Evolution and the Sin in Eden
A New Christian Synthesis

Chapter 15: The Genius of Satin Augustine. Pelagius Negates Original Sin

When a British monk by the name of Pelagius and his companion Celestius fled from Rome to Africa in 410, before the hordes of Aleric who sacked the city, the battle between Augustine and Pelagius was engaged. The Bishop of Hippo, who in future would be called the Doctor of Grace, was not amused by what he heard. Julian, Bishop of Eclanum in Italy, well known to Augustine, had given systematic form to the innovations of the Pelagian group. Essentially, it was a form of "Do-It-Yourself-Christianity" dispensing with the need of the Redeemer, Christ. "Use your native will power, control yourself, save yourself," is his jingoistic way of salvation when stripped of ornament.

Pelagius, a spiritual director of eager ascetic believers, moved from England to Rome during the 390's. He had all the appearances, and muttered all the pious words, of a holy man. He was given to ascetic practices and soon gained acceptance and admiration in this leading city, especially among the elite and pious. He soon acquired powerful friends and alliances also in southern Italy, in France at Arles, and in Jerusalem.

He considered the contemporary teachings on original sin to be a hindrance rather than a help in the battle to acquire holiness of life. He regarded the doctrine to be a soporific comfort to assuage spiritual slothfulness. Believers should cultivate their spiritual lives by vigorous self-improvement exercises, he urged. "You can do it!" he preached. The sin of Adam is not at all transmitted to descendants by some kind of inheritance. It does not inhibit our spiritual vigor. Descendants do indeed imitate Adam's sin, but they do not inherit what was his personal act. Soon he was saying that death and concupiscence are natural to humans, not a punishment for Adam's sin. Then he went overboard advising that the Baptism of children is not needed for a remission of sin because they had neither committed sins, nor had they inherited original sin. He conceded, however, that it might wisely be administered as a sign of acceptance by the Church. It also enables them to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, which, so he claimed, is a higher state of blessedness than eternal life.

Zealous to arouse the Christians in Rome from a state of spiritual listlessness, Pelagius stressed the power of human freedom and the role of man's own moral effort to achieve salvation. External rules and good example, he asserted, can help us to achieve salvation. His teachings implied that there is no absolute need for the gift of God's grace as an internal help to capacitate the mind and will for supernatural works. The system he championed, which was influenced by Stoic Philosophy, claimed that man alone can achieve salvation by his natural powers. Pelagius regarded grace as a natural ability of man. He thus attempted to construct a closed system of man saving himself, without absolute need of assistance of supernatural divine help. The system is not far from current advocates of a "do-it-yourself" religion.

Pelagius made a pious show of being shocked and scandalized by Augustine's teaching that a man cannot remain chaste by his own effort and determination, without the help of God's grace. If that be the case, he asserted, then man is not free. He insisted that man has a natural capacity to live a sinless and holy life and so to merit eternal bliss by virtue of his own natural powers. The teachings of the Scriptures, the law, and the example of Christ, are additional booster helps toward salvation but they are not essential. Grace, he taught, facilitates an understanding of God's commandments, and is a help toward obeying them. But he subtly denied that man really needs grace absolutely to capacitate the will to obey the commandments. Humans can turn away from sin and perform Christian works of merit by their natural innate powers, he said in effect. That's where Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, picked up the scent.

The teachings of Pelagius, however, were cast into pious form and filled with ambiguities. It required a genius like St. Augustine to see through the subterfuges. His keen mind detected that Pelagius denies the absolute need of grace to achieve salvation. There is no need in such a system for Christ our Savior, who forgives our sins, who assists us internally to lead a life of faith and holiness. In a treatise written in 418 Augustine cuts through the subtle ambiguity of Pelagian errors and exposes the system's lack of humility and faith. He wrote, for example:

In like manner, in another passage of the same book he (Pelagius) says: "In order that men may more easily accomplish by grace that which they are commanded to do by free will." ... The addition of the words "more easily," ... tacitly suggests the possibility of accomplishing good works even without the grace of God. But such a meaning is disallowed by Him who says, "Without me ye can do nothing." (John 15,5; Chap.30 of On the Grace of Christ, see Basic Writings I,604).

The system is basically naturalistic, and excludes as superfluous traditional teachings about original sin and Redemption. The sacraments thus become ornamental rituals, not channels of grace coming from Christ. Their administration becomes impious hypocrisy. Redemption by Christ is essentially denied (see explanation, e.g. in Quasten, Patrology IV, 479-81). Pelagius preached strict demands of an austere life, urging people to get hold of themselves by self control and sheer will power. But when subterfuges are removed, he did not make humans dependent on Christ's internal help to achieve salvation. An intimate and loving dependence on Christ is not in his system.

Any inter-relation of love, confidence, gratitude disappears. Prayer is a non-sense. The theory was, in fact, a most radical deformation of the very essence of Christianity, and it must produce inevitably in all who hold it a corresponding deformity of character. The Pelagians, for whom humility was an impossibility, were, in their spiritual life, really cultivating themselves. Their own spiritual achievement was the chief object of their attention, and with their theory all the harsh pride of the Stoics returned to the Christian Church (Philip Hughes, A History of the Church, II,15-16).

Augustine Engages Pelagius

Pelagius and Celestius came to Africa in 410, the former stopping only briefly on his way to Jerusalem. But Celestius made no secret of the new doctrine, and asked to be admitted to the presbyterate of Carthage. Augustine regarded their teachings as "a new scandal in the Church" (Ep. 177,15), "a new heresy" (Retract. 2,33; see Quasten, Patrology IV, 464). In 411 the clergy and Bishop of Carthage condemned six elements found in the teachings of Pelagianism which they claimed to be heretical.

Though condemned in Africa, Pelagius gained an important friend in John, Bishop of Jerusalem. Smooth talk, ambiguous language, and politics gave him breathing space. But Jerome at nearby Bethlehem opposed him in 414. Pelagian ruffians rewarded Jerome for this by burning down his monasteries (Patrology IV,218). Pelagius was acquitted at the Council of Diospolis in December 415, and then explained his thought systematically in the book De Libero Arbitrio. He wrote a letter to Pope St. Innocent I, claiming that the process against himself and his doctrine were calumny. Pope St. Zosimus, successor of Innocent, was deceived for a time by this letter. He wrote to Africa in November 417 that Pelagius was the victim of the malice of the bishops.

But Augustine, who had read the heretical works carefully, remained convinced that the assessment of Pope Zosimus must be wrong. If Pelagius is right, then grace is not a supernatural help from God. It is really only free human effort (Augustine, De Gestis 10,22; Patrology IV, 479). The African Bishops sent an elaborate reply to Pope Zosimus on March 21, 418. This enabled the Pope to distinguish the real Pelagius from the disguise of his false front. It was now his turn to act decisively. Pope Zosimus sent an approving reply to the African Bishops. They then opened what would become the famous Council of Carthage which condemned Pelagianism. St. Augustine played a decisive role in this 16th Council of Carthage which, like a continental divide, delineates compellingly doctrines on grace and original sin.

The End of the Pelagian Heresy

Upon receiving the canons formulated at Carthage, Pope St. Zosimus issued the Tractoria. In it he approved some of the canons, but apparently not the one on immunity from bodily death in paradise. He also asked the local bishops to sign a prescribed form of condemnation. Eighteen Bishops of southern Italy had no trouble with the condemnation of the teachings of Pelagius as such, but they were reluctant to indicate their agreement with Augustine's theories. They repudiated what they styled "the African Dogma," and the Pope promptly deposed them. Its leader, Julian, Bishop of Eclanum, eventually moved in with Theodore of Mopsuestia, and was never reinstated in Eclanum.

The heresy survived in England until Bishop Germanus of Auxerre, sent by the Pope, made orthodoxy to prevail there in 447. Thus the Pelagian heresy was condemned as incompatible with the faith and came to an end as an organized religion (see Hughes II,18). The towering figure of Augustine played an essential role in its organizational demise.

Magisterial Teachings on Original Sin

After St. Augustine died in 430 a catalogue of approved doctrine about original sin, grace, and freedom was drawn up, which gradually acquired great authority due mainly to tacit approval by the universal Church. This so-called "Indiculus" lists what "the most holy see of the blessed apostle Peter has sanctioned and taught" concerning heresy, the grace of God and free will." The list skips Canon 1 - 2 of Carthage (physical death) but includes canons 3 - 5 as having been promulgated by Pope Zosimus in the Tractoria of 418. For the Catholics of the next thousand years it teaches about the powers, the need, and the blessed value of grace, and the need of prayer to obtain this gift. The heart of the teaching is contained in Chapter One as follows:

Chap. 1: In Adam's sin all men lost their natural power for good and their innocence. No one can of his own free will rise out of the depth of this fall if he is not lifted up by the grace of the merciful God. This is the pronouncement of Pope Innocent of blessed memory in his letter to the Council of Carthage: "He (Adam) acted of his own free will when he used his gifts thoughtlessly; he fell into the abyss of sin; he sank, and he found no means to rise again. Betrayed by his freedom for ever, he would have remained weighed down by his fall had not later the advent of Christ raised him by His grace when through the cleansing of a new regeneration he washed away all previous guilt in the bath of His Baptism." (DS 239; Dupuis 503)...

By the help of grace, continued the Indiculus, free will is not destroyed but liberated and supported. "For such is God's goodness towards all men that He wants His own gifts to be our merits and that He will give us an eternal reward for what He has bestowed upon us" (DS 248; Dupuis 1914). This beautiful doctrine, then, became the common heritage of the Church.

As noted elsewhere, however, Trent did not incorporate Canon One of the Council of Carthage (418), so dear to the heart of Augustine. It reads as follows:

1) This has been decided by all the bishops...gathered together in the holy Synod of Carthage: Whoever says that Adam, the first man, was made mortal in the sense that he was to die a bodily death whether he sinned or not, which means to quit the body would not be a punishment for sin but a necessity of nature, anathema sit (DS 222; Dupuis 501).

Augustine, the soul of Carthage, was convinced that original sin was the cause of physical death in Adam: "And therefore it is agreed among all Christians who truly hold the Catholic faith that we are subject to the death of the body, not by the law of nature, by which God ordained no death for man, but by His righteous infliction on account of sin; for God, taking vengeance on sin, said to the man, in whom we all then were, `Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return'" (City of God 13:15). Augustine was certain about this, but others were apparently not so sure.

Pope St. Zosimus may indeed have refused to promulgate this Canon One, which the Indiculus also omitted, and which Trent would by-pass eleven hundred years later. The apparent omission of this Canon in the Tractoria promulgated by Pope Zosimus in 418, in which other canons of Carthage 418 were promulgated, may have hurt St. Augustine, who thereafter failed to capitalize on this singular item. He would likely have made much of it had the Pope seen fit to promulgate it. The Fathers of Trent, in 1546, initially drafted a sentence stating that Adam would not have died physically had he not sinned. Later, however, at the request of many of the Fathers the sentence was deleted and Trent did not finally define such a teaching.

The Influence of Saint Augustine

When Saint Augustine battled against the Pelagians, writes Hughes:

The need of the moment brought from him the work which is his chief title to glory as a theologian, the construction of a whole theory to explain the original state of man, the nature and effect of the first man's fall, the nature of the Redemption, and the way in which, in virtue of the Redemption, God acts upon the souls of the redeemed. It is a work in which he had singularly little help from preceding writers, and a work which was to give rise, as it still gives rise, to passionate discussions; a work, too, since proved erroneous in more than one point, but a work which in its main lines has long since passed into the traditional theology of the Catholic Church (Hughes II,18).

Perhaps the heat of the battle against Pelagius influenced Augustine to exaggerate the beatitude of Adam before the Fall, and to counter-exaggerate human misery after it. The saint saw in the earlier Adam an extraordinary harmonious union of reason and senses, an intellect infused by God with immense knowledge, and a body which might escape physical death if he persevered in grace. When he sinned he lost these extraordinary gifts together with sanctifying grace. The Fall of Adam, he laments initiated the chronic misery of mankind from which no man escapes, the opposition between spirit and flesh. Here he views man's present condition more pessimistically than does St. Irenaeus.

The strong appetite in man for sexual pleasure, together with its lack of simple obedience to control by the will, influenced Augustine to believe that the drive is disordered by reason of original sin. He did not perceive human nature to be radically vitiated because of the sin, but he did attribute to it a resultant inherited weakness, a discounted version of our natural faculties that is now transmitted to all who possess a human nature. He was convinced that all mankind lost not only sanctifying grace through original sin, but also special gifts of integrity which he attributed to Adam before his sin.

Augustine's doctrines on grace and the Mystical Body of Christ, the above gloomy perceptions notwithstanding, are a priceless heritage of the Church for all times. In the new arrangement under Christ, he recognizes, it is God who provides even the first help to believe. Humanity is being re-created by incorporation into Christ, made one with Him in Baptism, nourished by Him in the Eucharist. Believers are not isolated individuals in separate unions with Christ, but are one corporate union in Him: "This idea of the salvation of Humanity as the members of Christ -- members of a body whose head is the God-Man -- is the very heart of St. Augustine's theology" (Hughes, 19). Grace is the circulatory system of this body. This luminous teaching is the very antithesis of the do-it-yourself religion of Pelagius.

It is really Jesus Christ who prays, who lives, who performs the saving acts of the individual believer, taught Augustine. It is St. Paul re-thought, the tradition set out afresh with new profundity, new lucidity, with passionate fervor, disciplined logic and a wholly new rhetorical splendor, in answer to the menace of Pelagius's sterilizing divorce of man from God in the spiritual life (cf. Hughes, 20).

But the system which St. Augustine constructed is not without difficulties, continues Hughes, particularly in the matter of adjusting the relations between God's activity through grace and man's free will. These difficulties remain in part even today, when theologians dispute as keenly about them as they did in the time of St. Augustine.

Beside the doctrine on grace, Augustine's vast writings are a bridge of culture across the centuries, a treasure of humanity.

He was almost the whole intellectual patrimony of medieval Catholicism, a mine of thought and erudition which the earlier Middle Ages, for all its delving, never came near to exhausting. He was the bridge between two worlds, and over that bridge there came to the Catholic Middle Ages something of the educational ideals and system of Hellenism; there came the invaluable cult of the ancient literature, the tradition of its philosophy and all the riches of Christian Antiquity.

In St. Augustine were baptized, on that momentous Easter Day of 387, the schooling, the learning, the learned employments, and the centuries of human experience in the ways of thought, which were to influence and shape all the medieval centuries...From his masterly understanding there comes the most masterly presentation hitherto seen, and which will endure for nearly a thousand years without a rival, until there comes another mind, as great as his own, and equipped with still better instruments (Hughes, 20-21).

We close with a sample of the saint's doctrine about grace and the free will, a lesson surely needed in our day no less than in his, because the struggle to control the sex instinct and integrate it into human growth and maturity is never easy. His trust in grace is absolute, based no doubt on the experience of grace in his own life: "God does not command the impossible, but in commanding He admonishes you to do that which you can and to ask for that which you cannot" (On Nature and Grace, 50). So speaks Augustine, who, with the help of grace, pulled himself free from the strangling grip of the habit of sins against chastity, who then founded a monastic way of life to help the clergy devote themselves to God and fellowmen in full measure by a complete gift of self in celibate love.

The immense power of Augustine for good in the Church remains, but it cannot be denied that, when fencing with Pelagius to uphold the necessity of grace for salvation, he adopted a pessimistic view of man's natural endowments. He also asserted that Adam's sin initiated concupiscence in our human lives, and that it made humans physically mortal on this earth. The Fathers of the Council of Trent, eleven hundred years later, hesitated to affirm that these two points belong to the deposit of the faith.

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