Pelagianism in the Formation and Reformation of the Church- C. R. Biggs
Pelagianism in the Formation and Reformation of the Church
By the middle of the second century, the Christian Church had developed the Apostle's Creed which contained the foundational doctrines, or essential beliefs of the Church.
In the 4th century, the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ had been established at the Councils of Nicea in 325 AD, Ephesus in 431 AD, and Chalcedon in 451 AD. The doctrine of soteriology however, or the doctrine of salvation and grace had not been clearly and systematically established until the Augustine and the Pelagian controversy in the 5th century in the West.
These doctrines of salvation and grace would continue to be debated throughout church history, through the Medieval Church, the Reformation, and up to the present. In contrast to these Augustinian doctrines of sin and grace, the controversial doctrine of Pelagianism would reappear in many forms to challenge these biblical teachings.
Although the major teachings of God and Christ had been established by the Council of Constantinople (AD 381), what had not been fully established up to this time were the questions "What did Christ accomplish in his life and death?" and "How is this work of God applied to man?" It would not be until the medieval church when the Atonement of Christ was fully developed, but the doctrine of Salvation began to be fully fleshed out with Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa.
It has been said by the great 19th century Church Historian Philip Schaff, that the history of the Church unfolds much like the writings of systematic theology. The doctrines of Scripture, God and the person of Christ are foundational, then the doctrines of man, his condition and relationship to God build upon this doctrinal foundation, and were established confessionally throughout early Church history.
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine was born in Thagaste, to African parents of Romanized Berber origins on November 13, 354 AD. He was educated in Carthage, a prominent North African city, and was considered a very great intellectual man in the Western world. He was converted to Christianity in 386 AD after the prayers of a his very devout mother Monica and the influence of an intellectual bishop by the name of Ambrose.
Before his conversion, Augustine had lived a somewhat reckless and pagan life according to his book Confessions. Augustine's Confessions are not merely his autobiography but also his first theological treatise written five years before the turn of the fifth century.
Because of his great education, Augustine wrongly misunderstood the Old Testament scriptures prior to his conversion to Christianity, as did many educated people of this period, as a gathering of myths or "old wives tales." Before Augustine became a Christian, he dabbled in pagan philosophies, and a false religion called Manichaeism.
Manichaeism rejected the Old Testament and sought reason to define Christianity opposed to revelation, and this made him very susceptible to this group because of his association with reason in general, and Platonism in particular. He joined this heretical sect and made several converts during the nine years in which he remained. Essentially, Manichaeism was a hodge-podge of Persian, Indian, Buddhist, and Greek philosophical ideas that taught essentially that there is a good God and an evil God who co-exist together eternally as light and darkness, good and evil, etc. Good and evil were thought by the Manichaeists as both existing eternally and the good God was seeking to make his light known in this darkness (they also rejected the teaching of the Old Testament revelation).
After Augustine's move to Milan he began to reject the ideas and philosophy of Manichaeism when he met a Christian intellectual named Ambrose. Ambrose was the Bishop or pastor of Milan. Augustine studied under his teaching, learning as much about Christianity as he could after his conversion. Ambrose convinced him of the soundness of not only the Old Testament, but the truth of the New Testament as well, and Augustine was baptized by the great pastor in 387 AD. Augustine moved back to North Africa after his conversion and the death of his mother Monica, where he was influenced by the people of Hippo to be their bishop, or pastor.
â€œAgainst the Donatistsâ€
The first great schism in the church, and the first controversy with which Augustine dealt was what is known as the Donatist controversy. Simply stated, The Donatists were separatists who believed they were the only true church and that the Catholic, or universal church, could not be if they disagreed with the Donatist's teachings. The Donatists held that the Sacraments could not be administered if the Bishop of the congregation was unfit in his character to be a minister.
The Donatists taught that the Sacraments' effect on the church member was based on the righteousness of the Bishop administering them. Augustine responded by saying that "The Sacraments are the work of God, not of men. They do not, therefore, depend on the character of the administrator." It followed because of this belief of the Donatists, building upon the early church father Cyprian's statement: "You cannot have God as your Father, if you do not have the Church as your mother," that if they were the true Church, anyone outside their walls were not Christians. The Church was pure, and therefore no one that is "unrighteous" should be allowed entrance, and definitely not administered the Sacraments of God's grace.
Augustine responded, in his intellectual style and protective position as Bishop of his congregation, by arguing against the Donatistsâ€™ interpretation of the Church.
Augustine stated to them that Christ used the parable of the wheat and tares to establish that the true Church would have "Many wolves within, and many sheep without." He also pointed out that it was not right judgment for any Christian to claim another is an unbeliever and a heretic if they are willing to state the creeds and agree with the basic biblical teaching (i.e. the Apostle's Creed and the catechesis).
The famous quote by Augustine: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in everything, charity" came from the writings Against the Donatists and established the teachings of the Church in their ecclesiology, or doctrine of the Church throughout the Medieval period. The debate between Augustine and the Donatists is officially ended at the Council of Carthage in 411 AD, when the Donatists and their teachings were condemned by the Church.
The second major controversy, with which Augustine would have to deal as bishop, was the problem of Pelagianism. Many scholars compare this dispute against Pelagius with Martin Luther and the 16th century Reformation, because of the arguments that were used in the theological arguments such as Original Sin, Justification by Faith alone, and the depravity of man; not to mention the fact that Luther was an Augustinian Monk before his reformation and conversion.
Who was Pelagius? Pelagius was a British monk, a very zealous preacher who was castrated for the sake of the kingdom and given to rigorous asceticism. He desired to live a life of perfect holiness. In Christian history, he has come to be the arch-heretic of the church, but in his early writings he was very orthodox and sought to maintain and uphold the creeds of the early church.
Pelagius came from Rome to Carthage in the year 411 AD, while Augustine was away during the Council of Carthage. He taught the people of North Africa a new emphasis on morals and the rigorous life of living the Gospel, because he was shocked by the low tone of Roman morals. Pelagius was essentially a moralist who thought that the teachings of Augustine, which he had heard taught and preached in Rome, cheapened grace and gave men the ability to live a life that they pleased, without much respect for the commands of God.
"Command what thy will; and grant what thou commandest." Augustine
The problem with his reputation in history has been his doctrine of soteriology. According to orthodox theology, Pelagius makes fatal errors in this theology of salvation. He wrote: "Self acquired virtue is the supreme good which is followed by reward," or as a basic thesis: "Justification by the person's own good works."
The debate between Augustine and Pelagius began when Pelagius took issue with a quotation from Augustine's Confessions: "Command what thy will; and grant what thou commandest." This meant that we needed to ask God for ability to do what God commands (this implies that God gives us the desire to do this, thus preceding our actions). We will see this Augustinian teaching later in history during the Reformation when Luther writes similarly in his Bondage of the Will to Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Luther said later in the Reformation, "We cannot come to Christ, unless the Father gives us that ability," relying on the writings of Paul in Ephesians Chapter 1 and 2, and the Book of John Chapter 6.
The objection Pelagius had against Augustine was "How could God command us to do anything if we were unable to do what he commands?" Pelagius responded by saying: "God does not command us to do anything that we cannot doâ€¦.If I ought, then I can." This problem hinges around his understanding of Original Sin.
Pelagiusâ€™ position on Original Sin is stated in this way, "Adam is created mortal and would have died even if he had never sinned." Augustine said, "Adam was created good and upright, he was happy and in communion with Godâ€¦Adam would not have died if he had not sinned but that he was on trial, and when he failed his depravity was communicated to his offspring throughout history so that the Old and New Testaments speak of man's depravity from Genesis to Revelation." (Genesis 6; Psalm 51; Jer. 17:9; John 6:44; Matt. 15; Eph.1; Romans 3:11-23).
"Adam fell into a state of total and hopeless ruin, of which the proper ending is eternal death." -Augustine
Augustine argued to Pelagius that Adam was "posse peccare," "posse non peccare." He had the ability to sin and the ability to not sin before the fall, but since the fall in his disobedience, death came through Adam in his sin (Gen.3; Romans 5:12-21). Adam was on trial and chosen by God to represent the human race, therefore because of his failure and disobedience to God, Adam's offspring are born in sin (Ps. 51), with the inability to not sin.
Augustine taught that man still has freewill (liberium arbitrium), but his will is in bondage to the sinful nature and he cannot do what is godly, only that which fallen man desires, which is never focused godward (Romans 8:9; 1 Cor. 2; John 6:44).
Augustine wrote, "Adam fell into a state of total and hopeless ruin, of which the proper ending is eternal death." Many Church theologians would agree with this doctrine articulated by Augustine, and these Augustinian doctrines would be repeated in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae, Luther's Bondage of the Will, and John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Original sin, according to Augustine was not the first sin committed by Adam in the garden but the consequence of his disobedience, or the lack of good, the condition of sinfulness that is common to mankind since the fall- an inherent, inherited sinful corruption and condition that makes it impossible for man to not sin. It was the loss of libertas, which was the loss of true moral liberty as defined by Augustine.
"How could God command us to do anything if we were unable to do what he commands?"
Pelagius argued with Augustine that God would not command us in the Law to live a particular way if he did not also give us this ability. He wrote to Augustine that Adam represented Adam only and that man cannot be placed on trial because of someone else. "Adam's sin merely set an ill example, which [man] has been quick to follow. Hence they almost all need to be set rightâ€¦but after baptism man has full power and duty to keep the divine law."
This belief logically brings Pelagius to the conclusion that justification in vicarious atonement cannot be true either, because another man cannot represent the punishment of someone else's sins.
Man is responsible for the keeping of the law and his resistance to sin by himself. The obvious sinfulness in man in the fallen creation must have an ability to not sin, it is only that they tend to sin because we are born in a society where evil prevails. Men are born innocent, but the society that is evil seems to prevail upon them causing them to be bad. Augustine asked him, "How can society be evil when made up of men that are not fallen, because society should not be evil, but good if men are born good."
Pelagius was much like Socrates in his teaching of education and knowledge being the foundation of righteousness. Moral problems can be solved and evil can be done away with merely through education, Pelagius would say.
Augustine responded that we would only end with sophisticated, educated crooks and that man is by nature sinful and fallen and only God's Grace can make the evil heart of man good. Augustine defined evil, rather than ignorance, as the absence of the good, the godly.
Pelagius said that Christ came to educate man and bring him knowledge of God and his condition. His death was only an example of the evil-ness of sin, rather than a vicarious atonement where Christ's righteousness is applied to His people.
In 418A.D. a conference was held in Carthage of North Africa and Pelagius was condemned at the Council of Carthage, which was a territorial council rather than an ecumenical one. In the course of the controversy there were three different bishop-pastors residing. Ironically, this was a significant moment that strengthened the position of the bishop-pastor of Rome when he stepped into a territorial council and placed his stamp of approval on Pelagius' condemnation (although looking back on this incident we can truly appreciate Godâ€™s providential oversight of his Church even if this action of the bishop was later used sinfully in strengthening the power of the Bishop-Pastor of Rome).
Augustine wrote that mankind is a mass of sin (missa perditionis). He was what theologians in the Church have called a true Pauline theologian. One Protestant theologian from Princeton even said that Augustine "Gave us the Reformation of the 16th century, because of his strong emphasis on the grace of God in salvation." He built his foundation on the Apostle Paul when he had written "there is none righteous, no not oneâ€¦no one who seeks after God or does goodâ€¦" from his letter to the Romans in the New Testament.
The great commandment of God according to Christ was "To love the Lord thy God with all thy strength, mind, and heart, and love one another as yourself." Augustine believed that the most gross and heinous of sins was unbelief, not merely "To hate the Lord thy God with all thy strength, mind and heart, and to hate another even though you love yourself."
Augustine meant that if man is sinful, and the great commandment was this, then to not keep this great commandment with the absence of good was the great evil of mankind, proving his inability to truly to do good and honor God.
Augustine wrote that many see heinous sins and crimes as merely murder, adultery, and other outwardly visible sins, but that the greatest and most heinous of crimes are those which are not visible, namely unbelief or the dishonoring of God's commandments. It was not God's fault that man sinned against him, because man was tested in a perfect environment in the garden in perfect circumstances but with mutability, the ability to change: posse peccare the ability to sin if he chose to do so, his nature at this point in time being neutral.
Man is now born with a condition which prevents him from fully obeying God (or the loss of libertas: moral liberty), thus doing the ultimate good and keeping the great commandment; therefore, only God by his grace can provide the ability to not sin. God provides this grace to a certain number of people within the Church as he did to Israel, a particular nation in the Old Testament (Deut. 7:7).
Augustine clearly articulated that God does command what man cannot do because of the fall of man into sin and misery. Augustine taught that because of this inborn nature and freewill to do only that which is evil and not godly, then man was by nature an object of wrath, as Paul had taught in the letter to Ephesians (Chapter 2), and in his letter to the Romans (Chapter 3 and 8).
The gospel or good news taught all sinners that Christ came to "set the captives free" by living a perfect life in sinful man's stead, and dying, taking the wrath of God upon himself although innocent, and applying his righteousness to a particular people. Augustine wrote: "â€¦man's good deserts are themselves the gift of God, so that when these obtain the recompense of eternal life, it is simply grace given for grace."
Augustine has been called the theologian of grace in history because of his writings in soteriology (or on the study of salvation), and the establishing of an orthodox position on God's giving of grace to sinful man. He never denied man's freewill; rather he established it. He denied that according to the Apostle Paul and Christ's teaching, he was unable to be totally free in righteousness; thus, he had no ability to live perfectly righteous. Man was still free, but free to do only that which is evil. By the grace of God, in the infusion of love by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5), the enslaved will chooses that which is pleasing to God, "not only in order that they may know, by the manifestation of that grace, what should be done, but moreover in order that, by its enabling, they may do with love what they know."
According to Christ's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, a tree is either good or evil at root. You know the tree by the fruit it bears, or to make this a human analogy: that which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of the spirit is spirit. Paul wrote that man is at enmity with God, fallen and under the wrath of God, children of the devil. Augustine concludes his arguments for his statement "Command what thou desirest; and give what thou commandest," by stressing that if Pelagius disagrees with him, he has to disagree with the teachings of Christ. Christ taught that "no man can come to him unless it is given by the father," "be perfect as my father in heaven is perfect," "The Spirit gives life, the flesh profits nothingâ€¦without me you can do nothing" (John 6; Matt.5).
Pelagianism is officially condemned as a teaching of the Church in April 418 AD by Western Emperor Honorius. The Pelagians were exiled for holding to these unbiblical doctrines. In May 418, the Council of Carthage proclaimed that Adam became mortal by sin, that children should be baptized for the remission of original sin, that grace was necessary for right living, and that sinlessness is impossible in this life.
The Church issued a circular letter stating this Augustinian view or doctrine and condemning internationally the Pelagian understanding of original sin. Pelagius died sometime before 420 AD, but his teaching did not die with him. Despite the fact that his teachings were condemned, they continued to be propagated by his students posthumously.
Because of the continuation in the Church of these teachings, the final, official condemnation of Pelagianism cam in 431 AD at the Third General Council in Ephesus. Pelagianism was therefore condemned by church councils in the East and the West and has been condemned by more church councils in history than any other heresy.
Semi-Pelagians rejected Augustine's doctrine of predestination and irresistible grace.
In the subsequent history after Pelagianism is "officially" condemned, it continues to thrive in small sects within the orthodox body of Christ. There were those within the orthodox church who believed that Pelagianism was a heresy, but they did not agree fully with Augustinian Soteriology. These "Semi-Pelagians" as they were called, rejected Augustine's doctrine of predestination and irresistible grace. They thought that these two doctrines denied human responsibility or manâ€™s freewill.
In 529 AD, a man named Caesarius (c. 469-542), a monk in Southern France and later a Bishop of Arles, held a synod in Orange, which was later approved by Pope Boniface II (530-532) (which is the great significance of this small synod). This synod formally ended the Pelagian controversy, but practically Pelagianism would continue in the form of Semi-Pelagianism.
Semi-Pelagianism, which becomes popular in the 6th century, states: Grace is an external prerequisite for salvation, contrasted with pure Pelagianism which stated that man has ability to obtain salvation without a prerequisite of grace.
Semi-Pelagianism is a synergistic soteriological system and states that man cooperates with the grace that God gives before his conversion, and he has the power to choose grace, which is in disagreement with Augustine. The Semi-Pelagians, in order to align themselves theologically with Christ's and Paul's clear teaching on the sinfulness of man, wrote that man was not dead in his natural state, merely sick and he needed some form of Grace and help from God as a prerequisite for salvation.
However, even though man is fallen and sick, he still has an island of righteousness within him to choose the help of God. To agree with classical predestinationism (because this was the official position of the Church as this time and a clear teaching in the writings of Paul) they stated that God had prescience, or foreknowledge, of who would choose this grace, and that God on this basis would in time and space regenerate or justify these people.
Semi-Pelagians rejected Augustine's doctrine of predestination and irresistible grace.
In 529A.D. the Church condemned Semi-Pelagianism at the Council (or Synod) of Orange as being heretical. Augustine's doctrine of sin and grace was adopted as the anthropology, or teaching on sinful man of the Western Church. The most important leaders of the Church remained true, for the most part, to the Augustinian anthropological system for two or three centuries after Augustine. They stood with Augustine in his classical position that God could not have chosen men based on their decision for good, because they would never have chosen the good, being unable to do so.
This system of Augustinian doctrine came to be known as Semi-Augustinianism because it denied the doctrine of absolute or particularistic predestination. Pope Boniface emphasized the declaration, after giving his approval: "Even the beginning of a good will and of faith is a gift of prevenient grace, while Semi-Pelagianism left open a way to Christ without grace from God." Thus the Church was obligated to hold to this doctrine of prevenient grace as it had been established. The Semi-Augustinian doctrine was best represented at the close of this period by Gregory the Great who represented the moderated Augustinian system.
Gregory's moderated Augustinianism would be one of the greatest influences on Medieval Theology and the majority of the Medieval Church, but the strict Augustinianism had its adherents in Bede, Alcuin, and Isidore of Seville. These who held to the stricter Augustinian teaching would hold to irresistible grace and predestination. These doctrines would be repressed during the early Medieval period, and would become prominent again in the Gottschalk controversy in the 9th century, again repressed and would return in the teachings of Wycliff and Hus, precursors to the Reformation.
In the Reformation of the 16th century, these Augustinian doctrines of grace would be proclaimed from the rooftops by an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. Luther's greatest argument was that Rome by the time of the 16th century had turned from the true teachings of the Augustinian soteriological system and had become essentially Pelagian in doctrine.
Although Rome condemned Luther as a heretic in 1521 he continued that it was not he who had turned from the teachings of the orthodox church, but rather the majority of the church herself. He claimed he was returning to that which was truly the teachings of the orthodox Catholic Church.
Contrary to what many Protestants and Catholics alike believe about Martin Luther, he did not want a serious Reformation of the Church in the sense of a drastic change in the Sacraments, Liturgy or even the Papacy. He foundationally wanted to return to the teachings of Augustine, particularly on his doctrines of grace in salvation. What began in the selling of indulgences by a man name Johann Tetzel and what Luther saw as the selling of salvation became the biggest schism the Christian Church ever underwent.
Luther saw Original Sin and the fallen nature of man to be the heart of the gospel. He saw that the Law was not made so that man could conform to it out of his own power and follow Christ's example rather than Adam's, but that the Law led a man to Christ because he was unable to live it perfectly.
After the Diet of Worms in 1521 the Reformation had begun, but the movement became limited in 1524 when Luther's cause became a party rather than him becoming a German National leader. The first of the separations of the Reformation were by the Humanists, who had an admired leader named Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus could not agree with Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone that was the conclusion of his Augustinian soteriology. Erasmus believed that Luther denied free will and challenged Luther in the fall of 1524.
Luther began his debate with Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, a monk who has been called an "impeccable Latinist" and a "man of letters" because of his great intellectual ability. Erasmus was convinced that the church of his day was superstitious, corrupt and full of error, but because of the Church's power at this time in history, he dared not to leave the church but wrote many treatises against some of the practices.
A popular phrase has been coined "that Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched." Because of his mastery of the Greek language, Erasmus published a Greek Testament in 1516. It was the reading of the Greek, rather than Latin translation of the Bible that brought Luther to many of the doctrinal conclusions as a teacher in Wittenberg, Germany. Erasmus brought about a great renaissance in this period because of the return to the sources or ad fontes of early Christian and Greek literature that he translated.
Much like Pelagius of the fifth century Erasmus desired a great revival of morals and ethics in the Church. On this Luther and Erasmus were agreed, the Church had lost its moral bearings and was in need of improvement. Erasmus believed that Classical Humanism and education would bring this reformation and that men were ignorant of the original sources of philosophy and theology; the Church needed to be taught. Luther disagreed that education was the problem. He said it went deeper into the explanation of the heart of man and the corruption with which even those within the Church are capable of without God's grace.
Luther had experienced, as an Augustinian monk, that he was miserable thinking that God could ever justify him because of his knowledge of his own sin. He said that by joining the Augustinian cloister, although he withdrew from society in hopes of escaping the evil influences of the world, he found that the evil was within his heart.
Many Church historians have compared Luther's debate with Erasmus of Rotterdam with Augustine's letters to Pelagius from 412-416 AD Much of Augustine's views are established by Luther and many of Pelagius' views are set forth by Erasmus. De Servo Arbitrio, or the Bondage of the Will, is the name of the book that Luther wrote against Erasmus. The style of the book is very Medieval in tone; sarcasm and very colorful language is used in "name calling," in contrast to the loving letters of Augustine who showed a different respect and tone in his writings to Pelagius. Luther considered The Bondage of the Will his greatest theological achievement in his life.
In a writing to Spalatin in 1516, Luther had remarked he considered Augustine the greatest exegetical writer and Jerome second. Erasmus believed it was in the opposite order and he followed Jerome's teaching of Paul in interpreting justification by works against which Paul writes. It was actually a condemnation of justification by outward ceremonial observance.
Luther believed the Apostle Paul taught that any effort or contribution man makes toward his own salvation is works righteousness, and therefore under condemnation. He agreed wholeheartedly with strict Augustinian soteriology, because Augustine magnifies the grace of God. If a person is changed, then and only then, will good works follow.
Luther understood Original Sin and the fallen nature of man to be the heart of the gospel. He believed that the Law was not made so that man could conform to it out of his own power and follow Christ's example rather than Adam's, but that the Law led a man to Christ because he was unable to live it perfectly.
If he had been speaking to Pelagius rather than Erasmus, he could have responded to his claims that "If God commands, then I do have the ability to obey." Luther said you cannot understand grace, or the God of grace, without understanding the inability of man; the corruption of his heart, the desire for evil, the running from God or that which is holy in which man engages.
By having a high opinion of the natural powers of man, one must also hold a low opinion of the moral demands of God's character.
Erasmus wrote that man comes to salvation because independently of God he performs some action that elicits reward. On this basis, salvation comes to man through God's response to what man has done. Erasmus tried to stress the smallness of the power, but in reality sets himself up as Pelagian in every way doctrinally. Luther responds by writing that by having a high opinion of the natural powers of man, one must also hold a low opinion of the moral demands of God's character.
Luther sums his arguments up by saying that the ultimate reason why any form of Pelagianism, pure or Semi-Pelagianism, cannot be true: Fallen man in his natural condition can do nothing but sin, he is a member of Satan's kingdom and in all his actions under Satan's sway. His reason (ratio) is blinded; his will (volutas) is hostile to God; he wants only to sin, and his choice (arbitrium) is thus always sinful. No possibility of merit exists for him; therefore, all that he does is sinfully motivated and deserves the just judgment of God.
The idea of a meritorious act as an independent act which is in no way necessitated by God for man or performed by God in man is impossible. Any ability to will something as a sinner must be carried out by man acting in some sense apart from God in the Pelagian understanding, and Luther taught that there can be no such action in God's universe, because all events are necessitated by His immutable, Sovereign will. This consistent application of Original Sin and the inability of man concludes in Augustine's and Luther's doctrine of predestination.
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