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"In his [Honorius] time, the Briton Pelagius spread far and wide his noxious and abominable teaching that man had no need of God's grace, and in this he was supported by Julius of Campania, a bishop who resented his own recent deposition. Saint Augustine and other orthodox fathers quoted many thousand of Catholic authorities against them, but they refused to abandon their folly; on the contrary, their obstinacy was hardened by contradiction, and they refused to return to the true faith."
So writes Bede in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum about the teachings of Pelagius, a Romano-British monk who flourished between the fourth and fifth centuries AD and taught that salvation could be attained through free will alone, without the redemption of divine grace. An ascetic, Pelagius was distressed by the moral laxity he witnessed in Rome and attributed it to the doctrine of predestination and divine grace promulgated by Augustine of Hippo, who, he felt, was too unforgiving in his insistence that man was tainted by original sin and, without baptism and the grace of God, could not be saved.
Pelagius reasoned that, if one could not be held accountable for one's deeds and that salvation came only from bestowed grace, then there was no restraint from sin. Rather, he argued, man was a free moral agent, responsible for resisting evil and choosing good. Divine grace only facilitated the impulse to do so. Yet, in denying original sin and the redemptive power of divine grace, Pelagius called into question the necessity and efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ and, in asserting that the essence of religion was righteousness, diminished the tenets of faith and dogma.
Pelagius left Rome, having lived there for many years, after it was sacked by the Visigoths in AD 410 and went first to North Africa, where he was confronted by Augustine, and then to Palestine, where he had the support of the bishop of Jerusalem to preach his doctrine. In protesting the helplessness of the individual confronting a predestined divine plan, Pelagianism very well may have been perceived as undermining the social acceptance of imperial and ecclesiastical authority, and permitting the demonstration of social and regional hostility to the Roman church.
Certainly, it was condemned. In a series of treatises and church synods, both Augustine and Jerome sought to refute Pelagius until, finally, in AD 418 a church council declared him to be a heretic. A month later, a rescript of Honorius banished his followers from Italy. That same year, Pelagius, himself, was excommunicated. After this, nothing more is heard of the heresiarch.
Yet, in Britain, his doctrine continued to smolder and find adherents. In AD 429, Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, was sent to counter the threat to orthodoxy, although Pelagianism in Britain probably did not antedate his arrival by very many years. It is unlikely, therefore, that it could have affected the British revolt which threw off Roman authority in AD 410; indeed, Pelagianism had not even been declared heretical by then. (Afterwards, this visit by Germanus, and a later one circa AD 445, are among the only historical references to Britain that can be dated before the arrival of Augustine in AD 597.)
The Pelagians and the Catholic envoys from Gaul publicly debated their case, which probably took place at Verulamium, where Germanus visited the tomb of the martyred Alban. Bede relates that the Pelagians were conspicuous in their riches and brilliant dress. But their doctrine was confounded by Germanus, who then led the newly baptized Britons in battle against the Saxons and Picts, defeating the startled enemy with shouts of Alleluia.
And so were vanquished the enemies of church and state.
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