Friday, April 24, 2009

Catholic Cage Match: Augustine vs. Pelagius

The Catholic Church owes much of its early understanding of grace to St. Augustine of Hippo. He is frequently referred to as the Doctor of Grace because of the way in which he synthesized and articulated the Church’s teachings on this topic.[i] While not all of his thought has perdured as official doctrine of the faith (for example, his teaching on double predestination),[ii] his theological fingerprints are evident in much of what the Church has taught concerning grace over the last 1600 years. One of the factors in the development in Augustine’s doctrine of grace was his response to two pernicious heresies of the day: first, Donatism and later, Pelagianism.[iii] Augustine himself recognized the service (dubious though it may be) that heretics do for the Church in a letter to a friend, Boniface, in Africa:

Let not, however, things like these disturb you, my beloved son. For it is foretold to us that there must needs be heresies and stumbling-blocks, that we may be instructed among our enemies; and that so both our faith and our love may be the more approved—our faith, namely, that we should not be deceived by them[.][iv]

Indeed, Pelagius and his followers gave Augustine ample opportunity during the early part of the fifth century to develop his thoughts concerning grace.

Albert Outler describes Augustine’s concept of grace as “God’s freedom to act without any external necessity whatsoever” and “God’s unmerited love and favor, prevenient and occurrent.”[v] Jaroslav Pelikan notes that Augustine’s understanding of grace is heavily influenced by scripture, while at the same time being perhaps shaped and refined by his Neo-Platonist training.[vi] Rev. Douglas Mosey notes four primary components in Augustine’s thought on grace[vii]: 1) grace is necessary to remove the stain of original sin; 2) grace precedes and accompanies human works (as noted by Outler in Pelikan above); 3) grace heals fallen nature and leads to true liberty; 4) finally, grace assists and strengthens the will to persevere toward sanctification. Augustine recognized, along with the Greek Fathers, the divinizing and perfecting aspects of grace,[viii] but he also frequently spoke of God’s grace and Christ’s grace-giving sacrifice as medicinal: “[I]n the same way the Wisdom of God in healing man has applied Himself to his cure, being Himself healer and medicine both in one.”[ix]

In this matter, he was bound to clash with Pelagius and his followers, first Caelestius, and later with Bishop Julian of Eclanum.[x] While Augustine didn’t go so far in his approbation of Pelagius as to claim he was “stuffed with Scottish porridge” (as did Jerome[xi]), he did note the heresiarch’s mendacity and mysteriousness, complaining in one work that “Pelagius is so to involve himself in the concealments of this obscurity he can even declare that he agrees with these things that we have quoted from the writings of St. Ambrose.”[xii] However, Pelagius’ friend and follower Caelestius proclaimed more boldly the Pelagian positions. Caelestius’ formulations of these theses would be the subject of enquiry at the Council of Carthage.

What typified the Pelagian position, and what Augustine rejected, was a rigid externalism and naturalism[xiii] that, as Augustine said, would “render the cross of Christ of none effect.”[xiv] First, they denied the preternatural gift of immortality in man’s original state and believed that Adam would have died even if he had not sinned. Second, they claimed that Adam’s sin harmed only Adam and did not injure the rest of humanity. Third, they claimed that children are born in a stated of natural innocence, in the same state as Adam before his fall. Fourth, they denied that the whole human race dies through Adam's sin or death, or rises again through the resurrection of Christ. Fifth, they believed that the Mosaic Law was as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel. Finally, they insisted that prior to Christ’s Incarnation that there were men wholly without sin.[xv] In short, the Pelagians denied the doctrine of original sin (a doctrine that admittedly was still developing) and the necessity of prevenient and assisting grace for salvation. Man, according to Pelagius and his adherents, could chose to do good without being moved to do so by grace. In so doing, man can merit God’s help and grace. [xvi]

In contrast, Augustine considered grace indispensible for freeing man from the bonds of sin.[xvii] While the Pelagians considered Adam’s nature unchanged after his sin, Augustine affirmed that man’s nature was wounded and drawn toward sin through concupiscence and that sin for fallen man is the inevitable result.[xviii] In a letter to Julian, Augustine notes the long testimony against the Pelagian stance:

You are convicted on every side. The numerous testimonies in regard to original sin, testimonies of the saints, are clearer than daylight. Look what an assembly it is into which I have brought you. Here is Ambrose of Milan…. Here too is John of Constantinople…. Here is Basil…. Here are others too, whose general agreement is so great that it ought to move you. This is not, as you write with an evil pen, “a conspiracy of the lost.”[xix]

What the Pelagians denied, and what Augustine affirmed, was that man’s free will was in any way affected by Adam’s sin. For the Pelagians, man was just as capable of choosing good after the fall as prior. Adam’s chief impact on mankind was through his bad example but that human nature still retained the innate ability to conquer sin.[xx] Even the effects Christ’s redemptive work were limited to doctrine and example rather than any interior effects on man’s soul.[xxi]

Central, then, to this debate were the different understanding of grace held by Augustine and Pelagius. For Augustine, grace was necessary to move man toward good and was given undeserved and unmerited.[xxii] “It is not grace if any merits precede it,” Augustine wrote, “for then what is given is not as gratuitous but as owed, it is paid out for merits rather than bestowed.”[xxiii] Pelikan notes that both Augustine and Pelagius recognized the necessity of grace toward perfection,

[B]ut Augustine saw in grace the knowledge of the good, the joy in doing the good, and the capacity to will the good, while for Pelagius “the ability [posse]” came from God, but both the “willing [velle]” and “acting [esse]” depended on the free decision of man.[xxiv]

To the Pelagians, the doctrine of original sin was, in Pelikan’s words, a “disparagement of nature” hence “a disparagement of grace.”[xxv] As Julian of Eclanum put it, the doctrine of original sin was simply self-contradictory: “If sin is natural, it is not voluntary; if it is voluntary, it is not inborn.” [xxvi] How can one have free will if one is compelled to sin without grace and compelled toward good through grace? For the Pelagians, free will prevailed. While grace was necessary for the remission of sins committed, the Pelagians held that it was not necessary for justification.

For Augustine, concupiscence held the upper hand in man’s wounded nature, and God’s grace through Christ and the Holy Spirit had to move man and free him from sin before he could again be free to choose good.[xxvii] Grace, then, both preceded good works and accompanied them and was absolutely necessary for justification. Grace and free will had to be held in tension with each other. The Doctor of Grace himself would often have a difficult time walking the fine line between the two.[xxviii] Nonetheless, the Council of Carthage condemned Caelestius’ Pelagian theses in 418, and the Council of Ephesus condemned Pelagianism as a heresy in 431.

Interestingly, while scripture played a major part for Augustine in formulating the doctrine of grace, what also proved definitive was the traditional practice of infant baptism. While Augustine affirmed the necessity of infant baptism for the remission of sins (including original sin), the Pelagians had a difficult time reconciling the necessity for infant baptism in light of their denial of original sin. All three of the major Pelagian players admitted, even if with some reluctance, the necessity of infant baptism.[xxix] “The doctrine of original sin, of the fall, of the transmission of sin, and of the necessity of grace appeared to make sense of infant baptism,” notes Pelikan, and notably included in the canons of the Council of Carthage in 418 against the Pelagians was one anathematizing anyone disputing the necessity of infant baptism for the remission of original sin.[xxx] The doctrine of grace as formulated by Augustine and affirmed by the Councils of Carthage and Ephesus seems to be a textbook example of how sacred scripture, sacred tradition, and magisterial authority all work together to affirm the doctrines of our faith.

Works Cited and Referenced

Augustine. "Christian Doctrine." Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 14 April 2009 <>.

—. "Letter 185." New Advent. 14 April 2009 <>.

—. "On Nature and Grace." New Advent. 12 April 2009 <>.

Jurgens, William A. the Faith of the Early Fathers. Vol. Volume 3. Collegeville: The Liturgucal Press, 1979.

Mosey, Rev. Douglas. "Patristics: Lecture 5." International Catholic University. Catholic Educational Television, Inc., 2006.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: The Christian Tradition. Vol. 1. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Pohle, Joseph. "Pelagius and Pelagianism." 1911. The Catholic Encyclopedia. 12 April 2009 <>.


[i] Rev. Douglas Mosey, “Patristics: Lecture 5,” International Catholic University, (Catholic Educational Television, Inc., 2006), 8.

[ii] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: The Christian Tradition, Vol. 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), 293.

[iii] Ibid., 308.

[iv] Augustine, “Letter 185,” New Advent, 14 April 2009, <>.

[v] Ibid., 294.

[vi] Ibid., 296. Clearly, a passing familiarity with the Magister’s responses to Pelagius and his followers demonstrate the preponderance of scriptural formation in his thought. See in particular “On Nature and Grace,” in which St. Augustine presents verse after verse in refutation of Pelagian claims on grace and original sin.

[vii] Mosey, 8.

[viii] Ibid., 9.

[ix] Augustine, Christian Doctrine, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 14 April 2009, <>.

[x] Joseph Pohle, “Pelagius and Pelagianism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, 29 March 2009, <>.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 3, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1979), 129.

[xiii] Mosey, 10.

[xiv] Augustine, “On Nature and Grace,” New Advent, 12 April 2009, <

[xv] Pohle.

[xvi] Mosey, 11.

[xvii] Ibid., 10.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Jurgens, 144.

[xx] Pohle.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Mosey, 10.

[xxiii] Jurgens, 165.

[xxiv] Pelikan, 315.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Mosey, 10.

[xxviii] Pelikan, 320. In particular, Pelikan notes the objection of some opponents of predestination and other positions of Augustinism such as John Cassian.

[xxix] Ibid., 317.

[xxx] Ibid., 318.
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