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

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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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Catholicism verses Protestantism: What’s the main difference?

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I have been studying Catholic theology lately, examining the major disagreements it has with my Protestant theology.

While there are major differences, things like the sinlessness of Mary, or the veneration of saints and icons, or papal authority, this was not the largest difference I saw. And to be honest, there are explanations for these practices that aren’t altogether outlandish (though I would still disagree).

Another difference that some might point out is how the Catholics view the sacraments. According to the Catholic Catechism, Catholics understand the sacraments to be “‘powers that comes forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving”. In other words, Jesus himself gives life to his church in the sacraments. So in baptism, Jesus himself effects regeneration. In confirmation, Jesus gives the fulness of the Spirit. In the Eucharist, Christians quite literally are nourished by Jesus’ body. And this is because, according to Catholic theology, the church is a continuation of the incarnation of Christ. And through his body, in the sacraments, he saves his people. Nevertheless, Protestants, healthy ones at least, understand the importance of the sacraments, and that Jesus really does impart grace through them (although we would understand them differently of course).

I wouldn’t even see grace as the primary difference. All too often, Catholic theology is seen as works-based, religious, dry. However, every Catholic I know would deny that. In fact, grace is central to Catholic theology. The Catechism states that salvation “has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men”. Who could disagree with that? Grace really is present in Catholic theology.

So then, what is the big difference? 

To me, the thing that makes Protestants and Catholics diverge; the rub, as it were, is what “justification” means. Justification means two different things in Protestant and Catholic theology — did you know that?

For Protestants, justification is the declaration that sinners, though they be sinners, are righteous because of the righteousness of Christ. Because Christ was obedient in our place, on our behalf, we are given, or imputed Christ’s righteousness. We are saved by the righteousness of another, not our own. As Luther says, justification is the gift of an “alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith”. We are saved not because we are actually righteous (though we will be righteous in glory), but because Jesus is. So that is Protestant “justification”.

But Catholics do not see justification this way. Though they would still hold to justification, they would define it as the transference from being a child of wrath to being a child of God. And in this transference, rather than Christ’s righteousness being imputed, his righteousness is imparted, or infused within us. What they mean is that the merits of Christ are literally infused into our nature, thereby making us not legally righteous, but actually righteous. Andrew Preslar writes,

[J]ustification is an act of God by which the merits of Jesus Christ, sanctifying grace, and charity are communicated to sinners, who are thereby made just. This infused charity fulfills the righteous demands of the law, being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) in baptism, by which we are united with Christ, who has made complete satisfaction to the Father for our sins (Romans 6:3-4). In concise, theological terms, the Catholic Church teaches that regeneration, sanctification, and incorporation into the Body of Christ are essential aspects of justification, such that the latter cannot be defined in legal, extrinsic, and individualistic terms alone (source)

The Catholic Catechism writes, “justification conforms us to the righteousness of God”. This is very important here. Catholic theology rejects “legal… terms alone”, and says that justification is the act by which by God infuses the life of Christ in us, thereby allowing us to be righteous in the real sense of the word now.

Now here’s the important part: for the Catholic church, because the merits and righteousness of Christ are literally infused, it is now the role of God’s justified church to cooperate with God’s grace and live out a righteous life, thereby meriting eternal life. Final salvation, for the Catholic church, depends on us living out the righteousness of Christ infused within. This is why the sacraments are so important. The Eucharist is Christ giving us more grace to live out a righteous life. Confession is given to absolve any mortal sin which extinguishes the righteousness of Christ infused in us. Impartation or infusion of Jesus’ righteousness, means that we can now live out the law and merit eternal life.

Now let me be fair: this isn’t salvation by self-merit. In Catholicism, final salvation is not dependent on us living out our own righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Christ infused within. In this way, it is still grace-given righteousness.

However, as a Protestant, I can’t help but notice how the burden is truly on you. As the Catholic Catechism states,

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life

The Catechism clarifies, however, saying,

The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace

While Protestants do have a robust doctrine of sanctification and perseverance, we will not say that growth is tied to our final justification. Justification and sanctification are not bound together in Protestant theology. But for Catholics, justification is a work that God begins freely in us by baptism, but is then merited through sanctification, or cooperation in Christ’s righteousness infused.

As Catholics would say, justification is by faith, but not by faith alone. It is by faith working through love, living out “the divine life” as sons of God.

So, Protestants say justification is imputation. Catholics say that justification is infusion. Small wording change, but to me, this creates the biggest difference in the end.

Want a Catholic’s perspective on the difference? Here is Robert Barron on the Council of Trent, which was created in response to the Protestant Reformation. To get the gist of it, skip to minute 8:45:

What did Paul mean when he said, “you’ve fallen from grace”?

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Paul, in the height of his letter to the Galatians, says in Galatians 5:4,

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace

What does Paul mean by this? Many have claimed that Paul here is teaching conditional security (as opposed to unconditional); the thought that one can lose their position in Christ, no longer being saved.

But is this what this passage is teaching? I really don’t think so.

First of all, from the context, Paul was not speaking about the status of one’s salvation. Paul here (as he has been addressing throughout the entire letter) was speaking of the method of salvation. Meaning, Paul wasn’t arguing whether someone is saved; his primary concern here and all throughout Galatians was how one becomes saved. And in Galatians, Paul had been arguing for free salvation through faith in Jesus, and against works-based, self-meritorious salvation.

And in fact, the Galatians had been duped by false teachers into thinking that the way someone is saved is through adherence to specific laws and outward obedience. They were tricked into thinking that if they obeyed enough, that they would be accepted and loved by God. But Paul was arguing that people are saved not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of grace. People are not saved by performance, or by outward actions, or by righteous deeds, but by the performance of Another; namely, by the performance of Jesus.

With this context in mind, I think it is clear that in Galatians 5:4 Paul was telling his readers that by attempting to win God’s approval through works, they were operating in a crippling system of legalism and works-righteousness, as opposed to salvation by grace.

In this light, Paul was not saying that people can sin their way out of salvation. He was not introducing this concept that a Christian could out-sin God’s grace, or forfeit their salvation through licentious living. In fact, Paul never had this concept in his head when he brought out this phrase “fallen from grace”. It is ironic that some mean “lose salvation” when they say “fall from grace”. But again, given the context of the entire book of Galatians, this cannot mean what Paul meant. And in fact, with Jesus’ perfect work being the ground of salvation, the thought that a Christian could out-sin grace would have been detestable to Paul.

In reality, when Paul said that the Galatians had “fallen from grace”, he was referring to the deadly thought that anyone could ever work their own way into salvation. Paul was refuting the Galatians’ legalism, not their licentiousness (Paul does renounce licentiousness in Romans 6 — but not here). Again, we cannot miss the context of this phrase.

So then, the Galatians had fallen from grace in that they were trying to earn the love of God with their own works. They had fallen from grace in that they thought their works could somehow merit God’s approval. They had fallen from grace in that they were not trusting the merit of Jesus, and in his sin-atoning death to attain the love of God for them.

But Paul was not saying that they had lost their salvation.

Rather, Paul was reminding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was reminding them that the only way they could win or earn or achieve any type of love or acceptance from God was through the life and death of Jesus. Because through faith in Christ, Jesus’ perfect performance was given to them. And all of their sin was hoisted onto Jesus and punished in their place. Jesus had already done all the work. He had already lived the perfect life. He had already atoned from the sins of his people. And for that, those who had believed were already beloved children in the Father’s eyes (Mark 1:11). Why should they severe themselves from this truth? Why should they remove themselves from this grace? Paul was writing to make sure they understood where their righteousness came from.

James Boyce, commenting on this verse, says, “to ‘fall from grace’, as seen by this context, is to fall into legalism. Or to put it another way, to choose legalism is to relinquish grace as the principle by which one desires to be related to God”.

When our own works are the principle by which we relate to God, we are fallen from grace.

Wrestling with God, Finding Grace (Genesis 32)

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Genesis 32 has always been a chapter dear to me. In it, Jacob comes face to face with his past. Since the start of his life, Jacob’s life was full of deceit and lies. He was the type of person that made his way in life by taking from others; he was a characteristic trickster. He was also the type that would divert responsibility to others. While his older brother Esau was out hunting, providing for his family, Jacob was home. In fact, Genesis 25:27 describes him as a “quiet man, dwelling in tents”. Suffice to say, you would not find Jacob out hunting for food, but rather spending time in the kitchen with his mother. He was a bit of a coward.

Jacob’s irresponsibility and trickery climaxed in his swindling of the birth right that belonged rightly to Esau. In fact, he did this by dressing up like his brother, and tricking his father into blessing him (Gen 27). Because of this, Esau was enraged and threatened to kill his brother (Gen 27:41), and Jacob was sent away by his mother into hiding. Jacob’s lying and scheming had made him an exile. And in fact, Jacob never returned home for fear of his brother. And as a result, that part of his life became a burden that he simply couldn’t shake. It was a sin that he had always tried to run from.

And when we arrive at Genesis 32, we find that Esau, his brother, had found where his brother Jacob was living; and, Esau desired to confront him (Gen 32:6). This reasonably made Jacob fear for his life (Gen 32:8); that all his past sins had come back to condemn him. How was Jacob going to rid himself of his past? How could he appease his angry brother?

Interestingly enough, Jacob tries to buy off his brother by giving him gifts (Gen 32:13-21). Jacob did this, thinking that just maybe, Esau would “accept [him]” (Gen 32:20). Jacob was trying to atone for his own sins against Esau by way of bribery! He was trying to satisfy Esau’s anger by providing gifts. He was trying to purchase his own redemption.

After having sent the gifts, Jacob waited anxiously for his brother’s response all night long, alone (Gen 32:24a). How much his conscience must’ve tormented him! One could picture him as wrestling with his own conscience throughout the night.

But this wasn’t the only thing he wrestled with…

As he waited in agony, Jacob was interrupted when a person began to wrestle with him. Ironically, as Jacob wrestled with his own sin, this man began to wrestle with him. Hopefully you can see the symbolism here; as Jacob was trying to subdue his own sinful past, this man was subduing him. In fact, the struggle was so real, and so hard, Jacob’s hip was immediately dislocated as result (Gen 32:24-26).

I think at this point, Jacob figured out that this man wasn’t merely human, but divine. He didn’t have normal strength, but a supernatural strength. This was God forcing Jacob into submission to his divine will (Gen 32:30). God himself tackled Jacob in order to communicate something very important: as Jacob tried to wiggle himself out of his past, God was willing to redeem him from his past. While Jacob was trying to appease his own conscience, God was willing to cleanse his conscience. And it took the pain of a dislocated hip to realize this.

Jacob came to apprehend this, and rather than simply giving in, he asked for a blessing from his divine opponent. God was pleased to do this. And it’s interesting that God not only blessed Jacob, but he renamed him. God made him into a new person. He gave him a new identity. I think that this detail cannot be overlooked. Right in the middle of a personal struggle to rid himself of his sinful past, the God of the universe struggled with Jacob to redeem and make him a new creation.

And I think we learn from this episode that Jacob had to learn to stop trying to escape, lie, or atone for his past sins and submit to justifying grace. Jacob needed to submit to the subduing grace of God for sinners.

Amazingly, the next day, Jacob felt a new courage to approach his past (Gen 33:3). And, rather than receiving condemnation from Esau (what he justly deserved), Jacob received a warm embrace (Gen 33:4). This was confirmation for Jacob that God himself had forgiven him of his sin. He says to Esau, “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me“. Jacob knew that he was accepted by God!

Is this not the same grace that God has for us all? Is it not a grace that wrestles us into a faith that trusts in God’s forgiving provision alone? It is! God wrestles with us every day to rest in the justifying love given to sinners in Christ; a justifying love that we, like Jacob, can neither buy nor work toward. It is a merit that comes through Christ’s own righteousness, and certainly, not our own.

Martin Luther on Union with Christ

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How does Martin Luther think of a believer’s union with Christ? He compares it to a divine marriage, saying:

“Who then can fully appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, ‘If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his,’ as the bride in the Song of Solomon says, ‘My beloved is mine and I am his,'” (from The Freedom of the Christian)