Objections of the Pelagians against Augustine's doctrine of grace.

In the conflict with the Pelagians on the doctrine of grace, Augustine acted rather by way of defence than of assault. And certainly his theory on this subject, however consequent upon and closely connected with his other anthropological doctrines, had so much to shock the moral feelings of man and oppose a just view of the moral attributes of God, that a greater expense of talent was actually requisite for its successful defence. And when Augustine acted the assailant, he chiefly employed passages of scripture for refuting the Pelagians, of which we shall speak in the sequel. But when thus acting, it cannot be denied that Augustine did not fully present the Pelagian positions. The Pelagians, as we have seen, actually admitted supernatural gracious influences. But this, Augustine very often forgets, and argues against them as if they really denied gracious influences altogether. Proofs enough are at hand, in his book On the Grace of Christ, and his imperfect Work. Wholly inapplicable was the objection of Augustine (De Nat. et Gr. 18, 55), that prayer or supplication for divine aid to man, must be superfluous, according to Pelagius' supposition of ability to do through natural aid, and to will through freewill. The benefit of prayer could be shown much more obviously by a Pelagian. than Augustine could do it accordingly to his system; and just as Pelagius therefore commended prayer to Demetrias, as a means of growth in goodness. Ep. ad Dem. c. 26.

Of the objections which the Pelagians brought against the Augustinian theory of grace--some of which are very acute, and not easily to be refuted--the following are the most important.

1. Augustinian grace totally destroys freewill. For those to whom grace is not imparted, are impelled to sin, against their will, "by a necessity of their flesh." Op. Imp. 1. 94; Comp. C. d. Epp. Pel. I. 2, 3; Aug. Ep. 194. This could strictly be no objection for Augustine, since, by his theory, freewill no longer existed, As often, however, as the objection was made against him, that by his theory there was no place for freewill, he endeavored, sophistically enough indeed, to extricate himself by saying, that certainly a freewill always remains, but it is a freewill to evil. Right well did Caelestius remark, in this respect, (according to Jerome's epistle to Ctesiphon); That will is annihilated which needs the power of another. Either I use the power which is given me, and so freewill is preserved; or if I need the power of another, the freedom of will in me is destroyed. In his letter to Hilary (Ep. 157. c. 2), written in 414, Augustine says: "Freewill is not destroyed when it is aided, but it is aided when it is not destroyed." This answer would have been altogether to the purpose, if only, according to his theory, this had not been all, and freewill had still only done something.

2. Augustinian grace is nothing but "fate under the name of grace;" and "a respect of persons" is attributed to God, when, in precisely the same case, his mercy comes on some, and his wrath remains on others. To this, Augustine replied: "Those who believe in fate, contend that not only acts and events, but even our very wills depend on the position of the stars, or what they call constellations, at the time when each one is conceived or born. But the grace of God not only surpasses all stars and all heavens, but also all angels. The asserters of fate, furthermore, attribute to fate both all the good and all the bad things of men. But in the evil things of men, God follows their deserts with deserved retribution, while he bestows the good through unmerited grace, from his compassionate will; doing both, not by the temporary conjunction of the stars, but by the eternal and deep counsel of his severity and his goodness. We, therefore, see that neither pertains to fate. If you here answer, that this very benevolence of God, which does not follow merit, but confers unmerited good from gratuitous goodness, ought rather to be called fate, although the apostle calls it grace, saying, By grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves but it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any one should boast; do you not consider, do you not perceive, that fate is not asserted by its under the name of grace, but rather divine grace is called by you by the name of fate.?" C. d. Epp. Pel. II. 6. Comp. C. Jul. IV. 8.

In respect to the objections that this theory of grace implies a respect of persons with God, Augustine thus defends himself: "It is rightly called an accepting of persons, when he who judges, abandoning the merits of the case which he judges, decides for one against the other because he finds something in the person which is worthy of honor or of compassion. But if a man has two debtors, and he chooses to forgive the debt to one and to exact it of the other, he gives to whom he will, but defrauds no one. Nor is it to be called an accepting of persons, since there is no injustice." C. d. Epp. Pel. II. 7. Here he appeals to Mat. xx, where the lord of the vineyard gave to those who had labored but one hour, as much as to those who had labored the whole day, and who could not be pronounced unjust on account of his goodness, since he, who labored the whole day, received as much as his due, and was not robbed of his merited reward by the goodness shown to others. "It is by a righteous decision of God, that grace is not given to those to whom it is not given." Ep. 217. C. 5.

Augustine also endeavored to show, that the Pelagians made God an "accepter of persons:" for, in order to keep clear of an "accepting of persons" with God, and to admit of no fate, they supposed some merit on the part of man, in the bestowment of grace, by their peculiar theory on infant baptism, with which they connected a participation in the kingdom of heaven (Ep. 194, C. 7); and that, according to them, children, who have no merit, are baptized through fate, and admitted to the kingdom of heaven by fate! C. Jul. IV. 8.

3. In close connection with this, stands another objection: It is unjust, in one and the same bad case, that one should be freed and another punished. To this he replies: "It is, then, doubtless just, that both should be punished. Who would deny this? Let us therefore thank the Savior, while we do not see inflicted on ourselves what we know, by the condemnation of those like us, to be also due to us. For if every man were freed, what is justly due to sin, would remain hid; but if no one, what grace would bestow [would remain hid]. Let us therefore, on this most difficult question, rather use the words of the apostle (Rom. 9:22), God, willing to show his wrath and make his power known, endured with much long suffering the vessels which are prepared for destruction, and that he might make known the riches of his glory in the vessels of mercy. To him, the thing formed cannot say, Why hast thou made me thus? since he has power of the same mass to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor. For since that whole mass is justly condemned, justice awards the merited reproach; and grace confers the undeserved honor, not by the prerogative of merit, not by the necessity of fate, not by the chance of fortune, but by the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God; which the apostle does not disclose, but admires as concealed, exclaiming, O the depth of the riches. For the whole mass is justly condemned as guilty of sin nor does God harden by imparting wickedness, but by not imparting mercy." Ep. 194. C. 2, 3. Comp. De Cor. et Gr. 10; De Praed. Sanct. 8.

4. "Men who are not willing to live honestly and faithfully, will exculpate themselves, saying, What have we done who have lived wrong, in as much as we have not received the grace by which we could have lived right?" Ep. 194. C. 6. This objection was in fact irrefutable, and showed the practical evil of Augustinian grace, in a very striking attitude. Among other things, Augustine attempted to destroy its force, in this way: "They who live wrong, cannot truly say, that they do no evil. For if they do nothing evil, they live right; but if they live wrong, they live wrong from what belongs to themselves (de suo), either what they derived originally or what they have also added. But if they are vessels of wrath which are prepared for destruction, which is awarded as due to them, let them impute this to themselves, because they are made of that mass which God has condemned justly and according to desert for the sin of the one in whom all have sinned. But if they are vessels of mercy, to whom, though formed of the same mass, he has not willed to award the punishment due, let them not inflate themselves, but glorify him who has shown them unmerited mercy; and if they regard anything otherwise, God shall also reveal even this to them." Ib. To this he subjoins the answer of Paul to a similar objection: Why doth he yet find fault? etc., (Rom. 9:19 sqq.) and then proceeds in the following manner. "In the meantime, let it be enough for the Christian, which still lives by faith and does not yet discern what is perfect, but knows in part, to know or believe that God frees no one except by gratuitous mercy through our Lord Jesus Christ, and condemns no one except by the most impartial justice (aequissima veritate), by our same Lord Jesus Christ. But why he frees or does not free this person rather than that, let him search who can search so profound a depth of judgments; yet let him beware of the abyss. For is there iniquity with God? God forbid. But his judgments are inscrutable and his ways past finding out. All who would exculpate themselves in vices and iniquities, are therefore most justly punished, since those who are freed, are freed only through grace. For if there were here any just excuse, not grace but justice would free them. But since nothing but grace frees, it finds nothing just in him whom it frees; not the will, not the act, not even the excuse itself; for if this excuse were just, whoever uses it would be acquitted by merit, not by grace. For we know that even some of those are absolved by the grace of Christ, who say, Why doth he yet find fault? for who resisteth his will? But if this excuse is just, they are not acquitted by free grace, but by the justness of the excuse. But if it is grace by which they are freed, certainly this excuse is not just. For it is then true grace by which a man is freed, if retribution is not taken according to the debt of justice. Nothing therefore takes place in those who say, Why doth he yet find fault? for who resisteth his will? except what is read in the book of Solomon, The folly of a man perverteth his way; but he casteth the blame upon God in his heart." Ib.

Augustine endeavored further to show, that the present corrupt nature of man, is to be ascribed to the will itself, since man has voluntarily sinned, and by the wrong use of freewill, over to the posterity who were contained in the first man. God therefore does not produce unrighteousness, but punishes it. Here Augustine's reasoning is perfectly just, according to his premises; but how much may be urged in opposition to these assumptions, has already been shown, while on the doctrine of original sin.

In the like very striking manner, was the argument also carried on, in the cloister at Adrumetum, against Augustinian grace. Why is it proclaimed and commanded to us, said they, that we should turn from evil and do good, if we do not do this, but God works in us the willing and the doing? On that ground, our superiors may only prescribe for us what we should do and pray for us that we may do it, but not punish nor blame us, if we do not do it. How can that he reckoned to me which I have not received from him by whom alone such and so great a gift can be bestowed? Could I give to myself the love towards God and my neighbor, and I were not to do it, or had I slighted it when given, I should be justly punished; but now I am blameless, since the will itself is prepared by the Lord.

To refute this reasoning, Augustine wrote his book On Rebuke and Grace (De Correptione et Gratia). What he presents in that work, is indeed by no means satisfactory; still, as might be expected from his acuteness, much which he there says, is not without plausibility. In that book, Augustine teaches that, (although it is the grace of God by which alone men are freed from evil and without which they do nothing good, since grace not only shows what they have to do, but also inspires the good will and the voluntary execution), still the punishment of bad men, who have not received this grace, is no more unjust, as they are bad by their own will, than it is useless, as it may impel to goodness; though it cannot be denied, that it is only by the grace of God that it profits. Perseverance in good, is truly in fact a great gift of God; still he who, without having received this gift, relapses by his own will into sins, is not only liable to punishment, but, if he persevere in evil till death, incurs eternal damnation. Why one receives this gift, and another not, is inscrutable. But, as it is not known who belong to the number of the elect, and who not, a serious rebuke is to be applied to all sinners for their reformation, that they may not themselves go to perdition, or ruin others. To the predestinated, the rebuke (correptio) is "a salutary medicine; to the reprobate, a penal torment." God can indeed reform any one, without his being reproved by men for his sins. In whom this takes place, and why in this and not in another, God only knows; and not the clay but only the potter should venture to decide concerning it. Rebuke, therefore, is not done away by grace, nor is grace denied by rebuke. Finally, in a letter which he sent to the Adrumetian monks (Ep. 215), with his book on grace and freewill, Augustine himself warned them of the moral abuse which might so easily be made of his doctrine of grace, and which actually was made in the cloister at Adrumetum. "Nor should you so defend grace that, relying as it were upon it, you may delight in evil works which may the grace of God itself avert from you. He will be found ungrateful to grace itself, who chooses to live in sin in consequence of grace, by which we die unto sin." Thus he endeavored, feebly enough indeed, to guard against the consequences which might be practically injurious.

[Whether Augustine's efforts in so good an attempt, were or were not too feeble for the defence of the position he had assumed, it is but an act of justice to the departed champion to show a little more fully what his efforts were. Nor will a more extended extract be devoid of some incidental and important interest on a connected topic, as we shall thereby see that Augustine had even a greater abhorrence of antinomonism than he had of Pelagianism itself. After telling these monks, at considerable length, that the scriptures represent it as much worse to turn to the left hand than to the right, from the middle course of truth and righteousness, he thus proceeds to show them what he believes to be the left and what the right, and what the middle and safe way, in this matter. "Wherefore dearly beloved, whoever says, My will is sufficient to me for the performance of good works, departs to the right hand. But again; they, who suppose a holy life is to be relinquished when they hear God's grace so preached as to be believed and understood itself to change men's wills from bad to good, and itself also to guard the wills it has formed, and who therefore say, Let us do evil that good may come, depart to the left. Hence he (the Holy Spirit) saith unto you, Decline neither to the right hand nor to the left; that is, you should not so defend freewill as to attribute to it good works without the grace of God; nor should you so defend grace that, relying as it were upon it, you may delight in evil works; which may the grace of God avert from you. For, presenting the words of such men, the Apostle says, What shall we then say? shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? And to these words of erratic men, who do not understand the grace of God, he answers, as he ought, saying, God forbid. For if we are dead to sin, how shall we live in it? Nothing could be more briefly or better said. For what more profitable does the grace of God confer upon us, in this present malignant age, than that we die to sin? And according to this, he will be found ungrateful to grace itself, who chooses to live in sin in consequence of grace, by which we die unto sin. But may he who is rich in mercy grant unto you both to think sanely and progressively to continue in a good purpose to the end." This it must be confessed, is very sane doctrine on the most important bearing of the whole subject; whether it fully meets the objection, as brought against Augustine's peculiar views or not. Our author, as shown, supposes it does not. TR.]


5. As an objection to the necessity of grace for the performance of good works, the Pelagians brought up against Augustine the many virtues of the heathen. These, merely through the power of innate freedom, were often merciful, discreet, chaste, temperate. C. Jul. IV. 3. But as Augustine excluded the heathen from grace, he could attribute to them no good deeds, as already remarked, What the Pelagians adduced as instances, he of course directly denied. With him, the alleged virtues of the heathen, were even sins in form, because not springing from faith. Generally he distinguished more acutely and correctly than Julian himself, between the matter and the form of an act. The distinction which Julian made between the man who does well fruitfully and the one who does well barrenly (steriliter), according to which the first refers his actions to things eternal, and the last to things temporal, was not deeply founded and Augustine was wholly right, when he said, "It cannot be true that we should be barrenly good; but we are not good in whatever we are barren." Augustine further remarked, that if men can attain to true virtue without faith in Christ, then Christ has died in vain. The good works which unbelievers perform (as to the matter), are not their own but God's, who employs the evil in a good way; but the sins are theirs with which they do good in a bad way, etc. Augustine also found no reason why the Pelagians then, according to their view, would not allow the righteous heathen to share the salvation of Christians, but excluded them from the kingdom of heaven. Comp. De Civ, Dei, V. 19, 20; XIX. 25; Ep. 144. In the latter passage, he calls the change of Polemon from intemperance to temperance, a "gift of God."


But while Augustine's system was consistent with itself, as he developed it in the Pelagian controversy, and his theory of grace peculiarly so, yet he was inconsistent and must be, as soon as he came to speak of moral obligation, and to establish the ought (debere), seeing he had denied the ability to man from his own power. So prayer was and must be according to Augustine's theory, an effect of divine grace, as he shows clearly enough, among other things in Ep. 194, C. 4. And yet he says (Op. Imp. III. 107), "Adults, when they hear or read, that every one shall receive according to the things which he has done by the body, ought (debent) not to trust in the power of their own will, but rather to pray that such a will may be prepared for them by the Lord that they may not enter into temptation." This objection of inconsistency, is also applicable to Augustine's assertion, that divine grace is obtained "by seeking and doing" (Ep. 157. C. 2), since, according to the Augustinian theory, nothing at all, in this respect, depends on the conduct of man. The system presented by Augustine was therefore as consistent as he was himself, for he did not always abide by it in the application; a lapse which happens with all theories that stand in contradiction to the moral nature of man!

[Had Augustine said, in the passage last cited, that an impenitent sinner is first to obtain grace "by seeking and doing," the objection of inconsistency would have been more manifest. But he is here answering the question proposed to him, whether "man can be without sin, and easily keep God's commands if he will;" and seems rather to be speaking of one already converted. "The love of God," says he, "is diffused in our hearts, not by ourselves, nor by the power of our own will, but by the Holy Spirit that is given unto us. And thus freewill avails to good works, if it is divinely aided, which takes place by humbly seeking and doing." And this is in perfect accordance with the doctrine, already exhibited, in respect to God's answering the prayers of his people, and his giving grace for grace--more grace for the right improvement of some grace. TR.]


Remark. The grace which Augustine allowed the elect Christians to receive, he also allowed to ancient saints (antiquis justis); that is, to the elect among the worshippers of the true God, as well before as after the law, or as he expressed it, as well before the law as during the time of the Old Testament. Hence he could maintain, respecting them, that they had performed good works under the aid of grace. And this aid was the necessary condition for them, as they could obtain the pardon of sins only though faith in Christ. This is amply set forth in the passage already quoted from De Pec. Orig. 24 sq. But the Pelagians thought differently of this matter, in compliance with their system. They maintained, that men had lived right easily, first by nature, then under the law, and finally under grace. "The Creator was first known by the guidance of reason, and it was written on the heart how man should live, not by the law of the letter, but of nature. But when, after the depravation of morals, nature, now discolored (jam decolor), was no longer adequate, the law was added to it, by which, in like manner as by the illumination of the moon, it was again restored to its ancient lustre by the removal of its rust. But after a habit of sinning, too great for the law to heal, had gained the mastery, Christ appeared, and came not by his disciples, but by himself, as a physician, to relieve the desperate disease." Lib. cit. C. 26. Against this Augustine was full of zeal, and sought to prove from the Bible, that the grace of the Mediator extended to the ancient saints, and that, through this grace, they believed on the then future incarnation of Christ. Comp. C. d. Epp. Pel. III. 4, where he says of the ancient saints, that they were Christians in reality, though not in name, that they had received the same grace through the Holy Ghost, and that he was to them not only an aid to virtue--which even the Pelagians conceded in reference to the laws given by Moses and the revelation of the Old Testament--but also a bestower of virtue. The Holy Spirit produced the good dispositions in them, IV. 7. Pelagius agreed with Augustine in allowing, that the saints of the Old Testament partook of the salvation of Christians, which the synod of Diospolis (charge 5) had declared as an orthodox position, Augustine was only stumbled, that they should have lived righteously and should have shared in salvation, without the aid of grace (in his sense) and without faith in the Mediator, who shed his blood for the pardon of sins. 1. 21. Op. Imp. 11. 188. According to Augustine, it may further be remarked, the faith of the ancients in Jesus, remained concealed in their time, and was first revealed afterwards, Ep. 177. C. 12.

[The passage on which this last remark is founded, is as follows. "But I believe it escapes Pelagius, that the faith of Christ, which afterwards came into revelation, was a secret (in occulto) in the times of our fathers; through which faith, nevertheless, even they were freed by the grace of God, whosoever, in all periods of the human race, have been able to be freed, by the secret though not culpable decision of God." This seems strongly to resemble one of Warburton's startling positions in his Divine Legation of Moses--that the patriarchs and prophets did not promulgate all they knew of divine truth. TR.]


Return to Augustianism and Pelagianism Index Page