A Treatise on nature and grace, against pelagius

by aurelius augustin, bishop of hippo

A.D. 415

Chapter 53 --Pelagius Distinguishes Between a Power and Its Use.

Well, are there other things to listen to?  Yes, certainly; both to listen to, and correct and guard against.  "Now, when it is said," he says, "that the very ability is not at all of man's will, but of the Author of nature,--that is, God,--how can that possibly be understood to be without the grace of God which is deemed especially to belong to God?"  Already we begin to see what he means; but that we may not lie under any mistake, he explains himself with greater breadth and clearness:  "That this may become still plainer, we must," says he, "enter on a somewhat fuller discussion of the point.  Now we affirm that the possibility of anything lies not so much in the ability of a man's will as in the necessity of nature."  He then proceeds to illustrate his meaning by examples and similes.  "Take," says he, "for instance, my ability to speak.  That I am able to speak is not my own; but that I do speak is my own,--that is, of my own will.  And because the act of my speaking is my own, I have the power of alternative action,--that is to say, both to speak and to refrain from speaking.  But because my ability to speak is not my own, that is, is not of my own determination and will, it is of necessity1 that I am always able to speak; and though I wished not to be able to speak, I am unable, nevertheless, to be unable to speak, unless perhaps I were to deprive myself of that member whereby the function of speaking is to be performed."  Many means, indeed, might be mentioned whereby, if he wish it, a man may deprive himself of the possibility of speaking, without removing the organ of speech.  If, for instance, anything were to happen to a man to destroy his voice, he would be unable to speak, although the members remained; for a man's voice is of course no member.  There may, in short, be an injury done to the member internally, short of the actual loss of it.  I am, however, unwilling to press the argument for a word; and it may be replied to me in the contest, Why, even to injure is to lose.  But yet we can so contrive matters, by closing and shutting the mouth with bandages, as to be quite incapable of opening it, and to put the opening of it out of our power, although it was quite in our own power to shut it while the strength and healthy exercise of the limbs remained.

Chapter 54 --There is No Incompatibility Between Necessity and Free Will.

Now how does all this apply to our subject?  Let us see what he makes out of it.  "Whatever," says he, "is fettered by natural necessity is deprived of determination of will and deliberation."  Well, now, here lies a question; for it is the height of absurdity for us to say that it does not belong to our will that we wish to be happy, on the ground that it is absolutely impossible for us to be unwilling to be happy, by reason of some indescribable but amiable coercion of our nature; nor dare we maintain that God has not the will but the necessity of righteousness, because He cannot will to sin.

Chapter 55 --The Same Continued.

Mark also what follows.  "We may perceive," says he, "the same thing to be true of hearing,   smelling, and seeing,--that to hear, and to smell, and to see is of our own power, while the ability to hear, and to smell, and to see is not of our own power, but lies in a natural necessity."  Either I do not understand what he means, or he does not himself.  For how is the possibility of seeing not in our own power, if the necessity of not seeing is in our own power because blindness is in our own power, by which we can deprive ourselves, if we will, of this very ability to see?  How, moreover, is it in our own power to see whenever we will, when, without any loss whatever to our natural structure of body in the organ of sight, we are unable, even though we wish, to see,--either by the removal of all external lights during the night, or by our being shut up in some dark place?  Likewise, if our ability or our inability to hear is not in our own power, but lies in the necessity of nature, whereas our actual hearing or not hearing is of our own will, how comes it that he is inattentive to the fact that there are so many things which we hear against our will, which penetrate our sense even when our ears are stopped, as the creaking of a saw near to us, or the grunt of a pig?  Although the said stopping of our ears shows plainly enough that it does not lie within our own power not to hear so long as our ears are open; perhaps, too, such a stopping of our ears as shall deprive us of the entire sense in question proves that even the ability not to hear lies within our own power.  As to his remarks, again, concerning our sense of smell, does he not display no little carelessness when he says "that it is not in our own power to be able or to be unable to smell, but that it is in our own power"--that is to say, in our free will--"to smell or not to smell?"  For let us suppose some one to place us, with our hands firmly tied, but yet without any injury to our olfactory members, among some bad and noxious smells; in such a case we altogether lose the power, however strong may be our wish, not to smell, because every time we are obliged to draw breath we also inhale the smell which we do not wish.

Chapter 56 --The Assistance of Grace in a Perfect Nature.

Not only, then, are these similes employed by our author false, but so is the matter which he wishes them to illustrate.  He goes on to say:  "In like manner, touching the possibility of our not sinning, we must understand that it is of us not to sin, but yet that the ability to avoid sin is not of us."  If he were speaking of man's whole and perfect nature, which we do not now possess ("for we are saved by hope:  but hope that is seen is not hope.  But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it"1), his language even in that case would not be correct to the effect that to avoid sinning would be of us alone, although to sin would be of us, for even then there must be the help of God, which must shed itself on those who are willing to receive it, just as the light is given to strong and healthy eyes to assist them in their function of sight.  Inasmuch, however, as it is about this present life of ours that he raises the question, wherein our corruptible body weighs down the soul, and our earthly tabernacle depresses our sense with all its many thoughts, I am astonished that he can with any heart suppose that, even without the help of our Saviour's healing balm, it is in our own power to avoid sin, and the ability not to sin is of nature, which gives only stronger evidence of its own corruption by the very fact of its failing to see its taint.

Chapter 57 --It Does Not Detract from God's Almighty Power, that He is Incapable of Either Sinning, or Dying, or Destroying Himself.

"Inasmuch," says he, "as not to sin is ours, we are able to sin and to avoid sin."  What, then, if another should say:  "Inasmuch as not to wish for unhappiness is ours, we are able both to wish for it and not to wish for it?"  And yet we are positively unable to wish for it.  For who could possibly wish to be unhappy, even though he wishes for something else from which unhappiness will ensue to him against his will?  Then again, inasmuch as, in an infinitely greater degree, it is God's not to sin, shall we therefore venture to say that He is able both to sin and to avoid sin?  God forbid that we should ever say that He is able to sin!  For He cannot, as foolish persons suppose, therefore fail to be almighty, because He is unable to die, or because He cannot deny Himself.  What, therefore, does he mean? by what method of speech does he try to persuade us on a point which he is himself loath to consider?  For he advances a step further, and says:  "Inasmuch as, however, it is not of us to be able to avoid sin; even if we were to wish not to be able to avoid sin, it is not in our power to be unable to avoid sin."  It is an involved sentence, and therefore a very obscure one.  It might, however, be more plainly expressed in some such way as this:  "Inasmuch as to be able to avoid sin is not of us, then, whether we wish it or do not wish it, we are able to avoid sin!"  He does not say, "Whether we wish it or do not wish it, we do not sin,"--for we undoubtedly do sin, if we wish;--but yet he asserts that, whether we will or not, we have the capacity of not sinning,--a capacity which   he declares to be inherent in our nature.  Of a man, indeed, who has his legs strong and sound, it may be said admissibly enough, "whether he will or not he has the capacity of walking;" but if his legs be broken, however much he may wish, he has not the capacity.  The nature of which our author speaks is corrupted.  "Why is dust and ashes proud?"2  It is corrupted.  It implores the Physician's help.  "Save me, O Lord,"3 is its cry; "Heal my soul,"4 it exclaims.  Why does he check such cries so as to hinder future health, by insisting, as it were, on its present capacity?

1 Rom. viii. 24, 25.

2 Ecclus. x. 9.

3 Ps. xii. 1.

4 Ps. xli. 4.

Chapter 58 --Even Pious and God-Fearing Men Resist Grace.

Observe also what remark he adds, by which he thinks that his position is confirmed:  "No will," says he, "can take away that which is proved to be inseparably implanted in nature."  Whence then comes that utterance:  "So then ye cannot do the things that ye would?"1  Whence also this:  "For what good I would, that I do not; but what evil I hate, that do I?"2  Where is that capacity which is proved to be inseparably implanted in nature?  See, it is human beings who do not what they will; and it is about not sinning, certainly, that he was treating,--not about not flying, because it was men not birds, that formed his subject.  Behold, it is man who does not the good which he would, but does the evil which he would not:  "to will is present with him, but how to perform that which is good is not present."3  Where is the capacity which is proved to be inseparably implanted in nature?  For whomsoever the apostle represents by himself, if he does not speak these things of his own self, he certainly represents a man by himself.  By our author, however, it is maintained that our human nature actually possesses an inseparable capacity of not at all sinning.  Such a statement, however, even when made by a man who knows not the effect of his words (but this ignorance is hardly attributable to the man who suggests these statements for unwary though God-fearing men), causes the grace of Christ to be "made of none effect,"4 since it is pretended that human nature is sufficient for its own holiness and justification.

1 Gal. v. 17.

2 Rom. vii. 15.

3 Rom. vii. 18.

4 1 Cor. i. 17

Chapter 59 --In What Sense Pelagius Attributed to God's Grace the Capacity of Not Sinning.

In order, however, to escape from the odium wherewith Christians guard their salvation, he parries their question when they ask him, "Why do you affirm that man without the help of God's grace is able to avoid sin?" by saying, "The actual capacity of not sinning lies not so much in the power of will as in the necessity of nature.  Whatever is placed in the necessity of nature undoubtedly appertains to the Author of nature, that is, God.  How then," says he, "can that be regarded as spoken without the grace of God which is shown to belong in an especial manner to God?"  Here the opinion is expressed which all along was kept in the background; there is, in fact, no way of permanently concealing such a doctrine.  The reason why he attributes to the grace of God the capacity of not sinning is, that God is the Author of nature, in which, he declares, this capacity of avoiding sin is inseparably implanted.  Whenever He wills a thing, no doubt He does it; and what He wills not, that He does not.  Now, wherever there is this inseparable capacity, there cannot accrue any infirmity of the will; or rather, there cannot be both a presence of will and a failure in "performance."1  This, then, being the case, how comes it to pass that "to will is present, but how to perform that which is good" is not present?  Now, if the author of the work we are discussing spoke of that nature of man, which was in the beginning created faultless and perfect, in whatever sense his dictum be taken, "that it has an inseparable capacity,"--that is, so to say, one which cannot be lost,--then that nature ought not to have been mentioned at all which could be corrupted, and which could require a physician to cure the eyes of the blind, and restore that capacity of seeing which had been lost through blindness.  For I suppose a blind man would like to see, but is unable; but, whenever a man wishes to do a thing and cannot, there is present to him the will, but he has lost the capacity.

Chapter 60 --Pelagius Admits "Contrary Flesh" In the Unbaptized.

See what obstacles he still attempts to break through, if possible, in order to introduce his own opinion.  He raises a question for himself in these terms:  "But you will tell me that, according to the apostle, the flesh is contrary2 to us;" and then answers it in this wise:  "How can it be that in the case of any baptized person the flesh is contrary to him, when according to the same apostle he is understood not to be in the flesh?  For he says, 'But ye are not in the flesh.'"3  Very well; we shall soon see4 whether it be really true that this says that in the baptized the flesh cannot be contrary to them; at present, however, as it was impossible for him quite to forget that he was a Christian (although his reminiscence on the point is but slight), he has   quitted his defense of nature.  Where then is that inseparable capacity of his?  Are those who are not yet baptized not a part of human nature?  Well, now, here by all means, here at this point, he might find his opportunity of awaking out of his sleep; and he still has it if he is careful.  "How can it be," he asks, "that in the case of a baptized person the flesh is contrary to him?"  Therefore to the unbaptized the flesh can be contrary!  Let him tell us how; for even in these there is that nature which has been so stoutly defended by him.  However, in these he does certainly allow that nature is corrupted, inasmuch as it was only among the baptized that the wounded traveler left his inn sound and well, or rather remains sound in the inn whither the compassionate Samaritan carried him that he might become cured.5  Well, now, if he allows that the flesh is contrary even in these, let him tell us what has happened to occasion this, since the flesh and the spirit alike are the work of one and the same Creator, and are therefore undoubtedly both of them good, because He is good,--unless indeed it be that damage which has been inflicted by man's own will.  And that this may be repaired in our nature, there is need of that very Savior from whose creative hand nature itself proceeded.  Now, if we acknowledge that this Savior, and that healing remedy of His by which the Word was made flesh in order to dwell among us, are required by small and great,--by the crying infant and the hoary-headed man alike,--then, in fact, the whole controversy of the point between us is settled.

1 Rom. vii. 18.

2 Gal. v. 17.

3 Rom. viii. 9.

4 In the next chapter.

5 Luke x. 34.