Friday 28 September 2018

The Myth of Pelagianism

The Myth of Pelagianism is a new book by Ali Bonner, a member of the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic 

Pelagius is the first known British author, famous for his defence of free will as the Roman empire disintegrated. He advocated two ideas: that human nature was inclined to goodness, and that man had free will. After a campaign to vilify him he was excommunicated in ad 418 for allegedly inventing a dangerous new heresy, and his name was made a by‑word for wilful arrogance. The narrative of Pelagius the heresiarch has held sway unchallenged for 1,600 years, but it is the story written by those who sought to have him condemned, and it is untrue.

My research into the manuscript transmission of Pelagius’ works has revealed their largescale copying and wide availability across Europe throughout the middle ages. This was possible because his works travelled under false attributions to other Christian writers, and under these other names, Pelagius was a highly influential author. To better understand this phenomenon, I researched the history of the ideas that Pelagius advocated and found that he defended interpretations of the Bible that were mainstream in contemporary literature. In The Myth of Pelagianism I set out the evidence to show that Pelagius proposed nothing new; he repeated ideas that had been common in Christian literature for decades. This textual evidence suggests that Pelagius was entirely unoriginal and did not invent a new heresy as his opponents alleged. Instead he defended what was the mainstream understanding of Christianity at the time; far from being the leader of a separatist group, he was one of many propagandists for the ascetic movement, which was a broad movement that took many forms and was based on encouraging Christians to live the kind of life Christ advocated. Many factors contributed to the large scale of the copying of Pelagius’ works, but the critical cause was the fact there was no doctrinal difference between Pelagius’ writings and much other ascetic literature by writers whose names had no label of heresy attached. Medieval readers could not see a doctrinal difference between Pelagius’ writings and other ascetic literature, such as Jerome’s writings, because there was no difference. Pelagius’ distinguishing characteristic was that he was a particularly persuasive writer: he was good at getting inside his readers’ heads, and 1,600 years later he still is.

The accusation of heresy against Pelagius should be seen in the context of sociological analysis of the creation of deviance and of the function of heresy in religion. Pelagius is a perfect example of the constructed nature of heresy. Because his works survive we can see the gulf between what he wrote and the ideas his opponents attributed to him. We can also see why they created a misleading narrative about Pelagius. In order to install the doctrines they espoused in their version of Christianity, they needed to delegitimise the contemporary mainstream view of human nature and free will. Inventing a heretical group, labelling it, stigmatising it, creating a false narrative about Pelagius and disseminating it in a campaign of lobbying powerful people: these were the techniques used to transfer authority to their own version of Christianity and their own literary output. This was a battle for authority within the Church, and political power determined the outcome. The Christian scriptural expert against whose ideas Pelagius defended the mainstream view, and who had most to lose if Pelagius’ defence of the goodness of human nature and free will were allowed to stand, was Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine and his colleagues lobbied the western Roman emperor to issue an Imperial edict condemning Pelagius and to put pressure on the Pope to overturn his previous acquittal of Pelagius. When the Pope succumbed to the emperor’s pressure nineteen Italian bishops resigned their sees in protest at the improper process, requesting that the theological issues be decided in open discussion by a council of bishops. But power determined the content of doctrine on these questions, and their objections were ignored.           

Pick up a book or search online and you will find the same story: that Pelagius was responsible for a heresy which privileged human free will to the exclusion of God’s role in human decisions and epitomised arrogance. This is not true. Instead the evidence shows that ‘Pelagianism’ did not exist. The term ‘Pelagianism’ should be abandoned because it imports a false paradigm into discussion. A more accurate terminology is available: we can refer to the ascetic movement and the fervour with which many Christians expressed their own variations on the theme of living as Christ enjoined. The ideas that were successfully installed in 418 when Pelagius was condemned were that mankind was inherently sinful and was not in control of his moral choices, and that Pelagius taught that man could achieve virtue without divine help and personified arrogance. In 2018 it is time to revise our understanding of the history of Christianity in late antiquity to bring it into line with the manuscript and textual  evidence that has now been presented, so that as Éric Rebillard has counselled, we do not ‘reify groups under the influence of polemical source texts’.      

The Myth of Pelagianism by Dr Ali Bonner, Lecturer in Celtic History in the department of Anglo‑Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, was published by OUP in August 2018.

A link to a feature in The Church Times: