St Augustine is one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity as his works had a great influence on the development of the Western church. Of his many works, Augustine is probably best remembered for his writings in response to widespread heresy that had threatened to destabilize the church in the early 4th century. This heresy had been started by Pelagius, a British believer who emphasized personal holiness over the saving grace of God. In response to this rather controversial proposition, Augustine developed what was later referred to as “Augustine’s theology of grace”.
Pelagius’ criticism of the moral laxity in the early church began after he found Augustine’s statement “Give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt” to be offensive. The statement as contained in the Confessions, a spiritual autobiography written by Augustine, emphasized the power that God had over man and the inability of a man to do good without God’s grace. Pelagius’ doctrine of grace contradicted that of the early church. Fearing that Pelagius’ doctrine could corrupt the church, Augustine embarked on a life-long defense of God’s grace and its necessity in man’s salvation. The demanding nature of this mission made Augustine make some of the most profound and controversial theological assertions. Given this, the current paper discusses Augustine’s theology of grace as a response to Pelagius and the impact it had on the development of the early church.
Pelagius and Pelagianism
Little is known about the personal life of Pelagius. According to some early writings, Pelagius was a British monk and theologian who moved to Rome during the period around c.380. While in Rome, Pelagius worked as a spiritual director and became a highly regarded religious figure due to his intellectual ability. As a person who exercised rigorous asceticism, Pelagius was greatly disturbed by the moral laxity of the Church in Rome. According to him, this moral laxity had resulted from the teachings and beliefs advanced by the doctrine of divine grace as written by St Augustine. Opposed to the doctrine, Pelagius attacked the teachings of the church and accused its leadership of jeopardizing the entire moral law.
According to Pelagius’ teachings which were later referred to as Pelagianism, man is basically of good moral nature. Based on this supposition, Pelagius argued that a man can live without sin. Pelagius went ahead and gave examples of men in the Bible who lived without sin. While providing these examples, he relied on the fact that the Bible does not provide incidents when these men sinned. Pelagius’ doctrine of grace had several other controversial suppositions. According to his doctrine, Adam would still have died regardless of whether he sinned or not. Additionally, Adam’s sin did not hurt the entire human race but rather himself only. From this understanding of the origin of sin, Pelagius argued that the human race does not die as a result of Adam’s sin and neither does resurrect through Jesus. Overall, his teaching on grace appeared to borrow more from the fields of psychology and sociology than from theology.
Augustine’s Response to Pelagius
Augustine’s work, particularly his anti-Pelagian writings, played a significant role in stabilizing the early church and preventing the spread of potentially harmful heresy. His anti-Pelagian writings collectively formed what is referred to as Augustine’s theology of grace. While these writings were rooted in his personal experiences, they hugely borrowed from the Scripture and this made them integral to the teachings of the early church. According to Augustine, every good work is the work of God because it is Him who gives human beings the ability to do that which is good. In this regard, it is who God works within human beings to advance that which is good. While human beings can act as they wish, God brings about the power to do so. The good deeds of man are, therefore, the work of God in the sense that it is Him who provides the power.
By describing man’s merits as God’s gifts, Augustine argued that God does not regard these merits as belonging to man but rather to Himself since it is only through His gifts that they are realized. Based on this supposition, Augustine noted that it is only through God’s grace that man’s good deeds can be viewed as actually belonging to the man. God’s grace is, therefore, integral and necessary in the life of man as it is only through it that man can get salvation. Augustine’s understanding of grace contradicted that of Pelagius who had argued against the need for divine intervention in man’s salvation. According to Pelagius, salvation is humanistic and as such, it is realized through good deeds only. In this regard, God’s grace is not necessary for human beings to break away from sin and achieve salvation. Pelagius further argued that God’s grace serves to help human beings obey His commands but cannot be used to save anyone. By describing grace in this way, Pelagius regarded it as internal and sin as external. When comparing his line of thought with that of Augustine, however, it is clear that Pelagius missed an important point by describing man’s deeds as independent of the will and power of God. As the source of life, God has always influenced man’s will and actions as it is from Him that the ability to think and act comes from.
According to Augustine, grace is necessary for human beings as they inherited Adam’s sin. After creating man, God gave him all the human faculties that he still possesses. Among these faculties, free will was the most significant as it would determine whether man retained the uprightness he was created with. By freely giving the man his uprightness and the grace with which to retain it, God could be seen to have put the man on probation. Rather than use the faculty of free will to advance his uprightness, man used it to sin and in doing so involved the whole human race. It is because of his sin that physical and spiritual death fell a man and passed over to the entire human race. Through the teachings of Scripture, Augustine noted that he was certain that all generations of Adam had inherited his sin and the condemnation that followed it. In this regard, it could be termed a fact that no one from Adam’s generation is free from the condemnation that followed his sin.
Although Augustine did not specifically indicate how human beings became partakers of Adam’s sin, his writings appear to point several possible explanations for this phenomenon. In some texts, he appears to attribute the phenomenon to the fact that human beings are united by race. In this regard, the whole human race was present in the person of Adam when he sinned. In other texts, Augustine appears to suppose that human beings inherited sin through nature. Adam corrupted nature which in turn corrupts human beings through the ways it communicates to them. There are also writings where Augustine seems to attribute the phenomenon to simple heredity. Regardless of how human beings came to inherit Adam’s sin, Augustine notes that sin is propagated within generations as a result of the connection mankind has with Adam.
Due to the inherited sin nature, human beings lost the divine image that God had created them with. And although not all of it was lost, Adam’s sin meant that human beings had to rely on God to do anything truly good. Sin further made injured the faculty of will as God had originally designed it, and this made man prone to the power of Satan. Since the free will suffered as a result of the original sin, man could no longer desire and choose anything but evil. For him to desire and do anything well, the man had to first be freed by God’s grace. Augustine’s proposition on how the original sin necessitated God’s grace in man appears to be in line with modern psychology. An evil man remains evil even in their willing the same way a good man remains good both in will and deed.
In its simplest form, Augustine defined grace as God’s assistance to man’s salvation. This assistance entails all forms of external help that God uses to support the course of man’s desire to break away from sin. Among the forms of help that God advanced to man include forgiveness, the law, Christ’s death, and the gospel. This assistance also includes the guidance of the Holy Spirit which works within man to enable him to choose what is good by the law and gospel. It is only through the assistance of the Holy Spirit that man can overcome the temptation to sin. In this regard, the Holy Spirit as a form of God’s assistance differentiates Christians from other men.
The impact of grace on man by its nature. As earlier noted, grace is the principle set forth by God to aid the redemption of man from sin. Based on this description, Augustine noted that grace cannot be viewed as a series of unrelated gifts but rather as constant assistance from God. While this is the most complete view of grace, it can also be viewed in terms of the sequential effects it has on a man. The first effect of grace on man is bringing about faith. Through faith, the forgiveness of sin is realized and this allows an individual to do what is good. Other effects of grace on man include love to God, perseverance to the end, and progressive power to do what is good. When it is bestowed on man, grace is both irresistible and indefectible. For example, Augustine argued that faith in God is irresistible to those on whom grace has been bestowed.
Since grace is given to no preceding merits, it can then be argued that God foreknew that man would need His grace even before the actual need arose. According to Augustine, God would be something less than an eternal God had he not known from the beginning that man would need His grace. Based on this line of thought, it could also be argued that God knew the specific individuals to whom He would give grace. And while men may describe the predestinated nature of God’s grace as fate, Augustine argued that this view can hardly be held as true. According to him, God’s grace is undeserved love and tender mercy that God expressed to mankind and without which no one would be saved.
Controversial Assertions in Augustine’s Theology of Grace
Although Augustine’s theology of grace played an integral role in uniting and developing the early church, there are controversial assertions that resulted from his doctrine. The most controversial of these assertions is probably his view on those who died unbaptized. Augustine described as lost all those who died unbaptized. He further asserted that those who died unbaptized but who were guilty of the original sin only would be given the lightest punishment. And while these assertions could have been necessitated by the need to highlight the significance of baptism in Christianity, it is critical to note that they created notable controversy and to an extent painted badly Augustine’s theology of grace. Given his description of God’s grace, one would note that it is extremely difficult to assert with any degree of certainty what will happen to those who died unbaptized.
As earlier noted, Augustine’s belief on the significance of baptism in Christianity could have forced him to make the controversial assertions. According to him, baptism was the only way through which salvation and incorporation into the visible church could be realized. Interestingly, however, it is only through his theology of grace that Christians could learn that the invisible church of God is more accommodating than the visible church which is a human institution. In this regard, God’s grace as manifested through the death of His son was enough to save those who had died unbaptized but who believed in His word. Baptism could, therefore, be described as a physical sign of salvation and as such less significant compared to the inner belief and acceptance of God’s word. By expressing His grace outside of the conventional channels, God regards as His children those who die before they get the opportunity to be baptized and attain physical salvation.
Based on the above analysis, it could be noted that Augustine’s controversial assertions resulted from his rather strong emphasis on adherence to the beliefs and traditions of the visible church and insufficient regard for the invisible church of God. Due to the threat posed by Pelagianism, Augustine included in his theology of grace assertions he probably did not believe to be true. The flaws in his theology and how they came to highlight the impact that Pelagianism had on the early church. Although Pelagius did not succeed in instilling his doctrine of grace in Christianity, his thoughtful interpretation of Scripture threatened to jeopardize the progress of the early church. The response from key figures such as Augustine was, therefore, highly likely to contain controversial assertions as Pelagius had identified and criticized the inconsistent nature of some early church teachings.
Relevance to Modern Christianity
Augustine’s theology of grace has had a notable impact on Christianity throughout history. Partly due to the interpretation advanced by Augustine, the doctrine of original sin remains a divisive topic in modern Christianity. Although a significant number of scholars in the history of Christianity have argued that children remain sinless until they reach a certain age when they can distinguish between good and evil, it is critical to note that this assertion is inconsistent with the Scripture. And while this supposition appears to counter Augustine’s controversial assertion that infants depart into eternal punishment, it is not based on any Biblical teachings and as such cannot be held as true. Based on Augustine’s theology of grace, it could be argued that children are born in sin since they are all descendants of Adam. If those who die in infancy will go to heaven, they will do so because of God’s grace as manifested through the death of Jesus Christ.
The interpretation of man’s free-will by some scholars could also be described when viewed in the context of Augustine’s theology of grace. Some modern scholars and critics of the Bible have argued that man’s faculty of free-will as given by God gave human beings the capacity to determine what is good and evil. According to Augustine, however, man’s free-will was not entirely free as it was bound in sin. This assertion was later advanced by Martin Luther in his work “The Bondage of the Will”. In defense of Augustine’s theology of grace, Martin Luther noted God does not save an individual based on their level of faith but rather because of His mercy and grace to mankind. In this regard, nothing in a man motivates God to save him from sin. The supposition that man can work up his faith and merit God’s salvation is, therefore, inconsistent with teachings from the Scripture. As such, there is a need for modern Christians to understand and acknowledge the fact that salvation results from God’s grace and does not depend on how an individual works up to their faith.
Going forward, it is highly likely that Augustine’s theology of grace will become even more significant to the church’s stability. In the recent past, some scholars and key church leaders have warned that modern Christianity is at risk of becoming semi-Pelagian. According to Pope Francis, contemporary forms of Pelagianism can be observed from how human beings have become so indulged in themselves that they appear to acknowledge the significance of God’s grace. In this regard, while self-help courses can be integral in improving quality of life, they should not serve to minimize the power of grace since it is only through it that Christians can flourish in faith. Overall, as concern over the existence of contemporary forms of Pelagianism continues to build, one would expect the relevance of Augustine’s theology of grace to grow.
St Augustine is one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity as his works had a great influence on the development of the Western church. Of his many works, Augustine is probably best remembered for his writings in response to widespread heresy that had threatened to destabilize the church in the early 4th century. Augustine’s doctrine of the origin of sin formed the basis of the doctrinal controversy between him and Pelagius. While Pelagius believed that man is born without sin and can as such life without it, Augustine argued that Adam’s sin enslaved mankind to it and as such all men are born with a sinful nature. According to Pelagius, man can choose to do good by exercising his free will accordingly and does not, therefore, need God’s grace to achieve salvation. Augustine opposed this assertion and argued that man’s sinful nature makes it impossible for him to choose the good without relying on the assistance of God’s grace. Considering the notable flaws in Pelagius’ doctrines, it could be noted that his teaching on grace and salvation was particularly erratic. In response to these misleading doctrines, Augustine developed some of the most consistent doctrines of the early church. His thoughtful analysis of Scripture and ability to provide reliable guidance on rather controversial issues earned him the title “Doctor of Grace”.
Augustine, Roland J. Teske, & Boniface Ramsey. Selected Writings on Grace and Pelagianism. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2011.
Cary, Phillip. Inner Grace: Augustine in the Traditions of Plato and Paul. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Dreyer, Elizabeth. Manifestations of Grace. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990.
Dupont, Anthony. Preacher of Grace: A Critical Reappraisal of Augustine’s Doctrine of Grace in His Sermones Ad Populum on Liturgical Feasts and During the Donatist Controversy. Leiden, MA: Brill, 2014.
Harrison, Carol. Rethinking Augustine’s Early Theology: An Argument for Continuity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Heans, Simon. “Original Sin or Original Sinfulness? A Comment.” Heythrop Journal 54.1 (2013): 55-69.
Lam Cong Quy, Joseph. “Revelation, Christology, and Grace in Augustine’s Anti-Manichean and Anti-Pelagian Controversies.” Phronema 28.2 (2013): 131-149.
Thiselton, Anthony C. The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015.
 Cary, Phillip. Inner Grace: Augustine in the Traditions of Plato and Paul (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.188
 Augustine, Roland J. Teske, & Boniface Ramsey. Selected Writings on Grace and Pelagianism(Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2011), p.42
 Dupont, Anthony. Preacher of Grace: A Critical Reappraisal of Augustine’s Doctrine of Grace in His Sermones Ad Populum on Liturgical Feasts and During the Donatist Controversy (Leiden, MA: Brill, 2014), p.112
 Dupont, p.115
 Heans, Simon. “Original Sin or Original Sinfulness? A Comment.” Heythrop Journal 54.1 (2013): 59
 Dreyer, Elizabeth. Manifestations of Grace (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), p.31
 Lam Cong Quy, Joseph. “Revelation, Christology, and Grace in Augustine’s Anti-Manichean and Anti-Pelagian Controversies.” Phronema 28.2 (2013): 141
 Harrison, Carol. Rethinking Augustine’s Early Theology: An Argument for Continuity (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.61
 Harrison, p.63
 Thiselton, Anthony C. The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), p.89
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