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A. Augustine’s Theology


It will help if we review the main points in Pelagius' theology and then observe Augustine's point by point response.


·First, Adam was created neither holy nor evil. His will was in a state of moral equilibrium or moral indifference.


·Second, Adam would have died physically whether he sinned or not. Physical death is not a penalty for sin but is the inevitable corollary of being a creature.


·Third, Adam's fall affected neither himself nor his posterity, except insofar as he set for them a bad example. Infants, therefore, are born innocent and without a sin nature. They are in the same condition as Adam was before his fall.


·Fourth, freedom of will consists in the power of contrary choice, i.e., man is both able to sin (posse peccare) and able not to sin (posse non peccare). He is equally capable of either.


·Fifth, ability limits obligation. The commands and prohibitions in Scripture necessarily imply the ability to fulfill them. Inability destroys responsibility.


·Sixth, grace is external, resistible, and consists primarily of moral instruction and the law of God.


·Seventh, perfection in holiness or freedom from sin is possible in this life.


1. Augustine insisted that Adam was created with his will inclined toward and determined by holiness. He was created with a morally positive constitutional bias of nature. The freedom he possessed was in the ability not to sin (posse non peccare) and the ability to sin (posse peccare) but not in the inability to sin (non posse peccare). God endowed Adam with a settled inclination to virtue. He was also granted the gift of perseverance or divine assistance that made possible, but not necessary, his continued obedience. Seeburg explains:


"Man was, therefore, created with an inclination of the will toward the good and was by God preserved in it, but in such a way that, through his freedom, it was possible for his inclination to be turned in another direction" (The History of Doctrines, 342).


It is also the case, notes William G. T. Shedd (who is interpreting Augustine), that


"if Adam had continued to will holiness, his power to will sin would have diminished, by the operation of a natural law, until it reached the minimum point, and would then have vanished forever. When his probation was thus over, his will would have become so profoundly harmonized with that of God, that the hazards of apostasy would no more pertain to him, than to the Deity. The relative perfection with which he had been endowed by creation, would have resulted in absolute perfection; that is, the incapability of sinning, which belongs to God and the holy angels" (II:56; cf. Aug. Opera X 1518; VII.802).


2. Had Adam not sinned, he would never have died physically. Since the body was subject to the soul, the purity of the latter would have kept the former free of corruption. He writes:


"If Adam had not sinned, he would not have been despoiled of his body, but would have been clothed with immortality and incorruptibility, that what is mortal should be swallowed up of life" (De Pec. Mer. I.ii).


3. Augustine, like Pelagius, was dependent on the Latin translation of Rom. 5:12 - "in whom [Adam] all sinned," rather than the proper Greek translation, "because all sinned." He took the "in whom" to mean that there was a unique solidarity of nature between Adam and his posterity such that when he sinned, they sinned.


"God, the author of nature, but not of sin, created man upright, but he having through his own will become depraved and condemned, propagated depraved and condemned offspring. For we were all in that one man, since we were all that one man who lapsed into sin through that woman who was made from him, previous to transgression. The particular form in which we were to live as individuals had not been created and assigned to us man by man, but that seminal nature was in existence from which we were to be propagated."


And again,


"All men at that time sinned in Adam, since in his nature all men were as yet that one man" (City of God, XIII,xiv).


Thus, according to Augustine, all men really and actually sinned when Adam sinned, not as individual persons but as participants in the generic human nature which existed in Adam. This view is often called the doctrine of Realism. Infants, therefore, because they participated in the common human nature present in Adam, are born guilty of his (their?) sin subject to corruption of nature to which it gives rise.


Contrary to Pelagius, Augustine argued that Adam's nature and that of all his posterity became subject to corruption and evil principles. The penalty pronounced on him (Adam) was pronounced on them; the corruption of his nature became the corruption of their nature. Thus, in Adam the whole human race became "a mass of perdition" (massa damnata). Therefore, sin is universally present in all, not by way of imitation (Pelagius) but by way of generation.


4. Information on Augustine's view of free will can be found in:


On the Spirit and the Letter (esp. chps. 5-61; a.d. 412); On Grace and Free Will (a.d. 426-27); On Rebuke and Grace (426-27); On the Predestination of the Saints (428-29); On the Gift of Perseverance (428-29); and The City of God (Book V, 9-10).


Augustine did not believe that the ability to sin (posse peccare) was essential to free will, because neither God nor the holy angels have it and surely they are free. When Adam sinned, said Augustine, he did not lose his faculty for willing, but he did become subject to a corruption of nature that would forevermore, until regeneration, affect his choices. Adam went from the ability not to sin (posse non peccare) to the inability not to sin (non posse non peccare). Adam's nature is now so corrupted that the will can only choose to sin. In other words, nature determines choice. Thus Adam (and all men subsequent to him) sins necessarily, because it is his nature to sin, but he also sins freely, because it is desire to sin.


Augustine argued that freedom consists in the ability and opportunity to act or choose in accordance with one's nature. To be free is to act voluntarily without compulsion from any external force. Or to put it in other terms: the will is free to choose whatever the heart desires. However, the heart is not free to choose what its desire will be. Thus “the will is free to move toward whatever it delights in most fully, but it is not within the power of our will to determine what that sovereign joy will be” (Piper, 59.


Thus Augustine’s view of human freedom


“is to be so much in love with God and his ways that the very experience of choice is transcended. The ideal of freedom is not the autonomous will poised with sovereign equilibrium between good and evil. The ideal of freedom is to be so spiritually discerning of God’s beauty, and to be so in love with God that one never stands with equilibrium between God and an alternate choice. Rather, one transcends the experience of choice and walks under the continual sway of sovereign joy in God. In Augustine’s view, the self-conscious experience of having to contemplate choices was a sign not of the freedom of the will, but of the disintegration of the will. The struggle of choice is a necessary evil in this fallen world until the day comes when discernment and delight unite in a perfect apprehension of what is infinitely delightful, namely, God” (Piper, 62).


5. Pelagius' argument that ability limits obligation was prompted by Augustine's statement: "O God, command what you will and give what you command". The commands in Scripture, said Augustine, do not imply or require man's ability to perform them. The inability to do what Scripture commands is the fault of the sinner and therefore cannot be an excuse from moral responsibility.


6. Augustine's doctrines of grace, regeneration and predestination are as follows:


(1) Grace - Augustine viewed grace as an "internal and secret power, wonderful and ineffable" by which God operates in men's hearts.


Saving faith is a gift of God's grace. Grace operates in four stages:


·First, there is the grace of conviction in which a knowledge of sin is granted and a longing for redemption is imparted. This is called prevenient or preparatory grace.


·Second, there is operative grace by which the Holy Spirit creates saving faith in the soul and enables the will to choose the good.


·Third, there is sanctifying or co-operating grace by which the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer in conjunction with the regenerated spirit.


·Fourth, there is perfecting grace by which the Holy Spirit brings about the final cleansing from sin at the moment of glorification. All believers then are characterized by the inability to sin (non posse peccare).


(2) Regeneration - Augustine's view of the new birth was wholly monergistic (i.e., it is the result of the working of only one power: God). He argued that grace is imparted to the sinner, not because he believes, but in order that he might believe.


The grace that brings about regeneration and saving faith is irresistible. Thus, for Augustine, grace is not something that enables us to do better what we are already able to do on our own (as if it merely supplements our own inclination to do good), but something which enables us to do what is otherwise wholly outside the realm of human possibility.


(3) Predestination - Since all sinners are equally in bondage to corruption of nature, incapable of and unwilling to repent and believe, the reason why one is saved and not another is due wholly to God. In his divine decree God determines to save some and to leave others in the fallen condition which they have chosen and therefore which they deserve. Says Augustine:


"There is a number so fixed, that neither can anyone be added to them nor taken from them" (corrept. et grat. 13.39).


Augustine also believed that the number of the elect was the exact number of the fallen angels (as if to suggest that the elect will replace in heaven those angels who rebelled).


7. Augustine denied the possibility of anyone achieving sinless perfection in this life. The grace that brings the inability to sin (non posse peccare) comes only at the time of death or glorification.


B. The Continuing Debate: Semi-Pelagianism


Although Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418 the church never fully accepted the Augustinian alternative. Objections to Augustinianism, first heard in Massilia in south Gaul, were that it cripples the urgency of preaching and reproof and gives the elect a license to sin while the non-elect are thrown into fatalistic despair.


Most wanted to reject Pelagianism but embrace a modified Augustinian scheme that qualified predestination. The principal issue was the origin of saving faith. Many argued that the soul's initial movement of faith was from man. Grace assists, but only after man has expressed a willing desire for salvation.


The most prolific and persuasive of these so-called Semi-Pelagians was John Cassian, a monk from Marseilles (d. 432). There were four distinct elements in his theology:


(1) Sometimes, as in the case of Matthew and Paul, God does take the initiative in salvation. Most often, however, as in the case of Zacchaeus, the first move is from man's unaided will which God then confirms and strengthens. He writes:


"Who [God], when he has observed in us a certain beginning of a good will, immediately illuminates this and comforts and incites it toward salvation, bestowing an increase upon that which either he himself has implanted or which he has seen to arise from our own efforts" (Collationum, xiii. 8.7).


(2) Despite the disastrous effects of the fall, Adam and his posterity retain their knowledge of the good.


(3) The human will is not so much dead as sick and thus grace is needed only to assist and confirm.


(4) Election is based on God's foresight of our faith and grace is always resistible.


Other Semi-Pelagians were Vincent of Lerins and Faustus of Riez. The Council of Orange in 529 supposedly ended the power of the Semi-Pelagians, but they in fact continued to exercise widespread influence.


Mention should be made of Julian of Eclanum (380-454) who fully embraced the theology of Pelagius. Julian was actually the son of one of Augustine’s friends, but their antithetical theologies drove them to battle. At one point, Julian argued what not even Pelagius would assert, that “man’s free will made him completely independent of God” (a deo emancipatus homo est) (Stephen Lang, “Influential Antagonists,” CH, 35). Julian inflamed the situation by referring to Augustine as “the most stupid of men,” “the detestable Punic quarrel-seeker,” and insisted that his mother, Monica, had been a drunkard in her youth.


Related matters:


(1) Augustine and the Donatists


The controversy had its origin in the Diocletian persecution and concerned the policy of the church toward those who, under threat of imprisonment or death, had surrendered the sacred writings to the state (they were called traditors).


In 311 Caecilian was ordained bishop in Carthage, North Africa, by Felix of Aptunga. Felix had been a traditor and was regarded by some as disqualified from exercising any form of religious authority. The opposition party ordained their own bishop, Marjorinus, who was succeeded by Donatus. Donatus himself had survived torture and imprisonment by the Romans and was thus (understandably?) impatient with and intolerant of those who had succumbed to such pressure to avoid a similar fate. The supporters of Caecilian insisted the sacraments were valid regardless of the moral activities of the one who administered them. Both parties claimed to represent the true church in North Africa and appealed to Constantine for approval. Two synods (Rome in 313 and Arles in Gaul in 314) found in favor of Felix and Caecilian.


The Donatists “believed that bishops who had sinned or cooperated with persecuting Roman authorities were not true Christian bishops and the men they ordained to priesthood were not true Christian priests. . . . They rejected their sacraments as invalid because of their lives and lineage” (Olson, 265). The Donatists insisted that the sacraments are efficacious ex opere operantis = “on account of the work of the one who works,” i.e., the minister. If the minister is morally disqualified or even suspect, so too are the sacraments administered by him. Augustine contended that the sacraments, principally baptism and the Eucharist, convey grace ex opere operato, which loosely translated means: “by the working of the work itself.” Simply put, the power and validity of the sacrament are due to the holiness of Christ, not the priest (who is but the instrument of the former). According to Augustine’s view, “the priest and the bishop are able to administer sacraments that are efficacious in imparting grace and transforming lives so long as they are properly ordained in apostolic succession. A baptism performed by a self-appointed priest with no valid ordination would not be a sacrament. But a baptism performed by an immoral or heretical priest with valid ordination and in communion with the Great Church would be a true sacrament. That is the meaning of ex opere operato” (Olson, 266). Augustine explains:


“To my mind it is abundantly clear that in the matter of baptism we have to consider not who he is that gives it, but what it is that he gives; not who he is that receives, but what it is that he receives. . . . Wherefore, any one who is on the side of the devil cannot defile the sacrament, which is of Christ. . . . When baptism is administered by the words of the gospel, however great the evil of either minister or recipient may be, the sacrament itself is holy on account of the one whose sacrament it is. In the case of people who receive baptism from an evil person, if they do not receive the perverseness of the minister but the holiness of the mystery, being united to the church in good faith and hope and charity, they will receive the forgiveness of their sins” (quoted in McGrath, HT, 77-8).


Augustine’s view eventually won the day and became standard dogma in the RCC.


(2) Augustine and the Miraculous


In his earlier years Augustine insisted that all miracles had ceased. In 390 in his treatise, On True Religion, he wrote:


“These [biblical] miracles were no longer permitted to continue in our time, lest the mind should always seek visible things, and the human race should be chilled by the customariness of the very things whose novelty had inflamed them.”


He was especially vocal in his belief that the gift of speaking in tongues had ceased. In one place he writes:


“In the earliest times, ‘the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues,’ which they had not learned, ‘as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away. In the laying on of hands now, that persons may receive the Holy Ghost, do we look that they should speak with tongues? Or when he laid the hand on infants, did each one of you look to see whether they would speak with tongues, and, when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so strong-minded as to say, These have not received the Holy Ghost; for, had they received, they would speak with tongues as was the case in those times? If then the witness of the presence of the Holy Ghost be not given through these miracles, by what is it given, by what does one get to know that he has received the Holy Ghost? Let him question his own heart. If he love his brother, the Spirit of God dwelleth in him” (Homilies on the Gospel of John 6:10, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [7:497-98]).


Toward the close of his life, Augustine wrote his Retractions (426-27) in which he corrected errors in his earlier theology and writings. In this document he now strongly affirms his belief that miracles continue to occur. Augustine diligently collected verified reports of numerous healings and sought to give them maximum publicity. Book 22 of The City of God contains several of these accounts. Included are incidents not only of physical healing but also of deliverance from demonic spirits and one resurrection from the dead. A few of these miracles are associated with the relics of the saints, particularly the martyr Stephen (cf. 2 Kings 13:20-21).


In another place Augustine tells of a woman (named Innocentia) stricken with breast cancer who had been told by physicians that her condition was incurable. One night she had a dream in which she was told “to wait at the baptistry for the first woman who came out after being baptized, and to ask this woman to make the sign of Christ over the cancerous breast. Innocentia did as she was told, and she was completely cured” (Bruce Shelley, “Miracles Ended Long Ago – Or Did They?” CH, Issue 67, p. 43). Augustine was upset that she failed to publicize what God had done for her:


“I was indignant that so astounding a miracle, performed in so important a city, and on a person far from obscure, should have been kept a secret like this; and I thought it right to admonish her and to speak to her with some sharpness on the matter.”


As for the purpose of such miracles:


“What do these miracles attest but the faith which proclaims that Christ rose in the flesh and ascended into heaven with the flesh? . . . God may himself perform them by himself, through that wonderful operation of his power whereby, being eternal, he is active in temporal events; or he may effect them through the agency of his servants. . . . Be that as it may, they all testify to the faith in which the resurrection to eternal life is proclaimed” (City of God, cited by Shelley, 44).