The Augustine and Pelagian Controversy

Authors Note: This is the second post in a short series on The Augustine and Pelagian Controversy. You can read the first post here.


 

National Cathedral interiorBeginnings

Pelagius did not care for controversy, and at first he spread his doctrines privately and was careful to avoid any opposition.[1] While in Rome he gained a convert named Coelestius, who was not as quiet and private as Pelagius. During the raid on Rome in 411 by Alaric, Pelagius and Coelestius fled to Africa.[2] Pelagius moved on to Palestine, but Coelestius attempted to be ordained while in Africa. Because of his teachings that he had learned from Pelagius, the Milanese deacon named Paulinus accused Coelestius of heresy, which brought Pelagius’ doctrines out into the public. Coelestius was brought in front of a synod and condemned and excommunicated.

Soon after, in 415, Pelagius was brought in front of a synod and questioned about his doctrines.[3] Communications between the parties of the synod was difficult due to language barriers, and there was nothing done to Pelagius; the controversy was referred to the Bishop of Rome. Pelagius was brought in front of another synod not long after the first synod, but was acquitted of any wrong doing.

The synod was a waste due to the illness of the accusers and because they were not able to attend the proceedings. Their letters of accusation to the synod were written in Latin and could not be translated correctly by those in attendance. Pelagius was able to defend himself against his accusers in person at the synod, and he even had a positive letter in his favor from Augustine that he read out loud.

There were two more synods in 416 after Pelagius’ acquittal that condemned him and his doctrines, but the Bishop of Rome had yet to get involved in the controversy, and Pelagius’ supporters, as well as those opposed to him, sent letters supporting each of their arguments to the Bishop.[4] The Bishop of Rome was Innocent I, and although he sided with the opponents of Pelagius and condemned Pelagius and his supporters, he died six weeks after his decision. Coelestius showed up at the front door of Innocent I’s successor, Zosimus.

Coelestius was able to convince Zosimus to rule in his favor, and the Bishop declared both him and Pelagius as orthodox and called for their opponents to come argue their case in Rome. In 418, Pelagius’ opponents protested heavily and were able to reverse the decision made by Zosimus. Again in 418, Zosimus banished Pelagius and Coelestius from Rome and all who supported Pelagianism.[5] The supporters of Pelagianism did not abandon their doctrines, and Pelagianism lived on.


[1] B.B. Warfield. “Introductory Essay On Augustine And The Pelagian Controversy.” In Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 5: Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings, edited by Philip Schaff, xiii-lxxi. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004, xvii.

[2] Ibid., xviii.

[3] Ibid., xviii.

[4] Ibid., xviii.

[5] Ibid., xx.

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About Peter van Brussel

Peter is the Director of For His Glory Prison Ministry. Peter holds a BA in Pastoral Studies from Southwestern College, a MA in Theological Studies, and a M.Div. from Liberty University. Peter is married to Niki, and has two children. He has been saved by grace and seeks to share the Gospel with those who have been forgotten.
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