This is the last installment of my series on Augustine. I wanted to say at the outset of this post that I really appreciate all of you who took the time to read it. A great big thank you to Peter for graciously posting it on his blog. I also want to thank Ben Simpson, Ken Hamrick, and David Allen for helpful suggestions and feedback. Thanks to Christiane and Lydia for insights and links. Thanks also to Eric Hankins, Malcolm Yarnell, and Adam Harwood for kind words of encouragement. If I left anyone out, I apologize. I appreciate all the feedback, constructive advice, and encouraging words. Thanks again to all of you. I hope to present a truncated version of this research at the SE regional ETS meeting next month in Anderson, SC (pending approval, of course).
Augustine’s First Critics
Although Augustine enjoyed a position of honor among the Latin-speaking bishops in the Western church, his novel (in Christian tradition, anyway) teachings concerning grace and providence came under attack from two separate groups within his own lifetime.
The first Christian to seriously object to Augustine’s views on nature and grace was a British monk named Pelagius. For over a millennium, Pelagius has been considered the arch-heretic of the west, and he was indeed so committed to his emphasis of human freedom that he departed from the received tradition of orthodoxy. The reason that Augustine so vigorously opposed him is that he incorrectly believed Pelagius’ view of human freedom asserted an independence from God.1 As Bonner notes, Pelagius, like Augustine, believed all came from God, while simultaneously holding that God gave humans the ability to freely act—an idea Augustine could not accept.2 While rightly opposing Pelagius’ overemphasis on human freedom, Augustine overcorrected by effectively denying it. Thus western theology has been trying to navigate either with Augustine or between him and Pelagius ever since.
What is often misunderstood about Augustine and Pelagius is that Augustine did not formulate his views on grace in reaction to or to oppose Pelagius. On the contrary, it was Pelagius who spoke first decrying Augustine’s view of nature and grace.3 Commenting on the Pelagian construction for salvation, Ogliari writes,
The Pelagians were still attached to the Greek cosmological model according to which grace was communicated and concretely experienced within a pedagogical process through which man, the imago Dei, was led toward his prototype. In the eyes of the Pelagians this was made possible because the experience of grace was strictly correlated with human freedom and the historic-salvific situations with which it is confronted, particularly the Christ event. These situations are produced by God from the outside, in order to create the possibilities for human freedom to be exercised, while developing and guiding it to its goal: God. Augustine, on the other hand, detached himself from this cosmological model and built up a theological construction where the doctrine of grace goes hand in hand with that of original sin. In this sense, because of the radical changes of perspective he introduced, Augustine can be regarded as an “innovator.”4
However, it is not Pelagius who represents the strongest attack upon Augustine’s doctrine from his own time. That honor would go to the objections of the Massilian monks from Gaul (incorrectly historically dubbed Semi-Pelagians) and their ablest expositor John Cassian. The next few paragraphs will detail the essence of the monks’ objections.
To begin to understand the objection, one must first see that Augustine and the Gallic monks had a different orientation to the faith. The Gallic monks struggled to live out a sanctified life while Augustine had been a pagan who converted, in his view at least, because God was stronger than paganism. Ogliari writes, “In our opinion, it is precisely through the rationale of the ascetic/monastic undertaking and the struggle for perfection that the position of the Africa and Gallic monks vis-à-vis Augustine’s concept of grace, faith and predestination, can be properly assessed, both intellectually and spiritually.”5 Through the summary of Ogliari, we will now offer a brief orientation to the faith through the eyes of the Massilian monks.
Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings drew a reaction from the Gallic monks. Cassian’s Conlatio (Conference) 13 is a direct response to Augustine’s On Rebuke and Grace.6 Cassian argued that if goodness only comes from grace, then what importance is goodness?7 Cassian believed it was within human effort to will the good, but it was only by grace to do the good.8 He saw his position firmly rooted in the Eastern tradition as well as Scripture.9 Therefore, good will in humans can come from either God’s grace or human will. The Massillians believe that God elected due to foreknowledge, the position Augustine held before his letter to Simplician.10
Not only did the Massillian monks differ with Augustine over basic anthropology, they differed over their understanding of sin. Cassian, following the Eastern tradition (notably Chrysostom) saw original sin as a “simple punishment” which was the “loss of incorruption and immortality as well as that of supernatural knowledge and eternal bliss, and the consequent enslavement to the devil.”11 In fact, Cassian only used the term “original sin” once. The usual term was praevaricatio.”12 According to Cassian (and the Pelagians), sin does not belong to human nature. It is from without human nature and tries to subdue it. Origen believes that “God did not plant an evil tree in man, which produces wicked fruits. If wicked fruits are produced, then they must not be regarded as the product of human nature (which is in itself good and cannot be the source of evil), but as a result of sin, which attacks human nature from without, and tries to subdue it.”13 Cassian believed that man was essentially good, but that the goodness in him needed developing, which could only be done through grace. His will is free to seek the good or the bad. Either will or grace could be the initial action. Either way, grace would enable the action to fruition to develop the seed of goodness in man to growth.14 Cassian, relying on Scripture (specifically Prov 16:1, Ps 80:11, Zech 1:3, Luke 19:1–10, Acts 10:4, Matt 7:7) believes that sometimes the person can make the first step toward God, while other times (John 6:44, 65, Eph 2:8) God’s grace precedes.15 Cassian’s view has precedent among Clement, Origen, Chrysostom, Cappadocians, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrosiaster, and Jerome.16
Overall, the Massilians claimed that “once challenged by the Word of God, man is capable of opening up and rising to faith by himself, actually ‘starting’ the process of believing through attitudes such as feeling attracted towards a new life, repentance for the former one, desire and hope of being saved, and prayer that ensues from this desire.” Such an ability comes from God himself (via the human nature he created) and not out of a human inclination apart from God.17 The Gallic monks stood, unlike Augustine, squarely in the received tradition of the church in their views of nature and grace.
In contrast to the monks of Gaul, Augustine believes that human nature itself is damaged in the fall, and that Jesus came to repair it.18 Also, Augustine believed that faith must be a gift from God, because if it were from man, it would be meritorious before God, and God would owe salvation.19Ogliari writes, “Augustine states that there is nothing good in the human being that does not come from God, and this holds true not only for man’s qualities on a moral and spiritual level, but also for the initium fidei.”20 Ogliari continues, describing Augustine, “Faith can only be said to belong to human nature inasmuch as the possession of it is believed to belong to the believer who has been graced by God’s election. Everything must be attributed to God so that man may not be tempted to glorify himself.”21 Augustine believed that we cannot know why God does what he does, but we can be assured that whatever he does is just.22
In the final analysis, Ogliari gives a reason why the monks reacted so harshly to Augustine’s views of nature and grace. Their way of life was at stake. He writes, “Augustine’s statement that perseverance was purely a divine gift provoked great uneasiness. Furthermore, it was suspected that the theory of predestination, coupled with a restricted vision of universal salvation, would lead to a fatalistic attitude and to a state of inertia. It is not surprising that these ideas were disturbing to people who made pragmatic virtue a way of life.”23
1Bonner, Freedom and Necessity, 3.
3Pelagius’ ire was drawn toward the famous text from Augustine, Confessions 10.29.40, “Give what you command and command what you will.”
4Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen, 264.
8Ibid., 273. The Gallic monks, in line with the Eastern tradition, believed in the special creation of the human soul, which allowed faith and the desire to do good works to be implanted there directly by God.
13Ibid., 277. See Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans 6:5 for the quote.
20Ibid., 158. This is in direct opposition to the Massillians that faith is a gift to all humans at the special creation of their souls.
Below are links to the entire series by Dr. Gifford:
- Coming Series on Saint Augustine and Southern Baptists by Dr. James D. Gifford Jr
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: an Introduction
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine and Divine Omnipotence
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine and Human Nature: Part 3A; Part 3B
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: The Upshot of Augustine's Assumptions: Divine Determinism
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine's Exegetical and Hermeneutical Method
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine's Critics and Legacy: Part A; Part B