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The Origins of Original Sin - Part III

Daniel J. Castellano


The Pelagian Controversy

3.1 Summary of Pelagius' Doctrine
3.2 Pelagianism and Justification by Grace
3.3 The Christian Church's Response to Pelagianism
   3.3.1 Council of Carthage against Caelestius (411)
   3.3.2 Personal Exoneration of Pelagius in the East (415)
   3.3.3 North African Synods against Pelagius and Caelestius (416)
   3.3.4 Appeals to Pope Zosimus (417)
   3.3.5 Council of Carthage against Modified Pelagianism (418)
   3.3.6 Condemnation by Pope and Emperor (418-19)

The idea that men inherited from Adam not only the inclination to sin, but sin itself, gained widespread currency in the Latin churches of Italy and North Africa. This was a marked departure from the Greek churches of the East, where the emphasis was on penalties inherited from Adam, such as death, sickness, and inclinations to lust and gluttony, rather than a culpable sin by which every man is born meriting condemnation. Neither the Greek nor Latin fathers had worked out the distinction between the guilt and penalty (culpa et poena) of original sin in much detail, though this divergence of emphasis would prove to have fateful consequences in the West.

3.1 Summary of Pelagius' Doctrine

A British lay monk named Pelagius (c. 354-420), having studied Greek theology, came to the conclusion that the teaching in the Latin churches about inherited sin was entirely wrongheaded, as no man but Adam could be held culpable for Adam's sin. He grounded his arguments on the foundation of man's perfectly free will, which always has the capacity to choose either good or evil. Pelagius would not admit that the will could be more inclined one way or another; its nature and power never changed. Each moral decision was an autonomous act that did not alter the nature of the will in its subsequent acts. At most, it could be admitted that performing bad actions might set a bad example, thereby making it more difficult to form good habits. Yet this did not constitute any impairment or corruption of the faculty of willing.

It is clear the Pelagius' theology was not based merely on what he learned from the Greek fathers, but on his own particular theory of free will. This theory was shaped in part by Stoicism, which emphasized the complete power of the will to choose between good and evil, and described virtue and vice in terms of developing good and bad habits of action. To a Stoic, virtue or vice was to be found in each act of the will. Pelagius, influenced by this still popular philosophy, could not admit that there was any vice or sin other than performing a bad voluntary act, nor that the performance of such an act would impair the future action of the will. He believed that a man always had the ability to achieve virtue by his own volition and self-discipline. If nothing else, Pelagius had the intellectual courage to carry these beliefs to their logical conclusions.

Consistent with the principles described, Pelagius held that Adam's original nature was no different from his nature after he sinned. The act of sinning did not alter the nature of human will in any way. It was perfectly free and capable of sinning or not sinning, both before and after the Fall. Thus Adam was never in a state of original innocence, nor did his sin cause men to be born with so much as an inclination to sin, much less sin itself. Pelagius went beyond denying an Ambrosian notion of hereditary sin, but opposed even the milder notion of an inherited inclination to sin, which we have seen espoused by many illustrious Greek and Latin doctors, and indeed the Apostle Paul.

Pelagius, of course, was well aware of the copious New Testament evidence declaring that Adam's sin had brought about sin for all humanity. He explained such passages by saying that Adam's sin gave a bad example to other men, and in that sense alone was it the cause of subsequent sins. Christ's act of redemption, conversely, was achieved by teaching good doctrine and setting a good example for men to follow. Naturally, this doctrine of Pelagius eviscerates the central Christian doctrine of Redemption, which we have clearly shown to be taught in the Gospels and in various apostolic Epistles, and of course all the Fathers of the Church. Ironically, by showing how a complete denial of original sin effectively reduces Christ to a mere ethical teacher—much as some modern secular thinkers would prefer—Pelagius unwittingly gives testimony that a doctrine of original sin is essential to Christianity.

It hardly needs to be added that Pelagius' doctrine is heretical, as it disregards or renders null entire epistles of the New Testament, and abolishes the Redemption on the Cross. If St. Paul had really meant what Pelagius says he meant, that Christ was only setting a good example for us, the Apostle went about this in a highly misleading way, and went off on completely irrelevant theological excursions regarding Adam's sin. It is hardly compatible with the dignity of Scripture, or even with the basic rationality of St. Paul, to impose this interpretation on the Pauline epistles. Pelagius had clearly given preference to his philosophical theses over the most plausible interpretation of Scripture. It is no wonder that his system has won adherents among those who favor moral philosophy over revelation.

Although Pelagius' doctrine required a highly contorted interpretation of Christian revelation, it could be appealing to Christians insofar as it seemed to present an evidently rational, common sense account of moral actions. We do, in fact, often feel that we are not born good or bad, and that we can cultivate virtue by developing good habits, or sink into vice by developing bad habits. Pelagius' teaching on these points is not utterly false, but in fact contains a great deal of truth. His error consisted in his insistence that our natural inclination with respect to good and evil is always neutral and can never be changed, though habit may make one course of action easier than another.

The moral neutrality of the will is a highly dubious proposition; young children are notoriously selfish unless they are checked, and the love of natural goods over spiritual goods may itself be considered an inclination to evil. Further, it seems evident that the power of the will does change in different circumstances, as we feel that sometimes we are strong in virtue and other times we are weak. Some actions or thoughts are so heinous or indecent that, once committed, we are forever changed and can no longer return to our former innocence.

It is certainly true that virtue is cultivated by developing good habits, yet there is more to virtue than the exercise of willful acts. We call a man virtuous even when he is not doing any virtuous deed at the moment, but on account of his virtuous disposition. Pelagius gives short shrift to the notion of virtue as a disposition; one is only virtuous or vicious in each successive isolated act, and none of these acts has a cumulative effect on our disposition, though they may make the performance of a like act easier. Still, on this assumption, there can be no true moral development; a man does not become more virtuous over time, but is only what he is according to how he acts at the moment. It is no wonder Pelagius denied that we could inherit sinful inclinations from Adam; in his view, we cannot even pass such inclinations to ourselves from one moment to the next. What I did yesterday has no bearing on whether I am a virtuous man today.

Pelagianism's link to reason and common sense, then, is ultimately as tenuous as its support in revelation. Still, its exaltation of free will could appeal to man's sense of self determination in moral affairs. After all, as the philosophers of old had long said, what is truly a man's own is his virtue. In Pelagius' doctrine, free will always possessed the natural strength to resist temptation, so that in principle it was possible for every man not to sin at all. Going further, he supposed that even some of the Jews and heathens before Christ had succeeded in achieving sinless perfection. A man needed only to cultivate the proper self-discipline through ascetic practices, enlightened by the wisdom of divine law. Such a doctrine could find adherents among lay monks, who could see their mortifications as a means of working out their salvation.

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3.2 Pelagianism and Justification by Grace

This aspect of Pelagianism comes into conflict with another central Christian dogma, namely that man needs God's grace or free gift in order to be saved, and he cannot be saved by his own works. This doctrine of justification by faith is articulated most emphatically by St. Paul, and the Gospels are full of examples where Christ tells people their faith has saved him, and preaches salvation through God's freely offered mercy. In the time of Pelagius, there was no clearly articulated doctrine of grace, yet all Christians agreed that some free gift of God was necessary for salvation. The New Testament repeatedly emphasizes the necessity of faith for salvation; the instances are too numerous to cite. It is predominantly in the Pauline epistles, however, where faith is described as a free gift or grace from God; again, the citations are abundant. Still, lest we think the idea that faith comes from God rather than human nature is a peculiarity of St. Paul, we may find several other allusions to this idea elsewhere in the New Testament.

"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father." (Mt. 16:17)

"No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven." (Jn. 3:27)

"And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life..." (Jn. 6:39-40)

"My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father's hand." (Jn. 11:27-29)

...you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed... (1 Pt. 5:6)

His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. (2 Pt. 1:3)

Their desertion shows that none of them was of our number. But you have the anointing that comes from the holy one, and you have all knowledge. (1 Jn. 2:19-20)

Just as St. Paul's doctrine of original sin is grounded in the doctrine of redemption found throughout the New Testament, so too is doctrine of grace grounded in the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ Jesus found in the rest of the New Testament, which also alludes to the fact that this faith is a divine gift. It was not by human nature ("flesh and blood") that St. Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah, but by divine intimation. Those who come to have faith in Christ have been called or chosen, and they are guaranteed never to fall away. In his teaching about grace, St. Paul only makes explicit what is assumed in other apostolic teaching. Nowhere in the New Testament is faith portrayed as the product of human labor; rather, our good works are pleasing to God in virtue of faith.

Still, the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament also articulate a role of free will cooperating with divine grace. Christ knocks and we must answer. (Rev. 3:20) This cooperation is often portrayed as a positive action on the believer's part, rather than passively allowing God to do all the work. This emphasis indeed found its way into Greek theology, which spoke mainly of free will positively assisting grace rather than impeding it. This assertion of the positive value of free will in attaining salvation was necessary to oppose the various fatalistic philosophies that prevailed in the East.

In the West, however, it became common to speak of free will as being an impediment to God's grace. This view also had a solid foundation in Scripture, as Christ repeatedly held the scribes and Pharisees morally culpable for failing to believe in him. Numerous parables allude to the obstacles that a man may erect against receiving God's gifts and doing His will. "For many are called, but few are chosen." (Mt. 22:14) "He who is not with me is against me, and he that gathers not with me scatters." (Luke 11:23) In other words, those who do not cooperate with God's grace actively oppose it.

These two perspectives on the relationship between grace and free will are not mutually exclusive. People may voluntarily oppose or co-operate with divine grace at different points in time. These schools of thought diverge by way of emphasis, not direct contradiction. In either case, God's grace is necessary for salvation, and this much was agreed upon by doctors of the East and the West.

Yet in the West there would also come into being an idea that, even for the saved, there is no positive cooperation of the will that leads to salvation. Justification is achieved solely by grace, and the role of the will in this regard is simply to raise no obstacle. This seemed to uphold the doctrine that it is faith and not works per se that saves, though works are a necessary part of a living faith, as St. James says. Still, the purely passive role assigned to the will in the process of salvation could easily seem fatalistic, and it would take the genius of St. Augustine to painstakingly harmonize this doctrine with the moral agency of a free human will. It is not our task here to resolve any of the various subtle controversies on grace and free will which colored the Pelagian dispute, except insofar as they directly bear on the doctrine of original sin.

Since Pelagius held that free will was naturally strong enough to overcome sin, he further claimed that it was possible through free will not to sin at all, even without the help of divine grace. Following his own logic, he asserted that even some Jews and pagans before Christ had achieved such perfection. In other words, man could be saved by his own strength, a notion that is utterly contrary to the spirit of Christ's teaching, which repeatedly emphasizes man's utter dependence on God, who alone is truly good. Again, Pelagius compromises central Christian teachings in order to uphold a superficially rational moral philosophy.

Pelagius did, however, believe himself to be a Christian, so he had to acknowledge that grace aided in salvation, though it was not absolutely necessary. God's grace or favor was given through the Law, and later through the example of Christ, in order to facilitate the development of virtue. These gifts were given to reward virtuous men and to encourage them to continue to practice virtue. He even went so far as to say that men are justified by faith and not by works. By justification, he meant that our sins are pardoned on account of our faith in Christ. The role of the Savior, then, is to help those who are imperfect to be saved, by forgiving their offenses. These people are saved in virtue of their faith, not their works. Yet this aid to salvation is only auxiliary, not an indispensable necessity, since it is possible to be sinless by one's own efforts. Pelagius' justification by faith rather than works, then, simply means that sins are pardoned because of our faith, not because of our works, but it does not abolish his doctrine that man can avoid sin altogether by his own unaided effort.

We should further note that, true to his principles, Pelagius did not allow that justification entailed any change in the soul's nature (typically called sanctification). This meant that even those who received divine grace did not have their souls altered, either naturally or supernaturally. This is contrary to the teaching of the New Testament, which repeatedly contrasts the supernatural spirituality of believers with the mere carnality of those under the Law. There are numerous instances of this in St. Paul, who speaks of "stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds, and putting on the new, him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of him that created him." (Col. 3:9-10) Again, "our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin may be destroyed, to the end that we may serve sin no longer." (Rom. 6:6) "So do you also reckon that you are dead to sin, but alive unto God, in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 6:11) "For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law, but under grace." (Rom. 6:14) And finally: "But now being made free from sin and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end life everlasting." (Rom. 6:22)

St. Paul speaks elsewhere of supernatural gifts as essential to the Christian life of faith. To quote a few instances:

..we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. (Rom. 8:26)

Now we have received not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit that is of God, that we may know the things that are given us from God. (1 Cor. 2:12)

Know you not that your bodies are the members of Christ? (1 Cor. 6:11)

No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3)

The Apostle is not alone in making these claims that Christians partake of a spiritual nature beyond this world. Elsewhere in the New Testament we find:

"For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you." (Mt 10:20)

"Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible." (Mt. 19:25-26)

"...you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world..." (Jn. 15:19)

"They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world." (Jn. 17:16)

"And I consecrate myself, so that they also may be consecrated in the truth." (Jn. 17:19)

"...you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38)

"John baptized with water but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." (Lk. 3:16, Acts 11:16)

"If then God gave them the same gift he gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?" When they heard this, they stopped objecting and glorified God, saying, "God has then granted life-giving repentance to the gentiles too." (Acts 11:17-18)

"You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and abiding word of God." (1 Peter 2:23)

Pelagianism would render all of the above promises merely poetic turns of phrase, for in fact man is not changed at all in his nature by baptism nor by faith nor by any grace that helps him perform virtuous acts. The Christian faith and sacraments would have no power to transform man, but could at most pardon his past iniquities and exhort him to sin no more by offering a good example. If this is what Christ and the Apostles truly meant in the above passages, they certainly expressed their thought in needlessly poetic and theological circumlocutions. Again, Pelagians must give highly implausible interpretations of Scripture in order to sustain their theses of moral philosophy.

Pelagius has found many defenders in modern times, since he satisfies the liberal conceit that most of us are good, decent people (where 'good' and 'decent' are defined as innocuously as possible), and that we are not in need of any divine mercy, being virtuous by our own efforts. In a culture that foolishly makes freedom itself a moral good, rather than simply the means of choosing between virtue and vice, Pelagius' extravagant claims for the power of the will are especially appealing. However, Pelagianism was appealing in its own day for quite different reasons. The monks who espoused it did not intend to claim that salvation was an easy thing; on the contrary, they emphasized the necessity of hard self-discipline in order to avoid sin. The fact that most people sinned though they had the power to resist meant that they were clearly culpable and needed to be pardoned through faith in Christ. There was still, then, a widespread need for the Savior's aid. Nonetheless, men were fully capable of saving themselves, and some had actually done so in the past.

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3.3 The Christian Church's Response to Pelagianism

Pelagius lived in Rome from about the year 400. By around 410, he had written several works, including some commentaries on the epistles of St. Paul, which contained some of his heretical ideas. Among these were his denial of original sin and his denial that Adam's original nature was any different from that of his descendants. He even went so far as to claim that not only concupiscence (appetites opposed to reason) but even mortality were part of Adam's original nature, contrary to the plain sense of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. Adam's sin, as noted previously, brought about universal sin only by bad example. Pelagius' commentaries also contained the other heretical claims described previously.

3.3.1 Council of Carthage against Caelestius (411)

It did not take long for Pelagianism to run afoul of ecclesiastical authority. In 411, Caelestius, a lay monk who was a friend of Pelagius, was accused of making the following heretical assertions in Contra traducem peccati ("Against the Transmission of Sin"):

1) Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died.
2) Adam's sin harmed only himself, not the human race.
3) Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall.
4) The whole human race neither dies through Adam's sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of Christ.
5) The Law is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel.
6) Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin.

These theses were brought to the bishop Aurelius of Milan, and they were condemned by a synod at Carthage that same year. Caelestius refused to appear before the council, claiming that the inheritance of Adam's sin was not a defined doctrine. However, even if that were true, the condemned theses were indeed contrary to the explicit teachings of Scripture, so it is no surprise that they were swiftly condemned.

The first thesis contradicts the Book of Genesis, which clearly indicates that mortality is a consequence of Adam's sin. Jews and Christians alike had universally taken this declaration at face value. In the New Testament, St. Paul expounded at length that death entered the world through one man's sin, and the wages of sin is death. It is hardly possible to deny that Adam's sin was the cause of death for the human race without denying Scripture. If he would have died anyway, then his sin was of no consequence, contrary to the express teaching of Scripture.

Once the ancient doctrine that Adam's fall brought death into the world is accepted, it obviously follows that the second thesis is also false. The same is true of the third thesis, if only for the fact that children are born mortal while Adam was born immortal, or at least with the real possibility of immortality.

The fourth thesis would eviscerate most of St. Paul's theology, especially in the Epistle to the Romans, disregarding the plain sense of the Apostle's teaching and imposing an utterly contrary sense.

The fifth thesis is consequent to the Pelagian assertion that men could save themselves under the Mosaic Law, and supported by the claim that Christ sought only to offer a good example on how to keep the Law. Naturally, it is contrary to the entire tenor of New Testament teaching, which repeatedly emphasizes the superiority of the New Covenant over the Law, even to the point that the strictures of the Law are expressly dispensed with on many occasions.

The last thesis is again contrary to New Testament teaching, which repeatedly declares that all are guilty under the Law, so that all are in need of mercy. Christianity differs from Judaism on this point, for while the Jews only regard actions as sinful, Christ noted that many sin even in their heart, by harboring lust or behaving hypocritically, for example, and that these interior sins corrupted a soul, and could not be washed away by external works of the Law.

In the condemnation of all of these theses, there was nothing peculiar to Latin theology. The theses would have been just as heretical to the Greeks. This condemnation of Caelestius' doctrines did not address the more subtle issues of how original sin is propagated and what exactly is passed from Adam to his descendants. It did not pass direct judgment on Pelagius' philosophizing about free will. It only condemned what was in direct contradiction with doctrines of the faith that had long been held by Christians in the East and West. The denial of these doctrines, it should be clear by now, would empty the power of the central doctrines of the Redemption and justification by faith in Christ, the sanctification of Christians through baptism and faith, and the superiority of the New Covenant that supplanted and perfected the insufficient Mosaic Law.

One aspect of these condemned doctrines may appeal to modern thinkers, namely that children are born in the same state as Adam, and that Adam would have died anyway. In the absence of divine revelation, one might argue that since man evolved from brute beasts, he naturally shared many of their irrational animal desires, so there was never a state of original innocence. However, we cannot invoke physical anthropology to decide the question of Adam's original innocence, since the Book of Genesis seems to suggest that Adam received immortality and other perfections as a supernatural favor. Moreover, the state of innocence lasted only a single generation, so we cannot expect to find any physical remains of men with this higher nature. It matters not that early humans and other hominids exhibit certain shared behavioral traits. This does not prove that man did not once live in a higher state.

The belief in a primitive state of innocence goes beyond divine revelation, and can be found in belief systems throughout the world, as well as in various ancient philosophies. The reason for the broad appeal of this belief is that man recognizes a higher good—call it virtue, if you will—that he naturally desires, yet he finds that his flesh contains desires at odds with this love of virtue. He finds a disharmony between the virtuous nature that he ought to have and the corrupt nature that he actually does have. Since the seekers of virtue often experience that, when they find virtue, it is as if they have found their true abode, it is only natural to think that we are actually returning to our original state, our true destiny. Man is too noble a creature to be a son of beasts and nothing more. Something in him bespeaks of a higher origin, as he is able to contemplate heavenly goodness and eternal ideals, and he feels more at home there than in the physical world. Thus Socrates suggested that we do not learn virtue, but remember it from before we were born.

It is not germane to this discussion whether one finds the doctrine upheld by the Council of Carthage in 411 plausible or not. What is relevant is that this doctrine were well established long before the fifth century, being explicitly contained in Scripture and taught by the Church Fathers, and so the condemnation of Pelagianism was not the result of any peculiar development of Latin theology, but rather the only possible orthodox Christian response to propositions that undermined the central tenets of Christianity. Whatever one may think of Pelagianism as a rational moral philosophy, it cannot claim any pedigree as an authentic Christian doctrine, being no older than its inventor and being swiftly condemned for contradicting perennial Christian teachings.

Caelestius was denied ordination in North Africa, so he fled east to Ephesus, where he became a priest. Although these theses were condemned, Pelagian ideas were still held by many individuals, including bishops, especially around Carthage and Sicily. As we have seen, Pelagian ideas were rationally appealing, and they could be superficially harmonized with Scripture. Even devout Christians could be misled by the plausible-sounding thesis that sin cannot be inherited, and then follow its logic to increasingly heterodox consequences. These heretical implications actually helped establish that the inheritance of original sin is logically necessary in order to sustain orthodox Christianity.

It was at this point in time that the illustrious Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was enlisted into the defense of orthodoxy. At the behest of his friend Marcellinus, he wrote De peccatorum meritis et remissione and De spiritu et littera in 412, defending the doctrines of original sin, and the necessity of divine grace and baptism. In these works he appealed to Scriptural and Patristic authorities, and also introduced some new arguments, which we shall examine later. He also wrote counterarguments to new works written by the Pelagians. De perfectione iustitiae hominis (On Man's Perfection in Righteousness, 414 or 415) was a rebuttal of the Definitiones Caelestii attributed to Caelestius, while De natura et gratia (415) was an immediate response to Pelagius' De natura, which pretended to find support for Pelagianism in selective citations from St. Hilary, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and even St. Augustine himself. Jerome, who was still alive at the time (and like Pelagius, resided in Palestine at the time), forcefully refuted Pelagius' claims in letter to Ctesiphon (Ep. 133) and his Dialogi contra pelagianos.

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3.3.2 Personal Exoneration of Pelagius in the East (415)

In 415, Pelagius was twice brought before synods in the East to defend himself of charges of heresy. The first was in July, summoned by bishop John of Jerusalem, who was personally favorable to Pelagius. Being much more fluent in Greek than his accuser (Orosius of Spain, a pupil of Augustine), he was able to defend himself well enough to obtain a judgment whereby silence was imposed on both parties. Final judgment was reserved to the Latin Church, since both parties were Latins. In December of that year, two former Gallic bishops who had moved to Palestine - Heros of Arles and Lazarus of Aix - had Pelagius brought before a synod of fourteen bishops in Diospolis. Due to the ill health of the plaintiffs, Pelagius was able to defend himself uncontested, cleverly distancing himself from doctrines declared heretical and imputing them to Caelestius. He made use of rhetorical subtlety, claiming he believed in grace since nature itself was a gift of God (exploiting the lack of a clear distinction between natural and supernatural grace). He was therefore exonerated and found personally worthy of communion.

Modern advocates of Pelagius and enemies of Catholic orthodoxy like to point out this exoneration of the heresiarch as proof of the orthodoxy of his doctrine, but they neglect to mention that this judgment was rendered only because Pelagius disavowed the heretical doctrines condemned at Carthage in 411. In neither of the judgments issued in 415 did the synods deny the doctrine of original sin, nor of the necessity of grace and baptism, nor of the impossibility of being sinless through purely natural means. It is quite obvious from the rulings of councils before and after this incident that Pelagius would have been declared a heretic had he dared to openly reject any of these doctrines. It was only by softening his claims that he was able to claim orthodoxy. Yet whenever Pelagian doctrines were submitted to a Church council in their explicit, unadulterated form, they were always condemned, and even the most strenuous modern advocate of Pelagius will be hard pressed to find a counterexample. The orthodoxy of original sin and related doctrines, then, cannot be attributed to a reaction against Pelagianism, though the Pelagian controversy did give rise to new arguments about these doctrines.

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3.3.3 North African Synods against Pelagius and Caelestius (416)

In 416, the bishops of North Africa organized two great synods condemning the doctrines of Pelagius and Caelestius, so that no one should be misled by the personal exoneration at Diospolis. Sixty-seven bishops assembled at Carthage and another fifty-nine bishops convened at Milevis. Augustine, as bishop of Hippo, was present at the latter council, which was led by Bishop Silvanus. Each of the two councils sent a synodal letter asking Pope Innocent I to ratify their judgment. A third letter was sent by five bishops, including Augustine, detailing the doctrine of original sin and the necessity of grace and baptism. St. Augustine certainly played an important role at the council of Milevis, but he hardly had the power to singlehandedly determine the judgment of that council, much less that of Carthage.

In January 417, the Pope responded to each of the three letters, articulating the doctrine of the Apostolic See on original sin and grace, and excommunicated Pelagius and Caelestius, who were reported to have rejected these doctrines, until they should accept the defined teachings.

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3.3.4 Appeals to Pope Zosimus (417)

Pope Innocent died in March 417, and he was replaced by the Greek Zosimus. In September of that year, Pope Zosimus reopened the inquiry regarding the personal condemnation of Pelagius and Caelestius. It is important to emphasize—contrary to the willful confusion induced by modern advocates of Pelagianism—that at no point were doctrinal definitions being called into question. The theses condemned at Carthage (411, 416) and at Milevis (416) were undoubtedly heretical; what was in doubt was whether Pelagius and Caelestius personally held the views imputed to them. Neither had the opportunity to defend himself in 416, and both had asked the new pope to re-open their cases, submitting statements professing their orthodoxy.

Pelagius appeared to have modified his views, for in 416 he wrote De libero arbitrio, which admitted that divine revelation and interior grace (as opposed to the external gifts of the Law, the Gospel, and Christ's example) could facilitate salutary works. He acknowledged that baptism was necessary for infants to enter the "kingdom of God" (as indeed any believer in the Gospel must hold), but was not necessary for "eternal life". He sent this work, along with a confession of faith, to Pope Innocent I in 417 (not knowing he had died), and humbly submitted to any corrections the pontiff might deem appropriate. Caelestius, for his part went to Rome personally in 417 and gave his profession of faith.

Pope Zosimus did not find anything heretical in the professions of faith submitted by Pelagius and Caelestius, as indeed there was not, strictly speaking, since they skirted the issue of whether divine grace was merely helpful or necessary for salvation. He sent two letters rebuking the North African bishops for censuring the two men without having investigated the matter sufficiently. He was satisfied as to the personal orthodoxy of Pelagius, and he gave the African bishops two months to either revise their sentence against Caelestius or to renew their accusation in Rome.

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3.3.5 Council of Carthage against Modified Pelagianism (418)

The bishops hastily convened a new council at Carthage in November 417, and issued a letter to the Pope, urging him not to reverse the sentences of his predecessor unless both Pelagius and Caelestius explicitly admitted that interior grace was necessary for all good thoughts and deeds. The Pope replied that he had not definitively decided anything. He sent all the documents related to Pelagianism to Africa in order to open a joint investigation, which would include over 200 Latin bishops assembled in Carthage the following year.

The Council of Carthage in 418, which was not merely provincial but included all the African bishops (i.e., those from Numidia and Mauretania as well), convened on May 1. The 214 bishops pronounced these canons or rules of faith in the Council's acts:

1) That Adam was not created by God subject to death.
2) That infants are baptized for the remission of sins.
3) That the grace of God not only gives remission of sins, but also affords aid that we sin no more.
4) The grace of Christ not only discloses the knowledge of God's commandments, but also imparts strength to will and execute them.
5) That the grace of Christ gives not only the knowledge of our duty, but also inspires us with a desire that we may be able to accomplish what we know.
6) That without the grace of God we can do no good thing.
7) Than not only humble but also true is that voice of the Saints: "If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves."
8) That in the Lord's Prayer the Saints say for themselves: "Forgive us our trespasses." 9) That the saints say with accuracy, "Forgive us our trespasses."

[In some enumerations, what we have cited as Canons 4 and 5 are a single rule. Canons 8 and 9 might also be considered the same rule.]

Some manuscripts of the acts include an additional canon, of doubtful authenticity, which declares that children dying without baptism do not go to a "middle place" (medius locus), since the non-reception of baptism excludes both from the "kingdom of heaven" and from "eternal life". This would appear to address Pelagius' claim that unbaptized infants somehow receive "eternal life" without the "kingdom of heaven," as though these were two distinct promises by Christ. The denial of a "middle place" is not absolute, since it is conditioned by the falsity of the distinction mentioned, so "middle places" based on other distinctions (e.g., purgatory, limbo) might still be admitted.

In the eight undoubtedly authentic canons, we can see the assertion of a broad tradition, already recognizable in the New Testament and Patristic sources we have examined. That death came to Adam because of sin is unequivocally asserted in the Old and New Testaments, and even the Jews have long recognized this. Thus the Council anathematizes anyone who says that Adam would have died of natural necessity, whether he sinned or not. It can hardly be denied that this anathema applies to Pelagius, who held that Adam's nature was the same before and after he sinned.

Long before the fifth century, Christians had widely practiced infant baptism, which like all baptism, was explicitly performed "for the remission of sins". As the Council points out in its explanation of the second canon, the form of baptism for infants would be false if there were no sin in them. The Council cites St. Paul: "Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death. Death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned." (Romans 5:12) The Catholic Church everywhere has always understood this "rule of faith," the Council says, to mean that all men derive from Adam an "original sin, which needs to be removed by the laver of regeneration." For this reason, "even infants, who could have committed as yet no sin themselves, therefore are truly baptized for the remission of sins, in order that what in them is the result of generation may be cleansed by regeneration."

In this explanation, we see traces of the argument used by St. Cyprian (3rd cent.), who spoke of an infant as having "contracted the contagion of the ancient death," so that baptism "remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another." There is also some emphasis on baptism as a "laver of regeneration," as we saw with St. John Chrysostom, yet here "regeneration" is understood explicitly as replacing natural generation from Adam with a new creation or new birth.

By this time, even Pelagius admitted that an interior divine grace not only pardoned past sins, but also helped to avoid future sins. This grace (i.e., divine favor) was not simply about giving us knowledge of the Law, as the Jews thought sufficient, but also giving us the internal strength to obey divine commandments. Thus Canons 3 through 5 should not be controversial, notwithstanding Pelagius' earlier claim that divine grace was limited to external aids such as the Law and the example of Christ.

The claim that "without the grace of God we can do no good thing" may seem objectionable from a secular perspective, but as a Christian doctrine it is unavoidable. Jesus taught, "He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit; for without me you can do nothing." (Jn. 15:5) The Council explains this "fruit" is the fruit of the commandments, so the meaning is that no one can fulfill the divine commandments by his own unaided strength. This is consistent with the tenor of many New Testament teachings emphasizing the necessity of divine grace.

This canon (6 in our enumeration) counters the central Pelagian claim that interior divine grace is not necessary for salvation. As such, it should be interpreted as applying to "good acts" only insofar as they are salutary, that is, tending toward salvation. For it is manifestly not the case that every act of merely natural moral goodness depends explicitly on a supernatural grace. It is morally good to feed one's children, for example, and human nature alone is sufficient to induce one to perform this good deed, and many other natural good deeds. It was this sort of naturalistic thinking, gathered from reading Cicero, that induced Pelagius to deny the need for grace, unless you count human nature as itself a gift of God, and therefore a sort of grace. However, the New Testament repeatedly insists on the insufficiency of mere natural virtue or works of the Law. If man were to be judged by these alone, none would merit salvation. It is only by the assent of faith, which is the result of a supernatural grace, that a man's deeds can merit salvation, not because of himself, but because of Christ. This is central to the Christian religion, if Christianity is to be anything distinct from Judaism.

The canon, in its brevity, does not expressly declare a distinction between natural and supernatural gifts, nor between naturally good acts and salutary acts tending toward salvation. These distinctions are logically implied, however, and it would be the work of St. Augustine to expound them and to explore their logical consequences.

The remaining canons assert that even the greatest sins confessed that they were sinners, and they did this not merely out of humility, but as professing the truth. St. John the Apostle explicitly teaches, "If we shall say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." The one without sin has no need of Christ's pardon, and a Savior is not strictly necessary for everyone. Indeed, if Pelagius' contrary doctrine that man can avoid all sin by his own effort were true, in principle every man could make himself without need of the Savior. The basis for Pelagius belief is not to be found in Christian revelation, which expressly asserts the diametrical opposite, but in the Stoic doctrine of the absolute freedom of the will. In this view, man's moral action is completely unimpeded, so that there is nothing in principle preventing him from always choosing the good. This position does not take into account the reality that man finds himself with inclinations to evil (yetzer hara) which make a life without sin at least a practical impossibility.

Again, we find no explanation of how or why it is the case that no one can be without sin, but rather the Council is content to show that this is in fact the authentic Catholic teaching received from the Apostles. Rules of faith are declared in order to define what Catholic Christians must believe, while explanations of how these doctrines can be harmonized with various philosophical principles and facts is left to theological writers. St. Augustine, we see, did not invent any of the doctrines in these canons. His contribution would be to explain them philosophically and theologically, leading to deeper rational understanding and more subtle conceptual distinctions.

On April 30, the day before the Council at Carthage, the Western Emperor Honorius condemned Caelestius and Pelagius, and banished their followers from Rome. Many scholars believe that the African bishops had earlier petitioned the emperor to take this action, though there is no definite evidence of this. At any rate, Caelestius had caused sufficient disturbances and riots to provoke a state response by continuing to debate publicly in Rome. This would account for why the emperor banished the Pelagians only in Rome and not the rest of the empire.

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3.3.6 Condemnation by Pope and Emperor (418-19)

After the Council submitted its acts for papal ratification, Pope Zosimus invoked his apostolic authority to condemn Pelagius. Subsequently, in 419, the emperor extended the state sanctions against Pelagians to the entire Western empire. It is not the case, then, that the emperor forced the pope's hand, but rather an empire-wide sanction against Pelagianism was imposed only after this heresy had been duly defined by a council and pope, as was the customary procedure.

By 419, Pelagianism had been duly condemned by a pope, an emperor and over 200 bishops. This level of opposition was much too great to be attributable solely or even primarily to the efforts of Augustine of Hippo, as many modern Pelagian apologists have endeavored. Even in the earlier cases where Pelagius and Caelestius were personally exonerated, there was no instance where an ecclesiastical authority publicly assented to one of Pelagius' heretical doctrines. Today's defenders of Pelagius will look in vain for any Church authority who denied the reality of original sin, or denied the necessity of divine grace, or held a purely naturalistic view of salvation, such as Pelagius advocated. Among the ecclesiastical authorities, be they popes and councils, there was never any disagreement over where to stand on these doctrinal questions. This is not surprising, for we have already seen that these traditions had existed for centuries, as a logically necessary development of New Testament soteriology.

As we have noted, while it is unequivocal that the Western Church believed in the doctrine of original sin from its earliest centuries, and never wavered in this belief at the magisterial level, there was not really a well-developed explanation of the doctrine. The distinction between natural gifts and supernatural grace was only obliquely articulated, as was the distinction between interior and exterior grace (the latter being the Law and the Gospel conceived as external norms). A clearer articulation of these distinctions was made necessary because of the disastrous consequences Pelagius reached by mishandling them, leading to a pseudo-Christian naturalism without proper need of a Savior. Now that the cat was out of the bag, there was no avoiding these questions, and St. Augustine would spend much of the subsequent years trying to expound the Church's ancient doctrines in a philosophically sound manner.

The Church's rejection of Pelagianism shows how Christianity was not held hostage to any particular pagan philosophy. The Church freely rejected many aspects of Stoicism and Neoplatonism (in the Origenist controversies) where these morally noble and at times Christian-sounding philosophies contradicted the genius, tenor, or internal logic of received Christian revelation. Attempts to "explain" (or rather, explain away) Christian theological development in terms of pagan philosophy fail to do justice to the stout intellectual independence of the Church's leaders, who were disciples of Christ rather than Plato or Cicero. The careful student of early Christian theology will recognize that even when the Fathers of the Church appropriated language and concepts from existing philosophies, they often did so in ways that were subordinate to a purpose entirely different from their original pagan context.

It is undeniable that St. Augustine played an important role in the subsequent development of the doctrines of grace and original sin in the West. However, the basic content of these doctrines was already defined by the aforementioned Council of Carthage, which in turn was grounded in well established Christian traditions. Much of St. Augustine's important anti-Pelagian writing, which elucidated the relevant doctrines on the effect of original sin on human nature and the subsequent necessity of sanctifying grace, was written after Pelagianism had already been condemned by pope, emperor and council. The most prominent of these written works were: On the Grace of Christ, and On Original Sin (418), On Matrimony and Concupiscence (419-420), and Against Julian (421). When we examine these works, we will take care to distinguish the received doctrines defined at Carthage from the logical consequences of those doctrines and the speculative opinions offered by St. Augustine to resolve apparent philosophical and theological difficulties.

Continue to Part IV

© 2010-11 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org

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