The Augustine and Pelagian Controversy

Author’s Note: This is the first post in a short series on the Augustine and Pelagian Controversy.

National Cathedral interiorIntroduction to the Augustine and Pelagian Controversy

In the first four centuries of its existence, the church had to spend a considerable amount of time battling heresies such as those dealing with the nature of God and the person of Christ.[1] Those heresies were squashed, and the church now had to turn its attention to a new heresy: the Pelagian heresy. Augustine took up the banner of truth and led the way against the Pelagian heresy, although he refused to call it that in the beginning. B.B. Warfield writes that not only was this heresy “new in Christianity; it was even anti-Christian[.]”[2] He goes on to say that the “struggle with Pelagianism was thus in reality a struggle for the very foundations of Christianity[.]”[3]

Pelagius was British and a moralist who, according to the Venerable Bede, “spread far and near the infection of his perfidious doctrine.”[4] He was born in 350 to a father who was a doctor and a mother who was a Celt. Both of his parents were Christians. Pelagius had studied law in Rome and was well grounded in Scripture. Pelagius’ doctrine denied original sin, affirmed man’s ability to live sinless lives by their own works, and limited the work of grace.

Pelagius had a reputation for his zeal to direct others to live a good life as a moral reformer. He was tired of the excuses men used in order to explain their weak nature when they gave in to the temptation to sin. Pelagius believed that God had made man with the ability to obey what He commanded, or else He would not require of us what we could not obey. In other words, God would not ask us to obey something that we could not obey.[5]

According to Pelagius, we have the ability to live sinless lives if we chose to live that way. Pelagius denied the need of divine grace as an inward help to help man with his weakness. He denied original sin and argued that only Adam was affected by his sin. Man is born with free will, and universal sin is the result of bad examples of those who have committed sin in the past. For Pelagius, it is possible for man to gain salvation on his own, by living a moral life without divine grace.

The one to lead the argument against Pelagius’ doctrines was a man named Aurelius Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo. Augustine did not, however, attack Pelagius and cut him down with theological arguments. Instead, Augustine tried to persuade Pelagius of his error by mentoring him and addressing him as his brother in his letters to Pelagius. Augustine showed grace to Pelagius when he wrote, “May the Lord recompense you with those blessings by the possession of which you may be good for ever, and may live eternally with Him who is eternal, my lord greatly beloved, and brother greatly longed for.”[6] However, Augustine did put up a formidable argument against Pelagius and his teachings. Augustine wrote multiple letters and books arguing against the doctrines of Pelagius.

Pelagius became angry with what Augustine once wrote: “Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou willest.”[7] He would be so annoyed with this statement that any time he heard it read out loud he would be angered and sometimes violent towards it.[8] Although this was written before the Pelagian controversy, it still created a problem for Pelagius. Pelagius believed that the powers that man had were gifts from God and that this statement by Augustine was an insult to God; as if God had made something defective.

Augustine was ordained as the co-Bishop of Hippo in 395; he later took over as the Bishop of Hippo in 396. Augustine was born in 354 to a Christian mother and a pagan father, who was baptized before his death. Augustine grew up with his mother’s Christian teaching, but the pull of the world on his life was stronger and he began to get involved in the worldly philosophies of his day. Augustine had a concubine who had given him a son, and he was a professor of rhetoric at Milan in 384.

Augustine began following Manichaeism, but before long he began to have doubts about this form of heretic Christianity. Manichaeism was seen as Christianity for intellectuals; it taught that salvation was possible through knowledge. Having doubts about this form of Christianity, Augustine turned to astrology and magic.

Augustine heard Ambrose preach and heard from him a more intellectual interpretation of Scripture than what he had heard before while growing up in Africa. There were many people and writings that influenced Augustine’s conversion, but up until this time he had yet to be converted.

Augustine struggled most of all with sexual immorality, and in 386, while convicted of his sinful life, Augustine was in his garden when he heard the voice of a little child say over and over “pick up and read.” Augustine picked up the book that he had lying on the bench next to him that was filled with Paul’s letters. He read Romans 13:13-14, “Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” He was then baptized in 386.

[1] B.B. Warfield. “Introductory Essay On Augustine And The Pelagian Controversy.” In Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 5: Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings, edited by Philip Schaff, xiii-lxxi. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004, xiii.

[2] Ibid., xiii.

[3] Ibid., xiii.

[4] Christian Classics Ethereal Library, “Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England,” ( accessed June 29, 2013)

[5]Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2002), 134.

[6] New Advent, “Letter 146 (A.D. 413),” (accessed June 30, 2013)

[7] Aurelius Augustine. “Confessions of St. Augustin.” In Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1: The Confessions and Letters of Augustin, with a Sketch of His Life and Work, edited by Philip Schaff, 45-207. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004.

[8] B.B. Warfield. “Introductory Essay On Augustine And The Pelagian Controversy.” In Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 5: Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings, edited by Philip Schaff, xiii-lxxi. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004, xv.


About Peter van Brussel

Peter is the Director of For His Glory Prison Ministry. Peter holds a BA in Pastoral Studies from Southwestern College, a MA in Theological Studies, and a M.Div. from Liberty University. Peter is married to Niki, and has two children. He has been saved by grace and seeks to share the Gospel with those who have been forgotten.
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