Predestination vs. Free Will: The Dispute between Augustine and Pelagius
In the early centuries after the Catholic Church had become the official religion of the Roman Empire there were numerous theological disputes on a wide variety of subjects that were resolved in church councils and synods, the most important of which were held at Nicea, Chalcedon and Ephesus in the 4th and 5th Centuries. One of the most significant of these conflicts was between the free will beliefs propounded by the Irish monk Pelagius versus the predestination doctrine of Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in North Africa, which remained a controversial and contentious issue in Christianity into the 19th and 20th centuries. John H. Wright defined predestination as deriving from Augustine’s belief that the fall of Adam and Eve had corrupted human nature completely, and even infants were condemned to eternal death and damnation “because of original sin” even though they were unable to sin of their own volition.1 For Augustine, human nature was so corrupt that “humans could no longer even do the good they might will to do”, but God still chose some of them for salvation through the mysterious process of grace.2 For Augustine human beings were weak and fallen creatures, condemned to eternal damnation because of original sin, while the God of the Bible was the only perfect, eternal being and no other gods existed. In their fallen state, material desires and worldly pleasures were the main concerns of humanity, but they were of no importance to Augustine.
On the other hand, Pelagius asserted that human beings had free will that was sufficient to prevent them from falling into sin and that they could choose the path of salvation. Contrary to the views of Augustine, which became the official dogma of the Catholic Church during the medieval period, he denied the existence of original sin because of the Fall of Adam and Eve or that all infants had to be baptized to was away this inherited or inborn evil. God was not cruel or unjust and “has not willed to command anything impossible, for he is righteous; and he will not condemn a man for what he could not help, for he is holy.”3 While Augustine found that human free will was weak, and that unaided by divine grace it would inevitably choose to sin, Pelagius was of the opposite opinion, that some humans would choose salvation, Unlike Augustine, he did not believe that the saved were chosen by God (predestination) while others were damned and condemned from the beginning of time. He also rejected Augustine’s insistence that celibacy was the highest ideal and indeed a divine commandment, based on the statement that “he loves thee (God) too little who loves anything together with thee.”4 Eventually, this doctrine that priests, monks and nuns could not marry became part of the canon law of the Catholic Church and remains in effect until the present, although the Protestant churches abolished during the Reformation, starting with Martin Luther.
Augustine’s purpose in writing his classic works like Confessions and City of God was not to explain the natural world, but rather to uphold the Truth (in the sense of absolute and eternal Truth as revealed by God) of the Bible and Christianity. He had no interest in the human life and the physical world, or even any real curiosity about nature except as it turns the mind to reflection about the enteral nature of God and the soul.5 Augustine also rejected the pride, lust and vanity of the material world, including the pride that philosophers took on their wisdom and learning, in favor of following the example of Jesus.6 God was timeless, and in fact created time itself, but also acted constantly within a physical-temporal world and sent Jesus Christ to be incarnated within that world in order to redeem it from sin. Because of the fall in the Garden of Eden, humans were now “disarticulated into time” (ego in tempora disilui) but because of God’s saving grace now had the chance for eternal life where they would “melt into the fires” of divine love.7 Human beings were still crude, carnal and limited creatures, who concentrated on the “visible works of God” rather than their Creator.8 Augustine’s duty as a Christian bishop was to direct their thoughts, emotions and desires away from physicality to the “divine mysteries that are cloaked in human language.”9 Both humanity and even some of the angels like Lucifer had rebelled against God out of pride, arrogance and vanity, but in spite of this, God had still worked out a plan of salvation by which some souls could be redeemed from eternal hellfire that they deserved.
Augustine’s doctrines became part of Catholic orthodoxy and predestination was also accepted by Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th Century. For Augustine, the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden ensured that all human beings that followed them were damned to hell, although the death of Jesus Christ on the cross was sufficient to provide grace to all those who accepted him. Augustine maintained that unaided human free will was too weak to choose salvation, and would always be destined to fall into sin without divine grace. Moreover, even infants who were not baptized would also be condemned to hell, an idea that Pelagius rejected because he denied the existence of original sin. He argued that free will was sufficiently strong to avoid falling into sin, and opposed the idea that unbaptized children would go to hell. In addition, he opposed Augustine’s view that celibacy was the highest Christian ideal at had been commanded by God, at least for the clergy. In 414 AD the Council of Carthage declared Pelagianism heretical and upheld the doctrines of infant baptism and original sin from the fall from grace of Adam and Even. It affirmed that the grace of Jesus Christ was sufficient for sins already committed but did not prevent humans from sinning in the future. Later the Council of Arles in 473 did not fully accept the predestination of Augustine but allowed for a degree of human free will and recognized that sin would still exist after baptism into the Church. The Council of Orange in 529 also accepted that the original sin of Adam condemned all human beings who followed, but that the grace of Christ was sufficient to forgive all these sins. With the grace of God the human free will was sufficient to withstand the temptations to sin, but it also denied that God had predestined some to evil and damnation, as Augustine believed.
Historical Significance for the Christian Churches
Augustine set the tone and dogmas of medieval Christianity as well as for many of the Protestant Reformers in the 16th Century. Luther and Calvin certainly agreed with Augustine about predestination and original sin being biblical and that only the Bible was “inerrant”.10 The followers of Calvin in particular also found that predestination created similar problems and disputes that had arisen in the early church. In the 17th Century, for example, the Arminian Calvinists also rejected predestination in favor of free will, and over time this revived Pelagianism became the mainstream view within the Catholic Church and most Protestant denominations. Pelagius had had numerous supporters within the church hierarchy even during his lifetime, but his insistence on free will as a central Christian was only fully vindicated in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Although the early Reformers also upheld infant baptism as necessary for the remission of original sin, and the practice continues in the Catholic Church and most of the Protestant churches, as early as the 16th and 17th Centuries the Anabaptists (re-baptizers) also revived the Pelagian idea that infants and children before the age of reason were not condemned to hell, and permitted only adults to choose baptism of their own free will when they were admitted to the church. This is still the standard practice of all Baptist churches at the present as well as those other churches that rejected the idea of original sin completely, or at least its applicability to infants and children. In general, then Pelagius turned out to be far ahead of his time in the sense that his views were fully (or at least partially) vindicated in the modern era, particularly with the rise of the new faith in the individual free will and free choice of human beings that Augustine had rejected.
Augustine. Confessions. Penguin Classics, 2006.
Pelagius, “Letter to Demitrias” in Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder (eds). Documents of the Christian Church, 4th Edition. Oxford, 2011, p. 55.
“On the Councils and the Church” (1539) in Gerhardt Tappert (ed) Selected Writings of Martin Luther: 1529-1546. Fortress Press, 1967.
“The Saying which Troubled Pelagius” in Bettenson and Maunder, p. 57.
Stortz, Mary Ellen. “’Where or When Was your Servant Innocent?’: Augustine on Childhood” in Marcia J. Bunge (ed). The Child in Christian Thought. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2001, pp. 78-102.
Wills, Gary A. Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2011.
Wright, John H. “Predestination” in Joseph A. Komachak et al (eds). The New Theological Dictionary. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 798.