A 17th-century Calvinist print depicting Pelagius
The caption says:
Accurst Pelagius, with what false pretence
Durst thou excuse Man’s foul Concupiscence,
Or cry down Sin Originall, or that
The Love of GOD did Man predestinate.
The overthrow of Pelagius
Rather than the struggle against the Donatists, Augustine was internally motivated by the prolonged quarrel with Pelagius, who convincingly refuted his bleak complex of original sin, along with the mania of predestination and grace; the Council of Orange of the year 529 dogmatized it (partly literally) and the Council of Trent renewed it.
According to most sources, Pelagius was a Christian layman of British origin. From approximately the year 384, or sometime later, he imparted his teachings in Rome, enjoying great respect.
Interestingly, when he disembarked at Hippo in 410, Pelagius was in the retinue of Melania the Younger, her husband Valerius Pinianus and her mother Albina—that is, ‘perhaps the richest family in the Roman Empire’ (Wermelinger). The father of the Church, Augustine, had also intensified his contacts with this family for a short time. Indeed, he and other African bishops, Aurelius and Alypius, had convinced the billionaires not to squander their wealth with the poor, but to hand them over to the Catholic Church! The Church became heir to this gigantic wealth. Melania was even elevated to sanctity (her holiday: December 31). ‘How many inheritances the monks stole!’, writes Helvetius, ‘but they stole them for the Church, and the Church made saints of them’.
From Pelagius, a man of great talent, we have received numerous short treatises, whose authenticity is subject to controversy. However, there are at least three that seem authentic. The most important of his works, De natura, we know by the refutation of Augustine, De natura et gratia. Also the main theological work of Pelagius, De libero arbitrio has been transmitted to us, in several fragments, by his opponent, although his theory is often distorted in the course of the controversy.
Pelagius, impressive as a personality, was a convinced Christian; he wanted to stay within the Church and what he least wanted was a public dispute. He had many bishops on his side. He did not reject prayers or deny the help of grace, but rather defended the need for good works, as well as the need for free will, the liberum arbitrium. But for him there was no original sin: the fall of Adam was his own; not hereditary.
It was precisely his experience with the moral laziness of the Christians that had determined the position that Pelagius adopted, in which he also often included an intense social criticism tainted with religiosity, appealing to Christians to ‘feel the pains of others as if they were their own, and shed tears for the affliction of other human beings’.
But this was not, of course, a subject for the irritable Augustine; he, who did not see the human being, like Pelagius, as an isolated individual but devoured by a monstrous hereditary debt, the ‘original sin’, and considered humanity a massa peccati, fallen because of the snake, ‘an elusive animal, skilled on the sinuous roads’, fallen because of Eve, ‘the smaller part of the human couple’ because, like the other fathers of the Church, he despised the woman.
In strict justice, all mankind would be destined for hell. However, by a great mercy there would be at least a minority chosen for salvation, but the mass would be rejected ‘with all reason’.
There is God full of glory in the legitimacy of his revenge.
According to the doctor ecclesiae we are corrupted from Adam, since the original sin is transmitted through the reproductive process; in fact, the practice of the baptism of children to forgive sins already presupposes those in the infant. On the other hand, the salvation of humanity depends on the grace of God, the will has no ethical significance.
But in this way the human being becomes a puppet that is stirred in the threads of the Supreme: a machine with a soul that God guides as he wants and where he wants, to paradise or to eternal perdition. Why?
Why? Because he wanted. But why did he want it? ‘Man, who are you who want to talk to God?’
Augustine warned against Pelagius and launched, increasingly busier in the causa gratiae, his theory of predestination which Jesus does not announce and which he himself did not defend in his early days, for more than a decade and a half, until the year 427, when he published a dozen controversial writings against Pelagius.
St. Jerome, at odds with the Bishop of Jerusalem, then wrote a very wide-ranging polemic, the Dialogi contra Pelagianos, in which he defamed his adversary by calling him a habitual sinner, arrogant Pharisee, ‘greasy dog’, etc.: dialogues that Augustine extolled as a work of wonderful beauty and worthy of faith. In 416 the Pelagians set fire to the monasteries of Jerome, and his life was in grave danger.
Pope Zosimus was left out of play in a clever stratagem of Emperor Honorius, and in a letter addressed on April 30, 418 to Palladius, prefect praetorian of Italy, he ordered the expulsion of Pelagius and Caelestius from Rome—the harshest decree by the end of the Roman Empire. He also censured his ‘heresy’ as a public crime and sacrilege, with a special emphasis on the expulsion from Rome, where there were riots and violent disputes among the clergy. All the Pelagians were persecuted, their property was confiscated and they were exiled.
In the final phase of the conflict the young bishop Julian of Eclanum (in Benevento) became the great adversary of Augustine, who by age could have been a son: the authentic spokesman of the opposition, who often cornered the bellicose African through a frontal attack.
Julian was probably born in Apulia, at the bishop’s headquarters of his father Memor, who was a friend of Augustine. As a priest he married the daughter of a bishop, and Pope Innocent appointed him in 416 as bishop of Eclanum. Unlike most prelates, he had an excellent education, was very independent as a thinker and very sharp as a polemicist. He wrote for a ‘highly intellectual’ audience, while Augustine, who found it difficult to refute the ‘young man’, did so for the average clergy, who always constitute a majority.
Although he theologically subscribes the theory of grace, he does not see it as a counterpart of nature, which would also be a valuable gift of the Creator. He highlighted free will, attacked the Augustinian doctrine of original sin as Manichaean, fought the idea of inherited guilt, of a God who becomes a persecutor of newborns, who throws into eternal fire little children—the God of a crime ‘that can scarcely be imagined among the barbarians’ (Julian).
Along with the eighteen bishops who gathered around him, Julian was excommunicated in 418 by Zosimus and, like most of them, expelled from his position, he found refuge in the East. Augustine became more and more severe in his assertions about predestination, the division of humanity between the elect and the condemned. Already on his deathbed, he attacked Julian in an unfinished work.
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