the first British author.

In the end, Bishop Augustine prevailed and Pelagianism became the name of a heresy. From the perspective of modern Christians, I suspect the majority would side more with the optimistic Pelagius than with the deep pessimism of Augustine.  At the time, Pelagius was obviously a well respected and popular thinker. We know this because he had followers and both Augustine, Jerome and other opponents of “Pelagianism” first targeted his followers and only after the fall of Rome did they target Pelagius himself. Probably, once he left Rome he lost his network of influence amongst the powerful.

However, Pelagius was the first British author whose writing survives.  He is an important figure of late antiquity who was well educated and who shows the strength of Christianity and Roman culture in late fourth century Britain. The next two authors who survive in Latin are St Patrick from later in the 5th Century and Gildas from the 6th century.  Whilst the theological debates Pelagius became involved in are of little relevance to life today, his optimistic view of human nature and the possibility of us being able to choose the right and moral path should still inspire us.