Rev. Terpstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois.


Continuing our look at some of the Christian church’s great defenders and developers of the truth, we want to focus next on Augustine (A.D. 354-430). In considering this church father we are dealing with one of the true giants of the church, one who is in fact generally considered the greatest of the church fathers. Even though the life and work of Augustine takes us back to the 4th and 5th centuries, he is still held in high regard through his writings by nearly all churches, Protestant and Catholic. The fact that the 1600 year anniversaries of his birth (1954) and of his conversion and baptism (1986-87) were met with such large notice both by the religious and secular press indicates his widespread influence and respect. He is perhaps the most quoted theologian down through the ages, and in a vast range of contexts and subjects.

Yet the name of Augustine ought to be particularly familiar to all Reformed believers, since we are as much “Calvinists” as we are “Augustinians.” The theology of the Reformation, which is our heritage, is at heart the theology of Augustine. He is entitled the “Doctor of grace,” because to him we owe the development of the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace rooted in God’s eternal predestination. And as we might expect, the development of this doctrine also came in the way of controversy. The Spirit guided Augustine into a clear and sharp setting forth of the truth of sovereign grace through the means of the whetstone of the Pelagian heresy. To be sure, Augustine was also prepared for and led into a right understanding of the doctrine of salvation through his own personal conversion. (Who has not read the story of that intense struggle as rehearsed in hisConfessions!) But especially was the truth of sovereign grace honored by means of the grave error of Pelagius.

And it is on this that we wish to focus. In doing so, we understand that we are limiting ourselves to but a small part of the great work and influence of this church father. Augustine has given much to the development of doctrine: he gave to the church her final systematic doctrine of the Trinity; he contributed greatly to the doctrine concerning the church through his controversy with the Donatists; he answered the “higher critic” Manicheans of his day with a strong defense of Holy Scripture. But we believe it was the doctrine of sovereign grace which was his greatest contribution. The notable Presbyterian theologian B.B. Warfield expressed the same conviction:

It is not Augustine the traditionalist, or Augustine the thinker, but Augustine the religious genius, who has most profoundly influenced the world. The most significant fact about him is that he, first among Church teachers, gave adequate expression to that type of religion which has since attached to itself the name of “evangelical”; the religion, that is to say, of faith, as distinct from the religion of works; the religion which, despairing of self, casts all its hope on God, as opposed to the religion which, in a greater or less degree, trusts in itself. . . . The great contribution which Augustine has made to the world’s life and thought is embodied in the theology of grace. . . . (“Studies in Tertullian and Augustine,” in Works, vol. iv, pp. 127-28)

That is indeed what the Spirit through Augustine has given us—the “theology of grace.” How and why are what we will examine in this article and the next.

The Background to the Pelagian Controversy

We have noticed in our past articles that most of the controversies in the early church centered on the doctrines of God and of Jesus Christ. These truths are foundational for the church, and it was only when these had been defended and set forth clearly that the other doctrines of the faith could be dealt with. Clearly, all other doctrines stand or fall with the truth concerning God Himself. This is especially true of the doctrine of salvation. Thus it was too that after the church had gone through the Trinitarian and Christological controversies, the church was ready to face the truth concerning cod’s work of salvation.

As far as the whole question of the precise nature of the work of salvation and the character of God’s grace in effecting it is concerned, it may be said that in this respect too the church accepted in a general way the biblical teaching on how God saves man the sinner. She held to the truths that man was a sinner in Adam, and that he was not saved by his own works but by the work of Christ for him in the cross and in him by the Spirit. Nevertheless, these truths had not yet been specifically examined and stated, chiefly because they had not yet been seriously tested by the fires of heresy. What is more, we know that there existed in the church of the 4th century that perennial “tension” between the sovereignty of God on the one hand and the freedom and responsibility of man on the other hand. How much credit can be attributed to God and how much to man was a burning question in the church at that time. And it appears that with regard to this question many of the church fathers had gone in the direction of synergism, that is, the view that man cooperates with God in the work of salvation. L. Berkhof in his History of Christian Doctrines gives us the prevailing view at that time:

On the whole the main emphasis was on the free will of man rather than on the operation of divine grace. It is not the grace of God, but the free will of man that takes the initiative in the work of regeneration. But though it begins the work, it cannot complete it without divine aid. The power of God co-operates with the human will, and enables it to turn from evil and to do that which is well-pleasing in the sight of God (pp. 128-29).

It is evident then that the doctrines of sin and grace needed careful eliciting and development from the Scriptures. For this task God raised up Augustine. And to this end God used the heretic Pelagius.

Pelagius and His Heresy

History provides us with precious little information concerning Pelagius. Most of what we do know about him comes from Augustine’s own writings. He was a British monk, who as an already aged man suddenly appeared on the scene in the city of Rome at the beginning of the 5th century. He was known for his piety and his zeal in promoting morality and upright living in the church. Even Augustine described him as “a holy man, . . . who has made no small progress in the Christian life” (“On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. V, p. 69).

Significantly, and perhaps even ironically, it was Pelagius’ zest for good Christian living which became the occasion for his stumbling into error. Pelagius was, of course, simply reacting to the spirit of his times. The church of his day was filled with unholy members who did not walk according to the gospel, because they were forced into the church by the post-Constantine government when they in fact had no interest in the gospel. On account of this many in the church began to form monastic orders to promote holiness of life. Pelagius did this too and became a monk. But he also continued to call others to a life of obedience to God’s commandments. And he did that on the basis of his belief that all men are not inherently sinful but able to choose and do the good. It is at this point that Pelagius went astray, and that as a consequence he departed from the teaching of Scripture on many other points of doctrine.

What precisely was Pelagius’ position? In his view the natural man has been endowed with free-will by God his Maker. This is God’s gift to every man—both before and after the Fall; this is the “grace” God gives man in salvation. With this free-will man has the ability to do the good God demands of him, if he simply exercises his free-will and chooses to do it. He argued from the point that what God commands, man must be able to do. In other words, responsibility implies ability. God does not give man things to do that he cannot do. Rather He gives man his duties and then says, “There now, I have given you free-will to will and to do this; now do it.”

Pelagius was very emphatic about this. He himself placed no restrictions on the power of the natural man to do good, and he would not allow others to do so either. B.B. Warfield relates that when Pelagius heard people speaking of their inability to do what God commanded because of the weakness of their nature, he was outraged and accused such people of reproaching God Who gave them the gift of free-will. And when he heard Augustine’s prayer, “Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt,” Pelagius would not tolerate it to be repeated in his ears, because of its implication that man is unable to do anything good without God (Studies, pp. 292-93).

Pelagius’ view of the unrestricted ability of the human will clearly had some rather serious implications. In the first place, it involved a denial of the doctrine of original sin. Well might the question be asked, What did Pelagius do with sin? In order to support his theory of man’s ability through free-will, Pelagius had to deny that Adam’s sin had any effect on the rest of mankind, and this is what he in fact taught. Augustine tells us that the two most infamous statements of Pelagius in this respect were: “Adam’s sin injured only himself, and not the human race”; and, “infants at their birth are in the same state that Adam was before the transgression” (“On Original Sin,” Fathers, V. p. 240). It was Pelagius’ teaching that no person is born either with imputed guilt or with inherited corruption. Natural man is not totally depraved; his nature is not bent in the direction of evil only. But neither did he say that man is as such inherently good. According to him, man is spiritually neutral (a so-called tabula rasa, “blank tablet”), but endowed with God’s gift of free-will so that he is able to do both good and evil. From the pen of Pelagius himself came these words:

Everything good, and everything evil, . . . is not born with us but done by us: for we are born not fully developed, but with a capacity for either conduct; and we are procreated as without virtue, so also without vice; and previous to the action of our own proper will, that alone is in man which God has formed (ibid, p. 241).

Did Pelagius then deny the existence of sin altogether? No, but what he did was to make sin exclusively a matter of man’s act and not of hisnature. As Warfield points out, to Pelagius man was only “a willing machine” who may sin in one act but then returns to the same spiritually neutral position as before, ready to perform the good in the next act. Always his character remains the same (Studies, p. 296). How then did Pelagius account for the universality of sin? This was a matter of bad habit, he said. Adam’s sin was nothing but a bad example that is followed by the majority of men. Wrote Pelagius: “Nothing makes well doing so hard as the long custom of sins which begins from childhood and gradually brings us more and more under its power until it seems to have in some degree the force of nature” (quoted in Warfield’s Studies, pp. 294-95).

In the second place, as a consequence of his doctrine of man’s free-will, Pelagius also denied man’s need for God’s work of grace in order for him to be saved. Clearly according to Pelagius’ conception man had everything he needed to work out his own salvation; he did not need Christ and His atonement, nor God and His saving grace. And that is the way Pelagius talked too. To him God’s grace was the gift of free-will. Any other helps God gave, such as the law, the gospel, and the example of Christ, are only external aids to make man choose and do the good more readily; but there is no sovereign, efficacious, internal work of God in the heart. In the light of this, it is not difficult to argue that Pelagius really had no true doctrine of salvation. His conception of salvation was simply that of deliverance from bad habits and the improvement of moral behavior.

Pelagius’ views quickly gained a following and the seeds of error were widely spread. This was due not to Pelagius himself, who disappeared from the scene as quickly as he had appeared, but to a few of his vigorous disciples, chiefly Coelestius and Julian, who carried on his campaign of heresy. It was through them that Augustine became aware of the error and began to wage his own campaign for the truth.

The Seriousness and Relevancy of Pelagianism

How serious an error was Pelagianism? Very simply, it struck at the heart of the gospel. Warfield points out that Pelagius’ heresy was not merely new to Christianity; it was at bottom antichristian. He goes on to describe its seriousness in these terms:

The struggle with Pelagianism was thus in reality a struggle for the very foundations of Christianity; and even more dangerously than in the previous theological and Christological controversies, here the practical substance of Christianity was in jeopardy. The real question at issue was whether there was any need for Christianity at all; whether by his own power man might not attain eternal felicity; whether the function of Christianity was to save, or only to render an eternity of happiness more easily attainable by man (ibid, p, 291)

Surely there can be no question as to the danger of this heresy.

But is the heresy of Pelagianism relevant to us? Indeed it is. History has born this out. Countless times it has risen anew in the life of the church. Roman Catholicism was and is essentially Pelagian in character (cf. Belg. Conf., arts. 14, 15). The Arminianism of the 16th century was nothing less than a resurrection of the heresy of Pelagianism (cf. Canons of Dordt, especially the Rejection of Errors). The Methodist revivalism of the 18th and 19th centuries in this country and in England had for its root the Pelagian error of free-willism. And its predominance in our 20th century cannot be questioned. It is evident in the rampant Arminianism of fundamentalist churches, in the social gospel of modernistic churches, in the self-esteem “gospel” of Schuller. And of course it is the heartbeat of all the humanistic systems of education, business, and religion found in the world.

All of this makes Pelagianism important for us to know and to combat. How the Spirit of truth led Augustine in the fight against it and into the development of the “theology of grace” we will consider next time.