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Theologically, Pelagianism is the heresy that people can take the initial steps towards salvation by their own efforts, apart from Divine grace. Historically, it was an ascetic movement composed of disparate elements united under the name of the British theologian Pelagius, who taught in Rome in the later 4th and early 5th cents. It arose in the aristocratic circles in Rome which admired St Jerome in the 380s. Pelagius' contribution was to supply a theology vindicating Christian asceticism against the charge of Manichaeism by emphasizing people's freedom to choose good by virtue of their God-given nature. The denial of the transmission of Original Sin seems to have been introduced into Pelagianism by Rufinus the Syrian, who influenced Pelagius' supporter Celestius.

In 409 or 410 Pelagius and Celestius left Italy for Africa, whence Pelagius soon moved to Palestine. Celestius was accused of denying the transmission of Adam's sin to his descendants and was condemned by a Council of Carthage in 411. Soon afterwards St Augustine began to preach and write against Pelagian doctrines. In 415 Pelagius was accused of heresy by Orosius, who had been sent to Palestine by Augustine. He cleared himself at a diocesan synod at Jerusalem and at a provincial synod at Diospolis (Lydda), but the African bishops condemned Pelagius and Celestius at two Councils in 416 and persuaded Innocent V to excommunicate them. Pope Zosimus reopened the case but in 418 he confirmed his predecessor's judgement.

Pelagius himself then disappears from history. Pelagianism, however, was defended by Julian of Eclanum, who conducted a literary debate of great bitterness with Augustine. Celestius and his followers were again condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Doctrines henceforth identified as Pelagian continued to find favour in Britain, while in Gaul the debate gave rise to Semipelagianism (q.v.).

Subjects: History by Period — Christianity.

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