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  • Don Walker

Augustine, Pelagius, and the Reformation


“It is Augustine who gave us the Reformation."

Benjamin B. Warfield


Warfield's remark was based on the fact that the Reformation witnessed the ultimate triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over the legacy of the Pelagian view of man. If Augustine gave us the Reformation, which I believe that he did, it’s Pelagius that laid the foundation for a so-called “Christianized humanism.” This theological conflict of the fifth century continues to have implications that extend into our present day.

The controversy between Augustine and Pelagius began when the British monk, Pelagius, came in opposition to Augustine's famous prayer: "Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire." Pelagius vehemently rejected the idea that a divine gift (grace) is necessary to perform what God commands. For Pelagius and his followers responsibility always implied ability. If man has the moral responsibility to obey the law of God, he must also have the moral ability to do it.

Adolf von Harnack summarizes Pelagian thought:


"Nature, free-will, virtue and law, these strictly defined and made independent of the notion of God - were the catch-words of Pelagianism: self-acquired virtue is the supreme good which is followed by reward. Religion and morality lie in the sphere of the free spirit; they are at any moment by man's own effort."

In addition Harnack stated, "We cannot but decide that their [the Pelagians] doctrine fails to recognize the misery of sin and evil, that in its deepest roots it is godless, that it knows, and seeks to know, nothing of redemption."


Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin, which teaches that we are born in sin (Psalm 51:5; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:9-18; Ephesians 2:1-5; 1 Corinthians 2:14; etc.). People are born into the world neutral, said Pelagius. If they exercise their free will in the direction of righteousness, following Christ's example, they will be saved; if they exercise their free will in the direction of sinfulness, following Adam's example, they will be judged. Augustine defended the biblical doctrine of original sin by insisting that we are not only sinners because we sin, following Adam's example, but we sin because we are sinners, inheriting Adam's guilt and corruption. Therefore, what we need in a Second Adam, too, is something more than an example. We need a Savior. We need someone to rescue us by His own grace, since we cannot even respond to Him of our own free will, corrupted as it is by our sinful affections. The accent, therefore, fell on God's grace in the atonement, conversion, and the gift of saving and persevering faith.


While the Council of Ephesus declared Pelagius a heretic in 431 A.D., most church historians recognize that this decision was “political” and there was actually little debate. As a result, Pelagianism was not adequately dealt with, in the way that Arianism was in the fourth century. This failure has allowed it to persist in various forms down through the ages.


In terms of historic theological development, in the eleventh century, Anselm refined this Augustinian doctrine of grace on the subject of the Atonement. Jesus Christ had to be God because the debt we owed was infinite and no finite creature could pay it. And yet, He had to be man because the debt was something owed by sinful humanity. In this way, Christ performed the office of a peace-making substitute. Throughout the Middle Ages, questions about grace and works and predestination and free will were fiercely debated, but everyone knew that one rule of the game was that Pelagianism was not allowed, although many theologians came as close as they could to the edges of that heresy.


What did emerge was a “Semi-Pelagianism,” which affirms the doctrine of original sin and recognizes the falleness of mankind, but it also believes that there remains a moral ability within man that is unaffected by the Fall. This moral ability is sometimes referred to as an "island of righteousness” by which the sinner is able to cooperate with God’s grace.


In the Protestant Reformation, it was Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, who perceived the real issue lurking beneath the controversy of faith and works. He recognized that the question was to what degree the human will is enslaved by sin and to what degree we are dependent upon grace for freedom. This came clearly into focus in his debate with Erasmus, who has been described as a “Pelagian in Catholic clothing.” Luther argued that the “flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63) and that “nothing” is not a “little something.” The “little something” of human ability stood in the way of the reformational and biblical truth of sola gratia. For our salvation could not rest on “grace alone,” but on “grace plus human ability.”


Pelagius, and later Erasmus, both appeal to that in our fallen nature that refuses to face our own wickedness. It refuses to accept that “nothing good dwells in me” (Rom. 7:18). It is the root of humanism and Pelagianism is humanistic at its deepest core.


What Benjamin Warfield understood was that Augustine had faithfully planted the seeds in his day, that brought forth over a thousand years later, a harvest reaped by the Reformers. Let us hold fast to the biblical truth brought forth from Augustine and stand opposed to the humanism of Pelagius in our day.

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