The Augustinian/Pelagian Controversy

Kurtis Dahlin March 3, 2000 Rev. December 4, 2002


I.          Pelagius (A.D. 360-420)

Pelagius was believed to be a native of the British Isles.  His date of birth is uncertain (Cairns 137; Walker 170; Wright 762).  He was active in Rome teaching Christian perfection about A.D. 383-410 (Gonzalez 29; Wright 760).

While in Rome, Pelagius reacted against Augustine's theology that made all of man's activities dependent on God's grace.  Augustine seemed to leave no place for human choices and moral responsibility.  Pelagius assailed Augustine’s denigration of marriage and asceticism in general.  Pelagius, also was opposed to Manichaeism which encouraged moral pessimism and fatalism.  "He viewed the church as the community of the adult baptized, committed to perfectionist ideals, and magnified man's incorruptible created capacity for freedom from sin" (Wright 761).

Pelagius claimed that there were three types of grace:

1.         An "original or natural grace" which is given to all at birth. 


2.         A "grace of revelation" whereby God shows the way we are to follow.  It is not a special power to obey God for such a thing would imply that without revelation we are incapable of doing good.


3.         A "grace of pardon" which God grants to those, who in combination with their free will, repent and make an effort to act correctly and to repair the evil that they have done. This grace is limited to the forgiveness of sin (Gonzalez 32).


According to Pelagius, predestination was inextricably interwoven with God's foreknowledge of future human decisions.  God knows who will respond to the grace of pardon and be saved. In contrast, Augustine taught that predestination was a sovereign decree by God by which people are saved or condemned (Gonzalez 32). According to Augustine, God knows whom he will choose to save.
Another significant difference between Augustine and Pelagius was that Augustine relied on the absolute need for irresistible grace in salvation.  Augustine's theology of irresistible grace was based upon his own experience.  Augustine believed that he could never have overcome his sins by his own strength (Boer 162; Cairns 137; Walker 169). However, Augustine’s response to God’s grace does not make grace irresistible. The necessity of grace for salvation does not prove that grace is irresistible, but only necessary. Pelagius believed that Augustine's doctrine of grace was a threat to human freedom and responsibility.  Pelagius taught that the ability or possibility for a man to be without sin comes from a natural grace bestowed by God on all at birth.  Natural grace is a gift we receive and as such leaves no legitimate occasion for human boasting.  Natural grace is a conferred grace, due to God alone, assigned to our created natures (Bettenson 52,53).  Pelagius was interested in leaving no excuse for those who impute their own sin to the inherent weakness of human nature (Gonzalez 31).  Pelagius wrote,

we ascribe to the Just One unrighteousness and cruelty...first, by complaining that he has commanded the impossible, the second, by imagining that a man will be condemned by him for what he could not help; so that (the blasphemy of it!) God is thought of as seeking our punishment rather than our salvation....He has not willed to command anything impossible ...and he will not condemn a man for what he could not help, for he is holy (Bettenson 52).

Pelagius taught that God had created us free and by this freedom we are capable of doing good.  We have the power not to sin inherent in creation.  The sin of Adam and the devil cannot remove or vitiate our created capacity for good.  Gonzalez stated that Pelagius believed,

Adam's sin is not imputed to all humanity.  It would be unjust to condemn all for the sin of one.  He cites men and women who, according to the Old Testament lived blameless lives (Gonzalez 31). 

Pelagius affirmed that we each sin for ourselves out of our own free will.  Therefore, children who die before being baptized are not damned to hell as Augustine taught.  The guilt and punishment of Adam is not laid upon their tiny shoulders (Gonzalez 32).

Pelagius and his friend Celestius, came to North Africa in about A.D. 410 to visit Augustine.  They left without finding him.  Pelagius journeyed to the East.  Celestius remained in Carthage.  Celestius sought to be ordained a presbyter but was rejected for his Pelagian views.  Celestius then journeyed to Ephesus where he received his ordination. 

Celestius was less moderate than Pelagius and became the main opponent of Augustine.  He asserted that infants were baptized for sanctification and not for the remission of Adam’s sin. The Church condemned Celestius’ views on infant baptism and original sin in A.D. 411. During this controversy Pelagius was not personally attacked for his views.  Pelagius was acquitted at the synod of Diospolis (A.D. 415).  However, Pope Innocent the First in A.D. 417 excommunicated him and Celestius.  Pelagius claimed that infants are innocent and therefore do not need baptism; baptism does not give birth to free will (Gonzalez 32).  The council of Carthage in the west (A.D. 418) issued 9 canons denying salvation to unbaptized infants (Wright 761). Augustine summarized the main points of the disagreement over Pelagianism.  The following statements against Pelagius are said to be found in the teaching of Celestius (Bettenson 53).
1.         That Adam was created mortal, for he would have died whether he had sinned or not.

2.         That Adam's sin injured him only, and not all of human kind.

3.         That the Law as well as the gospel leads to the Kingdom of God.
4.      That there were some before the time of Christ who lived  without sin.

5.         That recently born infants are in the same state as Adam was before his fall.

6.         That the whole of humankind does not die in the death or fall of Adam, nor does it resurrect in the resurrection of Christ.

7.         That, if we will, we can live without sin.

8.         That unbaptized infants obtain unto eternal life.

9.         That the rich who are baptized will have no merit, nor will they inherit the Kingdom of God, if they do not renounce their possessions (cf. Gonzalez 33).

Pelagius focused on an intense conviction about human freedom that man was responsible for his own moral destiny.  The deep wound of Adam's fall did not mean that man had lost his capacity to choose good.  Man retained the ability to observe God's commandment without sinning (Bokenkotter 93).  Walker noted that Pelagius,

recognized that the mass of men are bad.  Adam's sin set them an ill example...hence they almost all need to be set right.  This is accomplished by justification by faith alone...No man between Paul and Luther so emphasized justification by faith alone.  After baptism, man has full power and duty to keep the divine law (168). 

Pelagius denied the Augustinian view of original sin.  He stated,

Everything good and everything done by us, not born with us.  We are born...with a capacity for good and evil;...before the activity of our own personal will there is nothing in man but what God has stored in him (Bettenson 53).

Pelagius was accused of heresy in the East before bishop John of Jerusalem.  Pelagius, however, was approved by the bishop and declared orthodox at the synod in Diospolis (A.D. 415), which is Lydda in Palestine.  In response, Augustine initiated two North African synods to be held in A.D. 416, one in Carthage and one in Mileve.  Under the influence of Augustine these local councils condemned the Pelagian opinions and appealed to Pope Innocent I, the Roman bishop from A.D. 402 to 417.  Innocent was pleased at this recognition of Papal authority and did as the African synods wished.  However, Innocent died shortly after and was succeeded by Zosimus (A.D. 417-418), who was a Greek.  Celestius appealed to Pope Zosimus in person.  The new Pope declared the African synods to have been too hasty and regarded Celestius as orthodox.  A new synod met in Carthage in early A.D. 418 and, at their insistence, the Western Emperor, Honorius, issued a condemnation of Pelagianism, April A.D. 418 (Walker 169).  In May A.D. 418 a larger council was held in Carthage and they determined:

1.                  That Adam had become mortal by sin.

2.                  That children should be baptized for the remission of original sin.

3.                  That grace was necessary for right living, and

4.                  That sinlessness was impossible in this life. 

Pope Zosimus now issued a letter condemning Pelagius and Celestius.  Though the East was more receptive to Pelagius, however, he was finally condemned at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 (Walker 170).

II.        Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430)

Augustine is considered by Rome to be the greatest of the Latin fathers.  He became bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa.  The controversy with Pelagius helped shape Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, grace, and predestination and gave rise to some of Augustine's most significant works.  He wrote On The Spirit and the Letter, On Nature and Grace, and On Original Sin.      

 Augustine believed:

1.         Adam enjoyed free will, which is the power not to sin as well as the      power to sin. 


2.         Adam had the gift of being able not to sin, but not a complete gift of perseverance.


3.                  The fall was caused by Adam's pride and unbelief.


As a consequence of the fall Adam lost:

4.         The possibility of living forever.

5.          His special knowledge and,

6.          His power not to sin, rendering him free only to sin (Gonzalez 44).

By reason of the inheritance from Adam:

1.       All human beings are by nature in the same situation as Adam after the fall as described by Augustine.

2.       The mass of humans are described as a "mass of damnation" subject to death, ignorance and concupiscence (Gonzalez 45).            

a.  Concupiscence is the power, which leads us from God to inferior and in transitory realities.
3.         Fallen human nature is free only to sin.

4.         All that we can do is sinful (Gonzalez 46).

Niebuhr summarized Augustine’s opinion,

Disorder extends to every phase of culture; diversity of language and efforts to impose a common language, just wars as well as unjust, efforts to achieve peace and to establish dominion, the injustice of slavery and the requirement that men act justly as masters and slaves in the midst of this injustice -- all these and many other aspects of social existence are symptoms of man's corruption and misery.  The very virtues themselves, in which men are trained in society, are perverse; since courage, prudence, and temperance used for egotistic or idolatrous ends become 'splendid vices' (213).

According to Augustine even the virtuous acts of men are corrupted by their own pride and wickedness.  In Adam all his progeny are totally depraved.    In Augustine's view Adam's sin rendered the whole human race powerless to do right (Schaff 843).  Mankind had become a mass of corruption incapable of any good act.  "Every individual, from earliest infancy to old age, deserves nothing but damnation" (Shelley 145, 146).  Man, in and of himself, can do nothing good.  Only those to whom God chooses to give grace can give back a good service to man (Shelley 146).   The head of Augustine’s theological system is the total depravity of mankind in Adam. "Augustine taught that every man is conceived and born in sin and can be saved only through the grace of God according to his divine good pleasure" (Kuiper 39). The total depravity of the will necessitated the doctrine of irresistible grace. Augustine developed the doctrine of double predestination: that God had predestined the elect for heaven and the rest to hell.  Shelley notes that Augustine's own experience of a profoundly deep sense of sin influenced his doctrines of irresistible grace and predestination (Shelley 145).  We can do no true good without the help of grace.  Adam lost that grace through his sin and became a subject of evil.  "All his descendants came into the world under the bondage of sin and are therefore incapable of doing true good.  Our will is twisted in such a way that it is free only to sin" (Gonzalez 46).

Augustine taught that only through grace, freely given from God, is conversion possible.  Grace is irresistible; though grace does not force us to make a decision.  We do not save ourselves, nor are we saved against our will.  Grace moves the will in such a way that it will agree with God.  It is also necessary to remain faithful unto death, which requires another gift of grace for perseverance. Therefore, salvation is a work of grace from beginning to end.  Salvation is only possible through God's grace. Saving grace is not merited by the one who receives it but depends only on God's free, sovereign election as a result of predestination (Gonzalez 47).  "God does not predestine any to sin, or to damnation.  The elect are pulled out of this 'mass of damnation' which is humanity through a sovereign act of God who has predestined them for salvation" (Gonzalez 48).

Augustine's opinions had an enormous impact on the medieval Roman church and later in the Protestant Reformation (Walker 172). Gonzalez notes, "that the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century thought that the Bishop of Hippo was a forerunner of their doctrine" (Gonzalez 48).  However, Gonzalez also states that even though Augustine did emphasize the priority of divine action in initiating salvation; he also attributed a place for good works in the final outcome of salvation.  Although grace is not given according to any merits, it is given to enable us to perform good works whose merits will lead to final salvation.  Yet, much of Augustine's doctrine of predestination agrees with the theology of the reformers.  Schaff states, "in the Reformation of the sixteenth century, it gained a massive acknowledgment and an independent development in Calvinism, which, in fact, partially recast it, and gave it its most consistent form" (870). Shelley writes,

Man, therefore, has no power or worthiness of himself; his salvation is fully from God....It was this doctrine, recovered in the Protestant Reformation, that gave the reformers reason to deny that any church could come between the soul and its Maker (146).

Kuiper also adds, "from this greatest of all Church Fathers, Luther and the other Reformers also received their inspiration" (Kuiper 39).

However, the totality of Augustine's theological system was not fully approved by the Church of his day.  Vincent of Lerins (A.D. 434) believed that predestination and irresistible grace denied any human responsibility for sin.  He represented Augustine's teachings as novelties without root in catholic tradition.  Jerome also, ascribed to the human will a share in conversion.  Although he deemed grace essential to salvation, Jerome had no thought of an irresistible divine grace (Walker 170, 171).  Schaff  notes, "The Greek fathers, and Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome, and Pelagius, had only taught a conditional predestination, which they made dependent on the foreknowledge of the free acts of men" (852).  However, Schaff is unfair in listing Pelagius with the Greek and Latin Fathers. Pelagius is not considered to be a “church Father” by anyone. By listing the Fathers together with Pelagius, Schaff has made the Fathers guilty by association. What Schaff has done is label the early Fathers as Pelagian.

Augustine’s doctrines of total depravity and double predestination were new to the church. Historians understand that the universal church taught a conditional predestination. Supposedly, no one in history of the church taught the total corruption of all mankind as a corporate fall in Adam. Those who follow Augustine are in opposition to all previous orthodox anthropology. In a footnote Schaff records, "that Augustine's doctrine of predestination was opposed to the opinions of the fathers and the sense of the church (ecclesiastico sensui), and that no ecclesiastical author had ever yet explained the Epistle to the Romans as Augustine did..." (Vol. III 852).

III.       The Semi-Pelagians
The debate about the fall of Adam was larger than Pelagius and Augustine. There existed in the church a broader and more ancient anthropology than both. The universal church eventually rejected Pelagianism. Therefore, it is a misnomer to label the opponents of Augustine as semi-Pelagian.  There is the third option of the Orthodox East. Augustinianism was slow to catch on.  Historically, the universal church was neither Pelagian nor fully Augustinian.  Augustine had little or no impact on the majority of Christianity in the East.  Augustinianism did not reflect catholic orthodoxy and took root only in the Medieval West. The same church that rejected the extremes of Pelagius also rejected the extremes of Augustine.

The so-called semi-Pelagians actually represented apostolic tradition, which had existed for centuries before Pelagius or Augustine.  Augustine is the beneficiary of historic orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy does not begin with Augustine. The universal church agreed on all points of orthodoxy with Augustine, though they rejected his doctrines of predestination, irresistible grace and the extreme consequences of the Fall. One leader of the ancient catholic position was John Cassian (A.D. 360-435). John Cassian is maintained as a chief representative of Eastern tradition (Lossky 198).  He was a devote monk attempting to chart the historic position by which human will could cooperate with the Divine will in salvation.  This is called synergism.  Cassian taught that men are sinful because of the fall and their wills are weakened, but not totally corrupt and man's will can cooperate with divine grace in salvation. Edgar Gibson wrote,

for the Eastern Church has always held a milder view of the effect of the Fall than that which has been current in the West since the days of Augustine; and, indeed, Cassian, in making his protest against the rising tide of Augustinianism, was in the main only handing on the teaching which he had received from his Eastern instructors (193).

Faustus, abbot of Lerins (A.D. 474), acknowledged original sin but held that men still has the possibility of striving for salvation in partnership with God’s grace.  The human will, though weakened by the fall, is still able to choose right.  God foresees what men will do with the invitation of the Gospel; he does not predestine them to heaven or hell by sovereign decree (Walker 170, 171).

Julian, the bishop of Eclanum, carried on the anthropological controversy.  He regarded Augustine's teachings as Manichaean. Julian also denied the Augustinian predestination to hell.  Augustine's interpretation of irresistible grace and predestination were rejected at a synod held in Orange (A.D. 529).  The canons of Orange were approved by Pope Boniface II, in A.D. 530-532 (Walker 171). 

There were four major points embodied at the synod of Orange:

As a result of Adam's trespass, both death and sin were transmitted to all of his descendants.

Man's will has been so vitiated by original sin that he can only love God if prompted and assisted by grace.

Baptismal grace enables all Christians with the help of Christ to do what is necessary for salvation.

In every good action, even the first impulse comes from God.

Therefore, man under original sin had lost all power to turn to God accept by God's grace.  All the good in man is the work of God (Bokenkotter 94). The irresistibility of grace was nowhere affirmed.  Predestination to evil was condemned and the reception of grace was bound to baptism (Walker 171).  The council did not ratify Augustine's fatalistic theory of predestination to hell (Bokenkotter 94).

Augustine lived to see the total collapse of Roman rule in Africa.  In A.D. 429 the marauding Vandal armies burned churches and slaughtered the bishops and clergy in Northern Africa.  His own city of Hippo was packed with refugees.  Augustine fell ill with a fever, died and was buried August 28, A.D. 430.  A year later, Hippo, was captured by the Vandals and destroyed (Bokenkotter 95). 

So one hundred years after the death of Augustine, at the synod of Orange (A.D. 529) in southern France, 13 bishops approved a modified Augustinianism.  "Thus many of the main thoughts of Augustine were approved; but with a decided weakening of emphasis" (Walker 171).  Augustine left his stamp in the west and greatly influenced the shape of the western church in the medieval period. The rejected portions of Augustine's theology: total depravity, double predestination and irresistible grace, also became a major influence in the Protestant Reformation.

IV.        Byzantine Anthropology

John Meyendorff represents the current Eastern thought on the Pelagian/Augustinian controversy.   He writes,

In order to understand many major problems which arose between east and west, both before and after the schism, the extraordinary impact upon western thought of Augustine's polemics against Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum must be fully taken into account.  In the Byzantine world, where Augustinian thought, exercised practically no influence, the significance of the sin of Adam and of its consequences for mankind was understood along quite different lines (Meyendorff 143).

Meyendorff states that Augustine did not have a Greek text of the Bible while forming his doctrine against the Pelagians.  He notes that Augustine used the Latin Vulgate translation of Romans 5:12, to justify the western doctrine of inherited guilt imputed from Adam to his descendants.  Gonzalez comments, 

Such an interpretation of the text which claims that, “in Adam all die” is certainly not the only one that has appeared in the history of Christian thought; but it is the one that, from Tertullian on, became more and more common in Latin theology.  This was due in large measure to Augustine's support of it (Gonzalez 44).

However, the consensus of Greek Patristic and Byzantine traditions, note that the proper translation of Romans 5:12 is "because of" as opposed to "in whom” as Augustine thought. Augustine repeatedly appealed to Romans 5:12 as the scriptural authority for his doctrine of corporate guilt.  Schaff agreed that Romans 5:12   was erroneously translated by the Vulgate as "in whom."  The Greek text should be translated as a neuter conjunction meaning "on the ground that, or because, all have sinned."  Schaff concluded, "the exegesis of Augustine, and his doctrine of a personal fall, as it were, of all men in Adam, are therefore doubtless untenable" (834).  So the wages of sin for Adam is a similar punishment, for those who like him, sin.  Romans 5:12 does not state that Adam’s progeny or descendants are born guilty, until they also sin as Adam sinned. Meyendorff writes,

In Greek patristic thought, only this free personal mind can commit sin and incur the concomitant guilt (Meyendorff 143).

When the human person misuses its freedom, it can distort the natural will and corrupt nature itself.  It is able to do so because it possesses a freedom, which is capable of orienting man toward the good and of imitating God.  Man's will is also capable of sin.  Sin is always a personal act, never an act of nature. “Photius even goes so far as to say, referring to western doctrines, that the belief in a ‘sin of nature’ is a heresy” (Meyendorff 143).

Therefore, the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God could be conceived only as their personal sin.  There is no place in the ancient church for the concept of inherited guilt, condemnation and damnation.  Death is passed on to the sons of Adam but not punishment.  Meyendorff notes,

Neither original sin nor salvation can be realized in an individual's life without involving his personal and free responsibility  (Meyendorff 144).

The consequence of the fall in Greek Orthodox and Byzantine tradition is essentially physical death and weakness of the will rather than inherent sinfulness and condemnation.  Chrysostom specifically denied the imputation of sin to the descendants of Adam.  Sinfulness is a consequence of mortality.  Meyendorff states that death makes sin inevitable, since as mortal beings we have bodily necessities, which though not sinful in themselves lead to passions, "mortal beings are necessarily subject to passions and fears, to pleasures and sorrows, to angers and hatred" (Meyendorff 145).  Sin remains a personal act and inherited guilt is impossible. 

Original sin is not to be interpreted in juridical or quasi-biological terms, as if it were some physical 'taint' of guilt, transmitted through sexual intercourse.  This picture, which normally passes for the Augustinian view, is unacceptable to Orthodoxy (Ware 81). 

The wrong choice made by Adam brought in passion, corruption, and mortality, but not inherited guilt as Augustine taught as the cornerstone of his doctrine (Meyendorff 145).  The contrast with Western tradition on this issue is brought into sharp focus concerning the meaning of infant baptism. 

Augustine argued in favor of infant baptism from his understanding of Romans 5:12.  Children are born sinful because they have all sinned in Adam.  Infant baptism in the Roman church, therefore, is for the remission of Adam's original sin.  The East denies that the remission of sins is required of infants who inherit no guilt from Adam.  The Eastern church baptizes children in order to give them new, immortal life not to remit non-existent sins (Meyendorff 145-146).

Augustine's new perspective on original sin led to the creation of other Roman Catholic dogmas such as the sacrament of infant baptism, purgatory, limbo and the Immaculate Conception of Mary -- none of which are necessary in Eastern tradition.  Bishop Ware writes,

Orthodoxy does not envisage the fall in Augustinian terms, as a taint of inherited guilt.  If we Orthodox had accepted the Latin view of original guilt, then we might also have felt the need to affirm a doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (Ware 102).

Since original sin or fallen human nature does not carry inherent condemnation, Orthodox Christology allows Jesus to have assumed not just unfallen, but fallen human nature (Ware 99).  "He therefore embraced all that was really human, such as it was after the fall, excepting sin:  He took an individual nature liable to suffering and death" (Lossky 142).

 Augustine and Pelagius are polarized at opposite ends of the anthropological controversy.  However, in the East, the human will was tainted in Adam though not totally lost.  Bishop Ware states, "The Orthodox tradition, without minimizing the effects of the fall, does not however believe that it resulted in a 'total depravity', such as the Calvinists assert in their more pessimistic moments" (Ware 80).  The conversion experience is a synergistic cooperation between the human and divine wills.  "Eastern tradition has always asserted simultaneity in the synergy of divine grace and human freedom" (Lossky 199).  Vladimir Lossky writes, "The Eastern tradition never separates these two elements: grace and human freedom are manifested simultaneously and cannot be conceived apart from each other" (Lossky 197). 

However, Schaff, a western historian, dispatched 400 years of church history and the mother church in one sentence.  In his discussion of Augustine he wrote,

upon the Greek church alone has he exercised little or no influence; for this church stopped with the undeveloped synergistic anthropology of the previous age (1017).

Schaff believed that Augustine corrected the many errors and imperfections of the early Greek and Latin Fathers.  What had been taught throughout the universal church since the time of Christ and continues to be taught by the Eastern church is summarily dismissed.  Historically, "the undeveloped synergistic anthropology of the previous age" represented the quintessence of apostolic tradition.  If synergism was the orthodox view for 400 years prior to Augustine--can we be wrong to suppose that synergism was the view of Paul, Peter, Jesus and the rest of the apostles? The anthropology of the “previous age” was not Pelagian. Pelagius was not even born yet. The Eastern church rejected Pelagius. The Eastern church is the mother of Christianity and the guardians of apostolic tradition. The anthropology of the Orthodox church was not “stopped” or “undeveloped.” In reality the universal church had a fully developed anthropology that Augustine overdeveloped. It is no wonder that Augustine’s new doctrine had little impact in the East.

It appears that the Eastern church's claim to orthodoxy on this issue is far more ancient than Augustine's.  Free will did not originate with Pelagius or Arminius.  Instead, the rejection of free will began with Augustine about A.D. 410.  Augustine is a Western phenomenon whose impact is still strongly felt in both Protestant and Roman Catholic pews (Schaff 1016). We find that there are more options on the issue of predestination and original sin than Calvin or Arminius, Augustine or Pelagius. There is an older tradition that quickly finds its root in the apostles. The third option of Orthodoxy provides a choice anchored in our most ancient and secure foundations.


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