Daring to celebrate Pelagius

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Today is the day that many who find themselves in the Celtic stream of Christianity will celebrate the life of Pelagius. I wanted to share a brief piece about this man and his confusing–some would even say tragic–life experience as a spiritual teacher and contemporary of Augustine of Hippo. The following comes from “Celtic Daily Prayer”, a book of prayers and readings from within the Northumbria Community.

Pelagius (C. 350-418): August 28

We have chosen to mark Pelagius’ memory on the feast day normally assigned to Augustine of Hippo, who did so much to malign Pelagius and who is the source of many erroneous teachings and emphases that still dog Christian thinking today!

Pelagius was a British theologian, teacher, writer, and soul-friend who settled in Rome. He was highly spoken of at first–even by Augustine. He taught about the value of soul-friendship. He celebrated the fact that the goodness of God cries out through all of creation, for ‘narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth.’

But soon he was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur.

Augustine tried twice in 415 to have him convicted of heresy–on both occasions Pelagius was exonerated in Palestine. In 416 Augustine and the African bishops convened two diocesan councils to condemn him and Celestius, another Celt. In 417 the Bishop of Rome called a synod to consider the conflict, and declared Pelagius’ teaching entirely true, and urged the African bishops to love peace, prize love, and seek after harmony. They ignored this, and in 418 they persuaded the State to intervene and banish Pelagius from Rome for disturbing the peace. The Church then was obliged to uphold the Emperor’s judgment and excommunicated and banished him, though no reasons were made clear. He returned to Wales, probably to the monastery of Bangor.

Two centuries later all the same ideas were still to be found in Celtic Christianity. History is written by the victors, so most reports of what Pelagius said are given from Augustine’s view point, not in his own balanced and sensible words. He was also criticized for being a big, enthusiastic man, stupid from eating porridge and over-confident in his own strength, and for wearing his hair in an inappropriate style!

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