The Second Period, 250-730 A.D.

This second period, 250-730 A.D., is characterized chiefly by the Pelagian controversy. To be sure, this Pelagian controversy is not the only struggle that was waged during this period. In fact, one may well question whether it may be called the chief controversy. The Pelagian struggle was waged in the Latin or western part of the church. But there were also mighty struggles waged in the Greek or eastern segment of the church. There the battle was joined in connection with the doctrine of the Trinity and the Person of the Christ, the truth of the one divine Person of the Christ in two natures, the human and the divine. In fact, the struggle involving the Trinity and the Person of the Christ was the first gigantic battle which was waged by the church of God in the new dispensation. And the leading exponents in this Christological and Trinitarian controversy were Arius and Athanasius. However, we are now discussing the doctrine of sin, and this struggle which is known as the Pelagian controversy was waged principally in the Latin or western part of the church. 

Before discussing this important development in the history of doctrine, it is well to call attention to the doctrine of sin in general and the events which led to the Pelagian controversy. In this struggle for the truth of the Word of God, the two great antagonists, we as all know, are Pelagius and Augustine. We will have opportunity, in subsequent articles, to give a brief sketch of the lives of these two men. Augustine’s view of the doctrine of sin and grace, and also of the doctrine of predestination, and his own personal experiences are vitally connected. This .also applies to Pelagius. And we all understand, of course, that this Pelagian controversy is of the greatest significance for the church of God throughout the ages. 

In his introductory remarks on this subject of the doctrine of sin in general during this second period, Hagenbach writes as follows (Vol. I, 290-291):

Concerning the nature of sin, the generally received opinion was, that it has its seat in the will of man, and stands in the most intimate connection with his moral freedom. Augustine himself defended this doctrine (at least in his earlier writings), which was opposed to the Manichean notion, that evil is inherent in matter. Lactantius, on the contrary, manifested a strong leaning towards Manicheism by designating the body as the seat and organ of sin. The ascetic practices then so common, sufficiently indicate that the church tacitly approved of this view. Athanasius regarded sin as something negative, and believed it to consist in the blindness and indolence of man, which prevent him from elevating himself to God. Similar (negative) definition were given by Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. But sin was most frequently looked upon as opposition to the law of God, and rebellion against his holy will, analogous to the sin of Adam, which was now generally viewed as an historical fact (contrary to the allegorical interpretation of Origen).

Rev. H. Hoeksema, writing on this subject in his History of Dogma, writes as follows (pages 39-41):

Under this head (the anthropological controversies – H.V.) we may remark, in general, that there was a considerable difference between the Eastern and the Western Church in regard to the doctrine of man. Especially with respect to the emphasis that was being placed on some elements of the locus of Anthropology. The Eastern Church, although it cannot be said that such elements as the total depravity of the human nature, original sin, and the bondage of the will were denied, nevertheless laid very little stress upon these truths and was more inclined to maintain the freedom of the will. Indeed also the Greek fathers admitted that the fall of Adam entailed many evil results for his posterity, such as the corruptibility and mortality of the body, the suffering and misery of this present time and also ethical deterioration. But the total depravity of the human nature as a result of Adam’s sin was, to put it mildly, forgotten. This is even true of such men as Gregory of Nazianzus who is sometimes said to have been most nearly in agreement with the viewpoint of Augustine. Athanasius maintained the freedom of the will of man to choose the good as well as the evil. He even mentioned the possibility that some of the saints were born entirely without sin. Of Chrysostom we do not even expect that he had much sympathy for such truths as man’s depravity and the bondage of the will as a result of Adam’s sin. He was too much of a morality preacher. Cyril also entertained the notion that we are born without sin and that man became sinful only through the deeds determined upon by a free will. Of course, we must not lose sight of the fact that in this early period the anthropological questions had not been developed. The entire attention of the church had been concentrated upon the theological and christological problems. The fact remains, however, that much more emphasis was laid upon these truths by the Western Church. This is true especially of the time immediately preceding the Pelagian controversy. Augustine had been taught by Ambrose that we all sinned in the first man and he appeals to

Psalm 51:5

in support of the truth that all men are born under sin and that the ethical evil and corruption of the nature must be traced even to the conception. However, the lines were not sharply drawn until God raised up the British monk Pelagius and through him compelled the fathers, especially Augustine to concentrate all their attention upon the Biblical teaching concerning the natural man.


(According to the theologians of the Greek Church)

Hagenbach writes, Vol. I, 293, and we quote:

Even those theologians who kept themselves free from the influence of the Augustinian system, held that the sin of Adam was followed by disastrous effects upon the human race, but restricted these evils (as the fathers of the preceding period had done) to the mortality of the body, the hardships and miseries of life, also admitting that that the moral powers of man had been enfeebled by the fall. Thus Gregory of Nazianzum in particular (to whom Augustine appealed in preference to all others) maintained, that both the vous and the psuchee (mind and soul – H.V.) have been considerably impaired by sin, and regarded the perversion of the religious consciousness seen in idolatry, which previous teachers had ascribed to the influence of demons, as an inevitable effect of the first sin. But he was far from asserting the total depravity of mankind, and the entire loss of free will. On the contrary, the doctrine of the freedom of the will continued to be distinctly maintained by the Greek church. Athanasius himself, the father of orthodoxy, maintained in the strongest terms that man has the ability of choosing good as well as evil, and even allowed exceptions from original sin, alleging that several individuals, who lived prior to the appearance of Christ, were free from it. Cyril of Jerusalem also assumed that the life of man begins in a state of innocence, and that sin enters only with the use of free will. Similar view were entertained by Ephram the Syrian, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and others. Chrysostom, whose whole tendency was of a practical and moral kind, insisted most of all upon the liberty of man and his moral self determination, and passed a severe censure upon those who endeavored to excuse their own defects by ascribing the origin of sin to the fall of Adam.

Gregory of Nazianzum is compared by a certain Ullmann. And the latter writes: “Gregory by no means taught the doctrines afterwards propounded by Pelagius and his followers; but if all his sentiments be duly considered, it will be found that he is far more of a Pelagian than of an Augustinian.” Of course, we must bear in mind that the freedom of the will was emphasized especially in the Eastern Church, and that over against heresies that would reduce man to a stock and block. We must always be careful that, fighting one type of heresy, we do not fall into the extreme of another deviation of the truth. 

That the doctrine of the freedom of the will continued to be distinctly maintained by the Greek (Eastern) church appears from a statement attributed to a Methodius, that man does not possess the power either of having desires, or of not having them, but he is at liberty either to gratify them or not gratify them. This could mean that, although man does not have the power to convert himself and God must begin His work of grace in him, he does have the liberty to continue in the way of sanctification. Scripture, of course, declares that the Lord not only begins the work of salvation in us but also completes it until the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Basil the Great must have delivered a discourse, the authenticity of which was denied, but again defended in later times. In this discourse, although admitting the depravity of mankind, he asserted that human liberty and divine grace must cooperate. And Gregory of Nyssa also takes for granted a universal bias to sin, but he finds no sin in infants. This latter thought is, of course, very similar to the heresy of Pelagianism, namely that all men are born inherently good, and that the original sin of Adam did not affect the human race. And this, of course, is directly in conflict with the Word of God, which teaches us that we are conceived and born dead in sins and in trespasses. And we all know the language of our Reformed Confessions in regard to this matter, as also beautifully stated in our Baptism Form. 

Chrysostom, it is asserted, was so zealous for morality, that he must have considered it a point of special importance to deprive men of every ground or excuse for the neglect of moral efforts. His practical sphere of labor in the cities of Antioch and Constantinople gave a still greater impulse to this tendency. For in these large capitals he met with many who sought to attribute their want of Christian activity to the defects of human nature, and the power of Satan or of fate. But Chrysostom also urged quite as strongly the existence of depravity in opposition to a false moral pride. 

From the above it is evident that the power of sin, as held forth in the Holy Scriptures, was defined very vaguely in the early centuries of the new dispensation. On the one hand, the depravity of the human nature was not denied. However, on the other hand, it is also clear that the awful power of sin was not clearly understood and set forth during that early period of the church. The connection between the sin of Adam and the subsequent corruption of the human race certainly did not receive the emphasis which Scripture lays upon it. This was not fully developed until the Pelagian controversy. And it is Augustine, who himself was led by God in the deep way of sin and grace, who emphasized the corruption of mankind, and that the sin and guilt of our first parents in Paradise were transmitted to all their posterity.