The Pelagian conflict arose in the church when Augustine was in his sixties. God ordained that it be so, in his wisdom, to prepare Augustine to be the man who defended the truth of God’s Word. The issue that confronted Augustine was at the heart of the Christian faith—the truth of sin and grace. Augustine’s study of the Word had led him to see the depravity of man from the viewpoint of his own sin and to see his own salvation in the light of God’s sovereign grace. God used Augustine’s pathway to salvation in his own life to open the Word of God to his understanding. Augustine’s doctrine was based on the Word, but not merely in a formal sense. It was through seeing his own sin and the wonder of God’s grace to him that Augustine was spiritually equipped to search the riches of the Scriptures and to draw out the doctrines of sin and grace against the false teaching of Pelagius.
The Pelagian controversy, like its later spiritual offspring, the Arminian controversy, received its name from a man who was not always in the forefront of the conflict directly but as one who taught others. Pelagius’ followers were often more direct and further developed in error than the man himself. The history of Arminianism would be similar. Arminius would die and his followers would form the Remonstrants before the Synod of Dordt. Pelagius’ follower Coelestius was, in many ways, the intellectual leader and true protagonist in the conflict.
Augustine, likewise, was not alone in his conflict with Pelagianism in the Christian church in North Africa and the Middle East, though he was the spiritual leader opposing Pelagius. The churches under his leadership would also stand against the error, as did Jerome in Bethlehem, the man who translated the Bible into its final Latin form, the Vulgate.
Like the later Arminians, Pelagius and Coelestius were not forthright about their views. When questioned by church councils, they were often evasive or dissembling, willing to agree with partial or incomplete statements that left room for their errors. They also traveled from place to place. Pelagius, who probably came from Britain, initially appeared in Rome after about the year AD 400 where he studied and taught for a while. When the city was being pressed by the invading Goths in 409, he went to North Africa. There Pelagius and Coelestius passed through Hippo, Augustine’s home, (modern day Annaba in Algeria) with the intention of visiting Augustine about 410. Since Augustine was absent confronting the Donatist controversy at Carthage at the time, they merely exchanged letters. Having come to some knowledge of the trend in Pelagius’ thinking, Augustine warned him to hold faithfully the biblical doctrine of sin and the fall.
The controversy really began after this, in 412, when Coelestius sought to be ordained in Carthage after Augustine had returned. Being condemned there for his false doctrine, Coelestius went on to Ephesus where he was ordained. Pelagius meanwhile had gone to Palestine, where his writings occasioned controversy in 414. Pelagius and Coelestius both eventually made their way back to Rome where the controversy continued, with the bishops and councils in Rome becoming involved and with continuing councils in the churches in North Africa. The result was an ebb and flow, in which Pelagianism was periodically in and out of favor in Rome until finally it and its adherents were condemned and exiled. Yet its influence would in time lead to the semi-Pelagian hybrid position of the medieval church. Pelagius himself passed from Rome and the scene of history by 420, and the place of his death is not known.
While the doctrinal issues touch many elements of the Christian truth, the doctrines of grace and even the sacraments, the focus of the debate was over the truth of sin and the fall, of man’s depravity and free will. Pelagius taught that Adam’s fall affected only Adam himself directly. Adam is not then the representative head of the race, nor does descent from Adam organically have any effect on man’s moral nature. In Pelagius’ view, all men are born in the same innocence in which Adam was created.
Adam’s fall, even for Adam, according to the Pelagians, was an individual and isolated act of disobedience. Thus Adam retained, after the fall, the ability to will and choose the good, to go on and never sin again. He was free to choose either good or evil; the fall did not corrupt Adam’s nature. They even taught that there were men who were free from actual sin. This is, in part, an argument from silence since Scripture does not record the sins of every child of God. Pelagianism also reduces sin, effectively, to a mere external act of disobedience. If followed out, this would mean that such persons were righteous in themselves and needed no savior or grace. The cross is made void. Pelagianism denies original sin and the depravity of man’s nature. Pelagius went so far as to teach that Adam would and could die after his creation, effectively as a natural process, rather than as a judgment of God upon sin.
From where then, in the Pelagian view, does sin arise? As our Confession of Faith puts it in rejecting the Pelagian error, “from imitation” (Belgic Confession, Art. 15). This theory is, in fact, the repackaged pre-Christian Greek humanism of Plato and Aristotle. Plato taught that man was a blank slate in his nature, that is, morally neutral. His choices were the product of imitation, environment, education, and circumstances. The cure for the evils of society was the formation of a wise state which would lead men to solve the problems of life. This pagan philosophy, now in a post-Christian world, still dominates modern societal and political discourse, even though it has failed every time it has been tried as a cure for the human problem. In its Pelagian form, it also shaped and continues to shape modern liberal Christianity and its social gospel.
The doctrine of free will is also an integral part of the Pelagian system. It separates the will from any moral direction, holy or unholy, and conceives of it as neutral, able to choose the good or the evil. This requires a definition of freedom which confounds two different things. In philosophy, freedom is the ability to act without being forced or compelled to do something. Someone in chains or someone who is being coerced or forced to do something against his will is not free to act. This is a philosophical idea, not a biblical or theological one.
In Scripture, freedom is both the legal right before God and the spiritual, moral ability through holiness to seek and choose what is pleasing to God. Freedom is rooted in the orientation of a nature directed toward God in love, founded upon righteousness and holiness. It requires the holiness of the nature. Sin, on the other hand, is bondage in guilt and corruption. Pelagianism supplanted the biblical idea of freedom with the philosophical one. Later, semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism would try to blend the two definitions, and that blend characterizes most modern evangelicalism today.
The correct relation between the two concepts is not difficult to determine. Man acts freely, in the philosophical sense, when he acts without compulsion in harmony with his nature. But his nature, which was created holy, has become wicked through the fall. Thus it is contrary to man’s fallen nature, now totally depraved, to will or choose the good. For a sinner to choose the good from the heart is not possible from the viewpoint of his will. Though he may find it is expedient or useful to have some outward conformity to it, for the sake of good order in the world, his heart is not in it. A good tree brings forth good fruit and a corrupt tree brings forth corrupt fruit ().
Against this background, Augustine laid out the biblical doctrine of original sin. Augustine, in his own experience and personal struggle with sin and unbelief, had already developed the foundation of the doctrine of sin and grace. Through his personal struggles God had spiritually prepared him to set forth the truth of sin and grace from the Word of God. Augustine’s view can be summarized in three basic simple statements which we will consider rendered into English from the Latin.
1. “Possible not to sin.” In God’s creation of man, Augustine found the wonder of that first state in which man stood in Adam—holiness in a sinless world. Man was complete in all respects, with his will formed to serve the will of his Creator in righteousness. Man was free to serve God without sin and was righteous. Yet Augustine also recognized that Paradise the first was not the end of God’s design, which could only come in Christ and perfection in Him. While it was possible for him not to sin, man could also fall into sin and turn from that holy state in disobedience into sin. The wages of sin is death, and man could, as a judgment of God upon sin, die, spiritually in separation from God, as well as physically. It is in that light that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the temptation and the fall must be understood. In that first state man was free to serve God, but he could turn from that freedom into bondage and death.
2. “Not possible not to sin.” When man fell into sin, he died spiritually and his nature became corrupted. He became a slave to sin and in bondage to it. The result is that in Adam’s fall we all died. There is an organic connection between Adam and the human race. In Adam, man was created after the image of God and when Adam fell, he became the fountain of a corrupted human nature in all his posterity. His children were conceived and born in sin after him, so that the presence of sin and corruption extends to children in their mothers’ wombs. With this development in doctrine, Augustine laid the foundation for the doctrine of original sin, focusing primarily on its organic aspect as corruption and pollution of nature.
The result is that man has lost his freedom to serve God and is by nature in bondage to sin and corruption. And that too, as a judgment of God upon him for his sin. Consequently, his will is corrupted, his knowledge of God and holy things polluted, and, being guilty before God, he has lost his grace or favor. Lust or concupiscence now rules his internal existence and holds him captive in the bondage of willful sin. For fallen man, it truly is “not possible not to sin” from the heart. Moreover, he freely (that is, without coercion) wills sin in his heart. Thus, Augustine also laid the foundation of the doctrine of the bondage of the will, while maintaining the principle that man nevertheless acts as a responsible, rational moral creature in his actions. He has become a corrupt tree that brings forth fruit in harmony with his fallen nature, that is, corrupt fruit.
3. “Not possible to sin.” On this foundation of original sin, one finds the only way of salvation is in God’s sovereign grace in Christ in the incarnation, in the atoning effectual death of Christ, and in the saving grace of God in the soul. It is in view of this doctrine of sin that Augustine sets forth the truth of sovereign election, of particular and efficacious atonement, and of the power of saving grace. Viewed from the end or perfection of salvation, it is the work of grace to lead one from death to life and to that eternal perfection of glory in which, in its consummation, it shall be “not possible to sin.” The work of grace, therefore, leads one who is in himself dead in sin, through the way of regeneration and conversion, and finally of a resurrection to holy perfection.
While all of these elements as we now hold them were not fully developed by Augustine, the foundation was laid in his writings and defense of the truth of sin and grace. The Protestant Reformers were Augustinians in their doctrine. Augustine’s treatment of sin and grace was the first development of this doctrine, the early church before him being focused on the Trinity and on the person and natures of Christ and their relationship. Augustine’s work rested upon that development, and built upon it. The church, so often departing from the foundation laid by God through Augustine’s work, also continues today to depart from the historic Christian faith and to turn again to the errors of Pelagius in some form.