Augustinian and Pelagian Views of Original

Augustinian and Pelagian Views of Original

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 Cemented within church history is the renowned theological conflict between Augustine and Pelagius over the doctrine of original sin.[1] St. Augustine, considered the father of orthodox theology, taught that all humans are born contaminated by Adam’s sin, are inclined towards sinful behaviour, and are unable to obtain salvation outside of the free gift of the grace of God.[2]  Pelagius, a concurrent rival of Augustine, believed his doctrine of original sin had a negative and unfortunate effect upon human behaviour, contending that it eliminates free will and removes all motivation for living a righteous life.  To counteract Augustine’s teaching, he promoted the theology that humans were created free of any such determining influences and through their own righteous efforts are able to perfectly fulfil God’s commandments.  Pelagius’ teachings were condemned as heresy by the Council of Carthage in 418 C.E., but his doctrines remained part of the theological undercurrent of Western theology, promoting a philosophy claiming that people are essentially good and through good works they gain divine approval.[5]  In light of this historical theological conflict, the Pelagian and Augustinian views of the Adamic influence on humanity will be compared to highlight their contrasting perspectives and the impact each perspective has on Christian faith.

Pelagius and Augustine

 Pelagius, born in Britain in 354 C.E., was a monk, respected theologian and spiritual advisor who moved to Rome to teach traditional European theology.[6] Though he was not ordained by the church, he was a popular and much sought after lecturer who was greatly influenced by his classical education and his reading of the early fathers of Western theology.  He lived as an ascetic and was deeply preoccupied with various strands of eastern monastic literature which became increasingly evident in his teachings on Christian morality.  He advocated the responsibility, obligation and the ability of all people to obey the divine commandments of the Christian faith, arguing against the deterministic fatalism of the Manichees who at the time had a relatively small, but highly influential following. When Rome fell to Alaric and the Goths in 410 C.E., he escaped with other exiles to find safety across the Mediterranean, first in the Holy Land and then in North Africa.[8]  While in North Africa, Pelagius was introduced to the teachings of Augustine which led to an enduring theological confrontation.[9]

Augustine, regarded as one of antiquity’s greatest theologians, was born in 354 C.E., in Tagaste, North Africa.  Greatly influenced by the reading of Cicero’s Hortensius, he joined the Manichaean religion only to abandon their teachings in favour of scepticism.[10] Admittedly leading a carnal life during his time as a student, he was converted to Christianity and baptized by Bishop Ambrose in 387 C.E.  After years of retreat and study, he was ordained a priest at Hippo, North Africa and established a Catholic monastery.  He synthesized and systematized Christian theology and developed his doctrine of the original sin fifteen years prior to his confrontation with Pelagius.  Judging Augustine’s theories of original sin, Pelagius declared them harmful to the human endeavour of goodness which deeply disturbed Augustine and, though respectful of the virtuous monk, he set out to vigorously to defend his beliefs.[12]  Considering Pelagius’ doctrines as something “no pious heart could endure”, Augustine opposed him as a heretic and charged him as an enemy of the atoning sacrifice of Christ and the grace of God.[13]

Augustinian Doctrine of the Original Sin

Augustine’s theological construction of the doctrine of original sin or concupiscence (from the Latin word concupiscentia) is derived from a literal interpretation of Scripture and his past personal experiences of sinful behaviour.[14]He relates a story about a time he stole pears from a neighbouring orchard and suggests that his reason for sinning is derived from his corrupted human nature.[15]Recalling the sinful act, he contends that his motivation was not sensual pleasure or need, nor were the pears of unusually good quality, in fact, after stealing them, he merely threw them to the swine.  Concluding that his motivation was intrinsically evil, he states, “Our only pleasure in doing it was that it was forbidden.”  He analyzes the root and essence of his sin and recognizes an inescapably present interconnectedness with his sinful nature, consisting of an anterior absence of God coupled with a pride that hates the truth.[17]  In his transgression of the law of God, he realized that the same law that was intended to prevent sin became his primary motivation to commit sin, emphasizing his bent toward depravity.  The originating grounds for this motivation, he claimed, proceeded from his childhood, which proceeded from his condition in infancy, which in turn was inherited from his parents, who inherited it ultimately from Adam.[18]

According to Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum, Augustine’s theological argument contends that humanity was originally created blameless and without any fault.[19]  Adam was created in the imago Dei, upright, and in a state of good; he was given the possibility of not sinning [posse non peccare], the possibility of not dying [posse non mori], and the possibility of not losing that state of good.[20]  In spite of such advantages, Adam could not persevere and chose to sin, transgressing the law of God and plunging all humanity into a new and tragic condition.[21]  Augustine writes, “Thus from a bad use of free choice, a sequence of misfortunes conducts the whole human race…from the original canker in its root to the devastation of a second and endless death.”  Indeed, Adam’s sin was so damnable that it resulted in the downfall of humankind, contaminating Adam’s progeny with a sinful nature from the moment of conception.  The imago Dei, once perfect and whole prior to the Fall, is darkened and disabled.  Human nature is under condemnation and is inclined toward evil, and non posse non peccare (not able not to sin).

In this fallen and corrupted condition, salvation is a human impossibility.  The infectious nature of Adam’s sin has a disorienting force that captures the intentions of the heart, binding and bending the will away from God and all relative good.[24]  Unable to achieve righteousness by their merits, sinful humanity is entirely dependent on the free grace of God through the atonement of Jesus Christ.[25] Though the sin nature resists the offer of divine grace, God sovereignly draws to himself unregenerate humanity and through the means of faith, provides remission from the power and effects of sin.  Underpinning his argument with Scripture, Augustine states, “But God who is rich in mercy, on account of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our sins, raised us up to life with Christ, by whose grace we are saved.”[26]  Though humanity was incapable of saving themselves, the mercy of God provided the remedy for sin and the reward of eternal life for all who believe.

Those who are regenerated through faith and have received the gift of divine grace have a restored nature, no longer enslaved to the Adamic curse.  At one time unable to do good and obey the commands of God, they have been liberated from the confines of the original sin and are free to perform good works in accordance with the will of God.  The motivation to do good works becomes a response rather than an obligation, a willing desire to please God because of the impartation of his grace to an undeserving sinner.

Pelagian Rejection of Original Sin

 While Augustine was teaching his well constructed theology of original sin, Pelagius emerged on the scene with a radically different and controversial counter theology, strongly opposing Augustine’s doctrine of the Adamic influence upon humanity.  According to Carol Harrison, Pelagius overheard a bishop in Rome quote a passage from Augustine’s Confessions discussing humanity’s incapacity to do good without the grace of God.[28] Shocked by what he heard, he argued that this premise undermined the root of human integrity and threatened the universal responsibility and effort of every human being.  He reacted vehemently against this new understanding of the human nature and doctrine of divine grace, contending that this teaching served to weaken the call upon all Christians to take personal responsibility for righteous action and obedience to God’s laws.[29]

In his theological epistle to Demetrias, Pelagius asserts that God made humanity in his own image and though Adam sinned, human nature has remained essentially the same as before the Fall.[30] God has endowed each person with reason and wisdom and they possess a natural ability, not only to know what is good but actually do to it.[31]  Individual choice determines whether to use these God-given abilities for good or evil.  If they choose to do good, they will determine to follow the commands of God set out in Scripture and thereby achieve the purposes of God and gain his approval.  If they choose to do evil and disobey the commands of God, they will incur the wrath of God and his judgment.  In this way, every human being is without excuse, either on the grounds of ignorance or lack of ability since they know the good, understand it, and are able to do it, if they so will.[32]

Pelagius was utterly convinced that the will is free and there is no human defect or intrinsic evil within human nature that prevents one from choosing to do good and obey God.  To suggest that God would command humans to do something they were unable to do, was effectively accusing God of being ignorant of his creation and ignorant of his own commands. Why would God put his creation in a position to fail and be eternally condemned merely because they inherited a sinful nature?  To Pelagius, this would ascribe to God cruel and unrighteous attributes and make him out to be a punishment-seeker instead of a loving and holy God.  Pelagius considered it inconceivable that God would ask anything of humanity, unless humanity already had the ability to achieve it.[35]

Above all, Pelagius believed that a perfect, sinless life was within human grasp; God has made it possible through his creation of the human mind, endowing it with reason and understanding and the ability to live without sin.  Citing Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NIV), he insisted that goodness, and even perfection is not only expected but achievable.[36]  If humans believe they have inherited a corrupt nature and are incapable of doing good without the regenerating grace of God, they will strive for nothing and abdicate any responsibility for their evil behaviour.  The idea of being born good and possessing self-determinate attributes would be the best incentive for humans to live virtuous lives and take the obligations and responsibilities of their divine purpose seriously.

As Pelagius developed his various theological tenets, there emerged the idea that human beings, by their own efforts, can fulfil all of God’s commands without committing sin.  According to Milliard Erickson, the Pelagian view of salvation is essentially achieved through good works, but that in itself is a misnomer since humanity is not bound by sin to begin with and is not in need of a salvific enterprise.  Salvation is, instead, a preservation or maintenance of righteousness, which is sustained through good works in accordance with the law of God.  Adam and Christ are thus antithetical types for the human race.  Adam, on one hand, is the prototypical example of choosing evil over good; he sinned and brought sin and death in to the world.[38]  Christ, on the other hand, is the example of choosing good over evil and demonstrating to humanity what their nature is capable of accomplishing and how the commandments of God can be fully obeyed.[39]  Thus, the significance of Christ is in Christ’s life, not his vicarious atonement.  The teachings and example of Christ provide humanity with the pattern of a perfect and completely righteous life to emulate.  If, by one’s choosing, they chose to follow the example of Christ over Adam, they would then enjoy the ultimate benefit of righteousness, eternal life.

Pelagius’ insistence on the adequacy of created human nature and the inherent ability to fulfil the will of God through good works compelled him to promote the highest moral and spiritual expectations.[41]  Considering Augustine’s theory of redemptive grace superfluous to living a holy life, Pelagius wrote letters encouraging and reprimanding vowed ascetics, virgins, widows, and recent converts on how they should go about being “authentic Christians”.[42]  He highlighted the importance of reading the Scriptures, keeping all the commandments, positively doing good works such as almsgiving, persevering in righteousness, preserving humility, and taking responsibility for one’s every action.[43]  To those who were wealthy, he reminded them that true nobility is a matter of the soul, not of social standing and exhorted them to give their wealth away to those in material need.  As an acetic himself, he led by example, observing modesty in dress, talk, food, and conduct.  However, for Pelagius, calling oneself a Christian simply by avoiding what the law forbids was woefully inadequate.  The true Christian is called to fulfil righteousness by actively performing good works.  He states, “If you depart from evil but fail to do good, you transgress the law, which is fulfilled not simply by abominating evil deeds but also by performing good works.”  In accordance to these lofty standards, human beings will be judged and either approved and welcomed into their heavenly rest or eternally condemned.

Though Pelagius’ moralist advisements sounded nothing like the work of a heresiarch, the theology that undergirded his morality was considered by others as being deconstructive to faith and godliness.  Instead of Augustine’s emphasis upon the pre-eminence of love by which the Spirit of Christ graciously inspires, Pelagian looked to the fear of punishment as a strong motivation for obedience to the divine law.  Motivated by fear, he contends, is a healthy motivation and leads to righteous actions.  However, Pelagius’ overemphasis on the performance of good works can lead to elitism and pride and also demands the question, “how much good work is enough?”  Without the promise of salvation offered in the atonement of Christ, good works alone will also inevitably lead to despair.  The futility of good works even confronted Pelagius who, when writing to Demetrias about the daunting task of living a chaste life for God, remarked, “The ordering of the perfect life is a formidable matter…that is why so many of us grow old in the pursuit of this vocation and yet fail to gain the objectives for the sake of which we came to it in the first place”.  Pelagius’ transparent admission demonstrates that even he, approaching the end of his life, wondered if all the good works he accomplished will result in the expected outcome.


The central and formative principle of Pelagianism lies in the assumption of the plenary ability of human beings.  According to Benjamin Warfield, its conception brought forth an essential deism centering not on the working out of one’s salvation, but the working out of one’s perfection.[48]  In the quest for perfection however, Pelagius failed to perceive the precariousness of the human condition and the effect of habit on nature itself.[49]  He conceived good and evil behaviour as a series of unconnected choices absent of any continuity of life.  After each act of the will, there was another act, and another, in an endless and hopeless cycle of virtue or vice.[50] Through the centuries, Pelagius’ teaching was neither uniform nor united, but it did evolve and the label “Pelagian” has become a term often loosely used to describe any doctrine deemed threatening to the primacy of grace, faith and spiritual regeneration over human ability, good works, and moral endeavour.[51]  His essential philosophies remain an irresistible ideology and continue to undergird contemporary post-modern religious thinking.[52]

Augustine’s theological clash with Pelagius over the doctrine of original sin gained him the title, doctor gratiae as the teacher-defender of grace against the inimici gratiae, the “enemies of grace”.[53]  The outcome of the controversy was the canonizing of the heart of Augustine’s teaching in the centuries that followed.[54] Though some elements of Augustinian’s theological system has been called into question over time (i.e. divine election, the transmission of original sin, original guilt, paedobaptism and Platonic dualism), his teachings are undeniably regarded as the theological axis around which Western theology revolves.[55]  Affirmed by Calvin, Luther, and later by Wesley, his view of the doctrine of original sin has been generally received as an effective and defendable biblical treatise and remains a persuasive and influential doctrine of the contemporary Protestant and Catholic church.[56]  The theological conflict between Augustine and Pelagius was not in vain, but served to sharpen the axe of biblical theology and elevate the grace of God through the cross of Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bloesch, Donald G.  Essentials in Evangelical Theology.  New York: HarperCollins, 1978. De Bruyn, Theodore S. “Pelagius’s Interpretation of Rom. 5:12-21: Exegesis within Limits of Polemic.”  Toronto Journal of Theology 4 (1988): 30-39. Elwell, Walter A., ed.  Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.  Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984. Erickson, Millard J.  Christian Theology.  Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985. Ferguson, Sinclair B., Wright, David F. and Packer, J. I., eds.  New Dictionary of Theology.  Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988. Harrison, Carol.  “Truth in a Heresy?”  The Expository Times 112 (2000): 78-82. Hastings, Adrian, ed.  The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought.  Oxford: Oxford Press, 2000.  Lacoste, Jean-Yves, ed.  Encyclopedia of Christian Theology.  Vol. 3.  New York: Routledge, 2005. McGrath, Alister E., ed.  The Christian Theology ReaderThird Edition.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2007. Melloni, Alberto, ed.  Movements in the Church.  London: SCM Press, 2003. Murray, John.  The Imputation of Adam’s Sin.  Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1979. Rigby, Paul.  Original Sin in Augustine’s Confessions.  Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1987. Smith, David, L.  With Wilful Intent: A Theology of Sin.  Wheaton: Victor Books, 1994. Warfield, Benjamin B.  Studies in Tertullian and Augustine.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1930.

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