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Rhetorical and political demonisation: Pelagius and Priscillian

As often noted in recent scholarship, the construction of a heretical theological system, 'Pelagianism', for the purposes of orthodox refutation reveals an intense level of literary combat in later orthodoxy.38 The international escalation of an ascetic controversy concerning the role of the human will in Christian living reflected not only the vigilant creativity of Augustine's thought, but also shifts in the understanding of Christian life and institutions. Pelagius' traditional teaching of a co-operative grace that necessarily included individual effort was largely commonplace in earlier Christianity and contemporary asceticism. In response to what he saw as a passive fatalism in Augustine's Confessions, Pelagius defended the power of human nature to be sinless in his work On nature. Later, reading this optimistic work together with the condemnations ofthe more extreme theology of Pelagius' pupil Caelestius, Augustine responded with Nature and grace, in which he refuted the implications of Pelagius' theology. After defending himself successfully at a synod in Diospolis in Palestine, Pelagius disappeared from historical view, but his 'system' of theology continued to be attacked by Jerome and Augustine. Two North African synods condemned theological propositions, and sent an annotated copy of On nature to Pope Innocent seeking his condemnation as well. Only when the theology was described as a 'secret movement' was Pelagius condemned by the emperor Honorius, and his followers expelled from Rome. Many Italian bishops objected both theologically and also politically to the power of North Africa to define orthodoxy in Rome: they declared themselves to be 'orthodox persecuted by orthodox'.39 Augustine's theological response to Julian of Eclanum, who portrayed him as an unreformed Manichaean, was to turn from construction or speculation to the defence of the core of the tradition.40 The demonisation and exaggeration of the teaching of Pelagius was part of a means of excluding not only actual teaching, but theological possibilities, from 'orthodoxy'.

The Western dispute over the life and teachings of Priscillian also reflected important shifts in episcopal and ascetic understanding of scriptural study and practice as well as the deadly charge of'Manichaeism' in Christian life.41 Since the condemnation of Manichaeans in 295 by Diocletian, the Manichaeans

38 For what follows, see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 343-6; Robert Markus, 'The legacy ofPelagius'; Lohr, 'Pelagius' Schrift Denatura .

39 Markus, 'The legacy ofPelagius', 215.

40 Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 396-7.

41 For what follows, see V Burrus, The making of a heretic.

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