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Pelagius |
Can we be good if we try hard?

Pelagius is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 160, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Pelagius, the man who said yes, set off a major theological dispute, but in the end Christians agreed that goodness depends on God

Pelagius - Can we be good if we try hard?

Pelagius - Can we be good if we try hard?
Aesop, a Greek slave on the island of Samos ca.500 B.C., to whom is attributed a collection of fables that have enchanted the world ever since, would have been spotted by Christians of Augustine’s era as a Pelagian heretic. His tale of “Hercules and the Waggoner” is the source of the familiar proverb: “God helps those who help themselves,” a succinctly popular expression of that persistent heresy. (The version below is from a copy of Baby’s Own Aesop, at the Seattle Public Library.)

God helps those who help themselves.” This pronouncement has been repeated so often that many people believe it to be biblical. Not so. Its source is Aesop’s Fables. A man whose wagon is stuck in the mud cries to Hercules to help him. Hercules tells him to put his shoulder to the wheel and push the wagon out. “Until you have done your best to help yourself, you will pray in vain,” he says.

Even so, the popular proverb sums up the core belief of a fifth-century Christian named Pelagius. Like so many visionaries and rabble-rousers, he was an eloquent Celt, the first significant writer to emerge from the British Isles into the Roman world.

Swiss theologian Karl Barth remarked that “British” Christianity remained “incurably Pelagian” right down to the twentieth century. This trait persists in the Anglo-American ethos, despite the formidable fact–noted by American Reform theologian Michael Horton–that Pelagianism has been condemned “by more church councils than any other heresy in history” (Pelagianism: The Religion of Natural Man,

At the heart of the Pelagian controversy lies a theological riddle. Christians define God as perfect and infinitely powerful. Human nature is God’s creation, made in his own image, although infinitely less, and subsequently corrupted by sin. Therefore, a man cannot achieve good solely through his own efforts. Even the desire to do good, as well as the strength to succeed, requires the might of the Creator.

On the other hand, if we humans are utterly incapable of achieving goodness, or even desiring it, why are the Scriptures filled with commands to do just that? No prophet exceeds Jesus himself in demanding that every human strive to behave rightly, even in his thoughts. Pelagius’s attempt to resolve this riddle inaugurated an enduring controversy. It was exacerbated by his followers, who went on to deny the entire concept of original sin.

Little is known about this man despite his theological notoriety–or because of it. His teaching was condemned by councils at Rome, North Africa, and Palestine. The Roman state banned possession of his written work; such of it as survived did so chiefly by accident. Even so, a plausible portrait can be drawn from the taunts of his critics.

He was probably born after 350 in Britain or Ireland; some think his Celtic surname was Morcant (modern Morgan). About 380 he reached Rome, where his austere lifestyle made people think him a monk. He must have been physically imposing. A Spanish adversary, Paulus Orosius, described him as “a most monstrous great Goliath of a man . . . confronts one head-on, with his great solid neck and his fatness.”

Rome appalled him. The city’s upper classes, avowedly Christian, waxed ever more opulently wealthy, while the lives of its workers grew more grindingly poor. Historian Peter Brown (Augustine of Hippo, London, 1967) observes that Roman aristocrats “were capable of discussing at the dinner table both the latest theological opinion, on which they prided themselves as experts, and the kind of judicial torture which they had just inflicted on some poor wretch.”

Christians in this increasingly corrupt society tended to rely heavily on God’s forgiveness to accommodate their misdeeds. One notable indicator was their long-standing habit of waiting for old age before being baptized, in the hope that the saving grace of the sacrament would not be canceled through sin before death. This seemingly languid reliance on grace rather than on decent behavior became Pelagius’s chief concern.

He reportedly liked to stroll the streets, bareheaded, chatting earnestly with people of every rank. His message: God does not demand from man behavior which man cannot fulfill. True, fallen humanity could not reach heaven save through Jesus Christ. But the believer, once empowered through baptism, could achieve a good life by the faithful, loving exercise of his own redeemed will.

The most reliable expression of Pelagius’s convictions is a letter he wrote to a fourteen-year-old girl, Demetrias, at the request of her mother. (The letter survived because it was mistakenly attributed to other authors.) “Because God created man in his image,” Pelagius advised, “you ought to measure the good of human nature by reference to its Creator. The individual was not bound in sin by Adam’s personal fall,” he told the child. “Nor is there any reason why it is made difficult for us to do good other than that long habit of doing wrong, which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over many years, and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself, so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature.”

This upbeat message sparked a large-scale movement in Rome and far beyond. The concept that the individual could rise above even the most evil circumstances had a particular appeal for Romans; it recalled their ancient pagan reliance on human virtue. Dozens of bishops embraced Pelagianism, as many highborn and influential women, and a far-flung network of Pelagian cell groups spread throughout the west.

From North Africa, Augustine warily monitored the Pelagian surge, which ran counter to his own teaching that man is completely captive to sin. An Augustinian maintains that only the light of Christ within can enable us to really see the utter sickness of our own souls. And even then we cannot heal ourselves; the awakening soul can only cry for help to God. Thereupon, he in his mercy will begin to sanctify it, and eventually restore its freedom to behave in concert with perfect goodness. In this view, freedom stems solely from the grace-giving presence of the Holy Spirit. Any efforts of our own contribute little if anything.

Pelagius fled Rome shortly before Alaric conquered the city in 410, taking refuge briefly in North Africa, and later Palestine. Opponents hounded him, triggering heresy-hunting councils throughout much of Christendom. The battle swung back and forth until 418, when Pope Zosimus declared Pelagianism heretical. In southern Italy, eighteen bishops lost their sees for refusing to renounce it. Pelagius himself disappears from history, and is thought to have died in some eastern Mediterranean land.

Some monasteries, however, continued to nurture belief in a divine-human partnership–not an equal partnership, to be sure, but a notably asymmetrical partnership, in which God is chief initiator and savior as well. John Cassian, who helped introduce the rules of eastern monasticism to the west, argued that the unredeemed soul can take of its own volition at least one small first step toward Jesus and salvation, and after that, God responds with grace to keep going.

This view, dubbed semi-Pelagianism, was officially condemned at the Council of Orange (Arausio, in Aquitaine), in 529. Canon 8 of its ruling reads: “If anyone maintains that some are able to come to the grace of baptism by mercy but others through free will, which has manifestly been corrupted in all those who have been born after the transgression of the first man, it is proof that he has no place in the true faith.”

But the bishops assembled at Orange also rejected the concept of predestination by God to sin, or to hell. Whether this was Augustine’s own teaching, or promulgated only by his more extreme followers, is a question on which theologians are vehemently divided. In any case, the doctrine seems to have been roundly condemned by the Council of Orange: “We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.”

A man cannot in any degree save himself, the council concluded, but he does assent to his salvation. Even this cannot be achieved, however, until God alters the will of the man to the point where he can cooperate with the divine goodness.

This is the end of the Pelagius category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 160, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Pelagius from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at