History of Doctrine: Pelagianism and Massa Peccati


The first few centuries following Pentecost saw controversy, primarily, over deep theological issues relating to the Trinity and the person of Christ. These were reflected in the great conflicts of Gnosticism, Monarchianism, and Arianism. It was inevitable, however, that the spotlight would eventually turn and focus on the nature of man. The fruit of a controversy which erupted in the end of the 4th and into the 5th century is still with us.


Life in Rome during the late 4th century and into the 5th century was marked by materialism, luxury, immorality, and a general apathy to anything spiritual. Outward religion and “Christianity” existed in a comfortable side-by-side relationship with an unchristian life style. The ascendancy of Constantine and the popularizing of the Christian religion had resulted in a moral decline. A health-and-wealth gospel had become popular, hundreds of years before televangelists brought it to the 20th century Western world.

British Monk

It was this scene of appalling behavior that Pelagius, a British monk, observed when he came to Rome in AD 380. Possessed of that admirable British trait of wanting to “fix” everything, he immediately set about to diagnose and prescribe what was needed for a cure. In the thinking of Pelagius, the fruit was a result of the root – the teachings of Augustine.

Now Augustine of Hippo was no mean theologian. His teaching and influence had shaped doctrine and controlled thinking for many years. His teaching sprang from his concept of “massa peccati” (a doctrine, not a new Italian recipe). What this meant was that man was only a “mess of sin.” This was his concept of total depravity. Before agreeing with this and wondering what could be wrong with such teaching, you would need to understand that from this, Augustine deduced that man was totally incapable of believing God and thus needed “irresistible grace” in order to be saved. In other words, since man could do nothing for his salvation, then he should just go ahead and live whatever way he desired. This may not have been the direct teaching of Augustine, but the result of his doctrine, filtering down to the lower classes, resulted in this mentality.

The result of this teaching was that all human responsibility was removed. Augustine, who also gave us infant baptism to wash away original sin, was preparing the soil from which Calvins TULIP would spring.


What did Pelagius teach? How did he attempt to balance the one-sided doctrine of human depravity? Unfortunately, his balancing act was more a fiasco than a feat. Since the theology of grace was responsible for the ungracious behavior all around, then grace must be removed from theology. He summarily rejected election and original sin. He taught that human beings were born without sin and with the freedom to choose to either obey God or disobey God.

In his doctrine, Adam was created neutral, but sinned. There was no hereditary transmission of sin or a sinful nature. Each man was on trial himself. In response to the universal nature of sin, Pelagius replied that it was due to wrong education, bad examples, and mankinds “longstanding habit” of sinning.

In essence, what Pelagius was teaching was that man is good and has control over his own destiny. He denied original sin and, by necessity, the need for the work of Christ on the cross.

In the Pelagian scheme of salvation, not only was the cross unnecessary, but it was actually unjust for Christ to suffer for others. How could a righteous person suffer for another mans sin? Forget what the Scriptures say! It just does not make sense.

A moments reflection will show that what Pelagius did, in a futile attempt to resurrect responsible behavior, was to revive the heathen principle of mans self-sufficiency. In this manner, he became the forerunner of Medieval Catholicism, Humanism, and modern-day Liberalism. Man is sufficient for man!

Pelagius did believe in grace. But his understanding of grace differed widely from the Scriptural view. As an aside, it is worthy of note that even Catholicism celebrates the need for grace. But how grace is defined and where it enters into salvation has been the great difference between the religions of “Do!” and the gospel of the New Testament which proclaims “Done!”

To Pelagius, grace consisted in (1) Gods giving man a free will; (2) Gods giving us the law to guide us as to right and wrong; and (3) Christs having come to give us an example of how to live.


Both Augustine and Jerome (another worthy of that early period of Vulgate translation fame), weighed-in against the teaching and preaching of Pelagius. Controversy swirled. With the sacking of Rome, however, by the Goths in AD 409-410, Pelagius moved to Carthage in North Africa. It was one of Pelagius disciples, Julian of Eclanum who carried the battle forward with pen and ink against Augustine and the doctrine of the nature of man and sin.

Papal edicts, Councils, and Synods all alike condemned Pelagianism for the next hundred years.

To condemn Pelagius is not to automatically side with the Augustine teaching. Pelagius ignored virtually all the clear teaching of Scripture in his vain attempt to “balance” what he considered the unscriptural teaching of Augustine. The teachings of Augustine will occupy us in another writing.