5th Century Lessons for Today

While you are rushing around shelling out cash for all those last minute Christmas presents that hopefully included a Kindle or some other e-reader, if not for a loved one at least for yourself,  I wanted to take a moment and recommend some of the free e-books available at Monergism books.  I think I can safely recommend them all with the exception of the one selection by Douglas Jones (anything coming from Doug Wilson’s Canon Press is poison).

With that one caveat aside, I recently downloaded Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian Writings and just finished the rather lengthy introduction by B. B. Warfield.  I probably shouldn’t even have started this as I have also recently purchased Augustine’s massive City of God  and I’m barely through the first book.  Besides, I didn’t even think I would be remotely interested in the Pelagian controversy as the doctrines of original sin and free will have been settled, at as far as I’m concerned, centuries ago even if the belief in free will is alive and well if only in the form of semi-Pelagianism (something Augustine wrestled with toward the end of his life) or in its slightly more refined “Evangelical” form of synergism,  Arminianism.

That said, what immediately caught my attention was how early in the controversy Pelagius was able to avoid prosecution and even had his teachings temporarily vindicated through a clever manipulation of the meaning of the word “grace.”  Quoting Augustine Warfield writes:

“For if these bishops had understood that he meant only that grace which we have in common with the ungodly and with all, along with whom we are men, while he denied that by which we are Christians and the sons of God, they not only could not have patiently listened to him, — they could not even have borne him before their eyes.” The letter then proceeds to point out the difference between grace and natural gifts, and between grace and the law, and to trace out Pelagius’ meaning when he speaks of grace, and when he contends that man can be sinless without any really inward aid. It suggests that Pelagius be sent for, and thoroughly examined by Innocent, or that he should be examined by letter or in his writings; and that he not be cleared until he unequivocally confessed the grace of God in the catholic sense, and anathematized the false teachings in the books attributed to him.

When initially examined, Pelagius affirmed God’s grace in salvation, but what he meant by “grace” is the natural endowment of a soul free from the stain of sin at birth and possessing a free and undetermined will which is able to choose either good or evil.  Augustine was keenly aware of how this subterfuge worked:

And they found such a device as this….’Because I defend man’s free will, and say that free will is sufficient in order that I may be righteous,’ says one, ‘I do not say that it is without the grace of God.’ The ears of the pious are pricked up, and he who hears this, already begins to rejoice: ‘Thanks be to God! He does not defend free will without the grace of God! There is free will, but it avails nothing without the grace of God.’ If, then, they do not defend free will without the grace of God, what evil do they say? Expound to us, O teacher, what grace you mean? ‘When I say,’ he says, ‘the free will of man, you observe that I say “of man”?’ What then? ‘Who created man?’ God. ‘Who gave him free will?’ God. ‘If, then, God created man, and God gave man free will, whatever man is able to do by free will, to who grace does he owe it, except to His who made him with free will?’

It guess it is true that as much as things change they stay the same.  Heretics in every century are expert in employing words in ways that their opponents will accept as orthodox while at the same time attaching meanings to those words that are anything but.  A good recent example is how Federal Visionists have been able to exploit the relative ambiguity around the meaning of the word “faith” which has allowed them to appear, at least to some, as if they were affirming the central doctrines of the Gospel, even justification by faith alone.  Like Pelagius, these false teachers have been amazingly resourceful in subverting the traditional tri-fold definition of saving faith by including works (or obedience) as an integral definitional and “fiducial” component of faith.   A good example of this subterfuge, and since I mentioned him earlier,  is Douglas Jones’ claim in the pages of Doug Wilson’s Credenda Agenda that knowing is doing.  Jones asserts:  “In contrast to this prevailing view of knowledge as merely mental, Scripture assumes that knowledge is primarily a kind of bodily doing.”  It shouldn’t be hard to see how from Jones’ epistemological perversion of knowledge as a “kind of bodily doing,” that men like Wilson arrive at the notion that believing is also doing and justification by faith alone really means justification by faith plus works or simply justification by our own faithfulness.

Another interesting facet arising from the Pelagian controversy was Augustine’s flirtation with traducianism or the belief that the creation of the soul is not a separate and immediate work of God (creationism) but rather is a result of natural generation.  As many of the readers of this blog may already know, Gordon Clark was very much a defender of traducianism (see The Biblical Doctrine of Man).  The reason the origin of the soul was important is because Pelagius argued that since God immediately created the soul of every man it follows that man cannot be born with the stain of Adam’s sin without making God sin’s author.  One way around this argument was traducianism.  Warfield again:

God is good, just, omnipotent: how, then can we account for the fact that “in Adam all die,” if souls are created afresh for each birth? “If new souls are made for men,” [Augustine] affirms, “individually at their birth, I do not see, on the one hand, that they could have any sin while yet in infancy; nor do I believe, on the other hand, that God condemns any soul which He sees to have no sin;” “and yet, whosoever says that those children who depart out of this life without partaking of the sacrament of baptism, shall be made alive in Christ, certainly contradicts the apostolic declaration,” and “he that is not made alive in Christ must necessarily remain under the condemnation of which the apostle says that by the offense of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation.” “Wherefore,” he adds to his correspondent, “if that opinion of yours does not contradict this firmly grounded article of faith, let it be mine also; but if it does, let it no longer be yours.” So far as obtaining light was concerned, Augustin might have spared himself the pain of this composition: Jerome simply answered that he had no leisure to reply to the questions submitted to him.

What is interesting in all this is the role the law of contradiction played in Augustine’s thinking.  Here he tells Jerome that if creationism contradicts the doctrine of original sin, a “firmly grounded article of faith,” Jerome should abandon it.   If, on the other hand, Jerome could demonstrate that creationism did not contradict original sin then Augustine too would accept it.  What a far cry from Cornelius Van Til who argued in An Introduction to Systematic Theology that “Christians should . . . never appeal to the law of contradiction as something that . . . determines what can or cannot be true.”  By his reply, Jerome would have probably been a Van Tillian.   In fairness, it seems Augustine never did come to any hard and fast position on the creation of souls and seemed to waffle between a number of different theories.  For myself, one of the things that makes traducianism so attractive is that it necessitates the virgin birth as the contagion of sin is conveyed by ordinary generation through the line of Adam.  The virgin birth breaks that line.

The other aspect in the battle against Pelagianism, arguably the high point, is that through this controversy Augustine further crystallized his understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation culminating in his treatise, The Predestination of the Saints, where he corrects some of his earlier errors concerning the role of free will and the nature of grace.  It is interesting how some of the arguments used against Augustine in the early part of the 5th century are still used today against the Reformed doctrine of predestination today.  For example, the Pelagians argued:

“…if we believed that without any preceding merits He had mercy on whom He would, and whom He would He called, and whom He would He made religious;” that “it was unjust, in one and the same case, to deliver one and punish another;” that, if such a doctrine is preached, “men who do not wish to live rightly and faithfully, will excuse themselves by saying that they have done nothing evil by living ill, since they have not received the grace by which they might live well….”

The first part of this objection rests on the question of fairness and that it would be unjust for God to choose one person for salvation over another.  In their minds this would make “God an acceptor of persons.”  In response, Augustine argued:

“But why those also are created who, the Creator foreknew, would belong to damnation, not to grace, the blessed apostle mentions with as much succinct brevity as great authority. For he says that God, ‘wishing to show His wrath and demonstrate His power,’ etc. (Romans 9:22). Justly, however, would he seem unjust in forming vessels of wrath for perdition, if the whole mass from Adam were not condemned.”

For myself, this was the only way I could initially get my mind around the question of God’s sovereign choice in salvation when I first wrestled with this doctrine years ago as I was kept up nights working through Clark’s Predestination and searching the Scriptures.  It is only against the backdrop of original sin and the universal depravity of man that predestination made any sense to me.  That’s because if God were “fair” He would be perfectly just in condemning the whole lot of us to an eternity in Hell. The fact that He has mercy on anyone on account of the finished work of His Son is really the miracle of grace which is precisely what Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism sought to undermine and is what Augustine sought to maintain.

The other objection raised is that predestination will unwittingly promote sin as “men who do not wish to live rightly and faithfully, will excuse themselves by saying that they have done nothing evil by living ill, since they have not received the grace by which they might live well….”  This is basically the same argument the Apostle Paul anticipates overthrows in Romans 6 and the fallacy that we can “continue in sin that grace may abound.”

Concerning the Semi-Pelagians, Warfield writes:

Its representatives were ready, as a rule, to admit that all men were lost in Adam, and no one could recover himself by his own free will, but all needed God’s grace for salvation. But they objected to the doctrines of prevenient and of irresistible grace; and asserted that man could initiate the process of salvation by turning first to God, that all men could resist God’ grace, and no grace could be given which they could not reject, and especially they denied that the gifts of grace came irrespective of merits, actual or foreseen. They said that what Augustin taught as to the calling of God’s elect according to His own purpose was tantamount to fatalism, was contrary to the teaching of the fathers and the true Church doctrine, and, even if true, should not be preached, because of its tendency to drive men into indifference or despair.

Again, it is amazing to me how arguments leveled against even the preaching of predestination in the 5th Century have been repeated in every generation right up to today.  How many times have we heard that, even if true, the preaching of predestination should be avoided.  That’s not to say that great care shouldn’t accompany its preaching, but the tendency, even in many Reformed churches, is to avoid it entirely.

While there are many commendable aspects to Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian writings, that is not to say that even the great Augustine was without fault.  Warfield explains:

The saddest corollary that flowed from this doctrine was that by which Augustin was forced to assert that all those who died unbaptized, including infants, are finally lost and depart into eternal punishment. He did not shrink from the inference, although he assigned the place of lightest punishment in hell to those who were guilty of no sin but original sin, but who had departed this life without having washed this away in the “laver of regeneration.” This is the dark side of his soteriology; but it should be remembered that it was not his theology of grace, but the universal and traditional belief in the necessity of baptism for remission of sins, which he inherited in common with all of his time, that forced it upon him. The theology of grace was destined in the hands of his successors, who have rejoiced to confess that they were taught by him, to remove this stumbling-block also from Christian teaching; and if not to Augustin, it is to Augustin’s theology that the Christian world owes its liberation from so terrible and incredible a tenet. Along with the doctrine of infant damnation, another stumbling-block also, not so much of Augustinian, but of Church theology, has gone. It was not because of his grace.

. . . Along with the doctrine of infant damnation, another stumbling-block also, not so much of Augustinian, but of Church theology, has gone. It was not because of his theology of grace, or of his doctrine of predestination, that Augustin taught that comparatively few of the human race are saved. It was, again, because he believed that baptism and incorporation into the visible Church were necessary for salvation. And it is only because of Augustin’s theology of grace, which places man in the hands of an all-merciful Savior and not in the grasp of a human institution, that men can see that in the salvation of all who die in infancy, the invisible Church of God embraces the vast majority of the human race, — saved not by the washing of water administered by the Church, but by the blood of Christ administered by God’s own hand outside of the ordinary channels of his grace.

In any case, while we can happily leave aside aspects of Augustine’s ecclesiology there is still plenty of relevant meat to be found in a 5th Century controversy and, provided you have a Nook or a Kindle under your tree,  you can find it all for free.

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6 Comments on “5th Century Lessons for Today”

  1. Hugh McCann Says:

    Thank you, Sean, for the encouragement to dig into Austin in 2012. I got his 9 vols in the Nicene & Post Nicene Papas, and need to restart!

    Infant damnation doesn’t need baptismal regeneration to correct it. The latter is truly not supported in Writ, but the former is quite possible.

    One thinks of the glorious Canons of Dordt*, which afford comfort to BELIEVING grieving parents of lost infants. {Having suffered a miscarriage this last quarter, my wife & I are poignantly aware of such grief.}

    Should an unbeliever lose a young child/ babe, can we promise the grieving pagan parent that the child is safe in the arms of Jesus? That he died for the original sin of deceased babies in pagan families?

    Or should such questions be best left up to God?

    * Article 17: The Salvation of the Infants of Believers ~ Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.


  2. […] 5th Century Lessons for Today (godshammer.wordpress.com) […]

  3. Steve Matthews Says:

    Thanks for the book review, Sean. It inspired me to learn how to actually use this thing (my Kindle).

  4. Sean Gerety Says:

    You’re welcome Steve, but it wasn’t so much a book review as an intro to a book review. 80)

    I love Kindle. The one we have is my wife’s (I got it for her probably a week before the price dropped). I do subscribe to Reason on it which I think is only $1,99 a month. I haven’t checked out the Kindle Fire, but I like the fact that the regular Kindle simulates actual paper remarkably well and is glare free and great at the beach.

  5. reyjacobs Says:

    “That said, what immediately caught my attention was how early in the controversy Pelagius was able to avoid prosecution and even had his teachings temporarily vindicated through a clever manipulation of the meaning of the word ‘grace.'”

    Pelagius used ‘grace’ in the same sense as the OT, i.e. as ‘mercy.’ Noah found ‘grace’ in the eyes of the Lord. Whereas Augustine (and perhaps to some extent Paul also) uses it in a Pagan mystery cult sense, i.e. as ‘magic power.’ This is clear from the fact that grace to these Pagans is an enabling power that gives one ability to obey commands they supposedly could not previously obey ‘command whatever the hell you want and then give me grace’ Augustine prayed.

  6. Sean Gerety Says:

    And to think I thought Pelagianism was as dead as the Pagan “mystery cults.” Silly me.


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