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Augustine’s Surprising Treatment of Pelagius


Fra Angelico and workshop [PD-art-100], via Wikimedia Commons

Augustine famously wrote against Pelagianism, the view that people can obey God perfectly by the power of free will. In contrast, Augustine argued that our obedience and salvation comes through God’s grace. The two theologians became arch-opponents. And in 412, a council in Carthage (part of Augustine’s home region) condemned the teaching of Pelagius.

That this theological conflict lasted for many years should surprise no one given the stakes. But what might surprise us is how Augustine treated Pelagius after the latter’s teaching was deemed heretical. Augustine treated Pelagius with tenderness and brotherly affection.

Augustine’s affection for Pelagius

After Augustine wrote two books against Pelagius’ teaching and one year after the Council of Carthage (412 A.D.) condemned him, Augustine responded to Pelagius with this letter:


I am very grateful for your kindness in cheering me by a letter from you and in giving me news of your welfare. The Lord recompense you, my greatly beloved lord and much longed for brother, with such blessings that you may be ever blessed and may live eternally with Him Who is eternal. Although I do not recognize myself in those encomiums of me contained in your Benevolence’s letter, yet I cannot be ungrateful for your goodwill towards one so insignificant as I. At the same time I urge you rather to pray for me, that the Lord may make me what you imagine I already am.

[In another hand] May you abide in safety and be well-pleasing unto the Lord, my greatly beloved lord and much longed for brother. Forget us not! (Ep. CXLVI)

Despite writing polemical works against Pelagius and Pelagius’ condemnation, Augustine treats him with genuine kindness. Augustine calls him “beloved lord” and “brother.”

One can discern a genuine affection that between the two. And I think this goes back to love believing and hoping all things. Augustine thought Pelagius was dead wrong. Yet he did not give up on Pelagius. He treated him with respect and kindness.

Certainly, Augustine vigorously denounced Pelagius’ theology, but he also showed great love for him.

Time didn’t make Augustine a cynic

Augustine’s theological tribe (the North Africans) had condemned Pelagius, yet not everyone was convinced. Within the church, many had yet to make up their minds about Pelagius. Pelagius did not deny the Trinity. So it was not obvious that Pelagius was a heretic. A number of years passed in which Pelagius still had influence among Christians.

And surprisingly, Augustine’s hopefulness for and love of Pelagius didn’t dissipate with time even when his efforts made life complicated. Pelagius had used the letter quoted above to defend himself at the Synod of Diospolis (415 A.D). Due to this, Augustine’s own theological tribe turned on him, and he was forced to defend his hopeful disposition towards to Pelagius and to those within his theological camp (Baxter, 1953: 266–7).

In this defence, Augustine had to explain why he treated Pelagius with such kindness. At one point, he explained, “I added the epithet ‘most beloved;’ and as I now call him by this term, so shall I continue to do so, even if he be angry with me; because, if I ceased to retain my love towards him, because of his feeling the anger, I should only injure myself rather than him” (On the Proceedings of Pelagius, 51). Augustine knew well that love marked the Christian, even the love for our enemies.

So although he was attacked by his own camp and by the Pelagians, Augustine maintained that he would not back down on the essence of the Christian life: love for God and for neighbour.

Despite all this, Augustine did not give into bitterness. But he certainly did not give up his convictions. Sometime around or after 416 A.D., he wrote a letter to John, the Bishop of Jerusalem, in order to encourage him to continue fighting the teaching of Pelagius.

Yet even here, Augustine cannot help but continue to hope for and show affection for Pelagius. He tells John, “As for Pelagius, our brother and your son, to whom I hear you show much affection, I suggest that the affection you show him be such that the people who know him and have carefully listened to him may not imagine that your Holiness is being deceived by him” (Ep. CLXXIX). He does not affirm Pelagius’ errors, yet he still speaks of him with kindness.

After years of fighting Pelagius, Augustine still can treat him as a human. And this seems to be largely because the question of Pelagius’ teaching on grace was at issue, not Pelagius’ character (Augustine calls him “our brother”). The real problem was his teaching. It did not match the biblical idiom, and it had the capacity to corrupt the biblical teaching on grace and salvation. For this reason, Pelagianism was rightly condemned.

Three reflections on Augustine’s treatment of Pelagius

Here are three reflections on Augustine’s treatment of Pelagius. First, Augustine led the charge against Pelagius’ false teaching with vigour and endless determination. He is known today as the chief opponent of Pelagianism.

Second, Augustine distinguished between Pelagius’ false views and Pelagius as a person. Augustine genuinely had affection for and hoped that Pelagius would change his ways. He did not appear to give up on him even after a number of years. In fact, Augustine took attacks from his own team because of his hopeful disposition.

Third, Augustine modelled a charitable spirit mixed with dogged orthodoxy. It is entirely possible to reject someone’s theology as in error and still love that person. Certainly, there can come a point when one shows him or herself to be a predator, one who preys on women, for example, and is out for greedy gain. From what we know, that was not Pelagius. In fact, Pelagius’ concern was the moral laxity of Christians. He wanted to press on to high ethical standards.

But in so doing, he fell victim to what we might call legalism or a grace-less form of Christianity. And history has rightly rejected his theology. But we should not be so quick to dismiss Augustine’s theological triage. If he were here today, he might advise that we contend for the truth while hoping for the best in our opponent because love for God and his truth must be matched by our love for others and their well-being.