Reflection: Pelagius and Augustine

This paper was initially written for the course Early and Medieval Christianity in Winter 2011.

Augustine stands as the most influential theologian after Paul in the church’s history, and much of his highly-influential theology formed out of three theological disagreements with his contemporaries: the Manicheans, the Donatists, and most of all the Pelagians.  In reading texts from both Augustine and Pelagius, however, my opinion is that Augustine greatly exaggerated the levels of disagreement between himself and Pelagius.  They did both allow for some concept of free will and they both did have important roles for God’s grace in everyday life.

With that said, they clearly were not on the exact same page, either, and most of that comes out of the opposite starting point.  Reading the two texts I couldn’t help but see the contemporary parallels.  If you ask the modern theologian what the fundamental aspect of human nature is, you will likely receive one of two answers.  One is that humanity is basically good, having been created in God’s image, although of course we are also capable of evil.  The other option is that humanity is basically broken or sinful, although with the grace of God we can do great things.  Both generally acknowledge that there are both sides present in every human, but which is the starting point greatly shapes how we view each other and shapes a lot of our other theologies.

Pelagius is clearly in the first category, emphasizing the general goodness of humanity.  He even directly states that “usually I begin by showing the strength and characteristics of human nature” (Burns, 40).  Augustine on the other hand is famous for his doctrine of original sin, and especially in reading the Confessions – which I could not even finish because I found it incredibly depressing – it is obvious that he begins with the opposite starting point.

Pelagius’ thought leads fairly intuitively into an emphasis on free will.  Pelagius claims that “you should not think that humanity was not created truly good because it is capable of evil” (42).   Quoting Deuteronomy 30:19 and then a variety of other Scriptural texts, he argues that humans have always had the ability to choose for themselves between life and death.  Pelagius also provides an explanation for the necessity of evil in order to be truly good, which is an argument that I have heard many times in contemporary debates and a position I would fully agree with.  Pelagius would say that having the freedom not to sin would also require having the freedom to sin, in order for that choice not to sin to be meaningful.  This was astonishing to me that Pelagius had laid out this idea in response to The Problem of Evil long before Hume formally defined The Problem of Evil.

Augustine’s thought similarly leads easily into a heavy emphasis on the necessity of God’s grace and only God’s grace.  While Pelagius directly states that we can choose life, Augustine would highly emphasize that only God can give life, saying that Pelagius’ position is that we could give ourselves life.  Opposed to Pelagius, he would argue that humanity has the freedom to sin, but lacks the freedom to not sin – i.e. sin is inevitable.

Pelagius outlines a variety of Old Testament figures that chose the righteous life, even without the Law in some cases and even before Jesus.  To him this is more evidence that the human nature is inherently capable of good.  He also argues the reverse: sinners are punished throughout Scripture, and it would not be just of God if those punished did not choose to be sinful (48).  Pelagius thus concludes that while we have the choice to do evil, we are not forced to do evil (49).  We don’t sin because we are destined to, but because of a “long custom of sinning” (50) which ingrains itself in us even in early childhood.  In summary Pelagius still speaks highly of the importance of grace and the role of Jesus, as being the thing that spurs us to this righteousness, making it easier and more likely for something that we nonetheless were theoretically capable of without it.

Augustine on the other hand presents a much more clear-cut case: we are good with God, and we are evil without: “we neither will nor perform any good without his assistance” (79).  He also claims that all who learn from the Father come to the Father, not just can come to the Father (72-73).  In later Calvinist terms, I could see these easily laid out as total depravity and irresistible grace.

Augustine makes the distinction between capability, will, and action, citing Pelagius.  The point that fills up almost all of the Augustine reading is that Pelagius allows for grace in giving us the capability but that will and action are entirely our responsibility.  Augustine repeatedly quotes Pelagius’ statements about the role of grace still being a part of will and action, but then always downplays them, saying that Pelagius really only means grace as the Law and the teachings (66).  I did not really see this in Pelagius’ writings and I kept thinking that Augustine was making a caricature of his teachings.  Especially with Pelagius’ repeated examples of those who chose righteousness despite having not heard the Law or the teachings of Jesus which would lead to the opposite conclusion in my mind, I felt like Pelagius did still have an important role for grace.  Pelagius just allowed for a bigger picture of how God’s grace works in us, not even just through Christians, and that otherwise they really weren’t that far apart.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.