Augustine’s Three Points Against the Pelagians

Augustine’s last theological battle, which was not concluded at the time of his death, was against the Pelagians, a group of theologians who assigned a larger role in salvation to human initiative. Having already written many works against them,  Augustine wrote De dono perseverantiae (The Gift of Perseverance) in 428/429 to some of his friends to confirm them in their theology and answer some questions. In particular, he stressed three doctrines against the Pelagians:

For there are three points, as you know, which the Catholic Church especially defends against them. One of them is that the grace of God is not given according to our merits, because all the merits of the righteous are also the gifts of God and conferred by the grace of God. The second is that no one can live in this corruptible body without some sins, no matter how great one’s righteousness is. The third is that a human being is born subject to the sin of the first man and bound by the chain of condemnation unless the guilt which is contracted by birth is removed by rebirth. (3.6, trans. Roland Teske)

Augustine’s legacy is mixed. Each of these points  has been extended, muted, retained, or denied by various Christians over the course of the centuries. Late medieval nominalists such as Gregory Biel wondered whether God could give grace in response to merit, surely not in a strict 1:1 ratio, but on a curve. Wesleyans and other perfectionists take umbrage at the second assertion: if one can avoid any individual sin, then why not every sin? Many medievals and certain Arminians affirm the third statement, but in an attenuated form. Most forms of distinctly modern theology openly deny it, as it contradicts the spirit of progress and individuality. 

Love or hate Augustine, the history of Christianity and even civilization in the West grapples with the same issues he raised. To be ignorant of Augustine is to leave a chasm in one’s education.

To Augustine Project

Published in: on March 30, 2012 at 11:21 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. Jesus said “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things; and evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil things.” You can cite all the scripture in the world, from Paul or from Genesis or Psalms, from the book of Mormon or the Koran or the Zen Avestas or some Buddhist books, the so-called Gospel of Thomas, Manichean scriptures, whatever you want, to allege that everyone is born evil. But you will always have that saying of Jesus standing in your way. As for the evil who out of the evil treasure of their heart bring forth evil things, certainly Calvinists who relish nothing more than condemning babies to hell fit that bill.

    • A couple things, Rey. First, Jesus’statement about good men and bad men isn’t relevant, because it doesn’t address how those good men became good. The fact that there are both good people and bad people doesn’t prove anything about the condition of birth. Perhaps all are born bad but some become good through grace. Or, all could be born good, but some become bad. Or, perhaps some are born good and some born bad, and they never change. Jesus’ statement doesn’t rule out any of these options.

      Second, very few Calvinists have ever asserted that all or even most babies go to hell. Especially since the 19th century, many have taught that all who die in infancy go to heaven. Others have taken a covenantal approach, in which the children of believers surely go to heaven and the children of unbelievers may or may not. Because Calvinists do not share Augustine’s assumption that baptism is required for regeneration, they do not follow his conclusion that unbaptized infants go to hell. Please don’t impute beliefs to a group of people with researching the facts.

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