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4. Augustine: The Doctor of Grace

The Last Days of Antiquity

In 380 Emperor Theodosius I (the last emperor to rule over both the eastern and the western halves of the Roman Empire) declared Nicene Orthodoxy (as preserved in Rome and Alexandria) the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The Triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy over “Arianism” signalled with the second ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381. However, there was growing concern within the church over increased nominalism and laxity. Many Christians began to view the church as corrupt and morally compromised.

Background to the Pelagian Controversy

Pelagius, a British Christian philosopher, who saw himself as the man who would put an end to the rot of bad Christians in the church! He arrived in Rome c. 390 and was received as a speaker and teacher who drew a considerable following of wealthy Christians in Rome (he was not ordained and did not pastor a church)

Pelagius’ Doctrine

For Pelagius a human being is born without sin and with the capacity to live a sinless life (On Nature and Grace, 57). Pelagius argued that many saints, even before Christ, had actually lived free from sin (To Demetrias 5.1-8.4). Adam’s sin directly affected only Adam, consequently there was no imputation of Adamic guilt to Adam’s offspring (To Demetrias 2.2; On the Divine Law 2.1).

Grace, in Pelagius’ theology, was seen in the act of God creating us with free will and ability to do good (To Demetrias 8.2). God’s grace was further given to all people in the form of the Law which enlightened humanity as to their obligations towards God (To Demetrias 8.4). Again God’s grace was given through the example of Christ for us to follow (To Demetrias 8.4). Pelagius saw Christian perfection as both possible and an obligation to all Christians. Failure to do so meant eternal damnation (To Demetrias 9.2), but Pelagius thought, that additional grace from God could be merited through our good works (To Demetrias 25.3).

Sin for Pelagius was merely a corruption of habit. Having freely fallen into evil habits, Pelagius argued we could freely, if arduously, dig our way out of them (To Demetrias 13, 17.3). For Pelagius people sin because they don’t try hard enough to be perfect, and because they live near other people who sin (i.e. their environment). Pelagius taught that sin could be prevented by our own will and by a good environment – therefore there was a strong ascetic element in Pelagian theology (To Demetrias 16.2).

For Pelagius Christ’s death was a moral example for us to show us the way we should live (To Demetrias 8.4). Christ’s salvation was only meant for sinners, since some people lived without sin and the need for forgiveness of sins. We could merit eternal life through our obedience to God’s commandments (On Virginity 4.2), and we could even go beyond what God commanded and live a holiness that was beyond the requirements of the Law, i.e. celibacy (On Virginity 4.3).

Warfield’s summary of Pelagian theology should be noted: “Genetically speaking, Pelagianism was the daughter of legalism; but when it itself conceived, it brought forth an essential deism.” Warfield, NPNF1 5:xiv).

Pelagius’ Anger

Pelagius taught “an essentially deistic conception of man’s relations to his Maker. God had endowed His creature with a capacity or ability for action, and it was for him to use it…to work out not only his own salvation, but also his own perfection.” When Augustine’s noble and entirely scriptural prayer – ‘Give what You command, and command what You will’ – was repeated in his hearing, he was unable to endure it!” (Warfield, NPNF1 5:xiv).

Augustine and the case for grace

Like most theological disputes that Augustine wrote on, he was asked to respond to the issue at hand by others instead of seeking it out. Augustine’s theology of sin and humanity was derived from Scripture, shaped by his own life, and informed by his pastoral care for a congregation of sinners! Many began to question whether Pelagius's teaching was correct.


Augustine argued that a human being is born a sinner with imputed guilt and a corrupted human nature because of Adam’s sin (Rom 5:18-21). Human nature is corrupted by sin even before a person chooses to sin (Rom 5:19). The penalty for Adam’s sin included physical as well as spiritual death (Gen. 3:19), and that it is due to Adam that we all die (Rom. 8:10, 11; 1 Cor. 15:21)


Augustine argued that when it is asked, on what ground grace is given, it can only be answered, “on the ground of God’s infinite mercy and undeserved favour.” (On the Grace of Christ, 27; Rom 11:6, Rom 5:8). “God does not grant His mercy to some people because they know Him,” Augustine wrote, “but in order that they may know Him. Nor is it because they are upright in heart, but that they may become so, that He grants them His righteousness by which He justifies the ungodly.” (Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, 11)

The faith by which Christians believe, without which there can be no true justice or virtue (C. Jul 2.3.17–33), must also be wholly a gift of grace (De praed. sanct 2.7) (Hübner, 94). Grace is thus strictly prevenient; it precedes and brings about any human action pertinent to salvation. For this reason, Augustine argues in his last writings, salvation must find its ultimate basis in God’s will (Hübner, 94).

Christ is the source of grace and the sole justifier of human beings (De pecc. mer 1.3.18), but the immediate agent of divine grace is the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), who, as God’s love in person, enables us to love God in the only way God is fit to be loved: with his own love (Hübner, 94). For Augustine, God justifies primarily by making us genuinely just or righteous, though the element of forgiveness or “nonreckoning” of sins must also have a place (De spir. et litt 7.11; 13.22). “The righteousness of God” is chiefly God’s transformation of sinners into those who love him and obey his commands (De spir. et litt 11.18) (Hübner, 94). “Accordingly, by the law of works, God says to us, Do what I command thee; but by the law of faith we say to God, Give me what Thou commandest” (Aug., De spir. et litt. 13.22, NPNF1 5:92). Augustine reasoned, “…we conclude that a man is not justified by the precepts of a holy life, but by faith in Jesus Christ,—in a word, not by the law of works, but by the law of faith; not by the letter, but by the spirit; not by the merits of deeds, but by free grace.” (Aug., De spir. et litt. 13.22, NPNF1 5:93).[3]

The Outcome of the Pelagian Controversy

Pelagius moved to Palestine and had to ward off several literary attacks by Jerome. He successfully defended himself in his Letter To Demetrias (413) and found broad support in the East, at the synods of Jerusalem and Diospolis (415). Pope Innocent summoned Pelagius to Rome for a council in 417. Pope Innocent died before the council convened with Pope Zosimus succeeded him. Incredibly Pope Zosimus declared Pelagius and Celestius orthodox!

He wrote to Augustine and the North African church, “If only you had been present, my beloved brethren, how deeply each one of us was moved! Hardly anyone present could refrain from tears at the thought that persons of such genuine faith could ever have been slandered! This hairsplitting and these pointless debates…all pour out of an infectious curiosity, when each and all abuse their intellectual powers and given vent to their uncontrolled eloquence at the expense of the Scriptures.” (Zosimus, Ep. Magnum Pondus 4, PL 45:1720).

Warfield noes: “if (Zosimus) was seizing the occasion to magnify the Roman see, his mistake was dreadful.” (Warfield, NPNF1 5:xix)

Augustine’s Response to Pope Zosimus

Late in 417, or early in 418, the African bishops assembled at Carthage, in number more than two hundred, and replied to Zosimus that they had decided that the sentence pronounced [by the African church] against Pelagius and Cœlestius should remain in force. (Warfield, NPNF1 5:xix). Zosimus began to falter when the Emperor excommunicated Pelagius and “possibly in the effort to appear a leader in the cause he had opposed, not only condemned and excommunicated the men whom less than six months before he had pronounced “orthodox” after a ‘mature consideration of the matters involved,’ but, in obedience to the imperial decree, issued a stringent paper which condemned Pelagius and the Pelagians…” (Warfield, NPNF1 5:xix). In the years that followed, Bishop Julian (ca. 386-454) of Eclanum, in southeast Italy, became the advocate of Pelagianism. Julian was then deposed and fled to Constantinople, where he won the support of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius (d. ca. 451). At the third ecumenical council, in Ephesus in 431, both Julian and Nestorius were declared heretics.


Further objections were made against Augustine’s doctrine of grace in the monasticism of southern Gaul. John Cassian (ca. 360-after 430), abbot of Marseilles, attempted a compromise. He stressed the need for divine grace if we are to will and do anything, but he also claimed that God has regard to our good will, which is only weakened and not destroyed. Predestination simply rests on foreknowledge of what we will do and in no way restricts God’s will to save (Institutes 12.13). Vincent of Lérins (d. before 450) rejected Augustine’s teaching on predestination as against the tradition of the church, i.e. from what has been believed always, everywhere, and by all. However, Caesarius, bishop of Arles (d. 542), secured the condemnation of semi-Pelagianism at the Synod of Orange (529).

The Eastern Perceptive

Eastern theology generally did not agree with Augustine’s theology. Today many Eastern Orthodox theologians would argue that we do not inherit guilt from Adam only weakness and an inclination towards sin (Meyendorff, 145). The Eastern Fathers taught that mankind may inherit death and corruption from Adam by way of generation, but we participate in his sin only insofar as we “imitate” his sin. (Weaver, 136). Participation in God’s energy (Theosis) through a synergy of grace and works of obedience, and not the remission of guilt are the centre of Byzantine theology (Meyendorff, 146; Pomazansky, 202-208)


R. C. Sproul notes that, “The Reformation witnessed the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over the legacy of the Pelagian view of man.” (Sproul, (1996), 11)

In the words of B. B. Warfield: “Both by nature and by grace, Augustine was formed to be the champion of truth in this controversy. Of a naturally philosophical temperament, he saw into the springs of life with a vividness of mental perception to which most men are strangers; and his own experiences in his long life of resistance to, and then of yielding to, the drawings of God’s grace, gave him a clear apprehension of the great evangelic principle that God seeks men, not men God, such as no sophistry could cloud.” (Warfield, NPNF1 5:xiii-lxxi).


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