Few things rile me up as much as inaccurate depictions of the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius. I’ve heard the view offered too many times in too many places that Pelagius, with his sunny and optimistic view of human nature, has been vindicated in his arguments against Augustine, who seems to be primarily associated with misogyny, hostility to sex, and (of course) the denigration of human worth through his doctrine of original sin.
Now, I’m hardly going to defend Augustine’s much repeated views on sex and gender (although I will say that matters are more complicated here than they might seem). But when Pelagius’ view of the possibility of human perfection is held up as a shining light against Augustine’s account of original sin, something is deeply wrong—the arguments have become so warped by the misapplication of terms and misunderstandings of the antagonists’ motives that we have allowed a fundamentally destructive account of human nature far too much sway in our theological thought and our practical ethics (this is not, of course, to say that the doctrine of original sin hasn’t been applied in fundamentally destructive ways).
Anyway, I recently had occasion to write an essay giving a basic account of why this is so important. It’s hardly in depth, but I hope it lays out the two positions with relative clarity.
It’s worth explaining why this subject is so important to me. This importance comes down to a belief which is best expressed as follows, by Gerald McKenny:
Nothing is more characteristic of our social world than the assumption that our worth depends on what we achieve. This is quite obviously so in the crass and often cruel ways in which we measure and evaluate lives according to the norms of productivity, but it is likewise so in the role ethics has come to play in the self-vindication of modern human beings. (McKenny, The Analogy of Grace, p119)
I’ve observed in myself and others a deep seated anxiety (which can manifest itself in depression, arrogance, self-loathing, or an affect of neurotic superiority, among other things) which seems to follow from the idea that our worth is ours to either prove or create. Even if our worth is unconditional, we must live a certain way to make sure that others know this—and if the value of our existence is in our own hands, then we need to make sure we live a certain way in order to justify our existence in this world.
I’ve seen this especially in some of the kids I’ve taught over the past three years. Even with qualification, the prevailing message many have been taught by well-meaning parents and teachers is that they are unconditionally good, and can be as good as they want to be.’ An inspiring message, no doubt, in many places, and not necessarily problematic—but it was destructive for some. I’m thinking of a student who would been driven to anxiety about his academic performance, shut down during a test because of fears I can’t go into here, then take their anger out on their fellow students both verbally and physically. But because they were a good kid, possessed of one of the kindest hearts you could ever hope to find, they would then look at themselves, wonder why they had done these things, and assume it was because they were a fundamentally bad person—they knew that they had been cruel, and they had no way of explaining this cruelty to themselves except to assume that they were cruel, in some substantive way.
I choose this student in particular because they was so manifestly kind, yet I had to listen to them say again and again how worthless they were. This within a framework where they were continually told about how unconditionally good they were, with the added proviso that the goodness of their conduct was entirely a matter of choice. At the time they had no sense of the inherent fallibility, the irrationality, and the inculcated fears which can be found in the depths of almost every human heart (certainly mine)—in other words, they had no sense of what Augustine was actually talking about when he spoke of original sin and humanity’s fallen state. Instead they thought of themselves as a Pelagian individual, where the moral worth of their actions (and through this their own self) was entirely within their own capacity to determine; they had no sense of Augustine’s beloved sinner, who is reliant upon others, most especially the grace of Jesus Christ, for guidance and support (often hidden) throughout the long and arduous journey from youth to older youth.
This is clearly anecdotal, and it’s obvious that my pastoral track here was not to say ‘we’re all fundamentally sinful.’ Those words, which may have been pastorally useful in the fifth century, have been so corrupted by their use outside of a system of grace that they can only harm, for the most part. But the theology behind a pastoral track which emphasises fallibility—and therefore gentleness—is the Augustinian theology of original sin and free grace, not Pelagius’ theology of obligatory perfection. And this, I find it hard to keep an unemotive head whenever the question of Augustine and Pelagius arises.
It All Comes Down to Freedom
So, here’s the substance.
Pelagius and Augustine were contemporaries, although they never actually met. Augustine’s writings were preserved through both luck and the love of a young (though not uncritical!) disciple of his. We only have a few of Pelagius’ writings, but enough to know that Augustine wasn’t fudging his numbers when it came to citing this later opponent.
Especially through his association with ‘Celtic Spirituality,’ ‘Pelagius’s views have often been presented as rather amiable, in contrast to the fierce pessimism in Augustine’s view of our fallen state,’ according to Diarmaid McCulloch. This, however, ‘misses the point that Pelagius was a stern Puritan, whose teaching placed a terrifying responsibility on the shoulders of every human being to act according to the highest standards demanded by God… Augustine’s pessimism, [meanwhile,] started as realism, the realism of a bishop protecting his flock amid the mess of the world.’ (McCulloch, Christianity, p307)
Now, the core of Pelagian teaching is described by Peter Brown as follows:
[Pelagius’] message was simple and terrifying: ‘since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.’ Pelagius never doubted for a moment that perfection was obligatory; his God was, above all, a God who commanded unquestioning obedience. He had made men to execute his commands; and He would condemn to hell-fire anyone who failed for perform a single one of them. (Brown, Augustine, p342)
This belief in the possibility of perfection was grounded in his belief in the fundamental (and intact) possibility for perfection inherent in human nature itself, a possibility completely uncontaminated by any such thing as the fall: ‘for Pelagius, human sin was essentially superficial: it was a matter of choice. Wrong choices might add some ‘rust’ to the ‘pure metal of human nature,’ but a choice, by definition, could be reversed.’ (Ibid, p366) To live perfectly was then the true manifestation of human nature—but imperfection was nothing more nor less than evidence of a will which denied that nature, and its creator, and would therefore be suitably punished:
The good Pelagian was a ‘good citizen’… [and Pelagius] was indignant that men should continue to fail to fulfil the commands of so reasonable and well intentioned a sovereign: ‘after so many notices drawing your attention to virtue; after the giving of the law, after the prophets, after the gospels, after the Apostles, I just do not know how God can show indulgence to you, if you wish to commit a crime’… Such a view inevitably placed a great emphasis on punishment. There is a cold streak in the mentality of the whole Pelagian movement… [and] it is Pelagius, not Augustine, who harps on the terrors of the Last Judgement: to which Augustine simply remarked that ‘a man who is afraid of sinning because of hell-fire, is afraid, not of sinning, but of burning.’ Ibid, p371-2
What of Augustine, though, and his defence of original sin—a doctrine which has been used so harmfully down the century? Well, it is first essential to recognise that Augustine did not employ a binary system of value. Within the Pelagian scheme, things are quite simple—perfection is good, imperfection is sin, and sin is incompatible with any claim to goodness. In Augustine’s thought, the sinfulness of a creature and its fundamental goodness aren’t in the least bit incompatible. Indeed, the fact that a creature could be sinful entails its fundamental goodness, such that nothing can be said to exist without at the same time asserting the fact that both its existence and its nature is good. Thus we read in the Confessions:
‘it was made clear to me that those things are good which yet are corrupted, which, neither were they supremely good, nor unless they were good could be corrupted; because if supremely good, they were incorruptible, and if not good at all, there were nothing in them to be corrupted. For corruption harms, but, unless it could diminish goodness, it could not harm. Either, then, corruption harms not, which cannot be; or, what is most certain, all which is corrupted is deprived of good. But if they be deprived of all good, they will cease to be… So long, therefore, as they are, they are good; therefore whatsoever is, is good.’ Confessions, Book 7
Whenever Augustine writes of sin or speaks against corruption, then, we must remember that he is not denying its inherent goodness, nor the fact that it is beloved of God—quite the opposite. He is instead, more often than not, mourning the fact that such goodness can be harmed, and rejoicing in both the God who made this world and the fact that the grace of God can sustain this good creation into paradise.
The question for Augustine then became how this harm is possible; how it is that human beings are able to hard each other. Pelagius’ answer was simple—it is because some people choose to be evil. This corruption is thus nothing more nor less than the necessary consequence of an abuse of the absolute freedom of which humanity is possessed. Augustine, however, through both an analysis of his own life and his understanding of the lives of his flock, wasn’t so sure that human freedom so simple a matter. In one of his most insightful passages (for my money at least), he writes:
Whence is this monstrous thing? And why is it? Let Thy mercy shine on me, that I may inquire, if so be the hiding places of man’s punishment, and the darkest contrition of the sons of Adam, may perhaps answer me. Whence is this monstrous thing? And why is it? The mind commands the body and it obeys forthwith; the mind commands itself, and is resisted. The mind commands the hand to be moved, and such readiness is there that the command is scarce to be distinguished from the obedience. Yet the mind is mind, and the hand is body. The mind commands the mind to all, and yet, though it be itself, it obeyeth not. Whence this monstrous thing? And why is it? I repeat, it commands itself to will, and would not give the command unless it willed; yet is not that done which it commandeth. But it willeth not entirely; therefore it commandeth not entirely. For so far forth it commandeth, as it willeth; and so far forth is the thing commanded not done, as it willeth not. For the will commandeth that these be a will;—not another, but itself. But it does not command entirely, therefore that is not which it commandeth… So there are two wills, because one of them is not entire; and the one is supplied with what the other needs. (Confessions, Book 9)
Here Augustine has hit upon a simple fact: that our wills are in and of themselves divided, to the extent that our choices are not usually the choices of an all knowing, all conscious semi-deity within our heads, but conflicted responses to sometimes impossible situations, motivated by many forces most of which we ourselves cannot control. Thus it is that ‘what Augustine criticised immediately in Pelagianism, was far less its optimism about human nature, as the fact that such optimism seemed of be based upon a transparently inadequate view of the complexity of human motivation.’ (Brown, Op. Cit., p371)
Here, then, we hit upon the real division between Augustine and Pelagius. It is not the underlying goodness of creation, but the capacity of the human will to choose and to know, as God chooses and knows, how to live a life free from sin:
For Pelagius, self-control was sufficient: it was sufficient to guard the citadel of free decision by choosing good and rejecting evil. Augustine was less sure. Self-control was essential and laudable; but could it ever be enough? For even the frontiers of self-control were dangerously ill defined. Not all consent to evil promptings need be fully conscious. (Ibid. p366)
And so Augustine placed the possibility, not just of salvation, but of moral conduct itself, outside of the power of the human will, and instead located it in the grace of God revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Under this view, we are indeed God’s good creation, even as we are lost in the wilderness of sin. Far from being burdened with the responsibility of attaining perfection, however, we are called to have faith in grace so that we may try to love one another, whilst God takes care of all the rest.
It is then in this context that we must understand Augustine’s (again later much abused) high sense of the Church (it’s worth remembering that ‘Catholic’ here does not yet mean ‘Roman’ Catholic in the sort of sense that we would recognise). Far from being a place where individuals came to be terrified into paralysis by their sin, it was a place where people could live with themselves at the same time as they sought to live according to grace;
Like many reformers, the Pelagians placed the terrifying weight of complete freedom on the individual: he was responsible for his every action; every sin, therefore, could only be a deliberate act of contempt for God. Augustine was less sure that a fallen human nature could bear so great a weight: ‘many sins are committed through pride, but not all happen proudly… They happen so often by ignorance, by human weakness; many are committed by men weeping and groaning in their distress…’ The Catholic Church existed to redeem a helpless humanity; and once the essential grace was given, [Augustine] could accept with ease in his congregation the slow and erratic processes of healing. The Pelagians, with their optimistic views on human nature, seemed to Augustine to blur the distinction between the Catholic Church and the good pagans; but they did so only in order to establish an icy Puritanism as the sole law of the Christian community. Paradoxically, therefore, it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic Church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings. (Ibid. p350)
Augustine’s responses to Pelagius are therefore in fact highly coloured by his concern for his flock—he knew full well that, under Pelagius’ account, most of those he knew and loved had no chance of salvation. And it is according to this character that we must read his words:
Another statement was read which Pelagius had placed in his book, to this effect: “In the day of judgment no forbearance will be shown to the ungodly and the sinners, but they will be consumed in eternal fires.” This induced the brethren to regard the statement as open to the objection, that it seemed so worded as to imply that all sinners whatever were to be punished with an eternal punishment, without excepting even those who hold Christ as their foundation. (De Gestis Pelagi, 9)
This may be all well and good. There are, however, two questions which are commonly directed against Augustine here (indeed, against any who seek to proclaim the absolute power of grace in both our redemption and the determination of the moral value of our deeds). The first is how we can seek to do good, if actual good conduct is beyond our power to effect. The second is why we would, given that God has determined everything which we might think of as significant.
To go into full depth on answering these questions would extend an already long essay far beyond anyone’s patience. But the beginnings of such an attempt are to be found in Augustine’s own sense of freedom, and how it is tied to love. We have already seen that, for Augustine, freedom cannot simply be the ability to choose—for our choices are often conditioned by forces which we ourselves cannot control or determine. Instead, freedom is the state of existence within which what determines our choices is the free love of God, given in grace and received with gratitude and joy. And this state of existence cannot be effected by the human will. Nor is it something which happens overnight (indeed, it will never constitute our whole existence this side of death). Rather, it is the telos to which our lives are directed, such that even through all our stumbling and sinning, God still works in such a way as to bring us into freedom; that is, the freedom to love our neighbour as ourselves without fear (this is the interpretative principle of the Confessions, within which Augustine does not describe his movement from sinner to saint, but looks at how God might have worked in his life to ensure that he, as a sinner, might be in a better position to love others).
As to why? This extended passage from Brown’s biography, ending with a section from one of Augustine’s sermons, sums the whole thing up quite nicely:
For Augustine, freedom can only be the culmination of a process of healing… the healing process by which love and knowledge are integrated… Freedom cannot be reduced to a sense of choice: it is a freedom to act fully… For a sense of choice is a symptom of the disintegration of the will: the final union of knowledge and feeling would involve a man in the object of his choice in such a way that any other alternative would be inconceivable. ‘If the soul does not have pleasures of its own, why is it written ‘the soul of men shall hope under the shadow of thy wing… for of the torrents of thy pleasures thou wilt give them to drink; for in thee is the Fountain of Life, and in thy Light we shall see light.’ Give me a man in love: he knows what I mean. Give me one who yearns; give me one who is hungry; give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the spring of the eternal country. Give me this sort of man: he knows what I mean. But if I speak to a cold man, he just does not know what I am talking about…’ (Brown, Op. Cit. p373-375)
And if we then want to see a little of what Augustine understood of love, here is the passage in which he describes mourning for his mother—a passage which, especially in its context, I would count as one of the most moving to be found in all theology:
And then little by little did I bring my former thoughts of thine handmaid, her devout conversation towards Thee, her holy tenderness and attentiveness towards us, which was suddenly taken away from me; and it was pleasant to me to weep in thy sight, for her and for me, concerning her and concerning myself. And I set free the tears which before I repressed, that they might flow at her will, spreading them beneath my heart; and it rested in them, for Thy ears were nigh me,—not those of man, who would have put a scornful interpretation on my weeping. But now in writing I confess it unto Thee, O Lord! Read it who will, and interpret how he will; and if he finds me to have sinned in weeping for my mother during so small a part of an hour—that mother who was for a while dead to mine eyes, who had for many years wept for me, that I might live in Thine eyes,—let him not laugh at me, but rather, if he be a man of a noble charity, let him weep for my sins against Thee, the Father of all the brethren of Thy Christ. (Confessions, Book 10)
None of this is to excuse or justify the positions which Augustine took on questions of sex and gender (though even here, it is worth noting that when he wrote his most vitriolic prose against concupiscence, he was not arguing against the idea that sex was a good in itself—he was instead arguing against Julian’s assertion that sex could be counted good because its punishment served as a clear sign of God’s wrath!). In criticising those positions, however, we should be clear about the core of his theology, and how his social beliefs relate to that core. For my money, it can be clearly demonstrated that there is nothing in Augustine’s fundamental theology which necessitates ‘traditional’ attitudes towards sex and gender, and quite a lot which actually undermines those attitudes. Pelagius, meanwhile, was just as vituperative of concupiscence, and he unequivocally damned those he viewed as lax in their moral practise.
This is not just abstract; it all plays into the situation of children and adults worldwide, as we wrestle with the anxiety incumbent on having to demonstrate or ground our own worth. It plays into the conceptions we have of what it is to be, not just Christians, but human beings—whether to be human is to be directed towards an impossible perfection, or to be sinners who wish to love and are seeking to learn how in the loving care of a gracious God. The language is loaded in a way which can never be undone, such that it is likely that we will never be able to talk about sin again without at least implying the denigration of an individual’s worth. All the same—when we talk about Augustine and Pelagius, when we talk about grace and sin, it is important that we present their views accurately. And whether he was effective or not, Augustine firmly believed that the only power sin truly had in the world was to show just how glorious God was—for all it does is show that no matter how fundamental original sin might be to our existence in this world, it can in no way separate us from the gracious love of Jesus Christ.