Pastor's Blog

Pelagius vs. Augustine

Posted under: Reformation — by Leroy Demarest

Throughout the history of the church there have been a number of debates between the work of humans towards righteousness and the work of God in granting grace, especially when related to our salvation. We might turn to Romans or Galatians and see Paul’s argument regarding the law vs grace. Outside of scripture we might think of the Council of Dort and their weighing of the arguments of Arminius and their standing with John Calvin (this debate we still seen significantly in the church today) or even Luther’s argument with the Dutch humanist Erasmus, of which Luther wrote ‘The Bondage of the Will’ as a response. However, as one might expect, this fight has been  going on throughout the church ever since Paul and the Judaizers. One of the most notable debates on the topic was between Augustine and the British monk Pelagius.

The catalyst for this 5th century debate arose from a published prayer from Augustine. In the text of the prayer was the phrase, “Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.” Pelagius would take umbrage with the first half of this prayer. He argued that God would never command something that man did not have the ability to do. We can, perhaps, be sympathetic to Pelagius’ view on this give some background information.

Prior to this debate Pelagius had gone on a pilgrimage to Rome and instead of seeing a city on a hill, Pelagius saw a city of hypocrisy and debauchery. Instead of piety and adherence to the Word, those who were part of the church were living like pagans. Pelagius believed that this was because those living in Rome were living under a (according to him) ‘false’ doctrine of salvation through grace. We might see this as taking extreme liberties with Paul’s writings without considering what being a new creation means, or without considering the writings in the Gospels or James. However, Pelagius took to the other ditch and argued that man must work and live rightly according to the law, apart from the works of the Spirit.

As Pelagius contended with Augustine, debate on Baptism and Original Sin ensued. Pelagius argued that Adam’s Sin only effected Adam. Therefore, sin did not pass from Adam to his offspring or to us. We might want to point to Romans 5 as a counter to such a thought. Furthermore, Pelagius argued that grace only aided in obedience to the law and not making obedience possible. Augustine argued strongly on biblical ground. He argued, that while we do have the liberty to choose what to do, we are influenced by our sin nature. As such, our will is in bondage to sin (this concept would be expanded in depth by an Augustinian monk a millennia later).

Augustine argued that the only way for moral liberty, the ability for one to do as God commands wholeheartedly is through the saving Grace of God. After significant debate, Pelagius and his teachings were condemned as heretics.

Related to Pelagius’ teaching was, as it is termed, semi-Pelagianism. This was put forth by Cassian at Marseilles and, like Pelagius’ teachings, was condemned by the church in 529 at the Council of Orange in 529. Semi-Pelagianism affirms original sin, but argues that man has the ability to seek after God (this would be contrary to Romans 3), God’s Grace is a response to this seeking, and it denies predestination. However, as is the way with most heresies, Pelagianism and compromising semi-Pelagianism has reared its heads throughout church history.

Luther debated this topic with Erasmus, a Dutch-Humanistic Catholic who argued for a semi-Pelagian position. The Council of Dort affirmed Calvin’s teaching over Ariminius’ teaching. And we see it today in churches across the globe.

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