St. Augustine and Pelagianism | Stephen N. Filippo | Ignatius InsightSt. Augustine and Pelagianism | Stephen N. Filippo | Ignatius Insight

Pelagius was a British or Irish lay monk who made his way to Rome in the time of St. Augustine. He was so shocked by the moral depravity of the people that he began to preach and teach a very strict, rigid moralism, emphasizing the natural, innate human ability and autonomy to attain salvation. His anthropology, although he never developed a system, was based upon the principle "anything you can do, you must do."

In all fairness to Pelagius, one does not get the sense that he set out to intentionally subvert the true meaning of Grace within the New Testament. His rigid moralism was more of a reaction to the laxity he saw all around him. Initially, he was probably merely attempting to give the people some sorely needed words of encouragement. However, his insistence that man is basically all good and can therefore merit salvation without the interior promptings of God's grace, eventually led him into trouble.

His theology recognized an external aspect of grace only. He taught that Christ's Redemption forgave only personal sins, the New Testament and the Law of Moses were merely external aids or (what he called guideposts graces) given to the human race to attain salvation. In other words, these graces taught us the way to the Kingdom. Once one knew the way all they would have to do is read Scripture and then put it into practice. It was all that simple for Pelagius. No need for asking for God's help along the way, much less receiving it, in order to be saved.

Providentially, Pelagius lived in the time of St. Augustine, one of the most stalwart and adept defenders of the Faith in the history of the Church. Upon reading Pelagius' work entitled Nature, Augustine saw that Pelagius relied upon innate human ability, not God's grace, in order to attain salvation. Thus the beginnings of what would turn out to be a life-long battle for Augustine ensued, first against Pelagius and his disciple Caelestius, who would systematize Pelagianism in his attempts to defend it, and finally against Julian of Eclanum, whom St. Augustine continued to battle, right up to his death in 430 A.D.

Without going into a blow-by-blow description of the works, counter works, Councils, anathemas, and finally the excommunication of Pelagius, Caelestius, Julian and others, I would like to put forth the essence of Pelagius' Anthropology and Theory of Grace, followed by its theological consequences.

Pelagian Anthropology

Although Pelagianism promoted moral fervor, there was an inherent danger in it: self-reliance, not God-reliance, based upon an inadequate understanding of human nature. Pelagianism stressed complete human autonomy and freedom of the will before God. Pelagius posited three elements to any moral action: 1. that we must be able to do it, 2. that we must be willing to do it, and 3. that the action must be carried out. Or the three elements can be described as possibility, will, and action. Possibility is a natural gift from God alone, but the other two, since they arise from man's choice, are from man. For instance, God has freely given us the gifts of speech, sight, hearing, etc., and the power to speak, see hear, etc., yet whether or not these are put to good use is left entirely up to the individual. Thus, we are entirely free to will and do good or evil. Nor does he separate will from power, finding in the will the power to automatically carry out what it has willed.

Yet, as most of us are all too aware, the ability to do good is not merely a matter of willing it, "for I do not the good I will, but the evil I do not will, I perform" (Rm.7:19). Or, as Augustine puts it: "Whence comes this monstrous state? Mind commands body and it obeys forthwith. Mind gives orders to itself, and it is resisted . . . . Mind commands mind to will-but it does not do so. Whence comes this monstrous state? Why should it be? I say that it commands itself to will a thing: it would not give this command unless it willed it, and yet it does not do what it wills." [1]

Thus, while refuting Manicheanism--the theory of the two separate wills, one good the other evil--before Pelagianism was born, Augustine had already refuted it too. The will is not the simple, complete faculty that Pelagius had thought, but it is made up of several if not many conflicting desires. It is only under the influence of Grace that a human will receives the interior strength and resolve to will and to "do the good I ought." Simply stated, Pelagius had overestimated human nature and its innate ability to desire, think, do or be good, without God's constant help.

Pelagianism's Theology of Grace

Pelagius, given his assessment of human nature, posits complete autonomy of one's free will before God. Since man is completely autonomous, he is also completely responsible for all his actions, no matter what. That one's free will is completely free and unconditional equals freedom for Pelagians. Freedom is the central constituent of human nature. This freedom is a grace which comes from the Grace of God. Freedom does not have a tendency to evil, even after the fall. Thus, if one can will it, they can and must do it. Thus, the human will is totally independent of God in making its moral decisions. Therefore, Pelagian Grace must be merely an external aid, solo ab extra.

The example of the Life of Jesus Christ, the New Testament, the Law of Moses, the Church, the Sacraments, etc., are meant for one's conscious edification and then immediate emulation, and not for prompting an interior movement of the will not necessarily consciously intended to be accomplished by the person reading it just for that purpose. Pelagianism attempts to protect the need for human accountability before God, in one's actions, no matter what. It is the stress of this overriding principle that leads to serious error.

Therefore, Pelagianism conceives Scripture as the source of Grace, solo ab extra:
God "helps" by revealing in Scripture the wisdom pertinent to human nature and its obligations to God. Revelation illumines the mind, stirs the will, thus lifting the veil of ignorance and the moral paralysis inflicted by the prolonged habits of the sinful heart. We can summarize by saying that grace means to Pelagius the following: (1) the original endowment of free will by which one may live sinlessly, (2) the moral Law of Moses, (3) the forgiveness of sins won by Christ's redemptive death and mediated through baptism, (4) the example of Christ, and (5) the teaching of Christ, as a new law and as wisdom concerning human nature and salvation. Pelagius has no doctrine of grace other than this; one finds no doctrine of "infused" grace in Pelagius. [2]
Thus to lead a life of grace under Pelagianism, one had to strenuously exert his will and efforts to accept and then perform all the commands revealed in Scripture. Add to that prayer, fasting and living the life of an ascetic and one could, by brute force, attain salvation. This is sheer will and rectitude, white knuckling it. Salvation is entirely within one's own grasp, with no need of God's Grace, or help, if you will. Therefore, Pelagianism is a closed system, based solely upon one's merit.

The only necessity in the Pelagian theology of grace is the necessity of a free will. Given the Pelagian mind set, the will could not be free if it needed the help of God. The Pelagian attitude can perhaps be best summarized by Pelagius himself, in his letter to the virgin Demetrias:
We say: "It is hard! It is difficult! We cannot, we are but men, compassed about by the fragile flesh!' Blind folly and profane rashness! We accuse the God of knowledge of a twofold ignorance, so the He seems to be ignorant of what He has done or what He has commanded--as if unmindful of human frailty, whose author He Himself is, He has imposed commands upon man which man is not able to bear. [3]
The theologian Gerald Bonner felt that a large part of Pelagius' problem was his over reaction to Manicheanism. So Pelagius became blind to what he was saying. Manicheanism misunderstood evil to be a material substance actually existing in the universe. Pelagius properly understood evil to be the absence or privation of the good. But since he also held that everything created by God was good, evil did not really exist. Since evil was really non-existent people who felt it was real were merely finding excuses for their lack of will power. Since all creation was good, he could not see how the Good God had made us fallen creatures. Nor could he believe in the ephemeral quality of grace, any more than he could believe in evil. They just did not exist.

Pelagianism's Resultant Theology

Given Pelagius' overly optimistic belief in human nature and our autonomous ability to think, do and be good, he had no doctrine of the fall as such. He believed that Adam's sin was only personal and therefore not passed onto the rest of mankind. Adam was a mere mortal who would have died whether he had sinned or not. Since infants were born in the same condition as Adam before the fall, there was no need for infant baptism. Since there was no original sin, adult baptism took away only personal sin. And baptism itself was not a necessary precondition for entrance to the Kingdom. One could attain salvation under the old covenant as well as or instead of the New Testament. There are many saints in the Old Testament who went to heaven having never sinned. Thus, Christ's redemption was not necessary, nor did He die for the salvation of all.

None of these positions are tenable for the Catholic theologian, neither in Pelagius' day nor today. In their one-sidedness the Pelagians had overstated the goodness of human nature and the power of freedom in the will as an independent, naturally endowed faculty apart from God, and denied the crucial importance of the necessity of the Redemption and the efficacy of internal Grace as given in the New Testament: an interior movement of the human will to see, accept, or to do the good prompted by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, gratuitously given as a gift for the salvation of all. "God . . . according to His mercy . . . saved us through the bath of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit; whom He has abundantly poured out upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior, in order that, justified by his grace, we may be heirs in the hope of life everlasting" (Ti. 3:5-7).

Pelagianism was condemned at the 15th Council of Carthage held in 411 A.D. and again at the 16th Council of Carthage held in 418 A.D. Yet it would not die out. St. Augustine would spend the better part of his later life refuting the errors and wrong-headed conclusions of Pelagianism.

St. Augustine's Anthropology: His Doctrine of Original Sin

St. Augustine's anthropology differs radically from Pelagius'. St. Augustine sees human nature as deeply wounded, corrupted, disordered, changed, mutable, given to concupiscence, born guilty and selfish and fallen from Grace as the result of Adam's first sin. As the direct result of Adam's sin the human race is a massa damnata, utterly incapable of saving itself, yet not without hope. Human nature is not utterly corrupt; since it was made "in the image and likeness of God" it still retains some vestige of the Divine image, but very tarnished.

According to St. Augustine, before the fall the first couple enjoyed heavenly bliss:
Adam and Eve were in a state of righteousness or friendship with God. They were also immune to physical illness and death and endowed with exceptional intellectual gifts. Above all, they were free. This blessed condition did not include an inability to sin, the true liberty possessed only by the blessed in heaven, but the ability not to sin. Endowed with an inclination to virtue, the lives of Adam and Eve were perfectly ordered. The body was wholly subject to the soul, carnal desires to reason and will, and the will to God. They were wrapped in grace and blessed with the gift of perseverance, the ability to persist in this ordered world of grace. [4]
So, man walked in complete harmony and union with God before the fall; no sickness, no disease, no death. Yet Adam turned away from God and the whole "reality" of the Garden of Eden was destroyed in a moment.

When Adam sinned he destroyed any opportunity for the rest of mankind to live in Eden's reality from birth; to live with the ability not to sin, not to die, or even not to suffer. This seems tragically unfair to the rest of us to somehow be included in Adam's punishment. How could such a just God, who foresaw Adam's rebellion long before He even created Adam, do this to us? or, as others might put it: if there is a God, how could He allow such suffering and evil?
There are many, many situations that from our limited human perspective seem intolerably unfair. St. Augustine is not slow to point out that life is full of apparent gross inequities, if one just stopped and really thought about it for a moment:
We cannot know, for example, what secret decree of God's justice makes this good man poor and that bad man rich; why this man, whose immoral life should cause him, in our estimation, to be torn with grief, is, in point of fact, quite happy; why that man, whose praiseworthy life should bring him joy, is, in fact, sad of soul; why this innocent party leaves the courtroom not just unavenged but actually condemned, unfairly treated by a corrupt judge or overwhelmed by lying testimony, while his guilty opponent not merely gets off unpunished but goes gloating over his vindication. Here we have an irreligious man in excellent health, there a holy man wasting away to a shadow with disease. Here are some young men, robbers by profession, in superb physical fettle; there, some mere babies, unable to harm anyone even in speech, afflicted with various kinds of implacable disease. A very much needed man is swept off by untimely death; a man who, we think, should not have even been born survives him and lives a long life. One man loaded with crimes is lifted to honors, while another whose life is beyond reproach lives under a cloud of suspicion. [5]
The real question is, assuming one believes in God, is God always just? For either God is always just or He is not. St. Augustine and St. Paul believe that God is never unjust (cf. Rm. 9:14-18).

In the final analysis, one must have faith and therefore trust in God that God is not unjust in spite of apparent contradictions. St. Augustine translates the Septuagint, Is. 7:6 as "Unless you believe you shall not understand." [6] The New American Bible says that "Unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm" (Is. 7:6). For the only true answer to: "is God just?" is St. Paul's: "O man, who art thou to reply to God? Does the object molded say to him who molded it: Why hast thou made me thus?" (Rm. 9:20). "So, then there is question not of him who wills or of him who runs, but of God showing mercy," (Rm. 9:16) because... "There is not one just man, not one,...all have gone astray; alike all are worthless. There is no one who does good, not even one" (Rm. 3:10-12). Thus, "All have sinned and have need of the Glory of God" (Rm. 3:23).

In sum then: How can the inherently mutable, corruptible human being dare to question the inherently All-mighty, immutable, incorruptible, unchangeable, all-knowing and seeing God on a point of justice no less? The problem is that the pot will not say to the potter: "I will not be a pot," yet human beings say to their Creator, some many times a day: Non serviam. A man who will not serve the Good God can hardly be expected to know, much less love the Good God.

After God's justice, the next question raised by St. Augustine's doctrine of original sin is: Why did mankind fall? Neither St. Augustine nor anybody else seems to have a completely satisfactory answer. Nor does he think it worth his while to probe too deeply into it since even if the answer could be known, it is of little or no practical help in attaining salvation.

What need is there, therefore, to seek the origin of the movement whereby the will turns from the unchangeable to the changeable good? We acknowledge that it is a movement of the soul, that it is voluntary and therefore culpable. And all useful learning in this matter has its object and value in teaching us to condemn and restrain that movement, and to convert our wills from fall in temporal delights to the enjoyment of the eternal good. [7]

To attempt to figure out why original sin exists does not change the fact that it exists. The real question is what do we do about it now that we know it exists; not why does it exist. And St. Augustine tells us exactly what to do about it: try not to sin.

The third concern with original sin is: How is it transmitted? St. Augustine has no completely convincing answer. One does not have to look very hard to find solid empirical evidence that transmitted it is but exactly how, who knows. Could it be a fault of the 20th century to seek nicely tied up logical answers to all questions concerning our relationship with God?

With the necessity of original sin comes the necessity of baptism. Without baptism no one can be saved according to the ordinary providence of God. Baptism removes the guilt of original sin, but it does not remove its effects in our members. Thus, we become children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit, yet we can still sin. Therefore, we need to have God's constant help. That is the "how" and the "why" of it. Praise the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, both now and forever. Amen.


[1] John K. Ryan, tr. Book Eight: The Grace of Faith in The Confessions of St. Augustine. New York: Image Books, 1960, pp. 196-197.

[2] Stephen J. Duffy. The Dynamics of Grace: Perspectives in Theological Anthropology. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1993, p. 89.

[3] Gerald Bonner. St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies. Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1963, p. 361.

[4] Op. Cit., The Dynamics of Grace: Perspectives in Theological Anthropology. p. 90.

[5] Gerald G. Walsh, S.J. & others. Part Five: The Ends of the Two Cities in City of God. New York: Image Books, 1958, p. 485.

[6] John S. Burleigh. Faith and the Creed. In Augustine: Earlier Writings. Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1953, p. 353.

[7] Ibid., On Free Will. p. 171.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the November 1997 issue of Catholic Dossier.

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Mr. Stephen N. Filippo, MA., SYD., teaches Theology and Philosophy on both the high school and college level.

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