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St. Augustine: Defender of Salvation By Garce Alone(4) The Pelagian Controversy

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
Early Departures From Apostolic Teaching
Roger E. Olson, in his book The Story of Christian Theology, makes the rather disturbing observation that almost immediately after the death of the apostles, their successors, the so-called apostolic fathers, Òbegan to turn away from the great themes of grace and faith so strongly emphasized by Paul and other apostles,Ó toward a gospel seen as a Ònew law of God-pleasing conduct and behaviorÓ (p.40-41). He supports this observation by quoting another scholar, Justo Gonzales, who writes, Ònot only in their understanding of baptism, but also in their total theological outlook, one senses a distance between the Christianity of the New Testament--especially that of Paul--and that of the apostolic fathersÉ; the new faith becomes more and more a new law, and the doctrine of GodÕs gracious justification becomes a doctrine of grace that helps us act justlyÓ (Ibid., p.41). This was especially true of theologians in the East. According to R.B. Kuyper, the Eastern or Greek theologians were by nature and disposition more interested in theoretical and speculative subjects (such as the Trinity and the natures of Christ), while their Western or Latin colleagues tended to focus more on practical issues. He writes in his History of Christian Doctrines :

While the Christological controversies were agitating the East,
other problems, such as those of sin and grace, of the freedom of
the will and divine predestination, were coming to the foreground
in the West. Their importance can scarcely be overrated from the
point of view of practical Christianity. Their bearing on the
work of redemption is even more directly apparent than that of
the Christological questions (p.127).

Creationism or Traducianism?
We should not conclude from this that the Greek Fathers had no interest at all in studying man in his fallen condition, but they tended to form a rather optimistic estimate of manÕs plight. They saw man as a composite being made up of body and soul. He is a Òrational animal,Ó with one foot in the higher, or intellectual, and another in the lower, or sensible world. As to the question regarding the origin of the soul, most were creationists, i.e. they believed that each individual soul was created independently by God at the moment of its infusion into the body. By AugustineÕs time, however, this had become the prevailing view throughout Christendom, both East and West.

The fact that most held to a creationist view of the transmission of the soul, had tremendous implications for the way they viewed sin. It meant that they did not hold to the notion of original sin, at least not in the strict sense of the word. Not that they denied the solidarity of the human race. As Berkhof explains:

They affirm its physical connection with Adam, but this
connection relates only to the corporeal and sensuous nature
which is propagated from father to son and not to the higher and
rational side of human nature which is in every case a direct
creation of God. It exerts no immediate effect on the will, but
affects this only mediately through the intellect. Sin always
originates in the free choice of man, and is the result of
weakness and ignorance. Consequently, infants cannot be regarded
as guilty, for they have inherited only a physical corruption
(Ibid., p.128).

Thus creationism influenced their view of the nature of sin and consequently also their view of grace and its necessity for salvation. Generally speaking, the main emphasis of both Greek and Latin Church fathers was on manÕs free will, rather than on his need for grace. In BerkhofÕs words:

It is not the grace of God, but the free will of man that takes
the initiative in the work of regeneration. But though it begins
the work, it cannot complete it without divine aid. The power of
God co-operates with the human will, and enables it to turn from
evil and to do that which is well-pleasing in the sight of God
(Ibid., p.129).

Traducianism Emerges in the West
While creationism was the generally accepted view, there were a few theologians in the West who held to the so-called traducianist view of the transmission of the human soul. Among them were Tertullian, Cyprian, and Ambrose. According to this view, the whole man (both body and soul) is received by ordinary procreation from the parents. This represents an important development, for the traducianist view helps to explain better than the creationist view how AdamÕs sin was transmitted to his descendants.

It was left to Augustine to further develop these concepts into a well-defined doctrinal position. The impetus for fine-tuning his views on these vitally important matters was, of course. the controversy with Pelagius, although it should be pointed out that his basic position on the issues concerned was quite clear in his mind long before the monk from Britain appeared on the theological scene. Nevertheless, as. R.A. Finlayson points out,

It was left to Pelagius, a monk of British birth, to propound a
doctrine of man that compelled the Church to rethink the whole
position and formulate its doctrine with something of the clarity
and care given to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Person of
Christ. The man to do this was Augustine. What Arius was to
Athanasius, Pelagius was to Augustine, the antagonist who forced
a statement and clarification of the issue. (ÒAugustine and the
Doctrine of ManÓ in The Story of Theology, p.27).

Although we must reject the notion, widely held by liberal theologians, that AugustineÕs theology of grace can only be explained in terms of his own personal struggles with sin and his intense conversion experience, there is an element of truth to this assertion. As R.B. Kuyper writes, ÒAugustineÕs view of sin and grace was moulded to some extent (emphasis mine, C.P) by his deep religious experiences, in which he passed through great spiritual struggles and finally emerged into the full light of the Gospel (Ibid., p.131).

In his famous Confessions we have a very frank and honest account of AugustineÕs spiritual experiences as he reflects on his amazing conversion. One thing that becomes clear from reading this moving account is the authorÕs conviction that salvation is by grace alone. Perhaps more than most sinners he struggled long and hard to change his wicked ways, but he got nowhere. Deeply conscious of the corruption of his nature and the bondage of his will, he was finally enabled to cast himself on the grace of God. In Book VII. xv.23, he prays: ÒI enquired what iniquity really was. And I discovered it not to be a substance [as Manichaen philosophy had viewed it] but a perversion of the will bent aside from Thee.Ó

Pelagius Locks Horns With Augustine
Pelagius was a totally different type of man. Instead of wasting his early years in pursuit of sinful pleasures, as Augustine had done, he was a man of blameless character and an even temper. Perhaps this helps to explain why he was a stranger to AugustineÕs conflicts and struggles with sin and why he consequently lacked that deep sense of indebtedness to divine grace.

Difference in character and personality, however, does not explain everything, because what Augustine experienced was true to Scripture and therefore normative for all sinners, including Pelagius. But it does shed some light on the manner in which the Lord leads His own and the degree of conviction they experience in the process of conversion. I think it is biblical to say that all who are saved will experience a degree of conviction sufficient to convince them that they are helpless in themselves so as to be driven to Christ for salvation. Augustine apparently had a very deep experience of his depravity, which should not be taken as the norm for everybody. But based on what we know of Pelagius and his theology, one has to wonder whether he knew anything of the saving grace of God.

It is no accident that the key issues in debate between Pelagius and Augustine were those of free will and original sin. Let us first examine PelagiusÕ view of sin and grace and then look at what Augustine taught on the same subjects.

The Pelagian View of Sin and Grace
As we have seen, the prevailing view in both East and West was that man is a fallen creature in need of divine help. But at the same time the majority held to a rather optimistic view regarding manÕs ability to contribute to his recovery, by exercising his free will. By 397, however, another view was gaining ground, namely that of St. Augustine. In his treatise Ad Simplicianum, the bishop of Hippo clearly stated that mankind is to be viewed as a Ôlump of sin,Õ unable to make any move to save itself and wholly dependent on GodÕs grace (Kelly, Ibid., p.357). About the same time, Pelagius had settled in Rome where he became a popular and respected teacher.

Pelagius was appalled by what Augustine was teaching about man and his inability to do any good apart from divine grace. Being primarily a moralist concerned with proper conduct, Pelagius strongly disagreed with such a pessimistic outlook. The assumption that man could not help sinning seemed to him an insult to his Creator. AugustineÕs famous prayer, ÒGive what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt,Ó was particularly offensive to him, for it seemed to suggest that men were mere puppets controlled by outside forces, be they the movements of divine grace.

Over against what he regarded as AugustineÕs determinism, Pelagius built his theology squarely on the keystone of manÕs unconditional free will and responsibility. When God created man, He did not subject him, like other creatures, to the law of nature, but He conferred on him the unique privilege of being able to accomplish the divine will by his own choice. As created by God, Adam was not endowed with positive holiness, but his original condition was one of neutrality. In other words, he was neither holy nor sinful, but had the capacity for both good and evil. He could either sin or refrain from sinning, as he saw fit. When he fell into sin this was not because of any antecedent evil in his nature but simply a matter of choice. By sinning he injured no one but himself and human nature was left intact, still able to do good or evil as before. Pelagius categorically rejects any idea that fallen manÕs will is biased in favour of wrongdoing. Since each soul is created immediately by God, it cannot come into the world soiled by original sin transmitted from Adam. According to Pelagius, Berkhof states,

There is no hereditary transmission of a sinful nature or of
guilt and consequently no such thing as original sin. Man is
still born in the same condition in which Adam was before the
fall. Not only is he free from guilt but also from pollution.
There are no evil tendencies and desires in his nature which
inevitably result in sin. The only difference between him and
Adam is that he has the evil example before him. Sin does not
consist in wrong affections or desires, but only in separate acts
of the will (Ibid., p.133).

So, far from the will being in bondage to sin, manÕs will is perfectly free to choose either good or evil and the very fact that God commands man to do what is good proves that he is able to do it. The ought implies the can. ManÕs responsibility is the measure of his ability.

How then do we explain the fact that sin is universal? Pelagius explains that this is due to wrong education, to bad example, and to a long-established habit of sinning. If a man turns from evil to good, this is not due to the grace of God, although divine assistance obviously gives him an advantage. But by grace Pelagius does not mean the operation of the Holy Spirit whereby manÕs will is enabled to do what is right and good, but the reference is to GodÕs three-fold gift to man, namely (a) free will itself with which God endowed man at his creation; (b) the revelation, through reason, of GodÕs law, instructing man what he should do and holding out eternal sanctions; and (c), since this has become obscured through evil custom, the law of Moses and the teaching and example of Christ. This grace is given to all and Pelagius totally rejects the idea that God bestows special favours upon some rather than others. Men advance in holiness by merit alone and GodÕs predestination operates strictly in accordance with the quality of the lives foreseen by Him.

Pelagius does not just believe that man is able to choose good over evil; he also insists man can, if he will, observe GodÕs commandments without sinning at all. For biblical support he appeals to such passages as Leviticus 19:2, where God commands Israel, ÒYe shall be holy, for I am holy;Ó and Matthew 5:49, where Christ says, ÒBe ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.Ó

Some of PelagiusÕ disciples went even beyond their master. Coelestius, for example, who became the most effective spokesman for the movement, minimized even more the role grace played in salvation, contending that grace and free will were incompatible. He also denied original sin in stronger terms than Pelagius did, teaching that Adam was created mortal and would have died anyhow, whether he sinned or not. Another representative of Pelagianism, Julian of Eclanum, went even further, saying that free will placed man in a position of complete independence over against God.

In our next instalment we will examine AugustineÕs view of sin and grace as well as his understanding of predestination, D.V.

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