Vol. 3, Chapter IX (Cont’d) – The Monophysite Sects: Jacobites, Copts, Abyssinians, Armenians, Maronites


Euseb. Renaudot (R.C., † 1720): Historia patriarcharum Alexandrinorum Jacobitarum a D. Marco usque ad finem saec. xiii. Par. 1713. Also by the same: Liturgiarum orientalium collectio. Par. 1716, 2 vols. 4to. Jos. Sim. Assemani (R.C., † 1768): Bibliotheca orientalis. Rom. 1719 sqq., 4 vols. folio (vol. ii. treats De scriptoribus Syria Monophysitis). Michael le Quien (R.C., † 1733): Oriens Christianus. Par. 1740, 3 vols. folio (vols. 2 and 3). Veyssière De La Croze: Histoire du Christianisme d’Ethiope et d’Armenie. La Haye, 1739. Gibbon: Chapter xlvii. towards the end. Makrîzi (Mohammedan, an historian and jurist at Cairo, died 1441): Historia Coptorum Christianorum (Arabic and Latin), ed. H. T. Wetzer, Sulzbach, 1828; a better edition by F. Wüstenfeld, with translation and annotations, Göttingen, 1845. J. E. T. Wiltsch Kirchliche Statistik. Berlin, 1846, Bd. i. p. 225 ff. John Mason Neale (Anglican): The Patriarchate of Alexandria. London, 1847, 2 vols. Also: A History of the Holy Eastern Church. Lond. 1850, 2 vols. (vol. ii. contains among other things the Armenian and Copto-Jacobite Liturgy). E. Dulaurier: Histoire, dogmes, traditions, et liturgie de l’Eglise Armeniane. Par. 1859. Arthur Penrhyn Stanley: Lectures on the History of the Eastern Church. New York, 1862, Lect. i. p. 92 ff. Respecting the present condition of the Jacobites, Copts, Armenians, and Maronites, consult also works of Eastern travel, and the numerous accounts in missionary magazines and other religious periodicals.

The Monophysites, like their antagonists, the Nestorians, have maintained themselves in the East as separate sects under their own bishops and patriarchs, even to the present day; thus proving the tenacity of those Christological errors, which acknowledge the full Godhead and manhood of Christ, while those errors of the ancient church, which deny the Godhead, or the manhood (Ebionism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Arianism, etc.), as sects, have long since vanished. These Christological schismatics stand, as if enchanted, upon the same position which they assumed in the fifth century. The Nestorians reject the third ecumenical council, the Monophysites the fourth; the former hold the distinction of two natures in Christ even to abstract separation, the latter the fusion of the two natures in one with a stubbornness which has defied centuries, and forbids their return to the bosom of the orthodox Greek church. They are properly the ancient national churches of Egypt, Syria, and Armenia, in distinction from the orthodox Greek church, and the united or Roman church of the East.

The Monophysites are scattered upon the mountains and in the valleys and deserts of Syria, Armenia, Assyria, Egypt, and Abyssinia, and, like the orthodox Greeks of those countries, live mostly under Mohammedan, partly under Russian, rule. They supported the Arabs and Turks in weakening and at last conquering the Byzantine empire, and thus furthered the ultimate victory of Islam. In return, they were variously favored by the conquerors, and upheld in their separation from the Greek church. They have long since fallen into stagnation, ignorance, and superstition, and are to Christendom as a praying corpse to a living man. They are isolated fragments of the ancient church history, and curious petrifactions from the Christological battle-fields of the fifth and sixth centuries, coming to view amidst Mohammedan scenes. But Providence has preserved them, like the Jews, and doubtless not without design, through storms of war and persecution, unchanged until the present time. Their very hatred of the orthodox Greek church makes them more accessible both to Protestant and Roman missions, and to the influences of Western Christianity and Western civilization.

On the other hand, they are a door for Protestantism to the Arabs and the Turks; to the former through the Jacobites, to the latter through the Armenians. There is the more reason to hope for their conversion, because the Mohammedans despise the old Oriental churches, and must be won, if at all, by a purer type of Christianity. In this respect the American missions among the Armenians in the Turkish empire, are, like those among the Nestorians in Persia, of great prospective importance, as outposts of a religion which is destined sooner or later to regenerate the East.

With the exception of the Chalcedonian Christology, which they reject as Nestorian heresy, most of the doctrines, institutions, and rites of the Monophysite sects are common to them with the orthodox Greek church. They reject, or at least do not recognize, the filioque; they hold to the mass, or the Eucharistic sacrifice, with a kind of transubstantiation; leavened bread in the Lord’s Supper; baptismal regeneration by trine immersion; seven sacraments (yet not explicitly, since they either have no definite term for sacrament, or no settled conception of it); the patriarchal polity; monasticism; pilgrimages, and fasting; the requisition of a single marriage for priests and deacons (bishops are not allowed to marry); the prohibition of the eating of blood or of things strangled. On the other hand, they know nothing of purgatory and indulgences, and have a simpler worship than the Greeks and Romans. According to their doctrine, all men after death go into Hades, a place alike without sorrow or joy; after the general judgment they enter into heaven or are cast into hell; and meanwhile the intercessions and pious works of the living have an influence on the final destiny of the departed. Like the orthodox Greeks, they honor pictures and relics of the saints, but not in the same degree. Scripture and tradition are with them coordinate sources of revelation and rules of faith. The reading of the Bible is not forbidden, but is limited by the ignorance of the people themselves. They use in worship the ancient vernacular tongues, which, however, are now dead languages to them.

There are four branches of the Monophysites: the Syrian Jacobites; the Copts, including the Abyssinians; the Armemians; and the less ancient Maronites.

I. The Jacobites in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Babylonia. Their name comes down from their ecumenical metropolitan Jacob, surnamed Baradai, or Zanzalus. This remarkable man, in the middle of the sixth century, devoted himself for seven and thirty years (511-578), with unwearied zeal to the interests of the persecuted Monophysites. “Light-footed as Asahel,” (2Sa_2:18) and in the garb of a beggar, he journeyed hither and thither amid the greatest dangers and privations; revived the patriarchate of Antioch; ordained bishops, priests, and deacons; organized churches; healed divisions; and thus saved the Monophysite body from impending extinction.

The patriarch bears the title of patriarch of Antioch, because the succession is traced back to Severus of Antioch; but he commonly resides in Diarbekir, or other towns or monasteries. Since the fourteenth century, the patriarch has always borne the name Ignatius, after the famous martyr and bishop of Antioch. The Jacobite monks are noted for gross superstition and rigorous asceticism. A part of the Jacobites have united with the church of Rome. Lately some Protestant missionaries from America have also found entrance among them.

II. The Copts, in Egypt, are in nationality the genuine descendants of the ancient Egyptians, though with an admixture of Greek and Arab blood. Soon after the council of Chalcedon, they chose Timotheus Aelurus in opposition to the patriarch Proterius. After varying fortunes, they have, since 536, had their own patriarch of Alexandria, who, like most of the Egyptian dignitaries, commonly resides at Cairo. He accounts himself the true successor of the evangelist Mark, St. Athanasius, and Cyril. He is always chosen from among the monks, and, in rigid adherence to the traditionary nolo episcopari, he is elected against his will; he is obliged to lead a strict ascetic life, and at night is waked every quarter of an hour for a short prayer. He alone has the power to ordain, and he performs this function not by imposition of hands, but by breathing on and anointing the candidate. His jurisdiction extends over the churches of Egypt, Nubia, and Abyssinia, or Ethiopia. He chooses and anoints the Abuna (i.e., Our Father), or patriarch for Abyssinia. Under him are twelve bishops, some with real jurisdiction, some titular; and under these again other clergy, down to readers and exorcists. There are still extant two incomplete Coptic versions of the Scriptures, the Upper Egyptian or Thebaic, called also, after the Arabic name of the province, the Sahidic, i.e., Highland version; and the Lower Egyptian or Memphitic.

The Copts were much more numerous than the Catholics, whom they scoffingly nicknamed Melchites, or Caesar-Christians. They lived with them on terms of deadly enmity, and facilitated the conquest of Egypt by the Saracens (641). But they were afterwards cruelly persecuted by these very Saracens, and dwindled from some two millions of souls to a hundred and fifty or two hundred thousand, of whom about ten thousand, or according to others from thirty to sixty thousand, live in Cairo, and the rest mostly in Upper Egypt. They now, in common with all other religious sects, enjoy toleration. They and the Abyssinians are distinguished from the other Monophysites by the Jewish and Mohammedan practice of circumcision, which is performed by lay persons (on both sexes), and in Egypt is grounded upon sanitary considerations. They still observe the Jewish law of meats. They are sunk in poverty, ignorance, and semi-barbarism. Even the clergy, who indeed are taken from the lowest class of the people, are a beggarly set, and understand nothing but how to read mass, and perform the various ceremonies. They do not even know the Coptic or old Egyptian, their own ancient ecclesiastical language. They live by farming, and their official fees. The literary treasures of their convents in the Coptic, Syriac, and Arabic languages, have been of late secured for the most part to the British Museum, by Tattam and other travellers.

Missions have lately been undertaken among them, especially by the Church Missionary Society of England (commencing in 1825), and the United Presbyterians of America, but with little success so far.

The Abyssinian church is a daughter of the Coptic, and was founded in the fourth century, by two missionaries from Alexandria, Frumentius and Aedesius. It presents a strange mixture of barbarism, ignorance, superstition, and Christianity. Its Ethiopic Bible, which dates perhaps from the first missionaries, includes in the Old Testament the apocryphal book of Enoch. The Chronicles of Axuma (the former capital of the country), dating from the fourth century, receive almost the same honor as the Bible. The council of Chalcedon is accounted an assembly of fools and heretics. The Abyssinian church has retained even more Jewish elements than the Coptic. It observes the Jewish Sabbath together with the Christian Sunday; it forbids the use of the flesh of swine and other unclean beasts; it celebrates a yearly feast of general lustration or rebaptizing of the whole nation; it retains the model of a sacred ark, called the ark of Zion, to which gifts and prayers are offered, and which forms the central point of public worship. It believes in the magical virtue of outward ceremonies, especially immersion, as the true regeneration. Singularly enough it honors Pontius Pilate as a saint, because he washed his hands of innocent blood. The endless controversies respecting the natures of Christ, which have died out elsewhere still rage there. The Abyssinians honor saints and pictures, but not images; crosses, but not the crucifix. Every priest carries a cross in his hand, and presents it to every one whom he meets, to be kissed. The numerous churches are small and dome-shaped above, and covered with reeds and straw. On the floor lie a number of staves and crutches, on which the people support themselves during the long service, as, like all the Orientals, they are without benches. Slight as are its remains of Christianity, Abyssinia still stands, in agriculture, arts, laws, and social condition, far above the heathen countries of Africa — a proof that even a barbaric Christianity is better than none.

The influences of the West have penetrated even to Abyssinia. The missions of the Jesuits in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and of the Protestants in the nineteenth, have been prosecuted amidst many dangers and much self-denial, yet hitherto with but little success.

III. The Armenians. These are the most numerous, interesting, and hopeful of the Monophysite sects, and now the most accessible to evangelical Protestantism. Their nationality reaches back into hoary antiquity, like Mount Ararat, at whose base lies their original home. They were converted to Christianity in the beginning of the fourth century, under King Tiridates, by Gregory the Enlightener, the first patriarch and ecclesiastical writer and the greatest saint of the Armenians. They were provided by him with monasteries and seminaries, and afterwards by Mesrob with a version of the Scriptures, made from the Greek with the help of the Syriac Peschito; which at the same time marks the beginning of the Armenian literature, since Mesrob had first to invent his alphabet. The Armenian canon has four books found in no other Bible; in the Old Testament, the History of Joseph and Asenath, and the Testament of the twelve Patriarchs, and in the New, the Epistle of the Corinthians to Paul and a Third, but spurious, Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. The next oldest work in the Armenian language is the history of their land and people, by Moses Chorenensis, a half century later.

The Armenians fell away from the church of the Greek Empire in 552, from which year they date their era. The Persians favored the separation on political grounds, but were themselves thoroughly hostile to Christianity, and endeavored to introduce the Zoroastrian religion into Armenia. The Armenian church, being left unrepresented at the council of Chalcedon through the accidental absence of its bishops, accepted in 491 the Henoticon of the emperor Zeno, and at the synod of Twin (Tevin or Tovin, the capital at that time), held a.d. 595, declared decidedly for the Monophysite doctrine. The Confessio Armenica, which in other respects closely resembles the Nicene Creed, is recited by the priest at every morning service. The Armenian church had for a long time only one patriarch or Catholicus, who at first resided in Sebaste, and afterwards in the monastery of Etschmiezin (Edschmiadsin), their holy city, at the foot of Mount Ararat, near Erivan (now belonging to Russia), and had forty-two archbishops under him. At his consecration the dead hand of Gregory the Enlightener is even yet always used, as the medium of tactual succession. Afterwards other patriarchal sees were established, at Jerusalem (in 1311), at Sis, in Cilicia (in 1440), and after the fall of the Greek empire in Constantinople (1461). In 637 Armenia fell under Mohammedan dominion, and belongs now partly to Turkey and partly to Russia. But the varying fortunes and frequent oppressions of their country have driven many thousands of the Armenians abroad, and they are now scattered in other parts of Russia and Turkey, as well as in Persia, India, and Austria.

The Armenians of the diaspora are mostly successful traders and brokers, and have become a nation and a church of merchant princes, holding great influence in Turkey. Their dispersion, and love of trade, their lack of political independence, their tenacious adherence to ancient national customs and rites, the oppressions to which they are exposed in foreign countries, and the influence which they nevertheless exercise upon these countries, make their position in the Orient, especially in Turkey, similar to that of the Jews in the Christian world.

The whole number of the Armenians is very variously estimated, from two and a half up to fifteen millions.

The Armenian church, it may be remarked, has long been divided into two parts, which, although internally very similar, are inflexibly opposed to each other. The united Armenians, since the council of Florence, a.d. 1439, have been connected with the church of Rome. To them belongs the congregation of the Mechitarists, which was founded by the Abbot Mechitar († 1749), and possesses a famous monastery on the island of San Lazzaro near Venice, from which center it has successfully labored since 1702 for Armenian literature and education in the interest of the Roman Catholic church. The schismatical Armenians hold firmly to their peculiar ancient doctrines and polity. They regard themselves as the orthodox, and call the united or Roman Armenians schismatics.

Since 1830, the Protestant Missionary, Tract, and Bible societies of England, Basle, and the United States, have labored among the Armenians especially among the Monophysite portion, with great success, The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, in particular, has distributed Bibles and religious books in the Armenian and Armeno-Turkish language, and founded flourishing churches and schools in Constantinople, Broosa, Nicomedia, Trebizond, Erzroom, Aintab, Kharpoot, Diarbekir, and elsewhere. Several of these churches have already endured the crucial test of persecution, and justify bright hopes for the future. As the Jewish Synagogues of the diaspora were witnesses for monotheism among idolaters, and preparatory schools of Christianity, so are these Protestant Armenian churches, as well as the Protestant Nestorian, outposts of evangelical civilization in the East, and perhaps the beginning of a resurrection of primitive Christianity in the lands of the Bible and harbingers of the future conversion of the Mohammedans.

IV. The youngest sect of the Monophysites, and the solitary memorial of the Monothelite controversy, are the Maronites, so called from St. Maron, and the eminent monastery founded by him in Syria (400). They inhabit the range of Lebanon, with its declivities and valleys, from Tripolis on the North to the neighborhood of Tyre and the lake of Gennesaret on the South, and amount at most to half a million. They have also small churches in Aleppo, Damascus, and other places. They are pure Syrians, and still use the Syriac language in their liturgy, but speak Arabic. They are subject to a patriarch, who commonly resides in the monastery of Kanobin on Mt. Lebanon. They were originally Monothelites, even after the doctrine of one will of Christ, which is the ethical complement of the doctrine of one nature, had been rejected at the sixth ecumenical Council (a.d. 680). But after the Crusades (1182), and especially after 1596, they began to go over to the Roman church, although retaining the communion under both kinds, their Syriac missal, the marriage of priests, and their traditional fast-days, with some saints of their own, especially St: Maron.

From these came, in the eighteenth century, the three celebrated Oriental scholars, the Assemani, Joseph Simon († 1768), his brother Joseph Aloysius, and their cousin Stephen Evodius. These were born on Mt. Lebanon, and educated at the Maronite college at Rome.

There are also Maronites in Syria, who abhor the Roman church.


IV. The Anthropological Controversies

Works on the Pelagian Controversy in General


I. Pelagius: Expositiones in epistolas Paulinas (composed before 410); Epistola ad Demetriadem, in 30 chapters (written a.d. 413); Libellus fidei ad Innocentium I. (417, also falsely called Explanatio Symboli ad Damasum). These three works have been preserved complete, as supposed works of Jerome, and have been incorporated in the Opera of this father (tom. xi. ed. of Vallarsius). Of the other writings of Pelagius (De natura; De libero arbitrio; Capitula; Epist. ad Innocent. I., which accompanied the Libellus fidei), we have only fragments in the works of his opponents, especially Augustine. In like manner we have only fragments of the writings of Coelestius: Definitiones; Symbolum ad Zosimum; and of Julianus of Eclanum: Libri iv. ad Turbantium episcopum contra Augustini primum de nuptiis; Libri viii. ad Florum contra Augustini secundum de nuptiis. Large and literal extracts in the extended replies of Augustine to Julian

II. Augustinus: De peccatorum meritis et remissione (412); De spiritu et litera (418); De natura et gratia (415); De gestis Pelagii (417); De gratia Christi et de peccato originali (418); De nuptiis et concupiscentia (419); Contra duas Epistolas Pelagianorum (420); Contra Julianum, libri vi. (421); Opus imperfectum contra Julianum (429); De gratia et libero arbitrio (426 or 427); De correptione et gratia (427) De praedestinatione sanctorum (428 or 429); De dono perseverantivae (429); and other anti-Pelagian writings, which are collected in the 10th volume of his Opera, in two divisions, ed. Bened. Par. 1690, and again Venet. 1733. (it is the Venice Bened. edition from which I have quoted throughout in this section. In Migne’s edition of Aug., Par. 1841, the anti-Pelagian writings form likewise the tenth tomus of 1912 pages.) Hieronymus: Ep. 133 (in Vallarsi’s, and in Migne’s ed.; or, Ep. 43 in the Bened. ed.) ad Ctesiphontem (315); Dialogi contra Pelagianos, libri iii. (Opera, ed. Vallars. vol. ii. f. 693-806, and ed. Migne, ii. 495-590). P. Orosius: Apologeticus c. Pelag. libri iii. (Opera, ed. Haverkamp). Marius Mercator, a learned Latin monk in Constantinople (428-451): Commonitoria, 429, 431 (ed. Baluz. Paris, 1684, and Migne, Par. 1846). Collection of the Acta in Mansi, tom. iv.



Gerh. Joh. Vossius: Hist. de controversiis, quas Pelagius ejusque reliquiae moverunt, libri vii. Lugd. Batav. 1618 (auct. ed. Amstel. 1655). Cardinal Henr. Norisius: Historia Pelagiana et dissert. de Synodo Quinta Oecumen. Batavii, 1673, fol. (and in Opera, Veron. 1729, i.). Garnier (Jesuit): Dissert. vii. quibus integra continentur Pelagianorum hist. (in his ed. of the Opera of Marius Mercator, i. 113). The Praefatio to the 10th vol. of the Benedictine edition of Augustine’s Opera. Corn. Jansenius († 1638): Augustinus, sive doctrina S. Augustini de humanae naturae sanitate, aegritudine, medicina, adv. Pelagianos et Massilienses. Lovan. 1640, fol. (He read Augustine twenty times, and revived his system in the Catholic church.) Tillemont: Mémoires, etc. Tom. xiii. pp. 1-1075, which is entirely devoted to the life of Augustine. Ch. Wilh. Fr. Walch: Ketzerhistorie. Leipz. 1770. Bd. iv. and v. Schröckh: Kirchengeschichte. Parts xiv. and xv. (1790). G. F. Wiggers (sen.): Versuch einer pragmatischen Darstellung des Augustinismus und Pelagianismus, in zwei Theilen. Hamburg, 1833. (The first part appeared 1821 in Berlin; the second, which treats of Semi-Pelagianism, in 1833 at Hamburg. The common title-page bears date 1833. The first part has also been translated into English by Prof. Emerson, Andover, 1840). J. L. Jacobi: Die Lehre des Pelagius. Leipzig, 1842. F. Böhringer: Die Kirche Christi in Biographien. Bd. i. Th. 3, pp. 444-626, Zürich, 1845. Gieseler: Kirchengeschichte. Bd. i. Abth. 2 pp. 106-131 (4th ed. 1845, entirely favorable to Pelagianism). Neander: Kirchengeschichte. Bd. iv. (2d ed. 1847, more Augustinian). Schaff: The Pelagian Controversy, in the Bibliotheca Sacra, Andover, May, 1848 (No. xviii.). Theod. Gangauf: Metaphysische Psychologie des heiligen Augustinus. Augsb. 1852. Thorough, but not completed. H. Hart Milman: History of Latin Christianity. New York, 1860, vol. i. ch. ii. pp. 164-194. Jul. Müller: Die christliche Lehre von der Sünde. Bresl. 1838, 5th ed. 1866, 2 vols. (An English translation by Pulsford, Edinburgh.) The same: Der Pelagianismus. Berlin, 1854. (A brief, but admirable essay.) Hefele: Conciliengeschichte. Bd. ii. 1856, p. 91 ff. W. Cunningham: Historical Theology. Edinburgh, 1863, vol. i, pp. 321-358. Fr. Wörter (R.C.): Der Pelagianismus nach seinem Ursprung und seiner Lehre. Freiburg, 1866. Nourrisson: La philosophie de S. Augustin. Par. 1866, 2 vols. (vol. i. 452 ff.; ii. 352 ff.). Comp. also the literature in §178, and the relevant chapters in the Doctrine-Histories of Münscher, Baumgarten-Crusius, Hagenbach, Neander, Baur, Beck, Shedd.


146. Character of the Pelagian Controversy

While the Oriental Church was exhausting her energies in the Christological controversies, and, with the help of the West, was developing the ecumenical doctrine of the person of Christ, the Latin church was occupied with the great anthropological and soteriological questions of sin and grace, and was bringing to light great treasures of truth, without either help from the Eastern church or influence upon her. The third ecumenical council, it is true, condemned Pelagianism, but without careful investigation, and merely on account of its casual connection with Nestorianism. The Greek historians, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Evagrius, although they treat of that period, take not the slightest notice of the Pelagian controversies. In this fact we see the predominantly practical character of the West, in contradistinction to the contemplative and speculative East. Yet the Christological and anthropologico-soteriological controversies are vitally connected, since Christ became man for the redemption of man. The person and the work of the Redeemer presuppose on the one hand man’s capability of redemption, and on the other his need of redemption. Manichaeism denies the former, Pelagianism the latter. In opposition to these two fundamental anthropological heresies, the church was called to develope the whole truth.

Before Augustine the anthropology of the church was exceedingly crude and indefinite. There was a general agreement as to the apostasy and the moral accountability of man, the terrible curse of sin, and the necessity of redeeming grace; but not as to the extent of native corruption, and the relation of human freedom to divine grace in the work of regeneration and conversion. The Greek, and particularly the Alexandrian fathers, in opposition to the dualism and fatalism of the Gnostic systems, which made evil a necessity of nature, laid great stress upon human freedom, and upon the indispensable cooperation of this freedom with divine grace; while the Latin fathers, especially Tertullian and Cyprian, Hilary and Ambrose, guided rather by their practical experience than by speculative principles, emphasized the hereditary sin and hereditary guilt of man, and the sovereignty of God’s grace, without, however, denying freedom and individual accountability. The Greek church adhered to her undeveloped synergism, which coordinates the human will and divine grace as factors in the work of conversion; the Latin church, under the influence of Augustine, advanced to the system of a divine, monergism, which gives God all the glory, and makes freedom itself a result of grace; while Pelagianism, on the contrary, represented the principle of a human monergism, which ascribes the chief merit of conversion to man, and reduces grace to a mere external auxiliary. After Augustine’s death, however the intermediate system of Semi-Pelagianism, akin to the Greek synergism, became prevalent in the West.

Pelagius and Augustine, in whom these opposite forms of monergism were embodied, are representative men, even more strictly than Arius and Athanasius before them, or Nestorius and Cyril after them. The one, a Briton, more than once convulsed the world by his errors; the other, an African, more than once by his truths. They represented principles and tendencies, which, in various modifications, extend through the whole history of the church, and reappear in its successive epochs. The Gottschalk controversy in the ninth century, the Reformation, the synergistic controversy in the Lutheran church, the Arminian in the Reformed, and the Jansenistic in the Roman Catholic, only reproduce the same great contest in new and specific aspects. Each system reflects the personal character and experience of its author. Pelagius was an upright monk, who without inward conflicts won for himself, in the way of tranquil development, a legal piety which knew neither the depths of sin nor the heights of grace. Augustine, on the other hand, passed through sharp convulsions and bitter conflicts, till he was overtaken by the unmerited grace of God, and created anew to a life of faith and love. Pelagius had a singularly clear, though contracted mind, and an earnest moral purpose, but no enthusiasm for lofty ideals; and hence he found it not hard to realize his lower standard of holiness. Augustine had a bold and soaring intellect, and glowing heart, and only found peace after he had long been tossed by the waves of passion; he had tasted all the misery of sin, and then all the glory of redemption, and this experience qualified him to understand and set forth these antagonistic powers far better than his opponent, and with a strength and fulness surpassed only by the inspired apostle Paul. Indeed, Augustine, of all the fathers, most resembles, in experience and doctrine, this very apostle, and stands next to him in his influence upon the Reformers.

The Pelagian controversy turns upon the mighty antithesis of sin and grace. It embraces the whole cycle of doctrine respecting the ethical and religious relation of man to God, and includes, therefore, the doctrines of human freedom, of the primitive state, of the fall, of regeneration and conversion, of the eternal purpose of redemption, and of the nature and operation of the grace of God. It comes at last to the question, whether redemption is chiefly a work of God or of man; whether man needs to be born anew, or merely improved. The soul of the Pelagian system is human freedom; the soul of the Augustinian is divine grace. Pelagius starts from the natural man, and works up, by his own exertions, to righteousness and holiness. Augustine despairs of the moral sufficiency of man, and derives the now life and all power for good from the creative grace of God. The one system proceeds from the liberty of choice to legalistic piety; the other from the bondage of sin to the evangelical liberty of the children of God. To the former Christ is merely a teacher and example, and grace an external auxiliary to the development of the native powers of man; to the latter he is also Priest and King, and grace a creative principle, which begets, nourishes, and consummates a new life. The former makes regeneration and conversion a gradual process of the strengthening and perfecting of human virtue; the latter makes it a complete transformation, in which the old disappears and all becomes new. The one loves to admire the dignity and strength of man; the other loses itself in adoration of the glory and omnipotence of God. The one flatters natural pride, the other is a gospel for penitent publicans and sinners. Pelagianism begins with self-exaltation and ends with the sense of self-deception and impotency. Augustinianism casts man first into the dust of humiliation and despair, in order to lift him on the wings of grace to supernatural strength, and leads him through the hell of self-knowledge up to the heaven of the knowledge of God. The Pelagian system is clear, sober, and intelligible, but superficial; the Augustinian sounds the depths of knowledge and experience, and renders reverential homage to mystery. The former is grounded upon the philosophy of common sense, which is indispensable for ordinary life, but has no perception of divine things; the latter is grounded upon the philosophy of the regenerate reason, which breaks through the limits of nature, and penetrates the depths of divine revelation. The former starts with the proposition: Intellectus praecedit fidem; the latter with the opposite maxim: Fides praecedit intellectum. Both make use of the Scriptures; the one, however, conforming them to reason, the other subjecting reason to them. Pelagianism has an unmistakable affinity with rationalism, and supplies its practical side. To the natural will of the former system corresponds the natural reason of the latter; and as the natural will, according to Pelagianism, is competent to good, so is the natural reason, according to rationalism, competent to the knowledge of the truth. All rationalists are Pelagian in their anthropology; but Pelagius and Coelestius were not consistent, and declared their agreement with the traditional orthodoxy in all other doctrines, though without entering into their deeper meaning and connection. Even divine mysteries may be believed in a purely external, mechanical way, by inheritance from the past, as the history of theology, especially in the East, abundantly proves.

The true solution of the difficult question respecting the relation of divine grace to human freedom in the work of conversion, is not found in the denial of either factor; for this would either elevate man to the dignity of a self-redeemer, or degrade him to an irrational machine, and would ultimately issue either in fatalistic pantheism or in atheism; but it must be sought in such a reconciliation of the two factors as gives full weight both to the sovereignty of God and to the responsibility of man, yet assigns a preëminence to the divine agency corresponding to the infinite exaltation of the Creator and Redeemer above the sinful creature. And although Angustine’s solution of the problem is not altogether satisfactory, and although in his zeal against the Pelagian error he has inclined to the opposite extreme; yet in all essential points, he has the Scriptures, especially the Epistles of Paul, as well as Christian experience, and the profoundest speculation, on his side. Whoever reads the tenth volume of his works, which contains his Anti-Pelagian writings in more than fourteen hundred folio columns (in the Benedictine edition), will be moved to wonder at the extraordinary wealth of thought and experience treasured in them for all time; especially if he considers that Augustine, at the breaking out of the Pelagian controversy, was already fifty-seven years old, and had passed through the Manichaen and Donatist controversies. Such giants in theology could only arise in an age when this queen of the sciences drew into her service the whole mental activity of the time.

The Pelagian controversy was conducted with as great an expenditure of mental energy, and as much of moral and religious earnestness, but with less passion and fewer intrigues, than the Trinitarian and Christological conflicts in the East. In the foreground stood the mighty genius and pure zeal of Augustine, who never violated theological dignity, and, though of thoroughly energetic convictions, had a heart full of love. Yet even he yielded so far to the intolerant spirit of his time as to justify the repression of the Donatist and Pelagian errors by civil penalties.


147. External History of the Pelagian Controversy, a.d. 411-431

Pelagius was a simple monk, born about the middle of the fourth century in Britain, the extremity of the then civilized world. He was a man of clear intellect, mild disposition, learned culture, and spotless character; even Augustine. with all his abhorrence of his doctrines, repeatedly speaks respectfully of the man. He studied the Greek theology, especially that of the Antiochian school, and early showed great zeal for the improvement of himself and of the world. But his morality was not so much the rich, deep life of faith, as it was the external legalism, the ascetic self-discipline and self-righteousness of monkery. It was characteristic, that, even before the controversy, he took great offence at the well-known saying of Augustine: “Give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt.” He could not conceive, that the power to obey the commandment must come from the same source as the commandment itself. Faith, with him, was hardly more than a theoretical belief; the main thing in religion was moral action, the keeping of the commandments of God by one’s own strength. This is also shown in the introductory remarks of his letter to Demetrias, a noble Roman nun, of the gens Anicia, in which he describes a model virgin as a proof of the excellency of human nature: “As often as I have to speak concerning moral improvement and the leading of a holy life, I am accustomed first to set forth the power and quality of human nature, and to show what it can accomplish. For never are we able to enter upon the path of the virtues, unless hope, as companion, draws us to them. For every longing after anything dies within us, so soon as we despair of attaining that thing.”

In the year 409, Pelagius, already advanced in life, was in Rome, and composed a brief commentary on the Epistles of Paul. This commentary, which has been preserved among the works of Jerome, displays a clear and sober exegetical talent. He labored quietly and peacefully for the improvement of the corrupt morals of Rome, and converted the advocate Coelestius, of distinguished, but otherwise unknown birth, to his monastic life, and to his views. It was from this man, younger, more skilful in argument, more ready for controversy, and more rigorously consistent than his teacher, that the controversy took its rise. Pelagius was the moral author, Coelestius the intellectual author, of the system represented by them. They did not mean actually to found a new system, but believed themselves in accordance with Scripture and established doctrine. They were more concerned with the ethical side of Christianity than with the dogmatic; but their endeavor after moral perfection was based upon certain views of the natural power of the will, and these views proved to be in conflict with anthropological principles which had been developed in the African church for the previous ten years under the influence of Augustine.

In the year 411, the two friends, thus united in sentiment, left Rome, to escape the dreaded Gothic King Alaric, and went to Africa. They passed through Hippo, intending to visit Augustine, but found that he was just then at Carthage, occupied with the Donatists. Pelagius wrote him a very courteous letter, which Augustine answered in a similar tone; intimating, however, the importance of holding the true doctrine concerning sin. “Pray for me,” he said, “that God may really make me that which you already take me to be.” Pelagius soon proceeded to Palestine. Coelestius applied for presbyters’ orders in Carthage, the very place where he had most reason to expect opposition. This inconsiderate step brought on the crisis. He gained many friends, it is true, by his talents and his ascetic zeal, but at the same time awakened suspicion by his novel opinions.

The deacon Paulinus of Milan, who was just then in Carthage, and who shortly afterwards at the request of Augustine wrote the life of Ambrose, warned the bishop Aurelius against Coelestius, and at a council held by Aurelius at Carthage in 412, appeared as his accuser. Six or seven errors, he asserted he had found in the writings of Coelestius:

1. Adam was created mortal, and would have died, even if he had not sinned.

2. Adam’s fall injured himself alone, not the human race.

3. Children come into the world in the same condition in which Adam was before the fall.

4. The human race neither dies in consequence of Adam’s fall, nor rises again in consequence of Christ’s resurrection.

5. Unbaptized children, as well as others, are saved.

6. The law, as well as the gospel, leads to the kingdom of heaven.

7. Even before Christ there were sinless men.

The principal propositions were the second and third, which are intimately connected, and which afterwards became the especial subject of controversy.

Coelestius returned evasive answers. He declared the propositions to be speculative questions of the schools, which did not concern the substance of the faith, and respecting which different opinions existed in the church. He refused to recant the errors charged upon him, and the synod excluded him from the communion of the church. He immediately went to Ephesus, and was there ordained presbyter.

Augustine had taken no part personally in these transactions. But as the Pelagian doctrines found many adherents even in Africa and in Sicily, he wrote several treatises in refutation of them so early as 412 and 415, expressing himself, however, with respect and forbearance.


148. The Pelagian Controversy in Palestine

Meanwhile, in 414, the controversy broke out in Palestine, where Pelagius was residing, and where he had aroused attention by a letter to the nun Demetrias. His opinions gained much wider currency there, especially among the Origenists; for the Oriental church had not been at all affected by the Augustinian views, and accepted the two ideas of freedom and grace, without attempting to define their precise relation to each other. But just then there happened to be in Palestine two Western theologians, Jerome and Orosius; and they instituted opposition to Pelagius.

Jerome, who lived a monk at Bethlehem, was at first decidedly favorable to the synergistic theory of the Greek fathers, but at the same time agreed with Ambrose and Augustine in the doctrine of the absolutely universal corruption of sin. But from an enthusiastic admirer of Origen he had been changed to a bitter enemy. The doctrine of Pelagius concerning free will and the moral ability of human nature he attributed to the influence of Origen and Rufinus; and he took as a personal insult an attack of Pelagius on some of his writings. He therefore wrote against him, though from wounded pride and contempt he did not even mention his name; first in a letter answering inquiries of a certain Ctesiphon at Rome (415); then more at length in a dialogue of three books against the Pelagians, written towards the end of the year 415, and soon after the acquittal of Pelagius by the synod of Jerusalem. Yet in this treatise and elsewhere Jerome himself teaches the freedom of the will, and only a conditional predestination of divine foreknowledge, and thus, with all his personal bitterness against the Pelagians, stands on Semi-Pelagian ground, though Augustine eulogizes the dialogue.

A young Spanish ecclesiastic, Paul Orosius, was at that time living with Jerome for the sake of more extended study, and had been sent to him by Augustine with letters relating to the Origenistic and Pelagian controversy.

At a diocesan synod, convoked by the bishop John of Jerusalem in June, 415, this Orosius appeared against Pelagius, and gave information that a council at Carthage had condemned Coelestius, and that Augustine had written against his errors. Pelagius answered with evasion and disparagement: “What matters Augustine to me?” Orosius gave his opinion, that a man who presumed to speak contumeliously of the bishop to whom the whole North African church owed her restoration (alluding apparently to the settlement of the Donatist controversies), deserved to be excluded from the communion of the whole church. John, who was a great admirer of the condemned Origen, and made little account of the authority of Augustine, declared: “I am Augustine,” and undertook the defence of the accused. He permitted Pelagius, although only a monk and layman, to take his seat among the presbyters. Nor did he find fault with Pelagius’ assertion, that man can easily keep the commandments of God, and become free from sin, after the latter had conceded, in a very indefinite manner, that for this the help of God is necessary. Pelagius had the advantage of understanding both languages, while John spoke only Greek, Orosius only Latin, and the interpreter often translated inaccurately. After much discussion it was resolved, that the matter should be laid before the Roman bishop, Innocent, since both parties in the controversy belonged to the Western church. Meanwhile these should refrain from all further attacks on each other.

A second Palestinian council resulted still more favorably to Pelagius. This consisted of fourteen bishops, and was held at Diospolis or Lydda, in December of the same year, under the presidency of Eulogius, bishop of Caesarea, to judge of an accusation preferred by two banished bishops of Gaul, Heros and Lazarus, acting in concert with Jerome. The charges were unskilfully drawn up, and Pelagius was able to avail himself of equivocations, and to condemn as folly, though not as heresy, the teachings of Coelestius, which were also his own. The synod, of which John of Jerusalem was a member, did not go below the surface of the question, nor in fact understand it, but acquitted the accused of all heresy. Jerome is justified in calling this a “miserable synod;” although Augustine is also warranted in saying: “it was not heresy, that was there acquitted, but the man who denied the heresy.”

Jerome’s polemical zeal against the Pelagians cost him dear. In the beginning of the year 416, a mob of Pelagianizing monks, ecclesiastics, and vagabonds broke into his monastery at Bethlehem, maltreated the inmates, set the building on fire, and compelled the aged scholar to take to flight. Bishop John of Jerusalem let this pass unpunished. No wonder that Jerome, even during the last years of his life, in several epistles indulges in occasional sallies of anger against Pelagius, whom he calls a second Catiline.


149. Position of the Roman Church. Condemnation of Pelagianism

The question took another turn when it was brought before the Roman see. Two North African synods, in 416, one at Carthage and one at Mileve (now Mela), again condemned the Pelagian error, and communicated their sentence to pope Innocent. A third and more confidential letter was addressed to him by five North African bishops, of whom Augustine was one. Pelagius also sent him a letter and a confession of faith, which, however, were not received in due time.

Innocent understood both the controversy and the interests of the Roman see. He commended the Africans for having addressed themselves to the church of St. Peter, before which it was seemly that all the affairs of Christendom should be brought; he expressed his full agreement with the condemnation of Pelagius, Coelestius, and their adherents; but he refrained from giving judgment respecting the synod of Diospolis.

But soon afterwards (in 417) Innocent died, and was succeeded by Zosimus, who was apparently of Oriental extraction (417-418). At this juncture, a letter from Pelagius to Innocent was received, in which he complained of having suffered wrong, and gave assurance of his orthodoxy. Coelestius appeared personally in Rome, and succeeded by his written and oral explanations in satisfying Zosimus. He, like Pelagius, demonstrated with great fulness his orthodoxy on points not at all in question, represented the actually controverted points as unimportant questions of the schools, and professed himself ready, if in error, to be corrected by the judgment of the Roman bishop.

Zosimus, who evidently had no independent theological opinion whatever, now issued (417) to the North African bishops an encyclical letter accompanied by the documentary evidence, censuring them for not having investigated the matter more thoroughly, and for having aspired, in foolish, overcurious controversies, to know more than the Holy Scriptures. At the same time he bore emphatic testimony to the orthodoxy of Pelagius and Coelestius, and described their chief opponents, Heros and Lazarus, as worthless characters, whom he had visited with excommunication and deposition. They in Rome, he says, could hardly refrain from tears, that such men, who so often mentioned the gratia Dei and the adjutorium divinum, should have been condemned as heretics. Finally he entreated the bishops to submit themselves to the authority of the Roman see.

This temporary favor of the bishop of Rome towards the Pelagian heresy is a significant presage of the indulgence of later popes for Pelagianizing tendencies, and of the papal condemnation of Jansenism.

The Africans were too sure of their cause, to yield submission to so weak a judgment, which, moreover, was in manifest conflict with that of Innocent. In a council at Carthage, in 417 or 418, they protested, respectfully but decidedly, against the decision of Zosimus, and gave him to understand that he was allowing himself to be greatly deceived by the indefinite explanations of Coelestius. In a general African council held at Carthage in 418, the bishops, over two hundred in number, defined their opposition to the Pelagian errors, in eight (or nine) Canons, which are entirely conformable to the Augustinian view. They are in the following tenor:

1. Whosoever says, that Adam was created mortal, and would, even without sin, have died by natural necessity, let him be anathema.

2. Whoever rejects infant baptism, or denies original sin in children, so that the baptismal formula, “for the remission of sins,” would have to be taken not in a strict, but in a loose sense, let him be anathema.

3. Whoever says, that in the kingdom of heaven, or elsewhere, there is a certain middle place, where children dying without baptism live happy (beate vivant), while yet without baptism they cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven, i.e., into eternal life, let him be anathema.

The fourth canon condemns the doctrine that the justifying grace of God merely effects the forgiveness of sins already committed; and the remaining canons condemn other superficial views of the grace of God and the sinfulness of man.

At the same time the Africans succeeded in procuring from the emperor Honorius edicts against the Pelagians.

These things produced a change in the opinions of Zosimus, and about the middle of the year 418, he issued an encyclical letter to all the bishops of both East and West, pronouncing the anathema upon Pelagius and Coelestius (who had meanwhile left Rome), and declaring his concurrence with the decisions of the council of Carthage in the doctrines of the corruption of human nature, of baptism, and of grace. Whoever refused to subscribe the encyclical, was to be deposed, banished from his church, and deprived of his property.

Eighteen bishops of Italy refused to subscribe, and were deposed. Several of these afterwards recanted, and were restored.

The most distinguished one of them, however, the bishop Julian, of Eclanum, a small place near Capua in Campania, remained steadfast till his death, and in banishment vindicated his principles with great ability and zeal against Augustine, to whom he attributed all the misfortunes of his party, and who elaborately confuted him. Julian was the most learned, the most acute, and the most systematic of the Pelagians, and the most formidable opponent of Augustine; deserving respect for his talents, his uprightness of life, and his immovable fidelity to his convictions, but unquestionably censurable for excessive passion and overbearing pride.

Julian, Coelestius, and other leaders of the exiled Pelagians, were hospitably received in Constantinople, in 429, by the patriarch Nestorius, who sympathized with their doctrine of the moral competency of the will, though not with their denial of original sin, and who interceded for them with the emperor and with pope Celestine, but in vain. Theodosius, instructed by Marius Mercator in the merits of the case, commanded the heretics to leave the capital (429). Nestorius, in a still extant letter to Coelestius, accords to him the highest titles of honor, and comforts him with the examples of John the Baptist and the persecuted apostles. Theodore of Mopsuestia († 428), the author of the Nestorian Christology, wrote in 419 a book against the Augustinian anthropology, of which fragments only are left.

Of the subsequent life of Pelagius and Coelestius we have no account. The time and place of their death are entirely unknown. Julian is said to have ended his life a schoolmaster in Sicily, a.d. 450, after having sacrificed all his property for the poor during a famine.

Pelagianism was thus, as early as about the year 430, externally vanquished. It never formed an ecclesiastical sect, but simply a theological school. It continued to have individual adherents in Italy till towards the middle of the fifth century, so that the Roman bishop, Leo the Great, found himself obliged to enjoin on the bishops by no means to receive any Pelagian to the communion of the church without an express recantation.

At the third ecumenical council in Ephesus, a.d. 431 (the year after Augustine’s death), Pelagius (or more properly Coelestius) was put in the same category with Nestorius. And indeed there is a certain affinity between them: both favor an abstract separation of the divine and the human, the one in the person of Christ, the other in the work of conversion, forbidding all organic unity of life. According to the epistle of the council to pope Celestine, the Western Acta against the Pelagians were read at Ephesus and approved, but we do not know in which session. We are also ignorant of the discussions attending this act. In the canons, Coelestius, it is true, is twice condemned together with Nestorius, but without statement of his teachings.

The position of the Greek church upon this question is only negative; she has in name condemned Pelagianism, but has never received the positive doctrines of Augustine. She continued to teach synergistic or Semi-Pelagian views, without, however, entering into a deeper investigation of the relation of human freedom to divine grace.