Pelagius and Celestius: Enemies of the Doctrines of Grace (1)

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


With the adoption of the Creed of Chalcedon the Trinitarian and Christological controversies were, to all intents and purposes, brought to an end. Many different controversies continued to perplex the church, especially in the East; but they were vain and useless, mostly due to philosophical speculations of men who were out to promote their own private agendas more than to learn the truth of Christ. Chalcedon established for the church of the new dispensation the doctrine of the person and natures of Christ.

The controversies which next plagued the church were over entirely different doctrines: the doctrines of man and of salvation (anthropology and soteriology). The two overlapped a bit, in fact. The council of Ephesus in 431, for example, made decisions about Nestorianism (which we discussed in out last article) and decisions about Pelagianism, the heresy against which Augustine fought — and which is the subject on which we now write.

This relation between the controversies over the doctrine of Christ and the doctrines of man and his salvation is important. In fact, the church could not very well deal properly with the doctrine of salvation without settling the doctrine of Christ. The truth of salvation is based on the truth of Christ. To get soteriology straight, one must understand correctly Christology. We cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us. But salvation comes through Christ. Hence, Christ must be God — in the ringing words of Nicea: "very God of very God."

The doctrine of Christ was settled. The church could now turn to the doctrine of salvation in Christ.

A couple of other matters must be treated by way of introduction. The first is that the doctrine of man and the doctrines of grace are also related to each other. The Pelagian heresies really were errors in the doctrine of man. Pelagius denied original sin and the corruption of the human nature. But, quite obviously, this denial affected also the doctrine of salvation. If man is not a sinner, totally depraved, he does not need Christ to save him. He can save himself. These two doctrines had to be treated together.

The second point is that the church, prior to the time of Pelagius and Augustine, had really not understood very well either the doctrine of man or the doctrine of salvation. In a way this is understandable, because the church had had no opportunity to examine these questions, for the defense of the truth concerning Christ occupied all their time. But serious errors were present, although they were primarily to be found in the East.

In general, the church as a whole surely understood that man is a sinner and needs salvation. The church also understood that Christ had come into the world to save His people from their sins. These truths were too clear and too frequently mentioned in Scripture to doubt them. But when it came down to specifics, errors kept cropping up. The chief of these errors was the doctrine of the freedom of the human will to choose between good and evil.

The question of human freedom was the pivotal point on which the whole Pelagian controversy turned. How striking that people will never learn the lessons of history. Still today most of the church world clings tenaciously to the doctrine of human freedom. It is the downfall of salvation by grace.

From a certain point of view it is not surprising that the church held to the doctrine of the freedom of the will. The theologians who considered the matter at all thought this doctrine was quite important to defend Scripture against other errors. The church had to do battle with paganism, and paganism held strongly to the idea that Fate irresistibly controlled the lives of men, so that they were helpless pawns in Fate's hands. The paganism of Augustine's time even held to the idea that Fate controlled the lives of the gods.

In addition to such pagan thought, heresies had appeared in the church which taught that sin was inevitable. I refer to Gnosticism and Manichaeism. Both heresies taught that matter itself is sinful. And, because man is composed, at least in part, of matter, man is sinful by virtue of his creation. The body is inherently wicked. Over against this awful doctrine the church thought it necessary to teach that man has a free will, and that sin is not inevitable but the result of human choice.

Besides, the church pointed to the fact that the Bible itself speaks of choice. And, in connection with choices we have to make, the Bible speaks of rewards and punishments — rewards for good choices and punishments for bad choices. So, obviously, man could resist temptation when it came. He could exercise himself to do the good. He could make choices that would bring the rewards promised or the punishment justly given. As one church father put it: "All men are of the same nature, able both to hold fast and to do what is good, and, on the other hand, having also the power to cast it from them and not to do it."

I suppose that I can plead the importance of the subject we are discussing to justify the length of this introduction, but one more point needs to be made in connection with what I have just said. Although what I have now to say was especially true in the Western church (Italy, Spain, France, North Africa, where Latin was the main language — in distinction from the Eastern church of Greece, Asia Minor, Palestine, Egypt, where Greek was mainly spoken), many did believe in the doctrine of original sin, although it was not clearly understood.

Two other doctrines of the Christian faith seemed to many theologians in the West to make a doctrine of original sin necessary. I doubt whether any of our readers could guess what those two doctrines were, partly because only one of the two is true.

The true doctrine is the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ. The theologians in the West argued correctly that the necessity of Christ being born of a virgin must lie in the fact that only in this way could He who was sinless be preserved from sin.

The wrong doctrine to which appeal was made was the doctrine of baptism. I have mentioned before in these articles that the church taught that baptism washed away sin committed prior to baptism. If the Bible commanded infants to be baptized, and baptism washed away sin, infants were sinful. How could infants be sinful? Only by original sin. That is, all infants shared in the sin of Adam.

So advanced was the conception of some of the Western theologians that they already struggled with the difference between original guilt and original pollution. Augustine taught both. The church, which in large measure repudiated Augustine's teaching, lost the doctrine of original guilt. It was not recovered for 1000 years, that is, until the time of the Reformation.

But considering all these things, we can understand how the Pelagian controversy took place. And, understanding that, we can appreciate the towering contribution of Augustine, whom I consider to be the greatest of all the church fathers.

Pelagius and Celestius

We shall have to discuss Pelagius and Celestius together, for their lives were intertwined, especially in the controversies which they stirred up.

Little is known about the early life of either of them — as little is known of their end. Most likely Pelagius was born in England (or Ireland) around 350. He became a monk and spent most of his early years in a monastery. Celestius was probably born in Scotland, but nothing other is known of him until he appeared in Rome.

The two became the closest of friends, although Celestius was a disciple of Pelagius and had learned his heresies at Pelagius' feet. Celestius was, theologically, the superior one. He was the theologian of Pelagianism. He set forth and developed the doctrines which became known as Pelagianism. I doubt whether Pelagius was capable of doing that. One writer dismisses Pelagius with the offhand remark: "To a great degree, he lacked an interest in doctrine."

Pelagius was a very learned man if one considers the breadth of his education. But he was shallow and superficial in thought and in feeling. As a monk, he gave himself over to ascetic practices (although one of his contemporaries spoke of him as somewhat chubby), but he lived a moral life. He never married and, while not disapproving of marriage, considered it to be a concession of sorts to the flesh. No moral fault was ever charged against him. But he seemed to have had no understanding of the difference — how shall I put it? — the difference between morality and holiness. He was blameless in conduct, but coldly and dispassionately so. He had no sense of the struggles with sin which characterize the life of a saint. He fought no inner battles, struggled with no temptations, knew not a holiness which comes from denying oneself, taking up one's cross, and following Christ. Outward morality was all. A morally upright life was a breeze. But to gain the holiness of Christ through the deep way of sin — of that he had no conception.

Pelagius wrote a one-volume work on the epistles of Paul, and in this book he set down his views, such as they were. But he depended on Celestius to be his spokesman. This Celestius could do. He was the theologian of the two. He could set down the views which Pelagius himself never understood sufficiently well to explain.

... to be continued