Mar 1, 2005

On Augustine and Pelagius

A Review of Gerald Bonner on Augustine and Pelagius

        Gerald Bonner has written extensively on the Pelagian Controversy in books and scholarly articles. Two chapters of his book on Augustine are dedicated to the Pelagian controversy. He also has two later articles on the subject in Augustinian Studies, “Pelagianism and Augustine,” a two part series.  Also, his article “Rufinus of Syria and African Pelagianism” in the same journal is worth reading.  In these writings, Bonner writes on the origins of Pelagianism, not as a negative force in the church but rather as a positive movement that had intentions of building up, not destroying.  Bonner’s thesis is that if we begin from this positive point of view then in the end we can see if there are negative attributes of Pelagianism.[1]  It is a certain methodology Bonner follows: to start from “seeing what is right” about the Pelagians to a conclusion about what may be wrong about their positions; how they themselves would have looked at their movement, from the inside out, not outside in.[2]
        The problem is that we view Pelagianism through the lens of Augustine which distorts what pelagianism actually stood for.  Looking back at a centuries old problem, we can fail to see the man who began it all, Pelagius himself.  What did Pelagius actually say and what has been merely been attributed to him?  This is the task of the historian, to be as objective as she can be in the presentation of the facts, to steer clear from any biased retelling of history as far as possible and to sometimes relook history from the lens of another key figure.  In this case, let us look at the pelagian controversy through Pelagius’ eyes rather than Augustine.  Of course this task is never perfect; for, even the historian, merely reporting the story, informs history from their own vantage point, not only personal vantage point, but the perspective of her time in history, the culture the historian writes from and the intent of the article.  Bonner is suggesting that history has been in favor of Augustine; so, do we get any new insights taking a retrospective look in the shoes of Pelagius?  

The Life of Pelagius

        From 408 - 431 are the years of pelagianism, but it must be remembered that Pelagianism was not like other theological movements that found disfavor in the church because it was a local phenomena and not systemic to the entire church at the time.  It basically sprung up in Rome, northern Africa and other pockets of Europe where Pelagius’ followers traveled.[3]   Bonner calls the modern retelling of pelagianism “the demolition of what may be called the monolithic view of Pelagianism”.[4]   Nascent Pelagianism was not as grand a scheme as people make it out to be. Really, it is Augustine who brought the teachings of pelagius into more universal awareness.  If it were not for Augustine’s extensive writings against Pelagius we probably would not know about it, but because Augustine spoke out against it so vehemently it has stood the test of time.[5]       
        In 408 pelagius first comes onto the stage in Rome.  It arose first in aristocratic circles of women in Rome because Pelagius was a spiritual advisor to many women there.  Demetrias, the daughter of Anicia Faltonia Proba.  Melania the Younger. All devout women of high rank -- like Jerome before him Pelagius courted single, young women of the bourgeoise.[6]     About 410, around the same time as the Donatist movement (which is closely related to Pelagianism, sometimes confused with one another) is when Augustine began to preach against Pelagius.  Actually in 415 The synod at Diospolis declared the writings of Pelagius to be orthodox but in 417 Pelagius was condemned in Rome.  The final stake in the Pelagian coffin was in 418 at the Council of Carthage, with over two hundred bishops under Augustine's leadership, Pope Zosimus pronounced Pelagianism heretical.[7] 
        Pelagius was a monk (although it is not quite clear whether he really was a monk or not) from the present day British isles and came to Rome where most of his influence was felt; he was well-educated with “a profound knowledge of the bible” so he attracted the higher echelon of female society in Rome.[8]   He was probably born in the latter half of the of the fourth century.  He is different from other infamous dissidents in that there are no scandalous accounts attributed to his name, no grisly tales and lecherous behavior: He did not die a horrible death, nor was he accused of licentious behavior with the young.[9]   Even Augustine, at one time, attested to his character.[10] Probably Pelagius was not searching for glory and fame; he was not a rabble rouser dissident but actually a quiet man who tried to stay out of the public eye as much as he could and avoided publicity.[11] Augustine was quite pastoral in his letters to Pelagius which were later used to conclude falsely that Augustine was favorable to Pelagius’ cause.[12]   It is good to note here that Pelagius himself was probably closer to the truth (to orthodoxy) than the followers who took up his name.  The third council of Ephesus condemned Caelestius, not Pelagius, who was considered apart of the Pelagian party, but to call the pelagians a party is misleading because there is no evidence to support that they represented a strongly connected band.[13]   Maybe in the eyes of Augustine, but in reality, the movement was much more provincial than widespread.  Sometimes we tout certain ideas as from Pelagius but when really they are words from his admirers, like Caelstius and Rufinus.[14]   Actually this is true of many movements in the church.  Jansens is less Jansenistic than the Jansenists.  Luther was less a Lutheran than the Lutherans.  Pelagius himself did not deny the need for grace nor did he dismiss baptism as essential.[15] 

Pelagianism as a Provincial Controversy

        Bonner notes right away that “Pelagianism is not a mere opposition to prevailing doctrine but the pelagians behind pelagianism believe themselves to be orthodox.[16]   Pelagius saw that the “patient was ill, but made a faulty diagnosis, from which was prescribed an inadequate and dangerous treatment”.[17]  It is certain that Pelagius never fell into the error of “supposing a sick world to be well”.[18]   Pelagius never denied sin outright but he failed to see human nature correctly applying a false understanding of the nature of sin, “not the fact of sin”.[19]   Pelagius and Augustine are similar; Augustine sees himself as “not bringing fresh doctrine into the church but as defending the accepted faith.”[20] The pelagians, it seems, from reading Bonner, were not interested in breaking away from the Church; they saw their views as opinions, and not as a desire to separate. In modern terms we would call them a pressure group.  But how much pressure did they press?[21]
        It is important to view all of this with two historical points in mind: previous controversies in the church and Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity.  Bonner views Pelagius as a reaction to Arianism and the Manichees, Arianism being a theological position denying the full divinity of Christ and the Manichees who bifurcated body and soul.  Augustine was influenced by Manichee thought, especially the false duality of body and soul; a dualism that posited spirit over flesh in constant war with one another: flesh could never coincide with spirit.  Augustine after his conversion tried to fight these errors without fully shaking off their influence, like Jerome and his guilty pleasure of reading the classic greek poets.  It is interesting to note here that the theology of Augustine changed; in the beginning, when he was preaching against the Manichees he actually stressed the human will more than he did when dealing with Pelagius, later on in his career.  The early Augustine conforms better with Pelagius than the later Augustine.    But, Augustine probably saw himself as a reformer.  Pelagius, too, saw himself as an optimistic reformer, saving the church from the horrors of previous faulty teachings and from the “active cruelty, passive selfishness, and unbridled lust and avarice” of ancient Rome.[22]   And looking at the controversy from a global perspective we can see that it arose in the time after the martyrs, near the latter end of the Roman Empire at a time when the Empire accepted Christianity, to the detriment of Christianity itself ( “a tragedy for the church”) for it was no longer possible to die for one’s faith since the government no longer persecuted Christians.[23]  Without the constant threat of death, Christians had to find new ways to express their belief in Jesus; “it was no longer heroic to be a Christian”.[24] 
        From this vantage point, it seems Pelagius and Augustine had similar goals, just different ways of going about it.  Objectively speaking, it could be construed that Augustine’s emphasis is a bleaker view  of humanity than that of Pelagius, in the sense that Augustine sees humanity as fallen and in need of redemption.  Even the most hardline followers of orthodoxy have trouble with some of the teachings of Augustine, viewing him as scandalous and “a stumbling block”.[25]  Some writers have tried to link the Jansenist cult with Augustine, claiming the Jansenists capitalized on Augustine when they tried to calvinize catholicism.[26]  It is quite easy to see that Pelagius’ view is more palpable to our ears.[27]   Pelagius has an eschatological vision of a possibly emptied hell. Augustine favors the elect few; many are called few are chosen.  Bonner notes too that it is easy to denounce someone rather than to understand them.[28]    

Concupiscence and Impecantia

        Augustine argues that it is impossible to not to sin.  Augustine italicizes concupiscence, the tendency of people to fall into sin because of the residual effect of Adam’s first sin.  He also says that grace is a help or aid in fending off sin: without grace we can do nothing.[29]   Pelagius held the view of impecantia (the view that a man is able to live without sin if he chooses). Pelagians questioned this negative approach toward sin and asked instead: is their a possibility of not sinning?  Pelagius is responding to laxity, “the watery humanity” he saw around a crumbling Rome and wanted to “rouse his hearers from the slumber of sin”.[30]  For Pelagius, in any moral action three criteria must be met: we must be able to do it, willing to do it and the action must be done by us -- it must be carried out.[31]   Pelagius argued that if you start off thinking that you are bound to sin, then of course, you will sin, and sin time and again, but if you start off believing that you can avoid sin, reach perfection, then the  chances of actually sinning decreases.  One does not have to resort to sacred scripture to see the folly in Pelagius’ arguments; One just has to consider experience.[32]   How often is it that we actually choose to do the good just because we are able to do the good?  Not often!  For example, in my own experience I often have the ability to do something good for my fellow human being; I even will to do it, but I do not carry it out.  Why?  Moral action is not always that simple and we cannot blindly attribute a person’s ability and willingness to do the good as a sign that good will be done.  My grandmother taught me the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  If you want to go to scripture for proof refer to the Pauline assertion that  I do not do the good that I want but instead do that which I hate.[33]   Also you can look at the story of the denial of Peter that Bonner points out in his chapter on Pelagianism quoting Simone Weil:  Peter tells Christ that he will remain faithful; but that was already the denial, because it was supposed in himself and not in grace, the source of fidelity.[34]   Happily though, Peter got the message, finally -- how many of us never understand grace?    A more horrible consideration is Judas: the Son of Man goes as it is written of Him; but woe unto him by whom the Son of Man is betrayed: it had been good for that man if he had not been born.[35]  One need not turn to Paul to refute Pelagius; the words of Jesus are sufficient.[36] 

Original Sin and Infant Baptism

        Pelagians argued that emphasis on adam’s sin sets people on a destructive path to sin.  It was considered opinion, not heresy, to say that adam’s sin was his own, and that there was no transmission of his sin to the rest of humanity.  People during this period of history did not necessarily view baptism as the remission of original sin with water and the spirit as we today do.  In other words, for people like Pelagius, adam sinned and he died; infants born today do not carry the sin of adam, but rather baptism is a ritual sign of a person’s christian covenant with God.  The doctrine of original sin that Augustine championed was not his own, it should be noted, but really an African notion which Augustine believed as catholic thought and he defended it but did not originate it.[37]   Really, Pelagius was not as concerned with this topic as were his followers and is not really a Pelagian issue.[38]   It was a cause brought up more by his followers.  According to Bonner’s account of Caelistus’ trial, a prominent pelagian, Pelagianism was not opposed to infant baptism, but he did not feel it such a necessity as Augustine did.  Caelistus said “I have always said infants need baptism and ought to be baptized.  What more does he want from me?” he said at his trial in Carthage in 411.[39]   The inquisitors at the trial forced him with a “yes” or “no” response.

Concluding Thoughts

        I have always thought of the Pelagian controversy as broader than Bonner presents it and was surprised to learn that it was as localized as it seems to have been.  I can see how it is difficult for historians to piece together all of the Pelagian puzzle because so much that is thought to be Pelagius was not Pelagius at all.  And it is difficult to separate our own retrospective on history from what really happened.  As is often the case with brilliant reformers, the movement grows to be more widespread than the person, often with a mind of its own.  I agree with Bonner that Pelagius’ original intentions were good.  He was not trying to destroy the Catholic church.  He was trying to paint a good picture of humanity, trying to bring people to God and to get them off of their laurels and get something done in the midst of a debauched empire -- I admire that -- but his end result is too simplistic when tested by reality’s litmus test.  In the end, both Augustine and Pelagius went to opposite extremes to prove one another wrong although none of them probably wanted to do that.  We think of Augustine as taking away free will and supplanting it with all encompassing grace: inspiring such poetical verse like John Donne’s Batter my Heart Three Person’d God!  ... for I, except you enthrall mee, never shall be free, Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.   We think of Pelagius as setting the stage for Martin Luther’s reform campaign one thousand years later.  These are caricature portraits of their respective thought, not altogether accurate pictures.  Having read more extensively about this controversy has helped me to see it not just as a simple battle between free will and grace.  There are no black and white divisions to be made; Augustine is not categorically the good guy nor is Pelagius the bad guy.  It is true that disfavored theological positions have a grain of truth in them, I believe, not to be cast off altogether.  

Works Cited

Bonner, Gerald.   “The Pelagian Controversy: The Course” in St. Augustine of Hippo : life and 
   controversies. Philadelphia : Westminster Press, 1963.  pps. 312-351.

--------------------. “The Pelagian Controversy: The Issues” in St. Augustine of Hippo : life and 
    controversies. Philadelphia : Westminster Press, 1963.  pps. 352-393.

--------------------. “Pelagianism and Augustine Part I” in Augustinian Studies. Volume 23 1992.  p. 33-
    51.

--------------------. “Pelagianism and Augustine Part II". In Augustinian Studies.  Volume 24 1993. 27-49.

---------------------. “Rufinus of Syria and African Pelagianism”.  In Augustinian Studies.  Volume 1. 
     1970.  pps. 17-31. 

Notes

[1] Gerald Bonner.  “Pelagianism and Augustine” in Augustinian Studies. Volume 23 1992.  p. 34
[2] No one thinks that their “heresy” is sinful while they sincerely hold it!!  do they?
[3] Gerald Bonner.  “Rufinus of Syria and African Pelagianism” in Augustinian Studies 1970. Volume 1. pps. 31-47.
[4] ibid.
[5] Note that the appellation “Doctor of Grace” given to Augustine reflects his concern with Pelagianism. Augustine did come to see Pelagianism as a deadly menace and dubbed it “the proudest heresy of all”.  
[6] Gerald Bonner.  “Pelagianism and Augustine” in Augustinian Studies. Volume 23 1992.  p. 42.
[7] Gerald Bonner. “Rufinus of Syria and African Pelagianism” in Augustinian Studies. Volume 1.  1970. p.32.
[8] Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Course”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. p. 316.
[9] Look at the life of Arius for a contrasting story, in Jurgen’s Faith of the Early Fathers.  
[10]  Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Course”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. pgs. 316-317.
[11] Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Issues”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. p. 352.   Comparing the life of Pelagius with Martin Luther could prove to be fruitful.  Bonner mentions the connection here and there, but I do not have time in this paper to follow that thread.
[12] Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Course”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. p. 325 and p. 333.
[13] Gerald Bonner.  “Pelagianism and Augustine” in Augustinian Studies. Volume 23 1992.  p. 33.
[14] See Gerald Bonner.   “Rufinus of Syria and African Pelagianism” in Augustinian Studies 1970. Volume 1. pps. 34.
[15] Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Course”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. p. 317.
[16] Gerald Bonner.  “Pelagianism and Augustine” in Augustinian Studies. Volume 23 1992.  p. 33.
[17] Gerald Bonner.   “The Pelagian Controversy: The Issues”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. pps 352-353.
[18] Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Course”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. p. 314.
[19] Gerald Bonner.   Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Issues”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. p. 353.
[20] Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Course”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. p. 314.
[21] Gerald Bonner.  “Pelagianism and Augustine” in Augustinian Studies. Volume 23 1992.  p. 34-36.
[22] Gerald Bonner.   Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Issues”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. p. 353.
[23] ibid.
[24] Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Issues”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. p. 353.
[25] Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Course”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. p. 313.  Note: Bonner says this with the added phrase, “Such sentiments are understandable and may be reconciled with perfect orthodoxy”.
[26] ibid. p. 312.
[27] But I guess it depends on who you talk to.
[28] ibid.  “It is, of course, always easier to oppose and denounce than to understand.”
[29] ibid.  p. 314-315.  “Grace is gratuitous; it is given by God and undeserved by men.”   See also John 15.5; 15.16; 6.44; 12.32.
[30] Gerald Bonner.  “The Pelagian Controversy: The Issues”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. p. 355.
[31] ibid.
[32] ibid. p. 356.
[33] ibid. p.356-357.
[34] Gerald Bonner.   “The Pelagian Controversy: The Course”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. See page 313.  Translation my own.
[35] See Matt. 26.24; Marc. 14.21.
[36] Gerald Bonner.   “The Pelagian Controversy: The Course”  in St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies.  Westminster Press.  1963. See page 315.
[37] Gerald Bonner.   Rufinus of Syria and African Pelagianism” in Augustinian Studies 1970. Volume 1. p. 37.
[38] ibid.  p. 33.
[39] Gerald Bonner.  “Pelagianism and Augustine” in Augustinian Studies. Volume 23 1992.  p. 56.


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