Lesson 5 - (Computer) - Augustine's Charge #1 Defense Against Pelagius


Kathy L. McFarland

April 18, 2013

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Augustine’s Specific Challenges against Pelagius’ Free Will Defense

with Scripture Support or Considerations Developed through his Stance

Lesson 5

Charge #1 – Able to remain free of sin through knowledge of Law

     Before we start evaluating Augustine’s arguments against the free will defense of Pelagius, it is important to recognize the important movements of God. Sometimes, in fact, most often, as the church developed in the early period, politics, greed, power, and institutional desires often got in the way of reflecting God’s truth perfectly.  But, the bigger picture, as time passes by, shows that though mistakes are found throughout the development of Christianity, the greater good of God often shines forth regardless.  He did not establish a perfect church by placing it in mankind’s control; man established the church upon the foundation of the Lord Jesus Christ and has forever since struggled with issues to bring the church closer and closer to God’s truth and Christ’s teachings. 

     It reminds me of the liberal and agnostic mockers towards conservative believers that declare the Word of God inerrant.  Immediately, these scholars charge the conservatives of naiveté and remind bystanders that there are no original texts of the New Testament known, and it is only from copies that Scripture reflects.  And those copies, the Alexandrian, Western, and Byzantine texts, differ in some places, preventing a trustworthy, exact reflection of the original documents they try to represent.  But, the conservative believer stands upon the inerrant Word of God, not upon man’s interpretation, or the newest translation that tries to capture His things.  Conservatives believe that the Word of God, as it has been revealed through the ages, is guided by God fully, and does exactly everything He wants accomplished in His time and way. The Bible is inerrant in this regard; while some minor words change in translation or copy, the living Scripture moves at God’s command, leading believers perfectly, with His Spirit, as God intends.

     It is this God effect that must never be removed because historical debates erred on one side or the other.  Wise Christians will look at the entire development of Christian belief, and allow God’s movement to be recognized as the guide that led religious belief in an ordered fashion. Pelagius and Augustine are going to be found wrong in places and right in others; the political vacuum and the intentions of the Roman Catholic Church to fill that void and rule over all believers sometimes muddies historical analysis.  But God’s Truth exists regardless of mankind’s attempts to control; when He moves His Truth forward among mankind, it originates as the pure source of Truth that it is.  However, when man gets ahold of it, mistakes get made.  So, as we now seek to find Augustine and the Roman Catholic Church’s stance, learn what you can of the historical development of the debate between original sin and free will, with the measure of a wise Christian seeker that recognizes God’s movement of human beings toward Truth, regardless of the mess sometimes made by leaders with specific agendas.

A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius[1]

      Augustine wrote his account of the proceedings of Pelagius in the trial by the Synod in Palestine.  His book of his witness to the trial was written around A.D. 417 and was addressed to Bishop Aurelius of Carthage.

     Augustine’s stated purpose for his communication with the Bishop was both concise and obviously slanted with bias as it addresses the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the matter of Pelagius’ heresy (Title capitalization reproduced):


        It is Augustine’s stated intentions to provide enough evidence of flawed verdicts against the charges against Pelagius by the Palestine Synod Council to prove to the Roman Catholic leadership that Pelagius is indeed against the church and in the condition of heresy, in spite of the declaration that he remains catholic in his belief.[3]  He takes each charge and adds his arguments with Scripture support as necessary to prove that Pelagius is in fact, guilty.

Charge #1 – Able to remain free of sin through knowledge of Law

     The first charge against Pelagius at the Palestine Synod Council forces him to address his exact thoughts concerning the possibility between remaining holy without sin when a human has the knowledge of the Law of God. Augustine first complains that the Synod was not interested in determining the Pelagius’ heresy against the church; rather, they focused, not upon his “unsoundness of faith,” but rather upon the possibility that he had merely written “incautious” statements that needed clarification.[4]  He then addresses the first charge that Pelagius writes in his book “No man can be without sin unless he has acquired a knowledge of the law,” to which Pelagius claims to have chosen poor words in the writing in his defense to the Synod.[5]

       Augustine speaks numerous illustrations that attempts to shed light upon the flawed idea of sin conquered through the knowledge of law in an effort to explain the faulty reasoning of Pelagius.  Specifically, Augustine addresses the difference between two statements: “a man is by the knowledge of the law assisted towards not sinning” vs. “a man cannot be without sin unless he has acquired a knowledge of the law.”[6]

       Thus begins the development of the logos to form an understanding of original sin, as Augustine uses the example of a doctor’ skill to heal or a teacher’s skill to guide learners as one type of aid that is useful but not indispensable for positive results; a sick person can become healthy again without a physician, and some can teach themselves without need of guidance from a teacher.[7] But then he examines those cases where aids are crucial to successful completion of the end goal such as the necessity of an actual ship if a voyage were taken, a voice for those that wish to speak, and legs for those that need to walk.[8]

       Augustine then sets up a standard to judge the truth of Pelagius’ answer before the judges.  If Pelagius spoke in the sense of indispensable aid that the law to sinlessness was like the ship to a voyage; if one was critically necessary for the other, then Pelagius words that he wrote and spoke were his belief truthfully and were false teachings concerning the issue of sin.[9]  However, if Pelagius spoke as the law being a simple aid to help man not sin, then the words that he wrote in his book deviate from that position. Specifically, when he told the bishops that what he meant was that man” is by the knowledge of the law assisted towards not sinning, even as it is written, ‘He hath given them a law for help’” were different words that did not reflect his specific written words that “there is no man without sin except him who has acquired a knowledge of the law.”[10]

       Augustine charges that the judges’ poor grasp of the Latin language and the lack of an interpreter to explain the deeper meaning of the complexities framing this issue prevented them from ruling justly.[11] Further, Augustine blames common Christian ignorance in the background as swaying the judges to the idea that Pelagius’ answers were not threatening their faith.[12]  Augustine speaks of the lowliness of most common Christians as too simple to understand the “very profound and complicated contents of the law,” and instead rely upon simple faith that their sins will be purged through the Lord Jesus Christ.[13]  The judges at Pelagius’ trial had need of a well-informed interpreter to explain to them the intricacies of the critical nature of the law in relationship to faith, instead of relying upon simple Christian knowledge that had no understanding of the problem.[14]

       In fact, Augustine accuses that the issue of the countless multitudes of babes in Christ that form a protective ring around Pelagius, declaring innocently that they have great faith without any knowledge of the law as a barrier that prevents the interrogation and imputation of Pelagius’ meanings.[15] Thus, the judges declared Pelagius misunderstood due to a misunderstanding of the language, the critical nature of Pelagius misrepresentation of the association of law and sin, and the crowd of babes in Christ that created a backdrop of naïve support for Pelagius, leading to the rendering of the verdict of innocence for this charge.

Scripture Considerations Concerning the Matter of Law’s Relationship to Sin

       We cannot resolve the issue of original sin if we rely solely upon Augustine’s writings concerning Pelagius, because this doctrine was at the beginning stages of development in very difficult times with specific points being formed.  It took many councils and debates and teachings to fully arrive to the Doctrine of Original Sin.  Nor can we declare Augustine’s defense of his belief against that of Pelagius flawed because of its passionate bias.  Every progress made in God’s Kingdom toward understanding His way is done upon stair steps of knowledge that are forced to the forefront at critical points of human spiritual development.

       We can, however, consider Scripture that Augustine, Pelagius, and we have access to, to come as close to this matter as possible. Romans 3:21-23 begins that journey:

“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God [which is] by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

     Paul’s thesis of the connection of law and sins fully explains God’s Truth. First, the righteousness of God brought forth the law and prophets to begin the process of faith development through Jesus Christ.  Second, after the Lord Jesus Christ came, the law no longer manifests the righteousness of the LORD God completely.  When His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, died upon the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of his followers so that his blood might redeem them to eternal life, the law no longer mattered. No matter what the law says or does not say, no matter if a follower is law-abiding or law-breaking, there is absolutely nothing that can remove sin but the Lord Jesus Christ’s shed blood.

     Therefore, Pelagius’ written statement that “there is no man without sin except him who has acquired a knowledge of the law”[16] is false misrepresentation of God’s Word.  Further, Pelagius’ defense that a man is by the knowledge of the law assisted towards not sinning, with specific reference to Scripture Isaiah 8:20, is a misrepresentation of the message. Isaiah 8:20 warns that wizards with familiar spirits: “To the law and to the testimony:  If they speak not according to this word, It is because there is no light in them.” Thus, those not of God are unable to speak correctly about His Law and His Testimony; but, this does not speak of assistance that is brought to believers because of their knowledge of the law.  Pelagius applied OT Scripture that did not represent the point that he defended.

Augustine’s defense seems to successfully argue Charge #1 against  Pelagius’ actual words that he spoke and wrote. Further, Scripture reference reveals Pelagius appears to have misrepresented Scripture and the meaning of his words by confusing the judges and babes in Christ to possibly encourage their favorable verdict.


Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. "A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius". Translated by Peter Holmes. Vol. V: Saint Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Edited by Philip Schaff. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887.




[1] Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, "A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius", ed. Philip Schaff, trans., Peter Holmes, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. V: Saint Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887).

[2] Ibid., 183.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 183-184.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 184.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 184-185.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 184.

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