Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Lesson 18: Augustine and the Pelagians

NOTE: All the lessons (and nothing else) are available on this site.

The greatest theologian of the first millennium if not all Christian history was St. Augustine.

Augustine was born on November 13, 354, in Tagaste, Numidia (Algeria). His father, Patricius was a pagan who later converted to Christianity. His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian who strived for her son's conversion and provided him with a Christian education. (Monica is a saint of the Roman Catholic church.) Augustine was educated as a rhetorician in the former North African cities of Tagaste, Madaura, and Carthage. Between the ages of 15 and 30, he lived with a Carthaginian woman whose name is unknown; in 372 she bore him a son, whom he named Adeodatus, which is Latin for “the gift of God.”

Unfortunately, his faith, like his morals, was to pass though a terrible crisis. In 373, Augustine fell into the snares of the Manichæans.

Manichæism is a religion founded in Persia in the third century. It was designed as a synthesis of all the religious systems then known, and actually consisted of Zoroastrian (Zoroaster was a sixth century B.C Persian “prophet.”) Dualism, Babylonian folklore, Buddhist ethics, and some superficial sprinkling of Christianity. As the theory of two eternal principles, good and evil, Manichæism is classified as a form of religious Dualism. It rapidly spread in both East and West and maintained a sporadic and intermittent existence in the West (Africa, Spain, France, North Italy, the Balkans) for a thousand years, but it flourished mainly in the land of its birth, (Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Turkestan) and even further East in Northern India, Western China, and Tibet, where, c. A.D. 1000, the bulk of the population professed its tenets and where it died out at an uncertain date.

With its fundamental principle of conflict between good and evil, Manichaeism at first seemed to Augustine to correspond to experience and to furnish the most plausible hypothesis upon which to construct a philosophical and ethical system. Moreover, its moral code was not unpleasantly strict; Augustine later recorded in his Confessions: “Give me chastity and continence, but not just now.” Disillusioned by the impossibility of reconciling certain contradictory Manichaeist doctrines, Augustine abandoned this philosophy and turned to skepticism.

About 383 Augustine left Carthage for Rome, but a year later he went on to Milan as a professor of rhetoric. There he met the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, then the most distinguished ecclesiastic in Italy. Augustine presently was attracted again to Christianity. One day, he seemed to hear a voice, like that of a child, repeating, “Take up and read.” He interpreted this as a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage he happened to see. He opened to Romans 13:13-14, where he read:
13Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (Rom. 13:13-14)

He immediately resolved to embrace Christianity. Along with his natural son, he was baptized by Ambrose on Easter Eve in 387. His mother, who had rejoined him in Italy, rejoiced at this answer to her prayers and hopes. She died soon afterward in Ostia.
In 388 he returned to North Africa and was ordained in 391. He became bishop of Hippo in 395, an office he held until his death. It was a period of political and theological unrest, and for the decline of the empire. (Rome was sacked by barbarians in 410.) Augustine fully engaged himself in the theological battles of his day, including the Donatist schism. His more important work was in the Pelagian heresy (more, anon) named for a British monk who denied the doctrine of original sin. In the course of this conflict Augustine developed his doctrines of original sin and divine grace, divine sovereignty, and predestination.

Augustine is a saint of the Catholic Church. The great reformers such as Calvin and Luther claim Augustine as their spiritual father. However inaccurate, it is often quipped that the Reformation was a battle between Augustine’s doctrine of the Church and his doctrine of grace.

It is not surprising given some of what we have studied—debates over the unforgivable post-baptismal sin and the Donatists (who effectively demanded sinless clerics) —that it often is taught that the doctrine of grace went underground from the end of the apostolic age to Augustine. The doctrine of grace, of God’s unmerited favor toward sinners, and His free gift of forgiveness and salvation, a doctrine that Jesus taught:
41"A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42"When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. (Luke 7:41-42)

and Paul expounded upon, a doctrine that seems to clear to us, was abandoned for more than three hundred years. In may be due in part to some similarities: both Paul and Augustine both experienced radical conversions in their early thirties, Paul from Pharisaic Judaism and Augustine from a life of licentiousness and philosophical dabbling. Both were deeply cognizant, as reflected in their writings, of their pre-conversion sinfulness. Similarly, both acknowledged that they had received divine favor freely and undeservedly. Augustine, reading Paul, would have no trouble grasping the concept of grace, for it spoke directly to his condition.

However, Augustine’s doctrine of grace does not all come from introspection. It is inextricably ties to the titanic struggle he fought with the Pelagians.


Pelagius was a native of the British Isles, although whether he was Irish or English is not clear (Augustine calls him English, Jerome calls him Irish.) He is the first Briton to make a contribution to literature, writing a Latin commentary to the Pauline epistles.

Pelagius cam to Rome in 384 and was shocked at the debauchery he encountered. Unlike Augustine, it appears that Pelagius had a lifelong high moral standard.

Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin. Let’s take a moment to review the doctrine.

According to the Belgic confession:
We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has been spread through the whole human race.

It is a corruption of all nature-- an inherited depravity which even infects small infants in their mother's womb, and the root which produces in man every sort of sin. It is therefore so vile and enormous in God's sight that it is enough to condemn the human race, and it is not abolished or wholly uprooted even by baptism, seeing that sin constantly boils forth as though from a contaminated spring.

Nevertheless, it is not imputed to God's children for their condemnation but is forgiven by his grace and mercy-- not to put them to sleep but so that the awareness of this corruption might often make believers groan as they long to be set free from the "body of this death." (Rom. 7:24)

So original sin is not, in my opinion, that Adam’s sin is in our debit column, as if we had committed it. It is far worse than that, and renders the debate over that question somewhat academic. Original sin means that we are so totally corrupted that sin is inevitable, right from the womb.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Ps. 51:5, NIV)

Original sin is essentially the same doctrine as the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity. There we find the same theme: man is born in rebellion to God. Children are not innocent. Natural man is incapable of any act whatsoever that is pleasing in God’s sight.

The list below looks at our condition prior to regeneration, a result of original sin.

  • The intent of our heart is "only evil continuously". Gen. 6:5
  • Our "righteous" deeds are filthy garments. Isa. 64.6
  • Nobody is good. Luke 18:19
  • We cannot see the Kingdom of God . John 3:3
  • We are not righteous. Rom. 3:10
  • We do not understand; we do not seek God. Rom. 3:11
  • We have turned aside; we are useless. Rom. 3:12
  • None of us does good. Rom. 3:12
  • We do not fear God. Rom. 3:18
  • We are hostile to God. Rom 8:7
  • We are unable (not just unwilling) to submit to the law of God. Rom 8:7
  • We cannot please God. Rom 8:8
  • We were dead (not just gravely ill) in our sins. Eph 2:1
  • We walked according to Satan. Eph 2:2
  • We lived in the lusts of our flesh. Eph 2:3
  • We were children of wrath. Eph 2:3

Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin, arguing that Adam’s sin affected him alone. He believed that, at birth, infants are in a state identical to Adam and Eve’s before the fall. Consistent with this view, he looked at baptism of infants as not in a cleansing them from sin but in imparting a higher sanctification through union with Christ. He didn’t really have a developed theology of baptism—it was a simple matter that it did not cleanse you of original sin because original sin did not exist. Augustine, in contrast, taught that infants are baptized to purge them of the sinful nature inherited from Adam.

Pelagius disputed Augustine’s famous prayer:

Grant what You command, and command what You desire.

Pelagius argued that it is unnecessary for God to “grant” what he commands of us. Instead, according to Pelagius, it is possible for man, on his own, to fulfill God’s commandments. Pelagius believed that moral responsibility implied moral ability; it would be unjust for God to demand that we obey and yet arrange it so that we are born with the inability to do so. Yet that is exactly what the bible teaches—and original sin, put differently, is that Adam’s sin resulted in his progeny being left in this dismal state.

Augustine (and Reformed theology) teaches something quite different: you have moral responsibility but, in your natural state, moral inability. In other words, apart from grace, you cannot choose not to sin. The fall did not change the requirement of obedience, but it changed us radically. And, apart from grace, we are doomed.

Pelagius had a role for grace: it facilitates our quest for moral perfection, but it is not required. At least in principle we can do without grace. Augustine, on the other hand, argued that grace is not only helpful but required.

Attacking Augustine and his doctrine on original sin, Pelagius argued that human nature was created good. In fact, we stay good. Sin does not change our essential human nature—we always will be “basically good.”

At the heart of the debate between Pelagius and Augustine is the thorny issue of free-will. Pelagius argued that Adam was given a free will, and his free will was not corrupted by the fall. Nor, as we have said, was man’s moral character affected by the fall. (in fact, according to Pelagius, nothing if anything was affected by the fall.) Everyone, according to Pelagius, is born free of a predisposition to sin.

Harnack summarizes Pelagian thought:
Nature, free-will, virtue and law, these strictly defined and made independent of the notion of God - were the catch-words of Pelagianism: self-acquired virtue is the supreme good which is followed by reward. Religion and morality lie in the sphere of the free spirit; they are at any moment by man's own effort.

Augustine, in contrast, argued that sin is universal and that man is a “mass of sin.” Man cannot elevate himself to doing good without benefiting from God’s grace.

Sproul writes:
Augustine did not deny that fallen man still has a will and that the will is capable of making choices. He argued that fallen man still has a free will (liberium arbitrium) but has lost his moral liberty (libertas). The state of original sin leaves us in the wretched condition of being unable to refrain from sinning. We still are able to choose what we desire, but our desires remain chained by our evil impulses. He argued that the freedom that remains in the will always leads to sin. Thus in the flesh we are free only to sin, a hollow freedom indeed. It is freedom without liberty, a real moral bondage. True liberty can only come from without, from the work of God on the soul. Therefore we are not only partly dependent upon grace for our conversion but totally dependent upon grace.

Pelagius was condemned at the synod of Carthage in 418. Subsequent councils affirmed the condemnation of the Pelagian heresy and reaffirmed the doctrine of original sin.

Sproul writes:
Humanism, in all its subtle forms, recapitulates the unvarnished Pelagianism against which Augustine struggled. Though Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by Rome, and its modified form, Semi-Pelagianism was likewise condemned by the Council of Orange in 529, the basic assumptions of this view persisted throughout church history to reappear in Medieval Catholicism, Renaissance Humanism, Arminianism, and modern Liberalism. The seminal thought of Pelagius survives today not as a trace or tangential influence but is pervasive in the modern church. Indeed, the modern church is held captive by it.

Pelagianism Today

In Pelagius’s teaching that man is basically good, we can see aspects of the modern humanist movement. But has Pelagianism been eradicated from the church? The answer is no. First of all, many Christians today are inclined to agree with Pelagius that babies are “innocent” and, if they are baptized, it is not a cleansing but a “lifting up,” not in part but in whole.

Second, we note with sadness that a recent Gallup poll of professing evangelicals showed that a majority agreed with the statement that “man is basically good.”

Third, we look at a more subtle form of Pelagianism in the church, a tacit agreement with the Pelagian view that God would not demand obedience of a people who are born without the ability to obey. To paraphrase the debate:

Pelagius: God would not punish people for how they were born.

Augustine: Yes He would.

Now consider the modern debate over homosexuality:

Homosexual apologist: I was born this way.

Christian: No you weren’t, you decided to be gay

Notice that both sides in this debate accept the Pelagian position: God would not punish someone for how they were born. Both sides deny original sin. The proper Christian response is:

Maybe you were born that way, but that changes nothing. We’re all born sinners.

Augustinianism vs. Semi-Pelagianism

At least a majority of evangelicals would identify with Augustianism over Pelagianism. However the “semi-Pelagian view”
Grace is necessary for conversion but so is man’s assent prior to conversion

Is the overwhelming majority position, while the Augustinian (Calvinistic) view
First you are converted as a complete act of Grace then you choose God

Is the minority report.

Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church

Pelagius (and his own life) caused Augustine to develop his doctrine of grace. However, it was the Donatists who caused him to develop his doctrine of the church.

Recall the Donatists broke from the catholic church early in Constantine’s reign. Furthermore, they were centered in Augustine’s diocese of Northern Africa. Ultimately they were suppressed by force after the synod of Carthage in 411, when the imperial commissioner heard both sides of the debate and sided with the catholic church. For an extended period prior to military action, Augustine reasoned with the Donatists, but to no avail.

By this point the Donatists were basically requiring a sinless clergy. Or, perhaps more accurately, a closed-communion or an exclusive model of the Church. Any who gave evidence of being substandard must be excluded.

Augustine argued for an inclusive model, using the parable of the wheat and the tares, which were permitted to grow together until the end of the age. His point was that the church will always contain wheat and tares. The Donatists no doubt responded that the wheat and tares refer to the whole world, not to the church.

Augustine also used Noah’s ark, arguing that in the ark (representing the church) there were clean and unclean animals. There was hope for salvation for the unclean animals inside the ark, but no hope for clean animals outside the ark. So, according to Augustine, within the Church there is the possibility of salvation for the biggest of sinners, while outside the church there is no salvation even for the most upright.

Here we see the germ of the Reformation idea of the visible and invisible church. The former being those who are members of the church and profess Christianity, and the latter being the actual Christians. The Donatists were dedicated to making the two groups the same, while Augustine believed it would never happen.

Augustine first opposed the use of force against the Donatists, but later he relented, agreeing that the peace of the Church justified the means. He even used
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. (Luke 14:23)

In his reasoning, thereby setting a horrible precedent.

Augustine was also adamant that the sacraments (ordinances) were the essential means by which God dispensed grace. Still, he argued that salvation is not promised to all:
It is only the Church predestined and elect before the world’s foundation, the Church of which it is said, ‘The Lord knows those who belong to Him’ (2 Tim 2:19) that shall never be led astray.”

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