The heresy of Pelagianism is a Christian theological position that holds that the original sin of Adam did not taint human nature and that humans by divine grace have free will to achieve human perfection. Pelagianism received its name from Pelagius (c. 355 – c. 420 AD), an ascetic and philosopher from the British Isles, who taught that God could not command believers to do the impossible, and therefore it must be possible to satisfy all divine commandments. He also taught that it was unjust to punish one person for the sins of another; therefore, infants are born blameless. Pelagius accepted no excuse for sinful behaviour and taught that all Christians, regardless of their station in life, should live unimpeachable, sinless lives. The value of Christ’s redemption was, in his opinion, limited mainly to instruction (doctrina) and example (exemplum), which the Saviour 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.

St Augustine convinced two synods in North Africa to condemn Pelagianism, whose findings were partially confirmed by Pope Innocent I. In January 417, shortly before his death, Innocent excommunicated Pelagius and two of his followers. Pelagianism was decisively condemned at the Synod of Carthage in 418 AD.  Innocent’s successor, Pope Zosimus, issued the Epistola tractoria excommunicating both Pelagius and Caelestius. Eighteen Italian bishops, including Julian of Eclanum, protested against the condemnation of Pelagius and refused to follow Zosimus’ Epistola tractoria. Many of them later had to seek shelter with the Greek bishops Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius, leading to accusations that Pelagian errors lay beneath the Nestorian controversy over Christology. Both Pelagianism and Nestorianism were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Pelagianism is still regarded as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, which uphold the arguments of St Augustine who held that, due to the original sin of Adam and the fall of man, human nature is tainted.  This original sin is washed away at baptism by grace merited by Christ by His obedience and death on the cross.  The grace bestowed at baptism is not merited in any way by the person being baptized, neither by their faith not their works and, as such, the grace of baptism is able to be applied even to infants (again see Augustine). Thus, when a person is baptized, they are infused with the transforming grace of God.  It is by this grace of God that a person’s interior disposition is transformed and renovated and it is only with the continuing aid of God’s grace that a person is able to potentially become sinless through sanctification. (see the C.C.C.)

Source:  Keech, Dominic (2012). The Anti-Pelagian Christology of Augustine of Hippo, 396-430. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Extant Texts:

  • List of text: