Introductory Essay on the Pelagian Controversy
PETER HOLMES, D.D., F.R.A.S.,
DOMESTIC CHAPLAIN TO THE RIGHT HONORABLE THE COUNTESS OF ROTHES,
AND CURATE OF PENNYCROSS, PLYMOUTH;
§ 2. The Pelagian heresy is so designated after Pelagius, a British monk. (Augustin calls him Brito, so do Prosper and Gennadius; by Orosius he is called Britannicus noster, and by Mercator described as gente Britannus. This wide epithet is somewhat restricted by Jerome, who says of him, Habet progeniem Scotiæ gentis de Britannorum vicinia; leaving it uncertain, however, whether he deemed Scotland his native country, or Ireland. His monastic character is often referred to both by Augustin and other writers, and Pope Zosimus describes him as Laicum virum ad bonam frugem longa erga Deum servitute nitentem. It is, after all, quite uncertain what part of "Britain" gave him birth; among other conjectures, he has been made a native of Wales, attached to a monastery at Bangor, and gifted with the Welsh name of Morgan, of which his usual designation of Pelagius is supposed to be simply the Greek version, Pelagio.) It was at the beginning of the fifth century that he became conspicuous. He then resided at Rome, known by many as an honourable and earnest man, seeking in a corrupt age to reform the morals of society. (In the present volume the reader will not fail to observe the eulogistic language which Augustin often uses of Pelagius; see On the Merits of Sin, iii. 1, 5, 6.) Sundry theological treatises are even attributed to him; among them one On the Trinity, of unquestionable orthodoxy, and showing great ability. Unfavourable reports, however, afterwards began to be circulated, charging him with opening, in fact, entirely new ground in the fields of heresy. During the previous centuries of Christian opinion the speculations of active thinkers had been occupied on Theology properly so called, or the doctrine of God as to His nature and personal attributes, including Christology, which treated of Christ's divine and human natures. This was objective divinity. With Pelagius, however, a fresh class of subjects was forced on men's attention: in his peculiar system of doctrine he deals with what is subjective in man, and reviews the whole of his relation to God. His heresy turns mainly upon two points--the assumed incorruptness of human nature, and the denial of all supernatural influence upon the human will.
§ 3. He had an early associate in Cœlestius, a native of Campania, according to some, or as others say, of Ireland or of Scotland. This man, who is said to have been highly connected, began life as an advocate, but, influenced by the advice and example of Pelagius, soon became a monk. He excelled his master in boldness and energy; and thus early precipitated the new doctrine into a formal dogmatism, from which the caution and subtler management of Pelagius might have saved it. In the year A.D. 412 (Pelagius having just left him at Carthage to go to Palestine), Cœlestius was accused before the bishop Aurelius of holding and teaching the following opinions:
1. Adam was created mortal, and must have died, even if he had not sinned; 2. Adam's sin injured himself only, and not mankind; 3. Infants are born in the state of Adam before he fell; 4. Mankind neither died in Adam, nor rose again in Christ; 5. The Law, no less than the Gospel, brings men to the kingdom of heaven; 6. There were sinless men before the coming of Christ.2 What Cœlestius thus boldly propounded, he had the courage to maintain. On his refusal to retract, he was excommunicated. He threatened, or perhaps actually though ineffectually made, an appeal to Rome, and afterwards quitted Carthage for Ephesus.
§ 4. Augustin, who had for some time been occupied in the Donatist controversy, had as yet taken no personal part in the proceedings against Cœlestius. Soon, however, was his attention directed to the new opinions, and he wrote the first two treatises contained in this volume, in the year when Cœlestius was excommunicated. At first he treated Pelagius, as has been said, with deference and forbearance, hoping by courtesy to recall him from danger. But as the heresy developed, Augustin's opposition was more directly and vigorously exhibited. The gospel was being fatally tampered with, in its essential facts of human sin and divine grace; so, in the fulness of his own absolute loyalty to the entire volume of evangelical truth, he concentrated his best efforts in opposition to the now formidable heresy. It is perhaps not too much to say, that St. Augustin, the greatest doctor of the Catholic Church, effected his greatness mainly by his labours against Pelagianism. Other Christian writers besides Augustin have achieved results of decisive influence on the Church and its deposit of the Christian faith. St. Athanasius, "alone against the world," has often been referred to as a splendid instance of what constancy, aided by God's grace and a profound knowledge of theology, could accomplish; St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Leo of Rome, might be also quoted as signal proofs of the efficacy of catholic truth in opposition to popular heresy: these men, under God, saved the Creed from the ravages of Arianism, and the subtler injuries of Nestorius and Eutyches. Then, again, in the curious learning of the primitive Irenæus; in the critical skill, and wide knowledge, and indomitable labours of Origen; in the catechetical teaching of the elder Cyril; in the chaste descriptive power of Basil; in the simplicity and self-denial of Ambrose; in the fervid eloquence of the "golden-mouthed" Chrysostom; in the great learning of Jerome; in the scholastic accuracy of Damascene; and in the varied sacred gifts of other Christian worthies, from the impetuous Tertullian and the gentle Cyprian, with all the Gregories of manifold endowments, down to the latest period of patristic wisdom, graced by our own Anselm and the unrivalled preacher Bernard,--in all these converging lines of diverse yet compatible accomplishments, the Church of Christ has found, from age to age, ample reinforcements against the attacks of heretical hostility. And in our great Bishop of Hippo one may trace, operating on various occasions in his various works, the manifold characteristics which we have just enumerated of his brother saints,--with this difference, that in no one of them are found combined the many traits which constitute his greatness. We have here to do only with his anti-Pelagian writings. Upon the whole, perhaps, these exhibit most of his wonderful resources of Christian character. In many respects, one is reminded by him of the great apostle, whom he reverenced, and whose profound doctrines he republished and vindicated. He has himself, in several of his works, especially in his Confessions, admitted us to a view of the sharp convulsions and bitter conflicts through which he passed, before his regeneration, into the Christian life, animated by the free and sovereign grace of God, and adorned with his unflagging energies in works of faith and love. From the depths of his own consciousness he instinctively felt the dangers of Pelagianism, and he put forth his strength, as God enabled him, to meet the evil; and the reader has in this volume samples in great variety of the earnestness of his conflict with the new heresy and its leaders. These leaders he has himself characterized: "Ille [nempe Cœlestius] apertior, iste [scilicet Pelagius] occultior fuit; ille pertinacior, iste mendacior; vel certe ille liberior, hic astutior;"3 and illustrations of the general correctness of this estimate will be forthcoming, especially in the fourth treatise of this volume, where Cœlestius is dealt with, and in the fifth, which relates to the subterfuges and pretexts practised by Pelagius in his proceedings in Palestine.
§ 5. The difference in the characters of the two leaders in this heresy contributed to different results in their earlier proceedings. We have seen the disastrous issue to Cœlestius at Carthage, from his outspoken and unyielding conduct. The more reserved Pelagius, resorting to a dexterous management of sundry favourable circumstances, obtained a friendly hearing on two public occasions--at Jerusalem, in the summer of A.D. 415, and again at the end of that year, in a council of fourteen bishops, at Diospolis, the ancient Lydda. In the last treatise of this volume,4 the reader has a characteristic narrative of these events from St. Augustin's own pen. The holy man's disappointment at the untoward results of these two inquiries is apparent; but he struggles to maintain his respect for the bishops concerned in the affair, and comforts himself and all Catholics with the assurance, which he thinks is warranted by the proceedings, that the acquittal obtained by Pelagius, through the concealment of his real opinions, amounted in fact to a condemnation of them. This volume terminates with these transactions in Palestine; so that any remarks on the decline and fall of Pelagianism proper must be postponed to a subsequent volume.
§ 6. St. Jerome as well as St. Augustin engaged in this controversy, and experienced in the East some loss and much danger from the rougher followers of Pelagius.5 It is not without interest that one observes the difference of view entertained by these eminent men on the general question of the Pelagian heresy. Augustin had but an imperfect acquaintance with either the language or the writings of the Greek Fathers, and had treated the Pelagian opinions as unheard-of novelties. Jerome, however, who had acquired a competent knowledge of the Christian literature of Greece during his long residence in the East, traced these heretical opinions to the school of Origen, for whose memory he entertained but scant respect. There is, no doubt, extravagance in Jerome's censure, but withal a foundation of truth. For from the beginning there was a tendency at least to divergent views between the Eastern and the Western sections of Christendom, on the relation of the human will to the grace of God in the matter of man's conversion and salvation. On the general question, indeed, there was always substantial agreement in the Catholic Church;--man, as he is born into the world, is not in his originally perfect state; in order to be able to live according to his original nature and to do good, he requires an inward change by the almighty power of God. But this general agreement did not hinder specific differences of opinion, which having been developed with considerable regularity, in East and West respectively, admit of some classification. The chief writers of the West, especially Tertullian and Cyprian in the third century, and Hilary of Poitiers and (notably) Ambrose in the fourth century, prominently state the doctrine of man's corruption, and the consequent necessity of a change of his nature by divine grace; whilst the Alexandrian Fathers (especially Clement), and other Orientals (for instance, Chrysostom), laid great stress upon human freedom, and on the indispensable co-operation of this freedom with the grace of God. By the fifth century these tendencies were ready to culminate; they were at length precipitated to a decisive controversy. In the Pelagian system, the liberty which had been claimed for man was pushed to the heretical extreme of independence of God's help; while Augustin, in resisting this heresy, found it hard to keep clear of the other extreme, of the absorption of human responsibility into the divine sovereignty. Our author, no doubt, moves about on the confines of a deep insoluble mystery here; but, upon the whole, it must be apparent to the careful reader how earnestly he tries to maintain and vindicate man's responsibility even amidst the endowments of God's grace.
§ 7. Much has been written on the conduct of the two leading opponents in this controversy. Sides (as usual) have been taken, and extreme opinions of praise and of blame have been freely bestowed on both Augustin and Pelagius. It is impossible, even were it desirable, in this limited space to enter upon a question which, after all, hardly rises above the dignity of mere personalities. The orthodox bishop and the heretical monk have had their share of censure as to their mode of conducting the controversy. Augustin has been taxed with intolerance, Pelagius with duplicity. We are perhaps not in a position to form an impartial judgment on the case. To begin with, the evidence comes all from one side; and then the critics pass their sentence according to the suggestions of modern prejudice, rather than by the test of ancient contemporary facts, motives, and principles of action. A good deal of obloquy has been cast on Augustin, as if he were responsible for the Rescript of Honorius and its penalties; but this is (to say the least) a conclusion which outruns the premises. We need say nothing of the peril which seriously threatened true religion when the half-informed bishops of Palestine, and the vacillating Pope, all gave their hasty and ill-grounded approval to Pelagius, as a justification of Augustin. He deeply felt the seriousness of the crisis, and he unsheathed "the sword of the Spirit," and dealt with it trenchant blows, every one of which struck home with admirable precision; but it is not proved that he ever wielded the civil sword of pains and penalties. Of all theological writers in ancient, medieval, or earlier modern times, it may be fairly maintained that St. Augustin has shown himself the most considerate, courteous, and charitable towards opponents. The reader will trace with some interest the progress of his criticism on Pelagius. From the forbearance and love which he gave him at first,6 he passes slowly and painfully on to censure and condemnation, but only as he detects stronger and stronger proofs of insincerity and bad faith.
§ 8. But whatever estimate we may form on the score of their personal conduct, there can be no doubt of the bishop's superiority over the monk, when we come to gauge the value of their principles and doctrines, whether tested by Scripture or by the great facts of human nature. Concerning the test of Scripture, our assertion will be denied by no one. No ancient Christian writer approaches near St. Augustin in his general influence on the opinions and belief of the Catholic Church, in its custody and interpretation of Holy Scripture; and there can be no mistake either as to the Church's uniform guardianship of the Augustinian doctrine, taken as a whole, or as to its invariable resistance to the Pelagian system, whenever and however it has been reproduced in the revolutions of human thought. There cannot be found in all ecclesiastical history a more remarkable fact than the deference shown to the great Bishop of Hippo throughout Christendom, on all points of salient interest connected with his name. Whatever basis of doctrine exists in common between the great sections of Catholicism and Protestantism, was laid at first by the genius and piety of St. Augustin. In the conflicts of the early centuries he was usually the champion of Scripture truth against dangerous errors. In the Middle Ages his influence was paramount with the eminent men who built up the scholastic system. In the modern Latin Church he enjoys greater consideration than either Ambrose, or Hilary, or Jerome, or even Gregory the Great; and lastly, and perhaps most strangely, he stands nearest to evangelical Protestantism, and led the van of the great movement in the sixteenth century, which culminated in the Reformation. How unique the influence which directed the minds of Anselm, and Bernard, and Aquinas, and Bonaventure, with no less power than it swayed the thoughts of Luther, and Melanchthon, and Zuingle, and Calvin!
§ 9. The key to this wonderful influence is Augustin's knowledge of Holy Scripture, and its profound suitableness to the facts and experience of our entire nature. Perhaps to no one, not excepting St. Paul himself, has it been ever given so wholly and so deeply to suffer the manifold experiences of the human heart, whether of sorrow and anguish from the tyranny of sin, or of spiritual joy from the precious consolations of the grace of God. Augustin speaks with authority here; he has traversed all the ground of inspired writ, and shown us how true is its portraiture of man's life. And, to pass on to our last point, he has threaded the mazes of human consciousness; and in building up his doctrinal system, has been, in the main, as true to the philosophy of fact as he is to the statements of revelation. He appears in as favourable a contrast to his opponent in his philosophy as in his Scripture exegesis. We cannot, however, in the limits of this Preface, illustrate this criticism with all the adducible proofs; but we may quote one or two weak points which radically compromise Pelagius as to the scientific bearings of his doctrine. By science we mean accurate knowledge, which stands the test of the widest induction of facts. Now, it has been frequently remarked that Pelagius is scientifically defective in the very centre of his doctrine,--on the freedom of the will. His theory, especially in the hands of his vigorous followers, Cœlestius and Julianus,7 ignored the influence of habit on human volition, and the development of habits from action, isolating human acts, making man's power of choice (his liberum arbitrium) a mere natural faculty, of physical, not moral operation. How defective this view is,--how it impoverishes the moral nature of man, strips it of the very elements of its composition, and drops out of consideration the many facts of human life, which interlace themselves in our experience as the very web and woof of moral virtue,--is manifest to the students of Aristotle and Butler.8 Acts are not mere insulated atoms, merely done, and then done with; but they have a relation to the will, and an influence upon subsequent acts: and so acts generate habits, and habits produce character, the formal cause of man's moral condition. The same defect runs through the Pelagian system. Passing from the subject of human freedom, and the effect of action upon conduct and habit, we come to Pelagius' view of sin. According to him, Adam's transgression consisted in an isolated act of disobedience to God's command; and our sin now consists in the mere repetition and imitation of his offence. There was no "original sin," and consequently no hereditary guilt. Adam stood alone in his transgression, and transmitted no evil taint to his posterity, much less any tendency or predisposition to wrong-doing: there was no doubt a bad example, but against this Pelagius complacently set the happier examples of good and prudent men. Isolation, then, is the principle of Pelagius and his school; organization is the principle of true philosophy, as tested by the experience and observation of mankind.
§ 10. We have said enough, and we hope not unfairly said it, to show that Pelagius was radically at fault in his deductions, whether tested by divine revelation or human experience. How superior to him in all essential points his great opponent was, will be manifest to the reader of this volume. Not a statement of Scripture, nor a fact of nature, does Augustin find it necessary to soften, or repudiate, or ignore. Hence his writings are valuable in illustrating the harmony between revelation and true philosophy; we have seen how much of his far-seeing and eminent knowledge was owing to his own deep convictions and discoveries of sin and grace; perhaps we shall not be wrong in saying, that even to his opponents is due something of his excellence. There can be no doubt that in Pelagius and Cœlestius, and his still more able follower Julianus, of whom we shall hear in a future volume, he had very able opponents--men of earnest character, acute in observation and reasoning, impressed with the truth of their convictions, and deeming it a fit occupation to rationalize the meaning of Scripture in its bearings on human experience. There is a remarkable peculiarity in this respect in the opinions of Pelagius. He accepted the mysteries of theology, properly so called, with the most exemplary orthodoxy. Nothing could be better than his exposition of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. But again we find him hemmed in with a perverse isolation. The doctrine of the Trinity, according to him, stands alone; it sheds no influence on man and his eternal interests; but in the blessed Scripture, as read by Augustin, there is revealed to man a most intimate relation between himself and God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as his Creator, his Redeemer, and his Sanctifier. In Pelagianism, then, we see a disjointed and unconnected theory,--a creed which stands apart from practical life, and is not allowed to shape man's conduct,--a system, in short, which falls to pieces for want of the coherence of the true "analogy of the faith" which worketh by love. By exposing, therefore, this incompatibility in the doctrine of his opponents, Augustin shows how irreconcilable are the deductions of their Rationalism with the statements of Revelation. But Rationalism is not confined to any one period. We live to see a bolder Rationalism, which, unlike Pelagius', is absolutely uncompromising in its aims, and (as must be admitted) more consistent in its method. To institute the supremacy of Reason, it destroys more or less the mysteries of Religion. All the miraculous element of the gospel is discarded; God's personal relation to man in the procedures of grace, and man's to God in the discipline of repentance, faith, and love, are abolished: nay, the Divine Personality itself merges into an impalpable, uninfluential Pantheism; while man's individual responsibility is absorbed into a mythical personification of the race. The only sure escape from such a desolation as this, is to recur to the good old paths of gospel faith--"stare super antiquas vias." Our directory for life's journey through these is furnished to us in Holy Scripture; and if an interpreter is wanted who shall be able by competent knowledge and ample experience to explain to us any difficulties of direction, we know none more suited for the purpose than our St. Augustin.
§ 11. But Rationalism is not always so exaggerated as this: in its ordinary development, indeed, it stops short of open warfare with Revelation, and (at whatever cost of logical consistency) it will accommodate its discussions to the form of Scripture. This adaptation gives it double force: there is its own intrinsic principle of uncontrolled liberty in will and action, and there is "the form of godliness," which has weight with unreflective Christians. Hence Pelagianism was undoubtedly popular: it offered dignity to human nature, and flattered its capacity; and this it did without virulence and with sincerity, under the form of religion. This acquiescence of matter and manner gave it strength in men's sympathies, and has secured for it durability, seeing that there is plenty of it still amongst us; as indeed there always has been, and ever will be, so long as the fatal ambition of Eden (Gen. iii. 5, 6) shall seduce men into a temper of rivalry with God. Writers like Paley (in his Evidences) have treated of the triumph of Christianity over difficulties of every kind. Of all the stumbling-blocks to the holy religion of our blessed Saviour, not one has proved so influential as its doctrine of Grace; the prejudice against it, by what St. Paul calls "the natural man" (1 Cor. ii. 14), is ineradicable--and, it may be added, inevitable: for in his independence and self-sufficiency he cannot admit that in himself he is nothing, but requires external help to rescue him from sin, and through imparted holiness to elevate him to the perfection of the blessed. How great, then, is the benefit which Augustin has accomplished for the gospel, in probing the grounds of this natural prejudice against it, and showing its ultimate untenableness--the moment it is tested on the deeper principles of the divine appreciation! No, the ultimate effect of the doctrine and operation of grace is not to depreciate the true dignity of man. If there be the humbling process first, it is only that out of the humility should emerge the exaltation at last (1 Pet. v. 6). I know nothing in the whole range of practical or theoretical divinity more beautiful than Augustin's analysis of the procedures of grace, in raising man from the depths of his sinful prostration to the heights of his last and eternal elevation in the presence and fellowship of God. The most ambitious, who thinks "man was not made for meanness," might be well content with the noble prospect. But his ambition must submit to the conditions; and his capacity both for the attainment and the fruition of such a destiny is given to him and trained by God Himself. "It is so contrived," says Augustin, "in the discipline of the present life, that the holy Church shall arrive at last at that condition of unspotted purity which all holy men desire; and that it may in the world to come, and in a state unmixed with all soil of evil men, and undisturbed by any law of sin resisting the law of the mind, lead the purest life in a divine eternity.…But in whatever place and at what time soever the love which animates the good shall reach that state of absolute perfection which shall admit of no increase, it is certainly not 'shed abroad in our hearts' by any energies either of the nature or the volition that are within us, but 'by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us' (Rom. v. 5), and which both helps our infirmity and co-operates with our strength" (On Nature and Grace, chs. 74 and 84).
§ 12. This translation has been made from the (Antwerp) Benedictine edition of the works of St. Augustin, tenth volume, compared with the beautiful reprint by Gaume. (Although left to his own resources in making his version, the Translator has gladly availed himself of the learned aid within his reach. He may mention the Kirchengeschichte both of Gieseler and Neander [Clark's transl. vol. iv.]; Wiggers' Versuch einer pragmatischen Darstellung des Augustinismus und Pelagianismus [1st part]; Shedd's Christian Doctrine; Cunningham's Historical Theology; Short's Bampton Lectures for 1846 [Lect. vii.]; Professor Bright's History of the Church from A.D. 313 to A.D. 451; Bishop Forbes' Explanation of the Thirty-nine Articles [vol. i.]; Canon Robertson's History of the Christian Church, vol. i. pp. 376-392; and especially Professor Mozley's Treatise on the Augustinian Doctrine of Predestination, ch. iii. iv. vi.; and Dr. Philip Schaff's excellent History of the Christian Church [Clark, Edinburgh 18699], vol. iii. pp.783-1028; of which work Dr. Dorner's is by no means exaggerated commendation: "It is," says he, "on account of the beauty of its descriptions, the lucid arrangement of its materials, and the moderation of its decisions, a very praiseworthy work" (Dorner's History of Protestant Theology [Clark's translation], vol. ii. p. 449, note 2). This portion of Dr. Schaff's work is an expansion of his able and interesting article on the Pelagian Controversy in the American Bibliotheca Sacra of May 1848.
1 It is satisfactory to observe how brief and scanty are his "retractations" on the topics treated in the present volume.
2 Marius Mercator mentions a seventh opinion broached by Cœlestius, to the effect that "infants, though they be unbaptized, have everlasting life."
3 De Peccato originali, [xii.] 13. See below.
4 [i.e. On the Proceedings of Pelagius.]
5 See the Proceedings of Pelagius, c. 66.
6 For some time Augustin abstained from mentioning the name of Pelagius, to save him as much as he could from exposure, and to avoid the irritation which might urge him to heresy from obstinacy. Augustin recognised early enough the motive which influenced Pelagius at first. The latter dreaded the Antinomianism of the day, and concentrated his teaching in a doctrine which was meant as a protest against it. "We would rather not do injustice to our friends," says Augustin, as he praises their "strong and active minds;" and he goes on to commend Pelagius anonymously for "the zeal which he entertains against those who find a defence for their sins in the infirmity of human nature." See the third treatise of this volume, On Nature and Grace, ch. 6, 7.
7 We make this qualification, because Pelagius himself seems to have recognised to some extent the power of habit and its effect upon the will, in his Letter to Demetrias, 8. See Dr. Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church, vol. iii. p. 804.
8 Aristotle, Ethic. Nicom. ii. 2, 3, 6; Butler, Analogy, i. 5.9 [Revised edition. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, and T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1884.]
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