In the words of R.C. Sproul, “We have not broken free from the Pelagian captivity of the church.”[i] He is declaring that the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius is still asserting itself upon our modern world. That influence can particularly be felt in the debates between Calvinists and Arminians. We must remember that the basic tenets of that discussion go back much further than John Calvin and James Arminius. Augustine and Pelagius are in some ways the forerunners of a contemporary issue.[ii]
In discussing the historical significance of this topic Sproul quotes Adolph Harnack, who said:
There has never, perhaps, been another crisis of equal importance in church history in which the opponents have expressed the principles at issue so clearly and abstractly. The Arian dispute before the Nicene Council can alone be compared with it.[iii]
In light of the historical and contemporary significance of this topic, we do well to inquire about the fundamental issue in this famous debate. The controversy began in approximately 410, when Pelagius and his disciple Celestius moved from Rome to Carthage.[iv] Celestius was hoping to be ordained as a priest in Carthage, but because of Augustine’s influence in that area he found little support. Both Pelagius and Celestius moved east, where they found more receptivity to Pelagius’ teaching. However, their encounter with Augustine had prompted him to begin an extensive literary attack against Pelagianism. What was it about Pelagianism that brought on the fury of Augustine?[v]
Pelagius (c. 354–415[vi]) was likely a British monk who was a teacher in Rome before his move to Carthage. Millard Erickson describes Pelagius as a moralist whose “primary concern was for people to live good and decent lives.” In Pelagius’ thinking, an overly pessimistic view of human nature was not expedient toward that end. When the sinfulness of mankind was overemphasized, there was no longer any motivation to lead a decent life. He responded to that by stressing the idea of free will. From his perspective, humans were completely free from external influences, including the effects of Adam’s sin. The human soul was not tainted by sin. Adam’s influence upon mankind was limited to his having been a bad example.[vii]
Pelagius also reasoned that, because Adam’s sin had no direct impact on the rest of mankind, there was no special work of God’s grace within the human heart. He instead considered grace to be present everywhere at every moment. In his view the grace of God is available to all people in the same way, which led him to reject any notion of predestination. The primary implication of Pelagius’ theology is that man can, through his own strength and determination, live in complete obedience to God. Man is not born with a propensity to sin; man’s desire to sin is only developed as bad habits are formed. That thinking makes salvation by works a legitimate possibility. However, strictly speaking, because man is not born with a sin nature, he does not so much need to be saved as he needs to be preserved in his original sinless state. Such preservation is humanly possible apart from God’s intervention.[viii]
Augustine (354-430) is best known for his service as bishop of Hippo Regius in Northern Africa. The theology of Augustine has exerted tremendous influence upon Western Christianity. When the term “Augustinianism” is used it is typically in reference to Augustine’s perspective on the human condition. In contrast to Pelagius, Augustine’s view was not at all complimentary to mankind. Augustine considered sin to have resulted from man’s misuse of his free rational choice. Adam deliberately exerted his will against God’s, and through that sin the rest of mankind joined Adam in his sinful state. Mankind is still free, but only free to sin. Mankind has both a tendency toward sin and an inability to choose God. In that condition, asserted Augustine, salvation can only be achieved through God’s grace. And that grace is not available to all mankind – through God’s act of predestination grace is given to some and withheld from others.[ix]
There is a positive aspect to Augustine’s depressing view of man, and that is his confidence in God’s ability to save whomever he (God, not man) wills. Augustine viewed salvation as being completely the work of God, performed at the initiative of God, and that gave him assurance that the salvation of God’s elect would ultimately be accomplished. It can be helpful to recognize that Augustine’s view of salvation was focused on power. That means that although fallen humans are free, they can only choose sin because they do not have the power to choose otherwise. Because of that lack of power, it is only through the work of God that anyone believes in him. Augustine’s view can be summarized by saying that salvation is God’s gracious and unmerited gift.[x]
This discussion of these two theological perspectives has no doubt alerted you to where the conflict between these men lay. Vincent of Lérins, a contemporary of Augustine and Pelagius, expressed himself on this topic by writing, “For who ever before that profane Pelagius attributed so much antecedent strength to Free-will, as to deny the necessity of God’s grace to aid it towards good in every single act?” Vincent followed that statement by denouncing Pelagius’ “monstrous” disciple Celestius, who denied the involvement of all of mankind in the sin of Adam.[xi] The fundamental issue in the debate between Augustine and Pelagius was the impact of Adam’s sin on the human race.
According to Pelagius, Adam’s sin belonged only to him. Therefore, each person is free to make their own decision to follow either Christ or Adam. According to Augustine, Adam’s sin placed all of mankind in bondage to sin. To Pelagius, death was a natural event; to Augustine, death is a painful consequence and reminder of original sin. These men had radically divergent views of God’s grace. Pelagius understood grace to be God’s provision for moral advancement, which he made available at creation; Augustine understood grace to be an internal action of Holy Spirit in baptism and conversion.[xii]
Augustine thought that Pelagius was downplaying the seriousness of sin, to which Pelagius responded that Augustine was downplaying the saving work accomplished by Christ’s death.[xiii] But according to Augustine, Pelagius had turned the doctrine of salvation into a system in which God rewarded human merit. It was critical to Augustine to emphasize that man is so sinful that any form of reconciliation with God is impossible apart from the work of Christ.[xiv] Colin Gunton makes the point that Augustine’s objections were based on evangelical grounds, because “if Pelagius was correct, then it was not necessary for Christ to have died.”[xv] That is because Pelagius did not see sin as a condition from which man needs to be set free, but rather as evil actions. In contrast, Augustine saw sin as the evil nature inherited from Adam. That evil nature, with which all men are born, produces evil actions. However, that evil nature can be removed through the work of God’s grace. Without grace man cannot believe in or live in obedience to God. Through grace man can believe in and obey God.[xvi]
The two sides of the debate are summarized well in this statement: “The soul of the Pelagian system is human freedom; the soul of the Augustinian is divine grace.”[xvii] After this analysis of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, we can affirm with Sproul that “The heart of the debate centered on the doctrine of original sin, particularly with respect to the question of the extent to which the will of fallen man is free.”[xviii] This debate has continued for 1600 years; we must not think we will be able to escape the implications of this discussion in our own lives and ministries. May God find us faithful in handling his truth.
Bloesch, Donald G. Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
Boer, Harry R. A Short History of the Early Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.
González, Justo L., and Catherine Gunsalus González. Heretics for Armchair Theologians. First edition. Armchair Theologians Series. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Grenz, Stanley, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling. Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.
Gundlach, B.J. “Augustine of Hippo.” Edited by Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
Gunton, Colin E. Theology through the Theologians: Selected Essays, 1972-1995. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2003.
Holze, Heinrich. “Pelagianism.” Edited by Erwin Fahlbusch, Jan Milič Lochman, John Mbiti, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Lukas Vischer. The Encyclopedia of Christianity. Volume 4. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 2005.
McWilliam, Joanne. “Augustine of Hippo (354–430).” Edited by Trevor A. Hart. The Dictionary of Historical Theology. Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2000.
Schaff, Philip, and David Schley Schaff. History of the Christian Church. Volume 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Updated 2nd ed. Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995.
Sproul, R. C. “Right Now Counts Forever: Augustíne and Pelagius.” Edited by R. C. Sproul Jr. Tabletalk Magazine, June 1996: Augustine of Hippo. Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 1996.
Steele, David N., Curtis C. Thomas, and Roger Nicole. The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended and Documented. Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1963.
Vincent of Lérins. “The Commonitory of Vincent of Lérins.” In Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, translated by C. A. Heurtley. Vol. 11. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894.
Whitford, David M., ed. T&T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology. T&T Clark Companion. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2012.
[i] R. C. Sproul, “Right Now Counts Forever: Augustíne and Pelagius,” ed. R. C. Sproul Jr., Tabletalk Magazine, June 1996: Augustine of Hippo (Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 1996), 13.
[ii] David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and Roger Nicole, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended and Documented (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1963), 19.
[iii] Sproul, 12.
[iv] Heinrich Holze, “Pelagianism,” ed. Erwin Fahlbusch et al., The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 4 (Grand Rapids, MI.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 2005), 124.
[v] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 129.
[vi] Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 89.
[vii] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 575–76.
[viii] Ibid., 576.
[ix] B.J. Gundlach, “Augustine of Hippo”, Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 121–23.
[x] Ibid., 123.
[xi] Vincent of Lérins, “The Commonitory of Vincent of Lérins,” in Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. C. A. Heurtley, vol. 11, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 149–50.
[xii] Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 33.
[xiii] Joanne McWilliam, “Augustine of Hippo (354–430),” ed. Trevor A. Hart, The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2000), 445.
[xiv] David M. Whitford, ed., T&T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology, T&T Clark Companion (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 400.
[xv] Colin E. Gunton, Theology through the Theologians: Selected Essays, 1972-1995 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2003), 212.
[xvi] Harry R. Boer, A Short History of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 161–62.
[xvii] Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 787.
[xviii] Sproul, 12.