The Great Pelagian Controversy
By William P. Farley
Life in fourth-century Rome was difficult at best. Rodney Stark notes: “Roman cities were small, extremely crowded, filthy beyond imagining, disorderly, filled with strangers, and afflicted with frequent catastrophes — fires, plagues, conquests, and earthquakes. … Dread of fire was an obsession among rich and poor alike. … Sewers were ditches running down the middle of each narrow street — ditches into which everything was dumped including chamber pots at night.”1 Life expectancy was short, probably about 30 years.
On August 26, A.D. 410, Alaric and his army of Goths broke through Rome’s vast walls plundering and raping at will. One of the conquests the Romans perpetually feared had finally occurred.
Many refugees fled from Rome to North Africa, the breadbasket of the Roman populace. A secular monk named Pelagius (c. 354–420), with his disciple, Caelestius, was among those fleeing. Although their ultimate destination was Jerusalem, they stopped at Hippo where Augustine (354–430) was bishop. Pelagius wanted to meet the famous teacher, but the bishop was out of town. Pelagius left him a courteous note, which Augustine later answered with similar courtesy.
Continuing on to Jerusalem, Pelagius stopped at Carthage, the capital of North Africa, where he left Caelestius. As Pelagius’ mouthpiece, Caelestius began to teach his master’s doctrinal system. When Caelestius’ teaching reached Augustine, a doctrinal controversy began. These shock waves have reverberated down through the centuries. This controversy was central to the Reformation 1,100 years later, and continues to be a debate every generation of Christians must fight anew.
To understand the controversy we need to acquaint ourselves with both Pelagius and Augustine. They had much in common. Both were born in 354. They were in their mid-fifties when their debate began. Pelagius came from the British Isles, while Augustine came from North Africa. Both first visited Rome in their early 30s. Pelagius took up the ascetic life of a monk, ministering to poor dockworkers and laborers. He lived in Rome for many years until its sacking by the Goths made him a refugee. Both men were well educated. Both were convinced their positions were scriptural. Both were lovers of peace; neither enjoyed conflict. However, Augustine and Pelagius also differed at critical and crucial junctures.
Unlike Pelagius, Augustine came to Rome in his youth, but soon moved to Milan where he was influenced by the preaching of the great Bishop Ambrose (A.D. 340–397). Slowly and increasingly Augustine felt great conviction, but for him Christianity seemed impossible. How could he be baptized? Since his youth sexual lust had dominated him. A life of chastity and sexual purity seemed utterly unrealistic. He felt hopeless about conversion.
At a low point he heard a voice on the other side of the garden wall singing, “Pick up and read. Pick up and read.” Paul’s letter to the Romans was nearby. When he opened the book his eyes fell on Romans 13:13,14: “Not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality. … But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (ESV).2 Instantly, faith in God’s power surged into his fallen heart. He knew God would give him power to change.
From that moment he was a convert by the grace of God. His experience of the grip of indwelling sin and the power of grace to shatter its chains affected him the rest of his life.
After his baptism he returned to Africa, determined to live a quiet life of celibate scholarship. But God had other plans. The seaport town of Hippo soon made him their bishop, where he served until his death 40 years later.
Before he died Augustine left the church a legacy of 5 million words written with quill on parchment. “Augustine shaped the history of the Christian church,” notes John Piper. “His influence in the Western world is simply staggering.”3
Paul warned the Corinthian believers that Satan sometimes comes as an angel of light. Such was the case with Pelagius. People liked him. He “was a man of clear intellect, mild disposition, learned culture, and spotless character. Even Augustine, with all his abhorrence of [Pelagius’] doctrines, repeatedly speaks respectfully of the man.”4
Pelagius had one great liability; he did not experience Augustine’s struggle with personal sin, which would prove decisive.
During his many years in Rome, Pelagius attracted disciples and even became popular with some in the Roman upper class — including Caelestius, a lawyer from a wealthy family — who became Pelagius’ most important disciple. Pelagius’ ascetic lifestyle and moral purity drew Caelestius to him. Pelagius disliked controversy, but Caelestius was of a different temperament. “Pelagius was the moral author,” but “Caelestius the intellectual author of the system represented by them.”5
Dependence on grace was not the backbone of Pelagius’ Christianity. Instead, his Christianity depended on an external legalism. It was a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps spirituality. He was the spiritual John Wayne of the fifth century. He believed that God expects perfection, but believed that every human had the ability to perform it. He reasoned that God gives all men power to obey what He commands. If not, God would be unjust. Pelagius’ “message was simple and terrifying,” notes Augustine’s biographer, “since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.”6
He believed that any man could be perfect who wanted to be, and that many Old Testament saints were. Perfection could be attained with human will and determination. His favorite text was “This is the love of God, that we keep his commands” (1 John 5:3, ESV). “For the Pelagians, man had no excuse for his sins, nor for the evil that was around him.”7
In short, Pelagius completely rejected the doctrine of original sin, the Pauline idea that all men inherit Adam’s sin and guilt at conception. This sin cripples the will, desires, emotions, and intellect. Therefore, men can never satisfy God’s righteous requirements by human effort.
Pelagius’ assumptions turned him to asceticism. He gave his life to fasting, self-denial, and outward morality. He thought every Christian should do likewise because only an ascetic lifestyle could guarantee one’s salvation.
In short, Pelagius’ concern was ethics, not doctrine. Here was his Achilles heel. He wanted a moral reformation of the Roman Church, and he was convinced that a misunderstanding of grace was the problem. Why would someone, saved by grace alone, change and become more Christlike? he wondered. In the Roman Church he saw moral laxity and even indifference. He believed Paul’s overemphasis on grace was the culprit.
In about A.D. 405, Pelagius heard someone read the famous prayer from Augustine’s Confessions,“Command what you will: Give what you command.” Pelagius was horrified. If man must rely on God’s grace to obey His commands, then man has no moral responsibility. Christians can blame their sins on God’s unwillingness to give grace. He was convinced that Augustine thought man was a robot, completely determined by God, and lacking any substantial incentive for moral reformation.
Before Augustine’s engagement with Pelagius “the anthropology of the church was exceedingly crude and indefinite.”8 Although most Christians believed that men were sinners, the nature of sin and how it affects us had not been thoroughly defined.
David stated the question clearly in Psalm 8. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4, ESV). “What is man?” That was the question. Does Adam’s sin and guilt corrupt him from conception, or is he inherently good, in complete possession of his moral faculties, and able to save himself through self-effort?
If Adam’s fall affected us, how far and to what extent did it affect us? Does it cause spiritual death, rendering us unable to respond to God, or does it merely cripple us, leaving our capacities and desires to turn to God intact?
Did Jesus die to help us help ourselves? Or, did He die because men were utterly bound by sin, unable to help themselves, and in desperate need of a divinely wrought salvation?
Behind these questions lurked the idea of grace. What does grace accomplish? How much grace do men need? How dependent is man on the grace of God? Does God give grace to make men holy, or does man’s holiness qualify him to receive divine grace?
The answers to these and other questions are important. They affect our understanding of man’s freedom, of Adam’s condition before the Fall, how Adam’s fall affects us, how God’s grace works, the nature of regeneration, the doctrines of predestination and election, whether man’s will is free or bound, the judgments of God, and most important, the nature and degree of man’s dependence on God.
The debate accelerated after Caelestius preached his ideas in Carthage. Between A.D. 410 and A.D. 416 Augustine answered Caelestius with a series of letters and dissertations proving from Scripture the reality and nature of original sin.
From Paul’s letters Augustine refuted Pelagius. Adam’s sin was no private affair. He represented all men. When Adam fell, all fell. We are born debilitated with Adam’s sin. (To Augustine its fundamental nature was pride.) We also enter the world guilty with Adam’s guilt. In theological language, Augustine taught that both Adam’s sin and guilt are imputed to us. Therefore, we are born dead in sin, unable to believe or respond to God. Augustine believed this is why God must choose and elect those who will be saved. To the elect God gives the gift of faith. He justifies them and empowers them to grow in holiness. Eventually God glorifies them. This is how Bruce Shelley sums up Augustine’s anthropology: “In Augustine’s view, Adam’s sin had enormous consequences. His power to do right was gone. In a word, he died, spiritually — and soon, physically. But he was not alone in his ruin. Augustine taught that the whole human race was ‘in Adam’ and shared his fall. Mankind became a ‘mass of corruption,’ incapable of any good [saving] act. Every individual, from earliest infancy to old age, deserves nothing but damnation.”9
Most important, Augustine taught that God saves without violating man’s moral responsibility to seek and obey God. Augustine embraced the mystery that God is sovereign and man is responsible. When I was a new Christian, I asked a student of Augustine how the great man was able to reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
“He never tried to reconcile close friends,” my friend wisely answered.
Augustine’s theology also generated a profound dependence on God and His glorious grace. His personal experience of indwelling sin convinced him that he was utterly dependent on God. His prayer, “Command what you will: Give what you command” — so detested by Pelagius — expressed the heart of his piety. He knew his dependence on God for salvation, sanctification, and every other good thing.
He also believed that his theological system was the solution to moral laxity. It was only when the church taught Original Sin, humanity’s helplessness, and God’s free grace that the moral transformation that Pelagius so earnestly sought would occur. Why? Because he believed his doctrine of grace went deep, touching the human heart, transforming it by grace, evoking a life surrendered to God in joyful gratitude. He believed that this inward revolution alone would produce the heart-virtue that Christ so earnestly seeks.
Pelagius moved to Palestine. There he encountered the great scholar Jerome (c. 347–420) who also opposed Pelagius’ ideas.
In the meantime, the conflict between Augustine and Pelagius accelerated. Some Christians sided with Pelagius; others with Augustine. In the last decades of Augustine’s life, however, the church increasingly sided with Augustine and Jerome. In A.D. 431, the ecumenical Council of Ephesus, meeting a year after Augustine’s death, denounced Pelagianism and endorsed Augustine’s theology of human nature. A century later, the Council of Orange (A.D. 529) reaffirmed this decision. Since the sixth century, almost universally, Pelagianism has been considered a heresy and Augustine’s doctrine of grace orthodoxy.
Before he died, however, Augustine’s teaching was resisted by an unexpected source — the ascetic communities that had flourished in the Egyptian desert. Having built their lives around fasting, rigorous self-denials, and self-renunciation, these Christians found the freedom of grace oppressive but Pelagius’ doctrines sweet. The conflict between those that delight to work and those who delight to submit to God’s grace was not new, and it has permeated the following centuries.
Although Augustine’s theology was orthodoxy, where theology affects daily life, people were often practical Pelagians. That is, Pelagianism was the default view of the common man. From A.D. 500 to 1500 the church moved ever closer to Pelagianism. Men increasingly worked to gain God’s acceptance. The seven sacraments, attendance at mass, and obedience to the Pope became crucial precedents to salvation.
Much of this culminated in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, a renewal of the conflict between Augustine and Pelagius. Martin Luther (1483–1546) was an Augustinian monk. His reading of Paul’s epistles, fortified by Augustine’s comments, converted him to Paul’s doctrine of grace. In fact, from Augustine both Luther and Calvin appealed to the Catholic authorities for acceptance of justification by faith alone.
What can today’s pastor learn from the conflict between Pelagius and Augustine?
First, the cure for the lukewarmness that Pelagius so greatly feared is not more discipline. Instead, it is the repeated and clear proclamation of humanity’s sin, our unworthiness of God’s favor, and the magnificent grace of God that saves us. Only as we see our bankruptcy, our need of grace, and our dependence on God, do we lavishly give ourselves to Christ and His kingdom.
Second, the history of the Pelagian conflict reminds us that doctrine matters. Churches rise and fall on their doctrinal clarity concerning basic issues. Clarity on the depth, power, and debility of human sin makes churches humble, needy, and fruitful. Failure in this doctrine renders them lukewarm. The more we understand and abhor sin, the less it will control us.
The opposite is also true. Failure to emphasize the doctrine of sin usually amplifies evil. The better we feel about ourselves the worse we usually become. In the 20th century, Pelagian ideals have unleashed untold horrors. All the utopian movements of the last 100 years — Communism, Fascism, and Nazism — started and built on Pelagian assumptions about man.
Third, every generation must refight Augustine’s battle. The conflict did not end in the fifth century. Pelagianism proliferates in the contemporary church. In a recent survey, 77 percent of professing evangelicals said that they believe human beings are basically good, and 84 percent believe that in salvation “God helps those who help themselves.”10 It would be a mistake to assume that this is not the case in our churches.
Last, the history of Pelagianism teaches us that unless we aggressively and regularly teach our congregations about sin and its manifold effects, Pelagianism will proliferate. Why? Because men are by nature proud, and pride leads men to the feet of Pelagius. That is why we say that Pelagianism is the default religion of humanity. Convinced of its power, wise pastors resist it persistently and intentionally.
History is His story.
1. Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (San Francisco: Harper-Collins/San Francisco, 2006), 26–28.
2. Scripture quotations marked ESV are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, copyright Â© 2001, Wheaton: Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin (The Swans Are Not Silent) (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2006), 43.
4. Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church,vol. 3, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2006), 790.
5. Ibid., 792.
6. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography(Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2000), 342.
7. Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 350.
8. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, 785.
9. Bruce Shelly, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas, Texas: Word, 1995), 129.
10. Michael Horton, “Pelagianism,” Modern Reformation,January/February 1994, 31,32.