The Myth of Pelagianism

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Ali Bonner
British Academy Monographs
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     370 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ali Bonner has made a significant contribution to the study of ancient Christianity. As its title suggests, The Myth of Pelagianism argues that “Pelagianism” never existed: rather it was “a composite fiction created for polemical purposes . . . a bundle of tenets, some of which were ideas in circulation at the time but had no link to Pelagius, and others of which were created by drawing unwarranted inferences from Pelagius' writings, and reading into his works doctrines that he rejected” (xiii). More than a pedantic quibble over terminology, Bonner's study calls upon scholars to reconsider a series of underlying historical and theological assumptions that continue to define the study of western Christianity. Consequently, Bonner eschews unnecessary engagement with the leviathan of scholarship built upon accepting the historical reality of “Pelagianism,” preferring instead to prioritize historical, theological, and philological analysis of the primary sources.

The book begins with a short introduction in which Bonner contextualizes her argument, lays out its constituent parts, and addresses its evidentiary basis. In language accessible to the non-specialist, she explains both the background and implications of her argument and also introduces "the triune," a convenient shorthand which she uses to describe the closely linked doctrines of original sin, an absolutist view of prevenient grace, and predestination understood as preordainment (xii). The final section (xvii-xviii) addresses the Pelagian corpus and Bonner's decisions to include or exclude particular texts from her analysis.

Chapter 1 evaluates the portrayal of Pelagius' doctrinal teachings by placing the evidence of his writings alongside the fourteen tenets attributed to him by Augustine in De gestis Pelagii. The result of this comparison is sobering: Pelagius is shown to have espoused only the first portion of tenet nine, which states that God's grace is given in accord with merit (16-18). Throughout the chapter, Bonner demonstrates not only that Pelagius believed in the goodness of human nature, free will, and a cooperative relationship between divine grace and the human will but also that Augustine's assertions of Pelagius' arrogance are unsupported by the evidence. Emphasizing the polemical context surrounding the theological debate, Bonner concludes that “the process that took place during the condemnation of 'Pelagianism' can be described as the invention of a heresy in order to relocate orthodoxy” (26).

In chapters 2 and 3, Bonner examines several prominent (and indisputably orthodox) examples of earlier ascetic paraenetic literature to demonstrate that Pelagius' theological positions had been in circulation long before he wrote. Here, as elsewhere, English translations are employed in the main text while the original languages are fully provided in the footnotes. Chapter 2 investigates Athanasius' Life of Antony in the original Greek and in the Latin translations of an anonymous author and Evagrius of Antioch. What emerges from Bonner's analysis is the widespread presence of “Pelagian” ideas: a positive anthropology without reference to original sin, the efficacy of merit in attaining salvation, and the possibility of achieving perfection. Moreover, her discussion of χάρις/gratia (grace) reveals it to refer either to God's gift to an already virtuous individual or to an unearned gift to all mankind rather than to prevenient grace. Chapter 3 focuses on Jerome but also includes limited discussion of Ambrose, Ambrosiaster, and Apponius. Bonner observes that Jerome (an outspoken critic of Pelagius) altered his views around 414/415 CE and attributes this to his fear of being accused of heresy since his previous positions were more extreme than those of Pelagius.

Bonner contends in chapter 4 that an organized Pelagian movement did not exist and that the collection of tenets attributed to “Pelagianism” were not held by any individual. She identifies and then illustrates with several examples (e.g. the rich will not enter the kingdom of heaven) an important methodological problem: “scholars have taken their cue from Pelagius' opponents in seeing a link between certain ideas, or a link between texts in which certain ideas appear, or a link between writers who expressed these ideas, and thus they have envisaged a self-acknowledged movement. This has led to circular reasoning in which a text with no secure authorial attribution is ascribed to a name that can in some way be associated with 'Pelagianism' on the basis of perceived 'Pelagian' ideas within the text” (198). Bonner's most extended engagement with scholarship, however, takes place in chapter 5, which investigates the problem of defining and classifying “Pelagianism.” Locating the review of scholarship after the analysis of the evidence is extremely effective in illustrating the existing literature's definitional imprecision and circularity.

With the historical reality of “Pelagianism” thus refuted, chapter 6 describes how it became an established category. Bonner first posits “that 'Pelagianism' was invented in order to bring into disrepute the two principles of the goodness of human nature and effective free will” and then “that this was achieved by making the name Pelagius toxic and tarring his teaching by association with self-evidently unacceptable propositions, thereby facilitating the installation of alternative theses as orthodox dogma” (260). To explain this process, Bonner employs interactionist theory. What might appear an overly abstract mode of analysis (especially in comparison to the book's emphasis on textual demonstration of its claims) is in fact highly contextualized and persuasive.

Chapter 7 examines the manuscripts of Pelagius’ texts (the subject of Bonner's doctoral dissertation and the impetus for The Myth of Pelagianism). Her discussion demonstrates that Pelagius' texts circulated widely (often under Jerome's name) and were therefore indistinguishable from other ascetic literature. Bonner's analysis of the manuscript evidence effectively buttresses her argument that “Pelagianism” was the creation of theological polemic rather than a historical reality. Following a conclusion, the book ends with an appendix containing selections of the γ-text of Ambrosiaster's Commentary on the Pauline Epistles (treating Romans 9:11-16).

The Myth of Pelagianism is an impressive and provocative book that will become required reading for historians, theologians, and classicists studying the late fourth and fifth centuries. Ali Bonner is to be commended for her initiative and command of the sources. In short, highly recommended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher M. Blunda is Assistant Professor of history at the Virginia Military Institute.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alice Bonner was a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, before being appointed to the Lectureship in Celtic History at Cambridge. Her research focuses on Pelagius and Faustus of Riez, two British authors of the fifth century who wrote in Latin, and she has published on St Patrick and Pelagius. She currently teaches on Celtic history, that is, the history of the Brittonic speaking peoples and the Gaelic speaking peoples from AD 380 to 1170.


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