Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone
Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2011 12:48 pm
The Messenger, February 17, 2011
Pelagius Challenges the Faith
By RB TOLAR
Special to The Messenger
By the 5th Century A.D., the Christian faith had spread along the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. A vibrant community of churches flourished across the rim of North Africa and rivaled Rome as the locus of Christianity in the West. Carthage was the center of this activity.
In 410 A.D., a British monk (not an ordained priest) named Pelagius arrived at Carthage, among a wave of immigrants fleeing the sack of Rome. Through the false teachings of this man and his followers, a challenge arose to the church’s doctrine of salvation by grace alone (Sola Fide).
As a result of his personal charisma and dedication to holy living, Pelagius had received widespread favor in Rome and had acquired a number of influential followers. The Christians of Rome, he insisted, were succumbing to the lax moral culture around them.
Pelagius objected to the prayer in Augustine’s Confessions, “Give what you command, and command what you choose.” Pelagius insisted that God would not command something that was beyond the ability of man to perform (e.g. repentance). Pelagius stated, rather, that it was within the power of each person to observe the commandments of God.
Pelagius argued that each person is born in the same state of innocence as that in which Adam was created, and it is only by following Adam’s bad example and choosing to sin that an individual’s nature is corrupted. He further claimed that the Holy Spirit was influential but not necessary in the process of salvation, human will being capable of choosing between good and evil without Divine aid.
Pelagius began to teach at Carthage and soon came to the attention of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. In response to the erroneous teachings of Pelagius, Augustine penned a series of four letters to the local churches reiterating his previous writings and sermons on original sin and on salvation based not on human merit but on God’s grace alone.
Resistance to Pelagius and Colestius, his leading proponent, increased and by 417, they moved again, this time to Palestine. Jerome, who became famous as the translator of the Latin Bible, brought charges against Pelagius. Councils were convened on two separate occasions — at Jerusalem and Lydda – to examine Pelagius and his teachings. On both occasions, however, the North African delegates condemning Pelagius and representing the doctrines of the Apostolic Church were unable to attend. In the absence of anyone to elaborate on the charges against him, Pelagius was able to explain away the objections to his ideas as mere misunderstandings.
The controversy grew more heated when Augustine, dismayed that Pelagius continued to propagate his heresy, wrote a letter to the Bishop of Rome, Innocent I. After studying the matter, Innocent condemned Pelagianism, but not Pelagius (who still denied that his writings were properly understood). Pope Innocent then promptly died and was succeeded by Zosimus. On the strength of a statement of belief sent by Pelagius, Zosimus declared Pelagius innocent of heresy.
At this point, conditions being a mass of controversy and confusion, Augustine called a council at Carthage to address the situation.
The third article of this series will examine the conflicting claims put forth by the contestants in the Pelagian controversy and the conclusions arrived at by the Council of Carthage.
Editor’s note: RB Tolar, a member of Grace Community Church in Troy, is humbly grateful to be able to participate in this writing ministry.