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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Who's your favourite heretic?

- Pelagius

This week's question in The Guardian is Who's your favourite heretic?

There were some interesting choices made in the responses, including Origen, The Ebionites, and Marguerite Porete (Tina Beatie's choice). I'd just seen Marguerite Porete mentioned a while ago in a post at America magazine's blog ... 700 Years Later: Marguerite Porete, Burnt at the Stake, but Unforgotten by Francis X. Clooney, S.J.

If I had to pick a favorite heretic, it would be the Celt Pelagius ....

Pelagius (ca. AD 354 – ca. AD 420/440) was an ascetic who denied the doctrine of original sin as developed by Augustine of Hippo, and was declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage. His interpretation of a doctrine of free will became known as Pelagianism ....

As they say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but I don't just like Pelagius because I hate Augustine :) I like what little I've read (and understood) of his ideas about free will, grace, and original sin. Here is the compressed version of the dust-up between Pelagius and Augustine from Wikipedia ....

[...] Pelagius wrote two major treatises which are no longer extant, "On Nature" and "Defense Of The Freedom Of The Will." In these, he defends his position on sin and sinlessness, and accuses Augustine of being under the influence of Manicheanism by elevating evil to the same status as God and teaching pagan fatalism as if it were a Christian doctrine.

Augustine had been converted to Christianity from the religion of Manicheanism, which stressed that the spirit was God-created, while the flesh was corrupt and evil, since it had not been created directly by God. Pelagius argued that Augustine's doctrine that humans went to hell for doing what they could not avoid (sin) was tantamount to the Manichean belief in fatalism and predestination, and took away all of mankind's free will.

Pelagius and his followers saw remnants of this fatalistic belief in Augustine's teachings on the Fall of Adam, which was not a settled doctrine at the time the Augustinian/Pelagian dispute began. Their view that mankind can avoid sinning, and that we can freely choose to obey God's commandments, stand at the core of Pelagian teaching, and comes through even in the writings of Pelagius' opponents. However, a careful reading of Pelagius' own statements indicates that he believed that God's grace assists all right action.

An illustration of Pelagius' views on man's "moral ability" not to sin can be found in his Letter to Demetrias He was in Palestine when, in 413, he received a letter from the renowned Anician family in Rome. One of the aristocratic ladies who had been among his followers, Anicia Iuliana, was writing to a number of eminent Western theologians, including Jerome and possibly Augustine, for moral advice for her 14-year-old daughter, Demetrias. Pelagius used the letter to argue his case for morality, stressing his views of natural sanctity and man's moral capacity to choose to live a holy life. It is perhaps the only extant writing in Pelagius' own hand, and it was, ironically, thought to be a letter by Jerome for centuries, though Augustine himself references it in his work, "On the Grace of Christ."

If interested, you can read Pelagius' Letter of Pelagius to Demetrias, and those who want to read more about Pelagius, try Pelagius: To Demetrias by Deacon Geoffrey Ready.

I, Morgan, whom the Romans call Pelagius
Am back in my own place, my green Cathures
By the frisky firth of salmon, by the open sea
Not far, place of my name, at the end of things
As it must seem.

- from Nine in Glasgow by Edwin Morgan


Blogger Fran said...

I took a class on church history last year and spent some time studying Pelagius. You makes some excellent points when describing why he is your favorite heretic.

The implications of Augustine's outlook and the Manichean influences in his life are seen today. Our current pope is very Augustinian in outlook.

Flesh - we are an incarnational people, that is all that I will say about that.

4:05 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Fran,

Thanks. You must know more about Pelagius than me - all I know is the little I read for the post and a mention of him in that movi King Arthur, in which Arthur was said to have been his student :)

11:19 AM  
Blogger Vincent said...

I don't have a comment on your content, but your first link had the effect of logging me out of my Google ID, and didn't go where it was supposed to go.

I don't have a favourite heretic. If Hildegard of Bingen were a heretic, it would be she. But as far as I know, she stayed in the bosom of Mother Church. So all the heretics can go to hell (Ha!), as far as I am concerned.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Vincent said...

forgot to tick for any follow-up

1:24 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for telling me about the messed up link - fixed it.

I like Hildegard of Bingen too and had a past post about here >)

1:47 PM  

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