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The relevance of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius may be seen from the following list of questions that emerged then and continue to be asked today:


·Are infants born innocent or guilty?

·Are those who die in infancy saved or lost?

·Are people morally and spiritually corrupt?

·What affect did Adam’s fall have on the human race? On you?

·Is sin only an act of will or a character flaw?

·Is grace essential for salvation?

·How much does grace do and how much do you do in salvation?

·Are only some people predestined to salvation?

·How does all this affect how you preach and pray?


A. Augustine's Early Years


Augustine was born on Nov. 13, 354, in the small North African city of Thagaste. He died on Aug. 28, 430. His father, Patricius, was of the middle class and a pagan. He reportedly professed faith in Christ and was baptized just before his death in 370. Augustine’s relationship with his father was less than ideal, the latter allowing his son to do as he pleased. Augustine had an older brother (Navigius) and sister (whose name was never mentioned).


His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian who prayed for her son without fail. Her intercession was fueled by a dream in which she saw herself and Augustine walking hand-in-hand in heaven. At 11 Augustine was sent to Madaura, 20 miles south of Thagaste, where he was trained in the classical poets and orators as well as Latin grammar. He stayed in Madaura until he was 16.


By his own confession, Augustine was a wild and lawless youth. He stole simply for the pleasure of stealing and excelled at lying. “He was thrashed repeatedly in school, for impudence and for playing dice and bones in class. Years later when he was an old man and wore the miter of a bishop, the memory of those thrashings remained vivid in his mind; he would conjure up in an agony of remorse the stripes on the bleeding flesh” (Robert Payne, “The Dark Heart Filled with Light,” Christian History, Issue 67 [Vol. XIX, No. 3], 12-13).


At age 18 he went to Carthage where he soon became chief in the school of rhetoric. He obtained a mistress, with whom he lived for many years, who also bore him his only child, a son named Adeodatus (lit., "gift of God"). Augustine became engrossed in the theater and the imaginary joys and sorrows of its actors. He was set free from this fantasy world when he was introduced to philosophy through the reading of Cicero's Hortensius. He was soon enamored with Manichaeism, a form of Gnostic philosophy that espoused a radical form of metaphysical dualism. The Manichaeans “believed in two eternal and equally powerful forces of good and evil locked in endless combat. Like gnostics they attributed evil to matter – the creation of the evil principle – and good to spirit created by the good God of heaven” (Olson, 257). He remained a Manichaeist for 9 years.


He became disenchanted with Manichaeism after listening to one of its principal spokesmen, Faustus of Milevis. He went to Rome hoping to teach rhetoric, but when no openings became available he travelled to Milan and resumed his teaching career.


B. His Conversion


While in Milan, Augustine came under the influence of its intelligent and articulate bishop, Ambrose. However, if there was a decisive human factor in his ultimate conversion, it was his mother Monica and her undying intercession. She “shed more tears [over] my spiritual death,” said Augustine, “than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son” (Confessions, III,11). Once, when Monica sought the advice of an aged bishop, she was told: “Leave him alone. Just pray to God for him. From his own reading he will discover his mistakes and the depth of his profanity. . . . Leave me and go in peace. It cannot be that the son of these tears should be lost” (III.12).


The major obstacle in Augustine’s life was not intellectual but moral: he had lived with a mistress for 15 years. One of his prayers was: "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet!" There is some disagreement about the extent of his sexual activity. In one place in the Confessions he describes how lust “stormed confusedly within me, whirling my thoughtless youth over the precipices of desire, and so I wandered still further from Thee, and Thou didst leave me to myself: the torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over.” On the other hand, Garry Wills has recently argued that he was sexually faithful to his mistress. I lived “with her alone,” he declared, and “kept faith with her bed.” After he ended the relationship, “he took a ‘stopgap’ mistress to tide him over until the marriage. It is characteristic that he did not resort to promiscuity, but to another sole concubine” (Garry Wills, Saint Augustine, 41). In one place he wrote,


“I cared nothing but to love and be loved. But my love went beyond the affection of one mind for another, beyond the arc of the bright beam of friendship. Bodily desire, like a morass, and adolescent sex welling up within me exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of true love from the murk of lust” (Confessions, 2.2).


Before he arrived in Carthage at the age of 18 his mother had given him a warning:


“My mother commanded me not to commit fornication, and especially that I should not defile any man’s wife. This seemed to me no better than women’s counsels, which it would be a shame for me to follow. . . . I ran headlong with such blindness that I was ashamed among my equals to be guilty of less impudence than they were, whom I heard brag mightily of their naughtiness; yea, and so much the more boasting by how much more they had been beastly; and I took pleasure to do it, not for the pleasure of the act only, but for the praise of it also” (quoted by Payne, 13-14).


Notwithstanding his struggle, the Lord graciously sought him out:


“There was a small garden attached to the house where we lodged. . . . I now found myself driven by the tumult in my breast to take refuge in this garden, where no one could interrupt that fierce struggle in which I was my own contestant. . . . I was beside myself with madness that would bring me sanity. I was dying a death that would bring me life. . . . I was frantic, overcome by violent anger with myself for not accepting your will and entering into your covenant. . . . I tore my hair and hammered forehead with my fists; I locked my fingers and hugged my knees” (VIII,8).


Finally, while praying, he relates praying these words: "How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why is there not this hour an end to my uncleanness?" He continues:


"I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when lo, I heard the voice as of a boy or girl, I know not which, coming from a neighbouring house, chanting, and oft repeating: 'Take up and read; take up and read' [tolle lege; tolle lege]. I grasped the Bible, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell: 'not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.' No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended -- by a light, as it were, of security into my heart -- all the gloom of doubt vanished away" (Confessions, 8.12).


His resistance was overcome by “sovereign joy,” the name he gave to divine grace. He writes:


“How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose . . . ! You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure. . . . O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation” (Confessions, IX, 1).


Writes Piper: “This is Augustine’s understanding of grace. Grace is God’s giving us sovereign joy in God that triumphs over joy in sin. In other words, God works deep in the human heart to transform the springs of joy so that we love God more than sex or anything else” (The Legacy of Sovereign Joy [Wheaton: Crossway, 2000], 57).


C. Bishop of Hippo


Soon thereafter Augustine withdrew to Cassiciacum on the outskirts of Milan to begin a life of self-denial and meditation. After only a brief time there, he and his son returned to Milan were he was baptized by Ambrose. He spent a short time in Rome, returned to Thagaste to sell some property inherited from his parents, and prepared himself for a life of monastic meditation. In a.d. 391 he visited the city of Hippo and was ordained a priest by Bishop Valerius. When Valerius died some four years later Augustine succeeded him in office.


Augustine’s ordination was not entirely voluntary! One Sunday while he was worshiping with the church in Hippo “they literally laid hands upon him and dragged him forward to be ordained by the bishop despite his tears and protests” (Olson, 25).



We now turn to Pelagius.


A. His Life


We know very little about Pelagius (350-425) prior to his conflict with Augustine. Evidently he was a British monk who taught for a short time in Rome toward the close of the 4th century. He fled to North Africa in 410 (preceding the invasion of the Goths) and there engaged in his dispute with the famous Bishop of Hippo. He later went to Palestine and then disappeared from history.


B. His Literary Works


Pelagius was a prolific author who preferred written treatises and rebuttals to open verbal confrontation. His writings reflect his excellent education, prompting one scholar to suggest that he "writes in a more polished style than Augustine" (Armstrong). Another has said that "it was this very clarity and persuasiveness which made him so dangerous an enemy to the orthodox faith" (Ferguson). His writings were characterized by clarity of thought and had devotional overtones throughout. They centered primarily in ethics and religious piety. The hallmark of the Pelagian literature was the insistence that all believers were morally obligated to high ethical ideals, not just the clergy.


He wrote several scholarly commentaries on the Pauline epistles as well as a number of letters during the course of the controversy, few of which have survived. Included among his works are The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart, Virginity, The Law, and Faith in the Trinity (an anti-Arian treatise). His two most influential works are his De Natura and his treatise on Free Will. This latter work, which survives only in fragments today, contains four points of emphasis:


·Men are born morally neutral with an equal capacity for either good or evil.


·Whereas previously he spoke of divine grace as merely providing help, here he seems to assert it is necessary for salvation.


·He finally admits that Adam's sin did adversely affect his posterity, but only by way of setting a bad example.


·He discusses certain texts in Paul that appear to say we are driven to sin by the corruption of our flesh, a doctrine he rejects.


C. His Theology


It is important to keep in mind a foundational assumption in all of Pelagius' thinking. He was first and foremost a moralist. He was concerned above all else with right conduct. He was especially hostile to what he perceived to be the tendency of grace to grant a license for sin (cf. Rom. 5:21-6:2). Consider the following statement:


"Whenever I am called upon to speak upon moral training and the course of holy living, I am accustomed first to display the power and quality of human nature and show what it is able to accomplish, and then from this to incite the mind of the hearer to (some) forms of virtue, lest it profit nothing to summon to those things which it would have thought to be impossible for it" (Ad Demetr. 2 init.).


1. The Creation of Man - Pelagius believed that the soul of man by creation is neither holy nor sinful. Adam was not created holy. He was not constitutionally inclined either toward good or evil. He was morally indifferent or neutral. In this state of moral equilibrium, Adam was no more disposed to good than to evil. Pelagius argued that if Adam had possessed any moral character prior to moral action, his moral responsibility would be destroyed.


Because he was a creature, Adam's body was mortal. That is to say, it was Adam's destiny to die physically whether or not he ever sinned. Physical death, therefore, is not a penalty for sin passed on to Adam's posterity, but is rather an inevitable corollary to man's essential character as created. Augustine commented on this:


"Adam himself, say the Pelagians, would have died as to the body, though he had not sinned; and hence he did not die in consequence of his guilty, but by the necessity of nature" (De Haer. c. 88).


2. Original Sin and the Fall - Adam's fall was occasioned by the exercise of free will. There was nothing in Adam's nature, either for good or ill, that inclined him in the decision he made. Furthermore, Adam's sin in no way affected his posterity except insofar as it set a bad example for them. Referring to Paul's statement in Romans 5:12, Pelagius insisted that


"It is said we sinned in Adam, not because sin is innate, but because it comes from imitation [emphasis mine]" (cited by Augustine in De Natura et gratia, c.x.).


Consequently, all men come into being in the exact condition as was Adam before the fall. Pelagius believed each soul is created immediately by God and thus cannot come into the world contaminated or corrupted by the sin of Adam. The doctrine of transmitted sin (tradux peccati) or original sin (peccatum originis), says Pelagius, is blasphemous:


"They are insane who teach that the sin of Adam comes upon us by propagation" (Commen. on Romans 7:8).


"A sin propagated by generation is totally contrary to the catholic faith. Sin is not born with man, but is committed afterwards by man. It is not the fault of nature, but of free will" [emphasis mine] (De Pec. Orig. 6).


"It can in no way be conceded that God, who pardons a man's own sins, may impute to him the sins of another" (cited by Aug. from Pelagius' commentary on Romans).


Thus, according to Pelagius, an infant is not born in sin nor does it possess any innate moral characteristics. Such are obtained only by the exercise of the will and the habits that develop from it. In other words, we are “socialized” to sin or “conditioned” to sin because of continual exposure to a family and society that are themselves sinful for the same reasons. Again:


"We have implanted in us by God a possibility for acting in both directions. It resembles, as I may say, a root which is most abundant in its produce of fruit. It yields and produces diversely according to man's will; and is capable, at the cultivator's own choice, of either shedding a beautiful bloom of virtues, or of bristling with the thorny thicket of vices. . . . But that we really do a good thing, or speak a good word, or think a good thought, proceeds from our own selves. . . . Nothing good, and nothing evil, on account of which we are deemed either laudable or blameworthy, is born with us, but is done by us: for we are born not fully developed, but with a capacity for either conduct; we are formed naturally without either virtue or vice; and previous to the action of our own proper will, the only thing in man is what God has formed in him" (cited by Aug. in De Peccato Originis, c.xiii).


"Free will is as yet in its original uncorrupted state, and nature is to be regarded as innocent in every one, before his own will can show itself" (cited by Aug.).


William G. T. Shedd, in his History of Doctrine, II:94, summarizes Pelagius' theology:


"At birth, each man's physical nature is liable to disease and death, as was Adam's at creation; and, at birth, each man's voluntary faculty, like Adam's at creation, is undetermined either to sin or holiness. Being thus characterless [emphasis mine], with a will undecided either for good or evil, and not in the least affected by Adam's apostasy, each individual man, after birth, commences his own voluntariness, originates his own character, and decides his own destiny, by the choice of either right or wrong."


3. Freedom of the Will - B. B. Warfield identifies the formative principle in the theology of Pelagius:


"It lies in the assumption of the plenary ability of man; his ability to do all that righteousness can demand --- to work out not only his own salvation, but also his own perfection. This is the core of the whole theory; and all the other postulates not only depend upon it, but arise out of it" (Two Studies in the History of Doctrine, 6).


Pelagius denied that the fall of Adam had any adverse influence on the will of man. Thus each act of will is causeless, i.e., it is purely spontaneous and unaffected by any antecedent bias of nature. Pelagius recognized 3 elements in the human will:


·the power or capacity to will;


·the willing;


·the realization or acting.


The first of these is a gift of God but the other two are wholly of man. Hence the power to will good and the power to will evil are equal. The only difficulty to doing and choosing the good arises from a long continued habit of vice which, according to Pelagius, could be abandoned at any time in favor of virtue. Pelagius defines free will as follows:


"But we say that man is always able both to sin and not to sin, so that we confess ourselves to have always a free will."


Thus, free will consists of: 1) the ability to sin (posse peccare) and 2) the ability not to sin (posse non peccare). These two abilities or powers are always equally at man's disposal.


In sum:


Ability limits obligation, or Ability is the measure of moral responsibility.


4. The Doctrine of Sin - Pelagius argued that sin consists solely in separate acts of the will. Sin is never a matter of nature. That is to say, there is no such thing as a sin nature or constitutional depravity. Sin is only sin when it can be avoided. To speak of inability is to eliminate responsibility, without which there can be no sin. Thus, sin is not a fault of nature but of choice.


Why, then, is sin universally present in the human race? Pelagius' only explanation is: imitation, or the "long practice of sinning and the long habit of vices" (Ad Demetr. 8). He writes:


"For no other cause occasions for us the difficulty of doing good than the long custom of vices, which has infected us from childhood, and gradually, through many years, corrupted us, and thus holds us afterward bound and addicted to itself, so that it seems in some way to have the force of nature" (ibid., 17).


Thus, there is no such thing as a sinner, but only a person who commits distinct and separate acts of sin.


5. The Doctrine of Grace - In one place Pelagius says that grace is absolutely necessary and is needed "not only for every hour or for every moment, but even for every separate act" (Aug. de gr. Chr. 2.2; 7.8; 32.36; de gest. Pel. 14:31; Pel. ep. ad Demetr. 3. fin). Again he says: "Grace is given in order that what is commanded by God may be more easily fulfilled" (Aug. de gr. Chr. 26.27). And yet other texts point to his belief that grace is entirely superfluous. Adolph Harnack argues that "it was assuredly the chief intention of Pelagius to deprive Christians of their indolent reliance on grace" (V:200).


There are 4 elements in Pelagius' doctrine of grace:


1) the grace of creation or life itself;


2) the fact that we have free will is a manifestation of divine grace; i.e., the ability not to sin is grace;


3) grace is also manifest in the revelation of God through the Law; i.e., the provision by God of instruction, doctrine, commands and prohibitions, as well as reward and punishment;


4) the coming of Christ to teach and to set a godly example.


The emphasis is on the latter two elements of grace. Thus grace is primarily external, consisting in the aids or examples or exhortations given by God to encourage us in the pursuit of purity. Grace is not internal. Pelagius rejects any notion of an inward empowerment of the soul or will. Bell provides this illustration:


“Perhaps the best way to understand [Pelagius’ doctrine of grace] . . . is by using the analogy of a coach and competitors at an athletics event. First of all, the competitors enter the arena with a perfectly free choice of whether and when to run, walk,, kick, punch, or jump. Secondly, as the coach, I can stand on the side-lines, shout encouraging comments, and tell the competitors what to do and when to do it. And thirdly, if my team makes a mistake or fails to take my advice, I can tell them that it does not really matter, that their sins are forgiven them, that in [the] future they should listen to their coach, but that they do not have to leave the area immediately and throw themselves off the nearest cliff or hang themselves from the nearest tree. But at no time can I enter the ring or the field and add my strength and skill to theirs, and I certainly cannot rush in, open their mouths wide, climb down inside them, and compete for them. For Pelagius, then, we are all competitors (competitors with ingrained bad habits) and Christ is the coach” (146).


All this implies, of course, that if you are extremely talented and self-disciplined and highly-motivated, you may not need the coach at all. You may well be capable of winning the race or the fight by your own unaided power. In other words, Pelagius’ concept of divine grace, at least potentially, makes the death and resurrection of Christ unnecessary.


6. The Doctrine of Christian Perfection


According to Pelagius, "a man can, if he will, observe God's commandments without sinning" (Aug. de gest. Pelag. 16). The commands such as "Ye shall be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 19:2) and "Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Mt. 5:48) would not have been given had it been impossible to fulfill them. Pelagius argued that such OT figures as Abel, Enoch, Joseph, and Job all achieved sinlessness. The apostle John in the NT is also included in the list of those who reached perfection. As J. N. D. Kelly notes,


"he does not imagine, of course, that anyone will live such a life from childhood to death. What he envisages is not a state of perfection acquired once for all, but rather one which is attained by strenuous efforts of the will and which only steadily increasing application will be able to maintain" (360).


What are we to make of Pelagius and his theology? Kelly takes one position:


"Pelagius' teaching is often described as a species of naturalism, but this label scarcely does justice to its profoundly religious spirit. Defective though it is in its recognition of man's weakness, it radiates an intense awareness of God's majesty, of the wonderful privileges and high destiny He has vouchsafed to men, and of the claims of the moral law and of Christ's example. Yet its one-sidedness made it grievously inadequate as an interpretation of Christianity, and this inadequacy was heightened by Pelagius' disciples" (360-61).


I am more inclined to agree with Harnack who concludes that


"we cannot but decide that their [the Pelagians] doctrine fails to recognize the misery of sin and evil, that in its deepest roots it is godless, that it knows, and seeks to know, nothing of redemption" (V:203).


Pelagius was acquitted of the charge of heresy by a synod of bishops at Diospolis in Palestine in 415. However, he was later condemned as a heretic by the bishop of Rome in 417 and 418 and by the Council of Ephesus in 431.