St. Augustine Versus The Pelagians

    Although in our present day and age we have many false doctrines of salvation around, none appeal more to the American mind than the Pelagian view. One can hear this phrase echoed again and again "God helps those who help themselves" or "You got to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps". We always see this inherent pride in man to get along without God. In St. Augustine's day we see one man, namely Pelagius who was a monk, that slipped into an overly confident view of himself. Pelagius was known to be an ascetical person which may have had some bearing on his beliefs. In spirituality one starts on the ascetical level which is called "active" but eventually this leads to God's taking over the work on our souls which we call "passive". It seems evident that Pelagius lost his way in the ascetical phase of his spiritual development most likely because pride found its way into his ascetical practices. One may be sure the devil helped Pelagius along this road of total dependence on self to arrive at salvation. St. Augustine states the three principal errors in the Pelagian Heresy as follows:

    1. They "deny original sin".

    2. They "say that the grace of God whereby we are justified is not given freely, but according to our merit".

    3. They "say that in mortal man . . . there is so great righteousness that even after the washing of regeneration, until he finishes this life of his, forgiveness of sins is not necessary to him". (1)

    These and the issues which follow errors we will discuss along with St. Augustine's reply.

    Concerning original sin, the Pelagians will assert that we are born without it. Sin is not transmitted to the whole human race by Adam's fall. Sin grew by imitation. Thus, infants are free from original sin. They say ". . . actual sin has not been transmitted from the first man to other persons by natural descent, but by imitation. Hence, likewise, they refuse to believe that in infants original sin is remitted through baptism, for they contend that no such original sin exists at all in people by their birth".(2) Many strange assertions will follow this error of the Pelagians. Since they deny original sin, they will have to claim that death, which we all experience, is natural to man. Thus, it is not a result of the Fall. Another problem resulting from their error is why are infants baptized? They will claim three possibilities. First, that infants are baptized for sins committed since birth. Second, baptism confers on us a higher stage of salvation. Third, baptism remits sin committed in some previous existence. So we see that throwing out original sin brings with it some strange results for the practices and beliefs of the Church.

St. Augustine has many Scriptural proofs that we all are involved in original sin. For example he borrows from St. Paul's letter to the Romans (5,18) and first letter to the Corinthians (15,22) to say "Now none who shall partake of this life shall be made alive except in Christ, even as all die in Adam. For as none whatever, of all those who belong to the generation according to the will of the flesh, die except in Adam, in whom all sinned ...".(3) It is clear that we have all taken part in Adam's sin of which death is one of the results. St. Augustine also uses infant baptism as a proof of original sin. The Pelagians will attack St. Augustine saying it is unjust and against His goodness for God to transmit original sin to each of us. St. Augustine is then forced to explain exactly how original sin is transmitted. He says, "In this way we have two distinct facts insensibly introduced to our notice: the good of that laudable union of the sexes for the purpose of generating children; and the evil of that shameful lust, in consequence of which the offspring must be regenerated in order to escape condemnation".(4) Thus, St. Augustine sees marriage as good but corrupted by the evil of concupiscence. Marriage and the creative act are good since God is not the originator of evil, but within the act itself of sexual union the evil of lust is sown which originated in the evil of Adam's fall. We see this action of sexual union containing both good and evil when St. Augustine says, No doubt the two are generated simultaneously—both nature and nature's corruption; one of which is good, the other evil".(5) Although St. Augustine has shown from Sacred Scripture proofs for transmission of original sin and has shown how it is transmitted, the Pelagians will still contend that condemnation of unbaptized infants is unjust. To this accusation St. Augustine can only appeal to the Mystery of God's predestination which we cannot understand in this life. So we see St. Augustine's attempt to illumine the Faith through reason, but he does enter areas where he admits reason cannot comprehend the Mysteries in this life.

The second error of the Pelagians is even more serious because as St. Augustine claims it undermines the need for God's grace. The Pelagians claim that the grace of God for justification is given to us according to our own merits. From this claim stems three associated errors to back it up. First, free will is inherent in the nature of man such that there is an "absolute autonomy for the will. Thus, for Pelagius freedom would be destroyed if the will were inclined to evil because of sin or if it needed to be strengthened by another's help".(6) So, we have the denial of any interior influence on free will. Salvation history takes on a different meaning for them. This leads to the second error that the Law in the Old Testament as well as the preaching and example of Christ are only an external influence on us. Third, Jesus came to remit our past sins only, forgiveness of which we merit through good acts, but with no reference to power over sins in the future. Grace as understood by Pelagius becomes a totally external act from God to enlighten us that "we may have from the Lord God the help of knowledge, whereby we may know those things which have to be done" .(7) Pelagius later will admit to interior grace helping us a little bit. Certainly this is far from the reality of grace which we profess as Catholics.

St. Augustine experienced in his own life the opposite of the Pelagian claim that the human will is sufficient onto itself to conquer all temptations with virtue. He quotes many passages from Scripture for the necessity of God's grace to avoid sin. He says "But if any man says that we ought not to use the prayer, 'Lead us not into temptation' (and he says as much who maintains that God's help is unnecessary to a person for the avoidance of sin, and that human will after accepting only the Law, is sufficient for the purpose)…".(8) We see the Our Father as a definite statement on the necessity of God's grace to avoid sin. St. Augustine proves from St. Paul that grace is not given to us according to merit. The life of St. Paul began in Holy Scripture with the persecution of the Church. Thus, he was doing evil until by grace his life was turned around. St. Augustine says, "'But by the grace of God I am what I am'. Then, in order to exhibit also his free will, he added... 'And His grace within me was not in vain, but I have labored more abundantly than them all'".(9) We see certainly God's grace was not merited by good deeds with St. Paul yet as St. Augustine points out his free will was not taken away as he chose to work for the glory of God. His free will is evident in the second passage of St. Paul. Thus, St. Augustine will claim we have to be careful of not maintaining grace by denying free will or vice versa. We also see St. Paul being aided by a grace "within me" which the Pelagians hardly attribute exists in us.

St. Augustine agrees with the Pelagians that free will is inherent in man's nature but that our free will is so enslaved by sin that only grace can free it. The Law of the Old Testament as said many times by St. Paul convicts us of sin. Our flesh wars against it. St. Augustine says that by realizing our helplessness in following the Law we should be lead to Jesus Christ. An interesting statement summing up the thought of St. Augustine concerning the external law of God and the necessity of grace to accomplish it says ". .. by the law of works, God says to us, Do what I command thee; but by the law of faith we say to God, Give me what Thou commandest. Now this is the reason why the Law gives its command,—to admonish us what faith ought to do, that is, that he to whom the command is given, if he is as yet unable to perform it, may know what to ask for; but if he has at once the ability, and complies with the command, he ought also to be aware from whose gift the ability comes".(10) We see that the Pelagians do not in any way acknowledge this dependence on God's grace when we accomplish an act or the need to ask His help when we cannot carry out what He commands of us. We see though that their doctrine is not in accord with the life and writings of St. Paul.

The Pelagians third major error that forgiveness of sins is not necessary, stems from an error in belief that the saints of the Old and New Testament are examples of people who attained perfect righteousness. Of course this perfection is based on the two preceding errors on original sin and grace. St. Augustine explains what Holy Scripture means by perfection to clear up this third error of the Pelagians. St. Paul is used as one who clarifies in his own life the understanding of perfection. St. Augustine says "virtue which is in the righteous man is named perfect up to this point, that to its perfection belong both the true knowledge and humble confession of even imperfection itself... therefore the apostle calls himself both perfect and imperfect, imperfect, to wit, in the thought of how much is wanting to him for the righteousness for the fullness of which he is still hungering and thirsting; but perfect in that he does not blush to confess his own imperfection, and goes forward in good that he may attain".(11) So we see St. Augustine's definition of perfection containing a true self-awareness of one's imperfection coupled with a movement forward toward the attainment of "not having my own righteousness, which is of the Law, but that which is by the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God in faith".(12) So God gives us righteousness in Christ by faith not by our own righteousness in keeping the Law as the Pelagians would have us believe. St. Augustine says the righteousness the Pelagians are describing in this life will only be attained in our resurrected bodies in the next.

We have seen that the denial of original sin, justification through merit, and man's attainment of perfection without forgiveness are all answered by St. Augustine mainly through Holy Scripture. For the proof of original sin St. Augustine goes from St. Paul's letters to infant baptism to explaining transmission of original sin. For justification through merit St. Augustine turns to St. Paul's conversion to refute this claim. Finally, for the attainment of perfection St. Augustine uses St. Paul to show perfection consists in self-knowledge of imperfection and faith in Jesus Christ. The issues and refutations on both sides are very numerous. I have limited myself to the main issues of the Pelegian Heresy as enumerated by St. Augustine. He has written many books against the Pelagians with many proofs from Sacred Scripture and Tradition to refute them. Many of the issues are taken into greater depth by St. Augustine then was possible in a more general paper like this to explore. I have tried to highlight what struck me as major examples of St. Augustine's thought against each error in Pelagian thought. Certainly, the evil of the Pelagian Heresy brought about the greater good of defining more clearly the Church's teaching on grace through the man who attained the title of "Doctor of Grace".


    1. St. Augustine, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians (Vol. V of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D.; Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), Book III, Chapter 25.

    2. St. Augustine, On the Merits and Remission of Sins, and on The Baptism of Infants, op. cit., Book I, Chapter 9.

    3. Ibid., Chapter 55.

    4. St. Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence, op. cit., Book II, Chapter 36.

    5. St. Augustine, On the Grace of Christ, and On Original Sin, op. cit., Book II, Chapter 38.

    6. Justin Hennessey, O.P., Grace (Rome: Pontifical University of St. Thomas, 1980) , p. 72.

    7. St. Augustine, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, op. cit., Book IV, Chapter 11.

    8. St. Augustine, On Man's Perfection in Righteousness, op. cit., Chapter 44.

    9. St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will, op. cit., Chapter 12.

    10. St. Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, op. cit., Chapter 22.

    11. St. Augustine, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, op. cit., Book III, Chapter 19.

    12. Ibid.


Hennessey, Justin, O.P., Grace, Rome, Pontifical University of St. Thomas, 1980.

St. Augustine, Vol. V of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.

Edited by Philip~Schaff, D.D., LL.D., Michigan, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971.

Wynne, John J., S.J., Vol. XI of The Catholic Encyclopedia. Edited by John J. Wynne, S.J.
             and Associates, New York, The Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

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