Celts to the Creche: Pelagius

Pelagius and John Chrysostom in the Nuremburg Chronicle. 1493.

Pelagius and John Chrysostom in the Nuremburg Chronicle. 1493. from wikipedia

Celts to the Crèche

Day 18

December 2

Pelagius

c354-c418AD

On this 18th day of our journey with the Celts to the Creche, we encounter the theologian and monk Pelagius who is either dismissed as a heretic or is considered a breath of fresh air to those of a more Celtic persuasion. He was  not a proponent of original sin and he saw God in all of creation.

Pelagius declared so-called “heretical” things like: “Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them . . . Look at the fish in the river and the sea: God’s spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent . . . The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.” Pelagius wrote that the goodness of God  shines out  from all creation for “narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth.” He also taught about the value of soul friendship and that “the image of God can be seen in every newborn child and that, although obscured by sin, it exists at the heart of every person, waiting to be released through the grace of God.”1 He taught that human nature was inclined to goodness and that humanity had free will.

You may desire to continue reading more about Pelagius or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this page.

A First Encounter with Pelagius. In theology classes in seminary, I was oddly attracted to the heretic Pelagius, but I didn’t really know why until I began to discover more about him. When I would read what Pelagius believed and wrote, I kept thinking, “I believe this too!” It wasn’t until later, that it dawned on me why his view of God and theology rang so true for me. Pelagius saw God and God’s kingdom through the lenses of a Celt who loved God’s world and knew deep in their soul that God’s Spirit, the ruah, the very breath of God was blown into all of creation.  This view of God’s creation as good and sacred and holy was dramatically different than the  Roman’s view of life in which all of humanity and creation are depraved.

What I also discovered is that when you are a heretic, there are not many pretty icons or stained glass windows or illuminated manuscripts with your picture. You become invisible. At least he wasn’t burned at the stake like the so-called heretics of the later Inquisition or the fall-out of the Reformation.

Life: Pelagius, a Celtic monk, was born about 354 AD probably in Britain and was well educated there, which says something about the level of education available to British Christians in the 4th c. when the Romans abandoned Britain.  He was fluent in both Greek and Latin and was a theological scholar. Pelagius spent time as an ascetic, which his teachings reflect.

He left his homeland and headed to Rome in the 380’s where he was well known in Rome, both for the harsh asceticism of his public life as well as the power and persuasiveness of his speech. His reputation in Rome earned him praise early in his career from St. Augustine of Hippo, who referred to him as late as 411 as a “saintly man.” But by 415, these two were in a vicious public conflict that was never resolved. Jerome criticized Pelagius saying that he was a big, enthusiastic man, stupid from eating porridge and over-confident in his strength. He was also criticized for wearing his hair in some fashion that seemed inappropriate by Jerome.

A print of Pelagius from a Calvinist document callling him "accursed."

A print of Pelagius from a 17th c. Calvinist document callling him “accursed.” from wikipedia

Pelagius was later condemned as a heretic by St. Augustine and the Council of Carthage and his teachings are the reason behind some of the early synods. He was particularly condemned for his denial of original sin.  Even though Pope Zosimus supported Pelagius, the leaders of the African church including Augustine of Hippo sent “proof” of Pelagius being a  heretic, so the Pope excommunicated Pelagius and sent him into exile in 418 AD.

St. Augustine of Hippo - St. Augustine Catholic Church - Washington, DC

St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine Catholic Church, Washington, DC. icon writer unknown

Teaches Women: While in Rome Pelagius drew the scorn of not only Augustine, but also other leaders like St. Jerome who moved to Antioch and later to Jerusalem. They were offended by Pelagius’ practice of teaching women to read scripture. Pelagius’ desire to educate women was rooted in his conviction that God’s image is found in every person, male and female. He offended the powerful who complained that Pelagius was spending too much time talking indiscriminately in public squares and crossroads, and especially that he was discussing the scriptures with women.

In his Letter to Demetrias, a woman, Pelagius wrote: “Do not let your mind be seduced by theological speculation; the human mind can never grasp the supreme glory of God. Simply follow Jesus wherever he leads.”  He also told her that “God is present in all things, great and small. God’s power is manifest in all events, great and small.”2

Letters to Friends and Followers: In a Letter to Celantia, he wrote, “…A society can only live if people love and serve one another. So when you are aware of hatred in your heart, do not suppress it, but transform it into love.”3

In his Letter to an Elderly Friend, he wrote: “When Jesus commands us to love our neighbours, he does not only mean our human neighbours, he means all the animals and birds, insects, and plants, amongst whom we live…we should love and cherish all God’s creation…Yet we should remember that all love comes from God, so when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree, we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.” 4

Also to that elderly friend Pelagius explained, “…When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only  that his hand had fashioned every creature, it was that his breath had brought every creature to life…God’s spirit is in all the plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living beings is what makes them beautiful, and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.”5

His Teachings: Pelagius taught that human beings can achieve a state of spiritual perfection that is close to sinlessness. 6  He believed that sin and and evil are very real and dangerous, but he was “not at all comfortable with the grim notions of original sin and predestination to damnation”7 that was being taught by some of the leaders of North Africa like Augustine of Hippo. The North African leaders held several local councils that condemned his teachings and in 431, the Council of Ephesus condemned him also.8  Yet, it is very interesting that Pelagius’ doctrines were popular among the Celts including St. Patrick and Gildas.9

Not many extant writings: Much of his writings are not available as they were likely snuffed out and must be pieced together by what his opponents  had to say about his so-called heretical teachings.

Two of the best explanations of Pelagius and his teachings from a Celtic point of view are from John Philip Newell in his book, Listening to the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality, pp. 14-17 and Ian Bradley’s, The Celtic Way, p. 62-69. Mary Earle’s book, Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings-Annotated and Explained has numerous  interesting and important quotes of Pelagius.

St. Cyril of Alexandria.icon  from Catholic online.

Place of Resurrection: Pelagius ended up being a traveling pilgrim, journeying from Britain to Rome to Carthage to Jerusalem before being kicked out of Palestine.

He was invited to spend his last days in Egypt by St. Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria. No one knows what happened to Pelagius after his arrival in Egypt, some speculate he returned to his Celtic homeland, perhaps to Bangor Monastery in Wales and died sometime after 418 AD.

Meditation

Being different and speaking your own truth can be scary. It takes inner personal strength to bear the words, “heretic.” It takes courage to say what you believe even when you realize you are standing alone.

Sister Mildred Barker of Sabbath Day Lake, Maine Shakers

Sister Mildred Barker of Sabbath Day Lake, Maine Shakers. photo from Youtube.

One day, Sister Mildred Barker (died 1990), one of the Shakers of Sabbath Day Lake, Maine was asked by a woman in a conference what would be her best piece of advice for her young daughter. Without hesitancy Sister Mildred quickly answered, “Never be afraid to stand alone.”

 

 

 

Footnotes:

1 John Philip Newell. Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, p.40. “The image of God can be seen in every newborn child…”

2 Mary C. Earle, Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings-Annotated and Explained, p. 43.

3 Ibid., p. 119.

4 Ibid., p. 45.

5 Ibid, p. 43.

6 Richard J. Woods, The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints, p. 29.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid, p. 30.

9 Ibid.

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© Brenda G. Warren and http://www.saintsbridge.org, 2018-2029. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brenda G. Warren and http://www.saintsbridge.org (Celts to the Creche) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Some Resources:

Allen, Charlotte. Pelagius the Progressive. First Things. April 2019.

Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 

Bonner, Ali.In Praise of Pelagius. Church Times. August 31, 2018.

________. The Myth of Pelagianism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Bradley, Ian C. The Celtic Way. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd., new edition, 2003.

Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland. Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2006.

Dillon, Myles and Nora Chadwick. The Celtic Realms. Booksales, 2003.

Earle, Mary C.  Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings-Annotated and Explained.  Woodstock, Vt.: Skylight Paths, 2011.

Epperly, Bruce. Why Christianity Needs Celtic Spirituality. a good explanation of Pelagius’ beliefs and what they mean to us as Christians today.

Hawley, Joshua. The Age of Pelagius. Christianity Today, June 14, 2019.

Herren, Michael W. and Shirley Ann Brown. Christ in Celtic Christianity. Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 2012. A scholarly look at Pelagius and how his teachings effected the Celtic monastic churches in Britain and Ireland.

Jennings, Daniel R., ed. Pelagius’ Letters to a Presbyter, Augustine of Hippo, and Pope Innocent I.

London, Daniel Deforest. Attending to Pelagius. Wordpress, March 2014.

Newell, John Philip. The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997. (the “Introduction” in this book is a great explanation of Pelagius and what he means to Celtic Spirituality)

___________. Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation. Hoboken, NJ.: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

___________. Listening to the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997.

___________. The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings. Woodstock, Vt.: Skylight Publishing, 2014.

“Pelagius.” Northumbria Community Trust. Celtic Daily Prayer: Book One, The Journey Begins. London: William Collins, 2015.

Pennick, Nigel. The Celtic Saints. London, UK: Godsfield Press, 1997.

Read the Spirit: Conversation with J. Philip Newell, An Evangelist from a Far Continent.

Sims, Bennett J. Old Heresies Never Die and One Shouldn’t. http://www.aislingmagazine.com/aislingmagazine/articles/TAM23/OldHeresies.html

Storms, Sam. Ten Things You Should Know about Pelagius and Pelagianism. Crossway. January 27, 2018.

Toulson, Shirley. The Celtic Year: Celebration of Celtic Christian Saints, Sites and Festivals. Element Books, 1996.

Woods, Richard J. The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.

About Brenda

Rev. Warren is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) retired minister. I am married to a wonderful guy with two grown awesome sons; an equally awesome daughter-in-love; and two very large, much-adored, dog-like Maine Coon cats named for Celtic saints. I love reading, writing, travel, mountains, and beachcombing. As a former public and theological Library Director, I love doing research that has helped me in composing this Advent devotional, “Celts to the Creche” at www.saintsbridge.org. My research has been enriched by libraries, way too many books and journals purchased, and numerous pilgrimages to the places where these saints lived and worked and had their being. I cannot even begin to express what a great gift it has been to meet like-minded friends along the path who have generously and kindly shared their scholarship, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints. I often wonder if the saints have in some way been instrumental in introducing me to their friends on both sides of the thin veil.
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