Tag Archives: Pelagius

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.

Fight!

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.

Homework

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.