The GOSPEL TRUTH
AN HISTORICAL PRESENTATION OF
AUGUSTINISM AND PELAGIANISM
G. F. WIGGERS, D. D.
Commencement of the Controversy.
WITH success and much applause Pelagius and Caelestius had spread their doctrines in Italy and particularly at Rome, and no one had there found anything heretical in them. The contrary ensued, when they both came into Africa, about the year 411. The fame of Pelagius had resounded in Africa during his residence at Rome; and Augustine had already become uneasy respecting what Pelagius might be teaching in regard to grace. Still he was not disposed to write against him till he should first have a personal interview, or should find proofs of the error in his writings. De Gestis Pel. c. 22. The two friends had not been long in Africa before they were there regarded as heretics. They immediately repaired to Hippo, probably to visit the famous Augustine. But he was now at Carthage, busily engaged in the affair of the Donatists. Without tarrying at Hippo, they hastened to Carthage. Pelagius, however, staid here but a short time, where Augustine saw him only once or twice, as he affirms in the passage just cited. Leaving Caelestius behind, he sailed for Palestine. Just before his departure for the east, Pelagius wrote to Augustine. We have not the letter itself, but Augustine tells us (c. 26) it contained much compliment. A polite answer was returned, which we have, Ep. 146. c. 27, 28. The illustrious bishop there calls the monk, who had before fallen into the suspicion of heresy with him, dominum dilectissimum et desideratissimum fratrem.
Throughout the whole of doctrinal and ecclesiastical history, there is occasion enough for the humiliating but true remark, that it is not the mere conviction of the truth of doctrines, which has caused the contests, but selfish interest has commonly been mingled and has incited men to seek in their opponents for errors, which they have there soon found. The truth of this remark is confirmed in the present controversy.
Caelestius, who remained at Carthage, sought for admission there among the clergy and for the office of presbyter. Ep. 157. c. 3. Ep. 175. This was against the interest of the clergy of the place, especially of Paulinus, a deacon from Milan, who was unwilling to have any one promoted to the presbytery before himself. Paulinus had been deacon of the church at Milan under saint Ambrose, and was not deficient in authority and influence. He sought to ruin Caelestius. This could be effected only by accusing him of heterodoxy. He therefore complained of him to Aurelius, bishop of Carthage. The bishop assembled a council at Carthage early in the year 412. Paulinus appeared as his accuser, and presented six or seven propositions, professedly drawn from his writings and alleged as heretical. These propositions, which Caelestius at least did not wholly disown nor condemn, were pronounced heterodox. All hope of his becoming a presbyter at Carthage, was now blasted. He was condemned and excommunicated from the church.
At this council at Carthage against Caelestius, Augustine was not present. De Gestis Pel. II. Retractt. II. 33. Yet soon after, in the same year, he came out as a writer against the Pelagian doctrines, after having assailed them in preaching and conversation.
But about what doctrine did the controversy begin? and what was the heresy first charged on Caelestius? This is the question which must here first be answered.
It is difficult to say whether the contest began with infant baptism or with original sin. Some would conclude, from a passage in Augustine, that it began with infant baptism. "A short time ago, when I was at Carthage," says he, (De Pec. Meritis, III. 6,) "I heard the passing remark from some," (Augustine here forbears naming the Pelagians,) "that infants are not baptized for the forgiveness of sins, but as an act of consecration to Christianity" (ut sanctificentur in Christo). But this passage, strictly taken, will not authorize the conclusion. So much, however, is certain: from the close connection between the doctrine of infant baptism with that of original sin, the controversy on both doctrines must have been nearly simultaneous. For if children just born were baptized for the remission of sin, then original sin appeared to be proved, since they could not have committed any actual transgression: and again, if original sin was proved, then children should be baptized for the remission of sin. Accordingly we find Augustine treating of both doctrines together, in his first work, just as was done in the heresies alleged against Caelestius at the council at Carthage. These heretical propositions are reckoned either six or seven, accordingly as some of them are combined or divided. They are preserved by Augustine, (De Gestis Pel. c. II, with which compare his work on original sin, c. 2, 3, 4 and II,) and also by Marius Mercator in both his Commonitoria. Augustine and Mercator agree in the essentials, and the differences are unimportant. These propositions, in Mercator's account in his Commonitorium, presented to the emperor Theodosius II, (in which he appeals to the acts of the synod,) do not contain the declaration, that "infants, though unbaptized, are saved," which Mercator himself attributes to Caelestius in his other Commonitorium. The omission was the fault of the transcriber, as will appear from the seven particulars which Mercator thus mentions:
1. Adam was created mortal, and would have died, whether he had sinned or not.
2. Adam's sin injured himself only, and not the human race.
3. Infants are born in the same state in which Adam was before the fall.
4. Men neither die in consequence of Adam's death or fall, nor rise again in consequence of Christ's resurrection.
5. Infants, though not baptized, have eternal life.
6. The law is as good a means of salvation (lex sic mittit ad regnum coelorum) as the gospel.
7. Even before the advent of Christ, there were men who lived without sin.
In his second Commonitorium, composed about the year 431, Mercator brings together the last two propositions, in the following manner: Men can live without sin, and easily keep God's commands, since, even before the advent of Christ, there were men without sin, and since the law is as good a means of salvation as the gospel. But as Mercator appeals directly to the synodical acts, in the first Commonitorium, presented to Theodosius and the Constantinopolitan clergy, it is proper to credit the second account. Orosius, in his Apology, p. 591, quotes, as a position of Caelestius, the words, "man can live without sin, and easily keep God's commands," with the not unimportant addition "if he will;" and subjoins, that it was condemned by the council at Carthage. It may be that this proposition, (which, if we place no emphasis on the phrase if he will, may be regarded as a corollary from the proposition "before Christ's advent, were men without sin,") was condemned by the synod; though the authority of Orosius, which is of no weight, will not justify this assumption. It is not found among the charges by Paulinus, if we are to follow the account quoted from Mercator.
These charges, at least the second and third, Caelestius would neither directly disown nor condemn, as we see from the transactions respecting both, which are given by Augustine (De Pec. Orig. c. 3, 4,) with protocol preciseness, from the Carthaginian acts. In respect to the second, that Adam's sin injured himself only and not his posterity, he replied, that he had said he had doubts on the doctrine of the propagation of sin by generation, for he had heard from presbyters of the orthodox church, that they varied from that doctrine. Still he would gladly be taught by those to whom God had given better discernment. Respecting the third accusation, that new born infants are in the same state as Adam was before the fall, Caelestius answered, that concerning the propagation of sin by generation, he had already declared he had received it from some teachers of the orthodox church, that it was rejected by others; but at all events, this proposition implied no heresy, but was a point about which various opinions might be held. But he had always said, that children needed baptism, and it was a duty to baptize them. This, however, was only a shift by which Caelestius endeavored to escape the reproach of heresy. How he explained himself on the other points of complaint, we know not; for the written statement which he presented to the synod, and which is frequently mentioned, is not extant. Augustine, however, informs us, (Ep. 157. § 22, De Pec. Orig. c. 19, and C. Jul. III. 3,) as does the synodical letter, (§ 6) that he was compelled, in view of infant baptism, to grant that redemption is necessary for children.
Against those charges in which were already contained, at least in the germ, the greater part of the doctrines on which Pelagius and Caelestius afterwards came into controversy with Augustine, an equal number of opposite propositions were now declared as orthodox at the Carthaginian synod. This is certainly the import of the rather dark words of Mercator in his Commonitorium (Ap. p. 69), De quibus omnibus capitulis, etc.
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