How the Ideas of the 5th-Century Heretic Pelagius Still Plague Our Culture Today

Pelagius

We stand at one of the great turning points in our national history, when the failure of our public philosophy and the crisis of our public life can no longer be ignored. And what we do about these needs will define the era to come.

For decades now our politics and culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom. It is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community, a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice.

It is a philosophy that has defined our age, though it is far from new. In fact, it’s most influential proponent lived 1,700 years ago: a British monk who eventually settled in Rome named Pelagius. So thoroughly have his teachings informed our recent past and precipitated our present crisis that we might refer to this era as the Age of Pelagius.

But here is the irony. Though the Pelagian vision celebrates the individual, it leads to hierarchy. Though it preaches merit, it produces elitism. Though it proclaims liberty, it destroys the life that makes liberty possible.

Replacing it and repairing the profound harm it has caused is one of the great challenges of our day.

Birth of a Heresy

Pelagius was born sometime between A.D. 350 and 360 in Britain, possibly Wales. Highly educated, unusually gifted, a scholar of both Latin and Greek, he made his way to Italy and then to Rome. There he became famous for his teaching on Paul’s letters.

Pelagius held that the individual possessed a powerful capacity for achievement. In fact, Pelagius believed individuals could achieve their own salvation. It was just a matter of them living up to the perfection of which they were inherently capable. As Pelagius himself put it, “Since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.” The key was will and effort. If individuals worked hard enough and deployed their talents wisely enough, they could indeed be perfect.

This idea famously drew the ire of Augustine of Hippo, better known as Saint Augustine, who responded that we humans are not achievement machines. We are fragile. We are fallible. We suffer weakness and need. And we all stand in need of God’s grace.

But Pelagius was not satisfied. He took his stand on an idea of human freedom. He responded that God gave individuals free choice. And he insisted that this free choice was more powerful than any limitation Augustine identified.

Augustine said that human nature was a permanent thing, but Pelagius didn’t think so. Pelagius said that individuals could use their free choice to adopt their own purposes, to fix their own destinies—to create themselves, if you like.

That’s why a disciple of Pelagius named Julian of Eclanum said freedom of choice is that by which man is “emancipated from God.”

Now as you might expect with followers who say things like that, Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Ephesus in 431.

But his philosophy lived on in late-20th-century America. And if you listen closely today, you can hear it almost everywhere—in our fiction and our film, in our school curricula and self-help books. It even features prominently in our law.

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Source: Christianity Today