Augustine and the Pelagius Debate: Pre-fall or Post-fall?

augustine

Saint Augustine

In the world of theology, Pelagianism is generally understood to be the teaching (from a man named Pelagius) that mankind has the natural powers to “ascend” into relationship with God. Meaning, man without any help or grace or power from God, can be in friendship with him.

Augustine, a contemporary of Pelagius, refuted this teaching, arguing that man cannot in and of himself come into relationship with God. Rather, God must condescend to man if he is to know God as friend. Augustine taught this condescension as grace. God, in grace, comes down, thereby elevating and enabling mankind to be in relationship with him.

This debate is usually put in the context of post-fall mankind. In other words, mankind after the fall of Adam, cannot naturally come into relationship with God. Pelagius went so far as to teach that after the fall, man is not affected by Adam’s sin, and is born in a state of neutrality. And he can come into relationship with God by mere obedience to the law, or else if he sins, he came gain help from Christ. Of course, Augustine taught that mankind is mortally wounded by the fall. All men are born into original sin, and therefore need a positive righteousness if they are to be any type of friendship with God.

However, what most don’t know, is that the Pelagian debate didn’t just revolve around post-fall man, but also pre-fall man.

Pelagius taught that Adam was created with the natural capacity to be in relationship with God. While this might sound reasonable, Augustine staunchly refuted this. Augustine said that even pre-fall Adam, because he was ontologically (human, physicalseparated from God (divine), had no natural power to be in friendship with God. Rather, Adam needed an infusion of God’s own life to be his child. He needed God to condescend and give him grace.

For instance, Augustine says,

…the Pelagians have been bold enough to aver, that grace is the nature in which we were created, so as to possess a rational mind, by which we are enabled to understand — formed as we are in the image of God, so as to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth (On Grace of Free Will, 25)

Augustine refutes this position, saying,

The first man had not that grace by which he should never will to be evil; but assuredly he had that in which if he willed to abide he would never be evil, and without which, moreover, he could not by free will be good, but which, nevertheless, by free will he could forsake. God, therefore, did not will even him to be without His grace, which He left in his free will; because free will is sufficient for evil, but is too little for good, unless it is aided by Omnipotent Good… (On Rebuke and Grace, 31)

So even pre-fall Adam, though created good, did not possess the divine qualities to be in relationship with God or to obey God perfectly, without grace.

Now, the reason for this, according to Augustine, is that though Adam was created innocent, he was still merely human. And mankind is by nature not divine, and he cannot possess divine qualities, unless God graciously imparts it. For this reason, Augustine taught that God created Adam with supernatural grace, in order that he might partake not only in human life, but in the divine life. God condescended, to make man not only a creation, but a divine son, sharing in his own nature.

Theologian Frank Sheed explains Augustines view, saying that Adam was given “supernatural endowment” at the point of his creation. He explains that,

…by this supernatural endowment we are raised from being merely creatures of God to being sons of God . For the power to see God as He is is a power which by nature belongs to God alone. Thus by the supernatural life we are being given a share, a created share certainly, in God’s own life. Merely as created spirits we are in the likeness of God; but this natural likeness is as nothing to the supernatural likeness whereby, enabled to do what belongs to the nature of God, we are raised to such a likeness of His nature as joins children to their father…

There was no first moment, however short, in which Adam existed simply as the perfect natural man. From the first moment of his creation until his fall Adam had two lives in him, the natural life and the supernatural life. (Theology and Sanity, p 165)

So then, Adam was created as man, but also, he was created with this supernatural life; this grace of God, which enables him to be brought into God’s own life. Indeed, as Sheed says, mankind was created to share and exist in two types of life: one natural (physical, bodily), and one supernatural (divine, eternal).

Involved in this debate is the thought that humans, even in a state of innocence, cannot live as God lives — eternally, without temptation or sin, etc. The Second Synod of Orange, in response to Pelagius, says,

No one is saved without God’s mercy. Human nature, even had it remained in the integrity in which it was created, could by no means have saved itself without the assistance of its creator (19th Canon)

To some this is surprising. But what this is merely asserting, is that mankind cannot preserve itself, even in innocence; nor can it share in God’s friendship without God’s divine life. Frank Sheed has an interesting aside, in which he examines that the creation, without the preservation of God’s life, would necessarily breakdown, or change.

Sheed says,

…the INFINITE BEING having all perfections is utterly changeless. Nothing else is. Every created being, however glorious, contains a certain negative element, lacks something, from the fact that it is made of nothing.

So St. Augustine writes (De Natura Boni): All the things that God has made are mutable because made of nothing.

And the Council of Florence tells us that creatures are good, of course, because they are made by the Supreme Good, but mutable because they are made of nothing.

…With MATTER we have of course ceaseless accidental change and the ever-present threat, only too often realized, of substantial change, of being so changed that it ceases to be what it was and becomes something else. So much is this so, that change is almost matter’s definition

…For the changelessness of GOD there is ETERNITY; for the continuous changefulness of MATTER there is TIME. Time is the duration of that which changes, as eternity is the duration of that which does not change… Space and time express its finitude. (p 124-125, 126)

He gets into some metaphysics here; but generally, what Sheed is saying, is that humanity, because it shares in matter (though mankind is by definition matter and spirit), changes, and is subject to finitude. Matter is just that way.

And so at the point of creation, God must have condescended, and given Adam a share in his infinite, divine life. Why? Ontologically, Adam could not in and of himself live forever, nor even look upon the face of God.

We can see a bit of this behind Paul’s explanation of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:

For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body (1 Cor 15:39-44)

Natural bodies must be changed, sharing in God’s glory. And so Adam, at the point of his creation, was created with a body/soul which shared in God’s own life; because God condescended and gave him a share in his own life (2 Pet 1:4), making him a son rather than a mere creation. 

And, this is why glorification is necessary for the Christian: if we are to live in the face of God, we must “be changed”, as Paul says. Our fallen bodies (not just our souls) must be glorified.

Thus, Pelagianism reaches even to the pre-fall state, because we need God’s great condescension even then!

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2 thoughts on “Augustine and the Pelagius Debate: Pre-fall or Post-fall?

  1. Great job on this post Lucas. I think you are right on in your reading of the Councils of Orange and Florence, as well as Augustine and St. Paul. As a Reformed student when I started to realize this in my own study of Catholic teaching, I was struck by how, for lack of a better word, “grace-oriented” was the Church’s position on the means of man’s salvation. Seemingly much more than the Reformed position, especially in ref. to pre-fall doctrines. The Catholic conception of man’s relationship to God, pre- and post-fall, is soaked with grace through and through, evidenced further by the centrality of the sacraments, and most fully in the Eucharist, sacrament of sacraments. All extending grace, preserving grace, building, in Paul’s language, “grace upon grace.” Sola gratia indeed! This became even more apparent when reflecting on St. Thomas’ cosmological and ontological arguments for the existence of God – I’m thinking particularly of the one that deduces God’s existence from the idea that something external to the world must be maintaining it even to the smallest atomic detail. God’s grace literally preserves the world, our lives, our actions, so that we would cease to exist if God stopped thinking of us. Look forward to reading what’s next. in Christ, Casey

    • Thanks man. Appreciate the feedback/insight. Did u check out the one I wrote on the resurrection? I think it touches some of this, in regards to ontology and salvation

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