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Roots of the Reformation: Augustine

Updated on October 30, 2019
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Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.

Augustine and Pelagius

The Reformation was a back-to-the-Bible movement that began in the early 1500s. The origins of some of the thoughts that inspired and were formulated during the Reformation can be traced back to the debates of two men. The first was a British monk named Pelagius (390-418 AD). Pelagius was concerned about the lack of seriousness in the pursuit of holiness in the Church of Rome. He was a strict ascetic and believed everyone else should be as well.

The controversy began when Pelagius heard the reading of a prayer by Augustine.

"Grant what you command, and command what you desire."

It was the first part of the prayer that Pelagius took offense to. Augustine taught that since the Fall of Adam, men had inherited a sin nature that made them dependent upon the grace of God. It was only by grace that a person could be pleasing to God and follow His commands. This was the generally accepted teaching of the Church. Pelagius believed that teachings like this were responsible for the lack of obedience in Christians. He said that if people were dependent upon God to obey then they would be passive and use this as an excuse.

The root of the issue between Pelagius and Augustine was their differing views on the ability of man after the Fall. Augustine taught that the Fall of Adam cursed humanity. This curse affected all the capacities of humanity and rendered them powerless to obey God. It was only by the grace that a man could be saved and obey the commands of God. Augustine still believed that man could make choices that were his own, but that the condition of man was that he lost his moral ability. Humanity was no longer “good” and so their choices would not be morally good.

Pelagius responded that it would be unjust for God to command a person to do something that they could not do of their power. Pelagius said that the Fall of Adam only affected Adam himself. This effect was not total but was rather set a habit toward further sins. Augustine saw that physical death was inherited as a result of the curse placed upon the offspring of Adam. He went on to say that this is the reason why babies die. Pelagius said that death was not a result of the Fall but was part of the natural order of creation.

The heart of the debate lay in the ability of man and especially the will of man. Augustine affirmed that man was born "dead.” That is the will of man was unable to obey God. Man was marred and tainted by the Fall in all his faculties. Each generation that came after Adam inherited this inability. Pelagius said that the Fall of Adam had was just a bad example. He went on to say that babies were born “tabula rasa” (a blank slate). They were neutral and had the equal ability to choose or to not choose to obey God.

Condemnation of the Councils

Celestius was a lawyer in Rome when he met Pelagius. He embraced the teachings of Pelagius and the doctrine of “free will.” He was condemned by the Council of Carthage in 412 AD and went to Ephesus. Subsequent councils in 415, 416, and 417 condemned them both and resulted in their excommunication. Their teaching was also condemned by the Council of Ephesus (431) and again by the Council of Orange, 529 A.D.

The first three statements from Orange give the overall tenor of the document.

The Canons of the Council of Orange 529 AD

CANON 1. If anyone denies that it is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was "changed for the worse" through the offense of Adam's sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius and contradicts the scripture which says, "The soul that sins shall die" (Ezek. 18:20); and, "Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are the slaves of the one whom you obey?" (Rom. 6:16); and, "For whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved" (2 Pet. 2:19).

CANON 2. If anyone asserts that Adam's sin affected him alone and not his descendants also, or at least if he declares that it is only the death of the body which is the punishment for sin, and not also that sin, which is the death of the soul, passed through one man to the whole human race, he does injustice to God and contradicts the Apostle, who says, "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned" (Rom. 5:12).

CANON 3. If anyone says that the grace of God can be conferred as a result of human prayer, but that it is not grace itself which makes us pray to God, he contradicts the prophet Isaiah, or the Apostle who says the same thing, "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me" (Rom 10:20, quoting Isa. 65:1).

A Resurgence in Pelagianism

Charles Finney (1792-1875)

Finney was a lawyer who was ordained in the Presbyterian Church. The requirement for ordination was the acceptance of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Some years later Finney admitted that at the time of his ordination he did not know the Confession. When Finney did read the WCF he said:

“As soon as I learned what were the unambiguous teachings of the Confession of faith upon these points, I did not hesitate at all on all suitable occasions to declare my dissent from them…I repudiated and exposed them. Wherever I found that any class of persons were hidden behind these dogmas, I did not hesitate to demolish them, to the best of my ability"[1]

Using what he called “the philosophy or workings of my own mind,”[2] Finney needed a new system of belief. The Bible became secondary to his formation of doctrines. He rejected that justification for the Christian is solely found in the atonement of Christ and said that the sinner must reform himself. Like Pelagius, he assumed that any person was capable of the highest good by the exercise of his will, and therefore there was no need for grace. Because man is morally neutral, there was no need for imputed righteousness by the death of Christ. The justification of a person before God rests fully in their exercise of righteousness. There are men today who still hold to these views.


[1] Charles Finney, The Memoirs of Charles Finney: The Complete Restored Text (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1989), 53-54, 60.

[2] Ibid., p. 60


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