What the Britons Thought of Pelagius and Grace

To be called a “Pelagian” is about the worst insult that a Calvinist can hurl at you.  So who was Pelagius?  And how did his contemporaries react to it?  Specifically, Pelagius was from Roman Britain; what did they think of it?

Let’s start with this, from Peter Salway’s Roman Britain:

One incident, in which the indisputably historical St. Germanus of Auxerre appears in person, gives us a glimpse of influential Britons of the time.  Already, possibly in 403, Victricius, bishop of Rouen, had visited Britain at the request of his fellow bishops in Gaul to restore peace among the clergy here: it has been suggested that this may have been due to controversy over the Pelagian heresy.  Dr. J.N.L. Myres has pointed out the possible political overtones in this heresy (itself the creation of a Briton), which turned on the doctrine of Grace.  Unfortunately the term gratia was only too well known in the context of the immense web of patronage and favour.  Certainly by 429 Pelaginaism was a real issue in Britain, whether religious or political or both.  In that year Germanus and his colleague, Lupus, Bishop of the neighbouring see of Troyes, were chosen, at a meeting of the bishops of Gaul which was influenced by the Pope, to visit Britain to combat the heresy.  One may perhaps speculate that both of these bishops had had experience of dealing with difficult situations in regions on the fringe of direct Roman power.  Their chief clerical opponent in Britain was a leading Pelagian named Agricola, himself the son of a bishop and clearly backed by a powerful party of local magnates.

I’ve noted elsewhere–and Salway did also–that the whole Roman system was driven by patronage.  When Christianity broke out of its Jewish beginnings and became a Gentile religion, it came into a world where peoples’ mindset was geared in this direction.  It was virtually impossible under those conditions that the whole idea of grace would not get tangled up with it.

Roman Britain had an interesting history, both a key part of the Roman world and aside from it at the same time.  Reconstructing that history can be problematic, but the evidence shows that, by the end of the fourth century, brutal characters like Paul the Chain and the endless upheaval of revolting emperors and barbarian invasions were inspiring the local aristocracy to at least consider an alternative.

Between the first contact mentioned about in 403 and Germanus’ expedition in 429 came a momentous event in British history–the “independence” of Britain from Rome.  This was partly due to the Emperor Honorius’ loss of control of the island around the time of Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410, and partly due to the fact that the Britons saw a clear way to the exit.

For those Roman officials whose loyalty remained with the Emperor, the results were, to put it mildly, unpleasant, as this passage from Fastidius’ De Vita Christiana attests:

We see before us plenty of examples of wicked men, the sum of their sins complete, who are at this present moment being judged, and denied this present life no less than the life to come…Those who have freely shed the blood of others are not being forced to spill their own…Some lie unburied, food for the beasts and birds of the air.  Others…have been individually torn limb from limb…Their judgements have killed many husbands, widowed many women, orphaned many children.  They made them beggars and left them bare…for they plundered the children of the men they killed.  Now it their wives who are widows, their sons who are orphans, begging their daily bread from others.

In any case by the time Germanus met with the “best and brightest” of British aristocracy the latter very much “large and in charge” as Salway goes on to describe:

The confrontation between the Roman bishops and the Pelagians took place at a public meeting. The religious and political importance that was clearly attached locally to the issue is underlined by the huge crowd (immensa multitude) who came to hear the episcopal visitors. The Pelagian party at the meeting is described in words that make one think immediately of the proud, elegant Gallo-Roman nobility we have earlier noted. We are told that they were ‘conspicuous for riches, brilliant in dress, and surrounded by a fawning multitude’.’ That fawning multitude puts one in mind of the ancient Roman aristocratic tradition of the clientela. The conspicuous wealth is characteristic of the Roman world, perhaps particularly so in the fourth and fifth centuries. The brilliant costume reminds us of that period’s taste for splendid multicoloured dress, as seen for example on the fourth-century wall-paintings of the Lullingstone villa in Kent, and at its height in the imperial splendour of Justinian’s court portrayed in mosaic in San Vitale at Ravenna. We have already seen in the Gallic context how luxury and display among the Roman provincial nobility in the fifth century cannot be equated with the political system under which they were at any particular moment living. It is at least clear that here in Britain in 429 we are observing not a ruined class living in bondage to savage barbarian masters, nor even a few fortunate survivors, but a substantial body of men of influence who carry weight both with their personal following and the community at large. The pride of the Pelagian party, moreover, is underlined by a rescript from Honorius in 418 which, while it applies to the heretics of this persuasion at large, fits well with this picture from Britain. The emperor there accuses the Pelagians of ‘considering it a mark of common vulgarity to agree with opinions that everyone else holds’. The superciliousness and magnificence, to which the Latin word superbus was applied, will be met with again in examining the ruling elements of post-Roman Britain.

The Late Roman fancy for “bling” and gaudy display reflected their insecurity (sound familiar)?  Although their adoption of Pelagian theology sprang from their aversion to the gratia of Roman patronage, I think there were other factors at work.  Adoption of Pelagian theology differentiated the Britons from their Continental counterparts, which was especially important when connected with political independence.  It was also an affirmation of the “hometown boy made good”.

By the time Germanus visited Britain, almost twenty years had passed since the break.  The evidence indicates that breaking with the Emperor was, like the Act of Supremacy, first and foremost the moving of headship from an external source (Rome again)! to an internal one, not a major systemic change (at least not in the short term).  With the break secure, did the British aristocracy consider it less necessary to differentiate themselves?  In any case Germanus’ oratory was convincing enough that at least a major part of his audience swung back to a more Augustinian idea.

Unfortunately the subsequent course of post-Roman Britain wasn’t very inspiring.  Still in a dangerous neighbourhood of barbarians, the British nobleman Vortigern got the bright idea of bringing in the Saxons to help defend the island.  They turned on their patrons, devastated the island, and basically the history of Britain had to start over again.

3 Replies to “What the Britons Thought of Pelagius and Grace”

  1. I don’t know anything about the gratia of Roman patronage. But as an American, the notion of justification by grace smacks too much of a welfare state. If God does all the work for you and you don’t have to do anything, then spiritually you are like the drug addicts and welfare whores who do nothing all day long except smoke crack and pop out more babies for uncle Sam to pay you for. You live a life devoid of personal responsibility, or to put it like Pelagius did, Augustinianism leads to “moral laxity.”


  2. If you aren’t required to sort of earn it, even just a little, then you wont bother to improve morally. And that’s what we see in Christianity today thanks to Augustine being chosen by the retards in the church hierarchy at that time. Now all the denominations are falling to the pink hand one by one and declaring homosexuality is ok. Why not, when you teach justification by “free grace” and faith alone. That’s what such Satanic doctrine is for, to enable “moral laxity.” I’m a Pelagian and proud of it. After all, Paul says that justification “must be by faith and not by works lest any man should boast” — but I’ve yet to meet anyone who boasts of their works. Every boaster I know boasts of their faith, Paul included, and boasts they have more of it than everyone else! Or that they are smarter because they believe this or that doctrine (e.g. the Trinity) which they consider to intellectual. If a Pelagian says “I’ve never committed adultery” he’s not boasting, just telling the facts. The Paulinists and Augustinians only take it as boasting because they’ve committed adultery so many times as a result of their idiotic faith-onlyism soteriology that they couldn’t possibly take it any other way.


    1. You’re the first proud Pelagian I know who has visited the site (or at least admitted it).

      Augustinianism and its progeny teach that we cannot be saved by works because we are too depraved either to make a decision for God or to even do the work that God wants us to do. I don’t think that’s necessary to affirm that only by God’s grace that we can be pleasing to him. I don’t know if you looked at my gospel presentation:


      but I make the case that, once we realise that we need God to transform us, we do not have the resources in and of ourselves to achieve our objectives or God’s objectives for us. And I think that, if we consider our human nature, we realise that this is so.

      Another gripe I have with Reformed theology is that it decouples (that’s a nice math term, isn’t it) having our name entered into the Lamb’s Book of Life with the internal transformation that takes place when Jesus Christ comes into our life (see 2 Cor 5:17). The Reformers applied grace almost exclusively to the former, but it was meant for both, and not only reflects the change in God’s opinion of us but also the transforming work that he has done in our life so that we, in turn, can do the work that God has for us.

      As far as the Trinity is concerned, you might find this of interest:



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