Pelagius was Framed!

  • Daniel 7:1-3,15-18                                 THE SERMON
  • Psalm 149                                                 All Saints’ Sunday
  • Ephesians 1:11-23                                  7 November 2010
  • Luke 6:20-31                                            All Saints’ Church


 Once upon a time, a very long time ago, back in the 4th and 5th Centuries, there lived a Celtic monk by the name of Pelagius … or, at least, that’s what they called him, because nobody in Rome could pronounce his Celtic name and Latin-speakers had this way of changing the name of anybody who didn’t have a Latin name into one which they could pronounce and make sense of. 

Pelagius was born in the British Isles and became a monk of the Culdee Order.  He traveled to Rome in around 380 where he became well known as a writer, preacher and teacher of a rather strict ascetic practice.  Pelagius was shocked by the moral laxity of Roman society and attributed it, in part, to the theory of divine grace taught by Saint Augustine: that man was utterly incapable of behaving in a way which would please God but for the intervention of divine grace in his life. Pelagius apparently thought that some people, especially those who lived a loosey-goosey life, blamed God for it rather than themselves. To contradict those who claimed that their moral failings were the result of God not having brought them to a higher level quite yet, Pelagius taught that man needed to exercise his free will in such a way that God could accomplish in him the fruits of good living.  And Saint Augustine didn’t like what he had to say one bit. 

          Augustine began to write and preach and teach against Pelagius and what he (Augustine) deemed the heresy of Pelagianism: that is, the notion that Man can and should avoid sin or his own volition, that Man can freely choose to obey God or to reject God. Augustine said “Gotcha” (or whatever words in the Latin language are modernly translated “gotcha”).  Augustine said “This guy denies the doctrine of original sin and denies what, in another thousand years, will become the Calvinist Doctrine of the Total Depravity of Man.”  Pelagius was tried before the Synod of Diospolis in 415 and acquitted of heresy.  Whereupon Pelagius said to Augustine, “So there” (or whatever words in the Latin language are modernly translated “so there”). But Augustine wasn’t done.  He accused Pelagius of heresy to Pope Zosimus who heard the case and also declared Pelagius innocent.  Saint Augustine was still not done.  He called the Council of Carthage in 418 which tied and convicted and condemned Pelagius to banishment from Rome. 

This condemnation resulted in an interesting twist of history.  At the council’s insistence, all of Pelagius’ authentic writings were burned.  Thus, with a very few exceptions, all we know of what Pelagius actually thought and taught are contained in the summaries of his beliefs recited by his opponents, like Saint Augustine, who was not above overstating his case to win an argument. 

Modern scholars have located a few of Pelagius’ original writings which survived the purge.  They reveal a deeply Christian, deeply orthodox man who believed that God’s grace assists all right action. It was quite precisely the opposite of this belief that got poor Pelagius banished. 

Anglicans are forever being accused, mostly by modern Calvinists but occasionally by modern Roman Catholics, as well, of being Pelagian in our theology.  I had a scathingly brilliant idea for an item to sell at the last General Convention. I thought it would be cool to print up a mess of tee shirts with a head shot of Pelagius peering out a barred jailhouse window, emblazoned with the words “Pelagius was framed.”  I still think they would sell. 


          Today is the Feast of All Saints. 

          Many saints have their own days – Saint Stephen’s Day is the 26th of December, the Feast of Saint Mary Virgin is August 15th, and the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi is October 4th.  All Saints’ Day is an opportunity for the church to recall and venerate those many saints who don’t have their own special days on the church’s calendar.  There are lots of those.  Some of them, we know their names.  Many of them, we don’t. 

          There is an academic discipline called hagiology which studies who gets to be a saint on the calendar and who doesn’t and why.  Everybody wants their son or daughter to become a doctor or a lawyer.  Nobody wants their son or daughter to grow up to become a hagiologist … which partially explains why there are so few. 

          It is not too difficult to figure out why there is no feast day for Saint Pelagius.  The trashing and thrashing which Saint Augustine worked upon the old Celtic monk pretty much took care of that.  But should we recall and venerate Pelagius on All Saints’ Day?  You know, along with all the others who didn’t manage to get their own day. 

          Don’t answer too quickly.  It is too easy to say that we should observe (recall and venerate) only those Christians past who earned the orthodox seal of approval and never those who earned the opposite.  But to do so whacks off from our list of venerables a lot of good Christian people who probably got orthodoxy mostly right but may have messed up in just one of the details.  That seems a little harsh, doesn’t it? 


Let me suggest – and this is just your old vicar talking – that All Saints’ Sunday is big enough to include all of our predecessors in the faith – those who got it just right and even those who may have gotten one or two parts wrong.  I’m not suggesting that we emulate them in their wrongness; only that they, too, are champions of the Faith from ages past who were trying to work out complex stuff as best they could.  Did Saint Peter or Saint John the Evangelist have a perfectly worked out theory of the Holy Trinity?  One that would pass the sort of orthodox muster to which the Church subjected theories of the Trinity three or four hundred years later?  Probably not.  Did Saint Augustine of Hippo get everything right, just because he has been declared by the Vatican to be a “Doctor of the Church?”  While he got many things right, and maybe even most things right, isn’t there some room left for where even Saint Augustine made a boo-boo? And what about poor Pelagius?  What if he didn’t get it wrong at all but rather expressed his orthodox faith in terms just different enough from those used by Saint Augustine that it got him into big trouble?  In other words, what if Pelagius was framed!?

          Perhaps a better way to celebrate the Feast of All Saints’ is at its most inclusive.  Perhaps we should celebrate this day as the feast of everybody who tried to get it right for Christ’s sake … whether they scored 100% on the orthodoxy test or not.  This would accomplish two good ends, in my thinking.  First, it would make for a larger company of saints to celebrate, lots more, since probably very few of the giants of our sacred tradition got everything right all of the time.  Second, it would make the saints what they really are – people just like us: not superhuman, not like the ones depicted in the movies, not otherworldly people who didn’t have to deal with all of the doubts and confusions that plague us moderns – but people like thee and me, hence people who are truly emulatable. 

Yet another good end to this kind of thinking is that it applies well, even better, to people like us.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think orthodoxy is a good idea.  I think it is better to believe the orthodox faith than to espouse a heresy.  Heresy is, by and large, not good for you, and orthodoxy, by and large, is.  But too much emphasis on getting every little detail of the faith just right exceeds the parameters of realistic expectations of ordinary Christians.  Too much emphasis on orthodoxy leads to a kind of religion in which only those who get the answers to all of the key questions correct get into Heaven. 

A story will illustrate my point: A professor of religion dies and goes to Heaven.  Saint Peter greets him at the Pearly Gates and offers to show him around. They walk down a long corridor with doors on either side.  Peter opens one of the doors and steps back as a cloud of frankincense rolls out the door.  “This where we keep the Eastern Orthodox,” Peter explains, “so their incense doesn’t choke and gag the others.” Peter opens another door and inside appears to be a water park complete with slides and pools and fountains.  “This is where we keep the Baptists,” Peter explains, “which seems to make them happy.”  They come to another door built like that on a sound stage and, with some difficult. Peter cracks the latch and opens the door and the sound of electronic music comes pounding out the opening.  “This is where we keep the Pentecostals, so as not to disturb anybody else.”  Finally they get to a rather ornate door which, instead of a handle, has a small peephole through which Peter invites the professor of religion to look.  Inside there is a beautiful garden and large stone buildings of exquisite architecture and he can faintly hear the most marvelous classical church music playing.   “Who’s in here?” asks the professor in a normal voice.  “Ssssssh,” responds Saint Peter.  “This is where we keep the Roman Catholics.  And they don’t know that anybody else is here.” 

Episcopalians aren’t like that, or, at least, Episcopalians at their best aren’t like that.  We strive to be among “the holy ones of the Most High” envisioned by the Prophet Daniel,  to be part of “the mystical body of … Christ our Lord” identified in the Collect of the Day, to be members of “the congregation of the faithful” mentioned in today’s Psalm, and to be “God’s own people” as Saint Paul described the Ephesians. 

All Saints’ Sunday needs to be big enough to include all of our predecessors in the Faith – those who got it all right and even those who may have gotten one or two parts wrong – in order to be big enough to include us.

3 Responses to “Pelagius was Framed!”

  1. Yes, from the writings of Pelagius I have read he clearly held to the necessity for grace along with free will. He only denied Augustinian, or Calvinistic grace. I plan on making a video soon about Pelagius on grace. I just uploaded to YouTube a documentary called Beyond Augustine which shows that the denial of free will came into the Church from Gnosticism but free will was taught by all of the early church fathers.

  2. I like a quote in this article about how Pelagius did not really deny the need for grace. I would like to quote from this article in my YouTube video about this, along with quotes from Dr Wiggers along the same lines. Who wrote this article? Who do I list as the source of the quote?

  3. Bruce McMenomy says:

    The author was Fr. Stephen E. Moore.

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