St Augustine and the Pelagian Controversy

PelagiusBy the time he wrote Confessions, Augustine had been Bishop of Hippo for several years, and had made quite a name for himself in the broader church. His autobiography was circulated far and wide, and read by many.

One such reader was named Pelagius, a prominent theologian born in Britain, but living Rome at the time. All went well until he encountered the following sentence from Book X of the Confessions:

Give what you command, and command what you will.

At this Pelagius flew into a rage. He saw very clearly what lay underneath this sentence. Why must God give what he commands? Because it is impossible to do it. Then what of human responsibility? Do we need a special gift from God even to choose to obey him?

Pelagius’ View

Pelagius was not merely reacting against Augustine; he was concerned with the moral laxity he saw all around him. He came to blame this in part on the doctrine of divine grace, which he saw as absolving humans of any responsibility to even try to be moral. The essential core of his doctrine was that mankind can avoid sinning, and that we can use our free will to choose to follow God’s commandments. There is no original sin; each person is a new free agent with the same power of choice as Adam. We are fully capable of not sinning our entire lives. Grace, in Pelagius’ view, consists of God’s twin gifts of the law and free will, telling us how to act and then enabling us to do so.

Augustine’s View

  1. Adam started in a state of being both able to sin and able not to sin.
  2. After the fall, humans become not able not to sin. As humanity’s representative, we are involved in some way in Adam’s fall, and consequently we all inherit that guilt from our parents, as well as the inability to not sin. This is known as Original Sin.
  3. Only after our redemption and death, will we finally become not able to sin.
  4. Most importantly, it is only through the grace of God that we can be saved. Even wanting to have faith in God is itself a gift given by God.

Think back over Augustine’s life story, and how it must surely have influenced his views here. When he looks back at himself as a newborn, he does not see an innocent babe, but rather a selfish creature which is merely too weak to harm those it depends on. The incident of the stolen pears reveals his utterly corrupt nature even further; he did evil merely because it was evil. Clearly he cannot be said to have a good nature.

Later in life, he becomes convinced of the truth of the Gospel, but is still unable to actually turn to God. On his own power, Augustine was simply not able to put his faith in Jesus, and trying only made him more miserable. Then, when God finally did intervene in the form of a small voice telling him to read the Bible, the transformation was instant. Augustine’s personal experience testified to the truth of the doctrine he was defending.


Pelagius came out with a book in 414 titled On Nature defending his teachings against Jerome (translator of the Vulgate), who had already begun to criticize him sharply. Augustine responded with On Nature and Grace, and wrote further letters both to Jerome and others condemning Pelagius’s views. The next year, a synod was held to review Pelagius’s case. 12 bishops attended, and Pelagius was exonerated.

The North African church did not take kindly to this, and they convened two synods of their own in 416 (one of which Augustine attended). These held that Pelagius should be anathematized unless he renounced several of his doctrines. They addressed letters directly to the Bishop of Rome, Pope Innocent I, along with some Pelagian literature. Innocent agreed, and cut Pelagius off from communion.

This pope died shortly thereafter, and his successor wavered a great deal on whether or not to rescind the condemnation. Politics ensued, and on May 1 418, the African church held a council of 200 bishops which condemned Pelagianism in very specific and clear terms, which the pope finally decided to back. The doctrines of justifying grace and original sin were affirmed to be essentials of the faith. For good measure, Pelagianism was condemned once more at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431.


We’ll now turn back to Confessions. The autobiographical portion of the book is over; the remainder is dedicated to Augustine’s philosophical musings. Our abridgments cut this section far too short, so please read the full version of Book X (online here). This will be more difficult than the previous readings, so take your time.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 8-9

“A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.”

Giving it over

St. Augustine under the fig treeProbably the most famous quote of Augustine’s is his prayer to God as he struggles with the idea of giving his life over:

“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” For I was afraid that you would hear me too soon, and too soon cure me of my disease of lust which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished.

They are sentiments we can all relate to. Make me righteous, after I’ve had the chance to be wild and enjoy myself. The conflict tears Augustine apart, as part of him desperately wants to make the leap, but the other part just as desperately clings to his old habits and lusts. Many times he comes very close to making the change, but never quite gets there. On his own strength, he is powerless to change. Finally, in frustration, he throws himself down under a fig tree in his backyard and gives up, submitting himself fully to God’s power:

“Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

Like the man who said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), Augustine is praying not only that he will change, but that he will want to change. The change in his heart that needs to take place goes down to the very core, covering his actions, his motivations, and even that part of him that attempts to change his motivations.

The prayer is answered right away in an odd form. He overhears a voice chanting “Pick it up, read it. Pick it up, read it.” This he views as a sign to open the Bible and read whatever page he randomly turns to. He finds Romans 13:13-14:

“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

The passage speaks perfectly to Augustine’s struggle. He shows it to Alypius, who was there with him, and Alypius finds that the very next verse, Romans 14:1, applies directly to his own situation. Both give their lives to God at once.

Here we see God performing one of those deniable miracles which He seems so fond of. Nothing in the chain of events is explicitly supernatural, but the string of coincidences is so unlikely that is hard to take any other explanation seriously. The voice Augustine overheard did not boom down from heaven, and may well have been simply a child in a neighboring house, and yet the strange chant was exactly what Augustine needed to hear (Augustine himself seems unclear as to whether the voice had an actual human behind it or not). Augustine then opens his Bible and against all odds lands on a verse that is again exactly what he needs to hear; one followed immediately by another verse that is exactly what his companion needs to hear. It could all be a coincidence, but would a mere string of coincidences really have been able to make such a radical change in both Augustine’s and Alypius’ lives?

Viva Victorinus

Victorinus was a neo-platonic philosopher who investigated the Christian scriptures and concluded that they were true. However, he was at first hesitant to admit so in public. (Page 127)

He used to read the Holy Scriptures, as Simplicianus said, and thought out and studied all the Christian writings most studiously. He said to Simplicianus — not openly but secretly as a friend — “You must know that I am a Christian.” To which Simplicianus replied, “I shall not believe it, nor shall I count you among the Christians, until I see you in the Church of Christ.” Victorinus then asked, with mild mockery, “Is it then the walls that make Christians?” Thus he often would affirm that he was already a Christian, and as often Simplicianus made the same answer; and just as often his jest about the walls was repeated. He was fearful of offending his friends, proud demon worshipers, from the height of whose Babylonian dignity, as from the tops of the cedars of Lebanon which the Lord had not yet broken down, he feared that a storm of enmity would descend upon him.

Probably all of us have heard similar views. There are many who claim to be Christians who avoid being involved in their church or being publicly associated with fellow-believers. But Christianity is a community religion as much as an individual one, and to be practiced properly it must be practiced with others.

Some are motivated by laziness; Victorinus was held back by his pride, which he eventually overcame, “for he more feared to be denied by Christ before the holy angels because he was now afraid to confess Christ before men.” He even made sure to profess his faith in public, because he had publicly taught rhetoric, which was far less important.

Augustine here takes a moment to wonder why there is more rejoicing the more unexpected a salvation is. God himself confirms that there is “more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7) He mulls over many examples of this seeming contradiction, noting that drinkers will eat salty food to increase their enjoyment when they quench their thirst. He wraps it up with a prayer.

Memento Mori, Monica

Augustine closes out the autobiographical portion of the book with his mother’s death in Ostia. The occasion prompts him to review a few significant events from her life. When she was a child, she had developed a habit of sneaking wine from her parents’ cellar. During an argument, a maid made a snide comment to her about this. Monica was so ashamed that she gave it up at once, prompting Augustine to remark “as flattering friends pervert, so reproachful enemies mostly correct.” Note that this follows the same pattern found in the earlier stories about Alypius’ circus addiction and Monica’s habit of making offerings to the martyrs. Augustine attributes much of Monica’s discipline later in life to this incident.

Monica relationship with her husband also stands out (Page 136). Augustine holds up her model of servitude to him, which is all the more impressive because Augustine does not for a moment pretend that his father was a good husband. Monica was clearly the better partner, and suffered a good deal of injustice and infidelity from her husband, yet was determined to be a good model of Christian humility and servitude, something that very few of us in the modern age would be likely to commend. However, the approach does bear fruit for her: she is reconciled to both her mother-in-law and her husband, and even wins him over to Christ in the end. By the end of their marriage, Augustine reports that “they lived in great harmony together,” and after her husband died, Monica took special care of the grave where she hoped to be buried next to him.

When the time came for her to die, however, Monica no longer considered it important where her body ended up. She was entirely focused on Heaven, and faced her death without fear. Augustine tried to do the same and hold back his grief, but was ultimately unable to (Page 147). He wraps the chapter up with a prayer for his mother.


Now that we’ve wrapped up the biographical portion of Confessions, we’re going to take a detour into the Pelagian Controversy, which was sparked by this very book. As preparation, go through this reading material on free will, predestination, and divine grace.

Pelagian Reading Material

“Give what you command, and command what you will.” -Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 29

Pelagius’ Own Account of the Faculties, Quoted.

PelagiusLest, however, it should chance to be said that we either do not correctly understand what he advances, or malevolently pervert to another meaning what he never meant to bear such a sense, I beg of you to consider his own actual words: “We distinguish,” says he, “three things, arranging them in a certain graduated order. We put in the first place ‘ability;’ in the second, ‘volition;’ and in the third, ‘actuality.’ The ‘ability’ we place in our nature, the ‘volition’ in our will, and the ‘actuality’ in the effect. The first, that is, the ‘ability,’ properly belongs to God, who has bestowed it on His creature; the other two, that is, the ‘volition’ and the ‘actuality,’ must be referred to man, because they flow forth from the fountain of the will. For his willing, therefore, and doing a good work, the praise belongs to man; or rather both to man, and to God who has bestowed on him the ‘capacity’ for his will and work, and who evermore by the help of His grace assists even this capacity. That a man is able to will and effect any good work, comes from God alone. So that this one faculty can exist, even when the other two have no being; but these latter cannot exist without that former one. I am therefore free not to have either a good volition or action; but I am by no means able not to have the capacity of good. This capacity is inherent in me, whether I will or no; nor does nature at any time receive in this point freedom for itself. Now the meaning of all this will be rendered clearer by an example or two. That we are able to see with our eyes is not of us; but it is our own that we make a good or a bad use of our eyes. So again (that I may, by applying a general case in illustration, embrace all), that we are able to do, say, think, any good thing, comes from Him who has endowed us with this ‘ability,’ and who also assists this ‘ability;’ but that we really do a good thing, or speak a good word, or think a good thought, proceeds from our own selves, because we are also able to turn all these into evil. Accordingly,—and this is a point which needs frequent repetition, because of your calumniation of us,—whenever we say that a man can live without sin, we also give praise to God by our acknowledgment of the capacity which we have received from Him, who has bestowed such ‘ability’ upon us; and there is here no occasion for praising the human agent, since it is God’s matter alone that is for the moment treated of; for the question is not about ‘willing,’ or ‘effecting,’ but simply and solely about that which may possibly be.”

Augustine on those who deny the necessity of God’s grace

Augustine in his studyThey, however, must be resisted with the utmost ardor and vigor who suppose that without God’s help, the mere power of the human will in itself, can either perfect righteousness, or advance steadily towards it; and when they begin to be hard pressed about their presumption in asserting that this result can be reached without the divine assistance, they check themselves, and do not venture to utter such an opinion, because they see how impious and insufferable it is. But they allege that such attainments are not made without God’s help on this account, namely, because God both created man with the free choice of his will, and, by giving him commandments, teaches him, Himself, how man ought to live; and indeed assists him, in that He takes away his ignorance by instructing him in the knowledge of what he ought to avoid and to desire in his actions: and thus, by means of the free-will naturally implanted within him, he enters on the way which is pointed out to him, and by persevering in a just and pious course of life, deserves to attain to the blessedness of eternal life.

Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology – 1517

1. To say that Augustine exaggerates in speaking against heretics is to say that Augustine tells lies almost everywhere. This is contrary to common knowledge.

2. This is the same as permitting Pelagians and all heretics to triumph, indeed, the same as conceding victory to them.

3. It is the same as making sport of the authority of all doctors of theology.

4. It is therefore true that man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil [cf. Matt 7,17-18].

5. It is false to state that man’s inclination is free to choose between either of two opposites. Indeed, the inclination is not free, but captive. This is said in opposition to common opinion.

6. It is false to state that the will can by nature conform to correct precept. This is said in opposition to [Duns] Scotus and Gabriel [Biel].

7. As a matter of fact, without the grace of God the will produces an act that is perverse and evil.

8. It does not, however, follow that the will is by nature evil, that is, essentially evil, as the Manicheans maintain.

9. It is nevertheless innately and inevitably evil and corrupt.

10. One must concede that the will is not free to strive toward whatever is declared good. This is in opposition to Scotus and Gabriel.

11. Nor is it able to will or not to will whatever is prescribed.

12. Nor does one contradict St. Augustine when one says that nothing is so much in the power of the will as the will itself.

17. Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.

18. To love God above all things by nature is a fictitious term, a chimera, as it were.

29. The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God.

30. On the part of man, however, nothing precedes grace except indisposition and even rebellion against grace.

87. Since law is good, the will, which is hostile to it, cannot be good.

88. And from this it is clear that everyone’s natural will is iniquitous and bad.

Antidote to the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent on the Doctrine of Justification – John Calvin (1547)

John Calvin[Catholics] assert that we are prepared by the grace of God for receiving Justification, but they assign to this grace the office of exciting and assisting, we ourselves freely co-operating; in other words, we are here treated with the inanities which the sophists are wont to babble in the schools. But I ask, Is it the same thing to excite a will, and aid it when in itself weak, as to form a new heart in man, so as to make him willing? Let them answer, then, whether creating a new heart, and making a heart of flesh out of a heart of stone, (both of which the Scripture declares that God does in us,) is nothing else than to supply what is wanting to a weak will. But if they are not moved by these passages, let them say whether he who makes us to be willing simply assists the will. Paul claims the whole work for God; they ascribe nothing to him but a little help. But for what do they join man as an associate with God? Because man, though he might repudiate it, freely accepts the grace of God and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. How greatly do they detract from the work of God as described by the Prophet! — “I will put my law,” says he, “in your hearts, and make you to walk in my precepts.” (Jeremiah 32:39; Ezekiel 36:27; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16).

Is this the doctrine delivered by Augustine, when he says, “Men labor to find in our will some good thing of our own not given us of God; what they can find I know not?” (Aug. Lib. de Precator. Merit. et Remiss. 2.) Indeed, as he elsewhere says, “Were man left to his own will to remain under the help of God if he chooses, while God does not make him willing, among temptations so numerous and so great, the will would succumb from its own weakness. Succor, therefore, has been brought to the weakness of the human will by divine grace acting irresistibly and inseparably, that thus the will however weak might not fail.” (Aug. de Corruptione et Gratia,) But the Neptunian fathers, in a new smithy, forge what was unknown to Augustine, viz., that the reception of grace is not of God, inasmuch as it is by the free movement of our own will we assent to God calling. This is repugnant to Scripture, which makes God the author of a good will. It is one thing for the will to be moved by God to obey if it pleases, and another for it to be formed to be good. Moreover, God promises not to act so that we may be able to will well, but to make us will well. Nay, he goes farther when he says, “I will make you to walk;” as was carefully observed by Augustine. The same thing is affirmed by Paul when he teaches, that, “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” The hallucination of these Fathers is in dreaming that we are offered a movement which leaves us an intermediate choice, while they never think of that effectual working by which the heart of man is renewed from pravity to rectitude. But this effectual working of the Holy Spirit is described in the thirty-second chapter of Jeremiah, where he thus speaks in the name of God, “I will put the fear of my name into their hearts, that they decline not from my commandments.” In short, their error lies in making no distinction between the grace of Regeneration, which now comes to the succor of our wretchedness, and the first; grace which had been given to Adam. This Augustine carefully expounds. “Through Christ the Mediator,” he says, “God makes those who were wicked to be good for ever after. The first man had not that grace by which he could never wish to be bad; for the help given him was of that nature that he might abandon it when he would, and remain in it if he would, but it was not such as to make him willing. The grace of the second Adam is more powerful. It makes us will, will so strongly and love so ardently, that by the will of the spirit we overcome the will of the flesh lusting against it.” A little farther on he says, “Through this grace of God in receiving good and persevering therein, there is in us a power not only to be able to do what we will, but to will what we are able.” (Aug. Lib. ad Bonif. 2, c. 8.) Although the subject is too long to be despatched thus briefly, I feel confident that my statement, though short, will suffice with readers of sense to refute these fancies.

All who have their conscience exercised feel the strict truth of Augustine’s sentiment, “The righteousness of saints in this life consists more in the forgiveness of sins than the perfection of virtues.” (Lib. de Civit. Dei, 19 c. 27.) Still more accurate is another passage which I quoted, that; “so long as they groan under the infirmity of the flesh, the only hope left them is, that they have a mediator in Christ by whom they are reconciled to God.”

Jacob Arminius

Jacobus Arminius
I. The first absolute decree of God concerning the salvation of sinful man, is that by which he decreed to appoint his Son, Jesus Christ, for a Mediator, Redeemer, saviour, Priest and King, who might destroy sin by his own death, might by his obedience obtain the salvation which had been lost, and might communicate it by his own virtue.

II. The second precise and absolute decree of God, is that in which he decreed to receive into favour those who repent and believe, and, in Christ, for his sake and through Him, to effect the salvation of such penitents and believers as persevered to the end; but to leave in sin, and under wrath, all impenitent persons and unbelievers, and to damn them as aliens from Christ.

III. The third Divine decree is that by which God decreed to administer in a sufficient and efficacious manner the means which were necessary for repentance and faith; and to have such administration instituted (1.) according to the Divine Wisdom, by which God knows what is proper and becoming both to his mercy and his severity, and (2.) according to Divine Justice, by which He is prepared to adopt whatever his wisdom may prescribe and put it in execution.

IV. To these succeeds the fourth decree, by which God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the before described administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and, by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.
This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.

The Telos of Wall-E

KILL ALL HUMANSHot on the heels of my Platonic eulogy and Brian Mattson’s definitive Noah review, he gives us a Wall-E review which is all about telos:

There is a particular term in the script that sounds like run-of-the-mill fancy “robot” jargon, but is actually a key to the film. When WALL-E first meets Eva, they have what is basically a one word conversation, asking each other:


What’s your purpose? Why were you made? What are you supposed to do? Almost all of the characters in the film have a unique “directive.” WALL-E picks up and packages trash into cubes. Eva searches for organic life forms. Mo cleans up skid marks on the floor, et cetera.

The Earth needs somebody to look after it. That is the unique human calling and responsibility. Nature needs humans. That is not an example of Hollywood’s war on humans; it’s a sensational exception to the rule.