A Short Reflection on Augustine and Pelagius

Pelagius and Augustine on Grace

St. Augustine is commonly referred to as the Doctor of Grace, as his reflections on the necessity of grace in the life of man to do anything good at all permeate his writings.  His contemplation of grace as a free gift of God certainly appears in the pages of his great works such as the Confessions, The City of God, and the Trinity. However, a more systematic view can be gleaned from his encounter and dialogue with the doctrines of Pelagius, a monk and moralist who taught at Rome around the turn of the 5th century A.D. The contrary views on man, human nature, and the doctrine of grace is in many ways the greatest legacy of Augustine and his mark on the teaching of the Catholic Church to this day.

Pelagius seemed to be primarily concerned with right conduct, and the pessimistic views of man as a lump of sin could be demoralizing to those who would desire to live an upright life in service to God. He was distressed by Augustine’s prayer of “Give what thou command, and command what thou will,”1 for it seemed to make mere puppets of men in God’s hands. If we are wholly determined by divine grace, it might seem hardly necessary to give a real personal effort to do the Lord’s will. Pelagius, therefore, rejected such a view, as he understood it, so as to ensure the responsibility that men must take for their own action and their own failures.

Pelagius argued for three features of our action: power, will, and realization.  For him, the first came completely from God, but the latter are found in us.  God gave us our free will, and therefore we cooperate or reject to do that which God has given us the power to do.  This gives us both the merit or the blame for our actions, and it would seem difficult for us to be blamed for our failures if these were due completely to God not giving us the grace to will to do them. This, in essence, was the struggle for Pelagius in accepting the position of Augustine.

For man to have a truly free will that might receive real praise for what he does as well as real culpability, Pelagius’ understanding of the Fall and the nature of original sin had to differ as well from that of Augustine. To Pelagius’ understanding, the nature of original sin was more by way of bad example of each sinful parent, rather than a soiling of the soul handed down by the parents.  Man must be truly free to choose good or evil, and not unduly influenced by God in either direction to have true freedom and thus true responsibility for his actions. Grace was then limited to the external, be it good influence, preaching of the Gospel, etc.

In fact, because of his belief in the soul being created immediately by God, it seemed impossible for this stain of sin to be handed down.  Pelagius actually saw the belief in a handing down of the stain of sin as compatible only with a traducian theory of the soul’s origin, and could in some instances accuse Augustine of having an old residue of his Manichean past still about him.

Before moving on to Augustine’s position on grace, it is important to note that Augustine never seemed to work out his view on the origin of the soul, vacillating between a creationist and traducianist view.  He seemed to know that his doctrine of the handing on of original sin from the first man was favorable to the traducianist theory.2

Saint Augustine contrasts the initial state of man with his fallen condition after original sin, and his view of free will here is slightly different than that of Pelagius.  For Augustine, the distinction must be made that before the fall, Adam had the power not to sin, but sinned. After the fall, man cannot not sin, and his nature is wounded. “Man’s liberty is curtailed since he is drawn towards sin by concupiscence. Augustine sees the role of grace as breaking this slavery and thereby freeing man. On his own man would have eternally been held captive…Pelagius is held to have taught that man can begin his work of salvation, that he can merit God’s help and grace. Saint Augustine holds that grace is not subject to merit, rather it precedes man’s actions.”3

The fundamental mystery here is that of free will and grace.  Certainly, both men held that our power to do good comes from the good God alone.  In an effort to defend the free will of man, Pelagius would say that man must be able to somehow cooperate with God of man’s own volition. For Augustine, this cooperation is itself a good, and so must be preceded by some action of God. Otherwise, man takes his first steps back towards God on his own.  This makes man the “first mover” in this way, and this cannot be, not only by the doctrine of revealed truth, but even in a metaphysical sense.

The mystery of grace and free will remains with us today, and likely always will, this side of Heaven.  Man’s freedom and God’s absolute providence are difficult if not impossible for the human mind to reconcile.  Whether it is Augustine and Pelagius, the John Calvin and Jacob Arminius, or even, at times in the past, the Jesuits and the Dominicans, we will always in our mind have the tendency to, in attempted to uphold the truth of one or other of these truths (free will and Divine providence) find ourselves somehow emphasizing one to the detriment of the other.

Saint Augustine won the day with his defense of the absolute necessity of God’s grace being preceded by no action of ours and this initial grace merited in no way by man, and likewise the doctrine of original sin, as understood by the Church, is heavily influenced by the reflections of Augustine. For example, the Catechism explicitly states that “The Church’s teaching on the transmission of original sin was articulated more precisely in the fifth century, especially under the impulse of St. Augustine’s reflections against Pelagianism, and in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the Protestant Reformation. Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life; he thus reduced the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example.”4 Nevertheless, through the centuries, many great minds have prayerfully pondered these truths more and more deeply. Almost every great mind, however, that has spoken well on this most difficult of subjects, has certainly had to wrestle with the brilliant teachings of the Doctor of Grace.





  1. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pg. 357
  2. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, pg. 122
  3. International Catholic University, Patristics, Lecture 5
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church 406

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