Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Natural Law

Natural Law in Romans 2:14–15: Pelagius

Our next example comes from Pelagius’s commentary on Romans. Like that of the commentaries of Ambrosiaster, the textual tradition of Pelagius’s commentaries is a mess. 1 A revised version of Pelagius’s commentaries circulated for a long time under the name of Jerome, “with no essential modification of the doctrinal standpoint,”2 a phenomenon that is perhaps unintentionally revealing about the theology of Jerome. But don’t take my word for it. Take the word of the Catholic Encyclopedia:

On this subject [i.e., Pelagianism] Jerome wrote his “Dialogi contra Pelagianos.” Accurate as to the doctrine of original sin, the author is much less so when he determines the part of God and of man in the act of justification. In the main his ideas are Semipelagian: man merits first grace: a formula which endangers the absolute freedom of the gift of grace.

The text here is that of Souter.3

The Text

14. Cum enim gentes, quae legem non habent. Ne quis forte diceret, “legem non habent; ad quam formam pot[u]erunt iudicari?” Naturaliter quae legis sunt faciunt. Sive: De his dicit qui naturaliter iusti fuerunt ante legem. Sive: Qui etiam nunc boni aliquid operantur. Eius modi legem non habentes ipsi sibi sunt lex. Ostendit illos non esse sine lege, ut et gentes inexcusabiles faciat et Iudaeis de proprietate legis gloriam tollat. ¶ 15. Qui ostendunt opus legis scriptum in cordibus suis, testimonium reddente illis conscientia. Natura agit legem in corde [illis] per conscientiae testimonium. Sive: Conscientia testatur legem se habere timendo dum peccat et victis gratulando peccatis, etiam si nullum hominem vereatur ipse qui peccat.

14. For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law. So that no one by chance might say, “They do not have the law; according to what pattern (formam) will they be able [reading poterunt] to be judged?” By nature they do the things that belong to the law. Either: he speaks about these who by nature were righteous before the law. Or: those who even now work something good. Not having a law of this type, they themselves are a law to themselves. He shows that they are not without a law (sine lege), so that he may both render the Gentiles inexcusable and take away from the Jews their boasting about the possession of the law. ¶ 15. Who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them. Nature actualizes4 the law in the heart through the testimony of conscience (per conscientiae testimonium). Or: the conscience bears witness that it possesses the law by fearing when sin is committed and by rejoicing when sin has been overcome, even if he who sins should fear no man.


T. De Bruyn notes a significant difference in Pelagius’s exegesis of the phrase “by nature they do the things that belong to the law” from that of, say, Ambrosiaster: “Most interpreters took this passage as evidence of a natural knowledge of God or of the law of nature. … Pelagius, however, takes naturaliter in conjunction with faciunt to refer to the natural ability by which one can become righteous apart from the law of Moses or perform some good works without knowledge of Christ.”5

  1. On the history, see C. H. Turner, “Pelagius’ Commentary on the Pauline Epistles and Its History,” Journal of Theological Studies 4 (1902–1903): 132–41; A. Souter, Pelagius’s Expositions of Thirteen Epistles of St. Paul, vol. 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1922–31); idem, The Earliest Latin Commentaries on the Epistles of St. Paul (Oxford, 1927); idem, The Character and History of Pelagius’ Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul (Oxford, 1916).
  2. Turner, 140.
  3. The translation is my own.
  4. The verb agit could also be translated “guides”; T. De Bruyn (Pelagius’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 73) translates it “produces.”
  5. Page 73, n.22.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.