Augustine versus Pelagius

It was Augustine who revived the Pauline teaching that only by the grace of Christ can human beings overcome their fallen ignorance of God and become God’s friends. Augustine claimed that he could only do as God asks when God gave him the grace to do so: he could only keep God’s commandments ‘under orders’ from the grace of the Holy Spirit. Back to St. Paul!


But what did Paul mean? There was a flaming row about this between Augustine and the British monk Pelagius. Pelagius thought that being ‘fallen in Adam’ was simply a matter of bad precedents and social conditioning. Augustine interpreted Paul’s understanding of Gen. 3 more stringently, to mean that human beings are so fragmented and wounded by sin that they cannot be healed and restored to right living without the grace of the Holy Spirit. The debates between Pelagius and Augustine led to dogmatic teachings about the reach of ‘original sin’. Pelagianism was condemned at a council in Carthage in 418. The ecumenical council of Ephesus, where Mary was proclaimed Theotokos, or ‘God-bearer’, reiterated the Augustinian rejection of Pelagianism.

In The City of God, Augustine claimed that while the religious philosophies of his time (like Neo-Platonism) enabled their practitioners to master the fear of death, only Christianity can make us happy, because it empowers us to overcome death itself. Augustine thought that ‘the Platonists’ had come close to grasping that God is Triune. The limits he placed on reason do not set particular boundaries on how much we can know about God by our natural reasoning powers. The question is not whether we can know God exists, or is Triune, or became Incarnate, but whether we can have ‘saving knowledge’ of God. Paul says that we get no profit from visions of God if we do not have charity (1 Cor. 13). The Council of Orange of 529 will say that nothing we can know about God can be ‘saving’ unless we know it by faith. It does not say that everything philosophy or natural religion knows about God is untrue, but that nothing we know by these means saves us from death.

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