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Theologian of Grace: St. Augustine, Part 8

Roman Catholicism and historic Protestantism both claim Augustine as one of their own. On one hand, his theological views concerning the nature of the church and the sacraments (arising from the Donatist controversy) significantly influenced the development of Roman Catholic theology. On the other hand, his theological perspective of the nature of original sin, the absolute necessity of grace in salvation, and predestination (arising from the Pelagian controversy) influenced how Protestants formulate their doctrinal views.

In effect, Augustine’s theological views influenced substantively how Western Christendom formulated many of its central doctrines.1 The doctrines within the context of systematic theology include: anthropology (doctrine of man), hamartiology (doctrine of sin), soteriology (doctrine of salvation), ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), and eschatology (doctrine of last things). Overall, the following two doctrinal controversies illustrate Augustine’s significant theological influence.

The Donatist Controversy

In the early part of the fourth century, the Christian church suffered severe persecution at the hands of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (AD 284–313). During the persecution, certain Christian leaders bowed to the pressure and surrendered their copies of Scripture (possession of which was declared illegal) to the Roman authorities. After the persecution died down, some of those leaders rejoined the church. The Donatists, named from Bishop Donatus and centered in North Africa, argued that these traditores (“those who handed over,” traitors) should be excluded from the church because it was a place for the “pure” only. The Donatists further argued that apostate (lapsed from the faith) clergymen cannot properly and validly administer the church’s sacraments. This group subsequently divided from the catholic church and formed their own “pure church.”

The Donatist controversy2 was significant because it raised questions concerning the true nature of the church and the validity of its sacramental system. Augustine opposed the Donatists, arguing that the Christian church throughout its existence would remain a “mixed body” of both saints and sinners. He believed that the lapsed clergymen could be restored to the church through repentance. Further, he argued that the validity and the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the human agent who administers them, but rather upon Jesus Christ, the one who instituted the sacraments. For Augustine, the personal unworthiness of a minister could not compromise the validity of the sacraments. His views became normative in the church concerning these issues.

The Pelagian Controversy

In the early part of the fifth century, an intense theological controversy broke out over the nature of human sin and the necessity of divine grace in salvation. In an attempt to bring about moral reform in the church, British lay monk Pelagius (ca. 360–420) began teaching that human nature was not corrupted by Adam’s fall (a denial of original sin) and that salvation was an earned reward. For Pelagius, human nature had no natural or inherent inclination toward evil that would inevitably result in sin; thus, human beings need not sin. He believed that sin is a product of improper education, bad examples, and bad habits.

Augustine viewed Pelagianism3 as a dangerous heresy of self-help salvation. He argued vigorously that Adam’s fallen nature (including both guilt and corruption) had indeed been transmitted to his progeny. Fallen humanity, left to its own devices, could never enter into a relationship with God. Augustine even referred to fallen humanity as massa damnationis (“a mass of damnation”).4

However, according to Augustine, God intervened in mankind’s desperate dilemma through the life, death, and resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ. For Augustine, salvation is a gift of God’s grace from first to last. What human beings cannot do for themselves because of sin, God has accomplished through the grace of Christ. Historical theologian Alister E. McGrath comments:

Augustine held ‘grace’ to be the unmerited or undeserved gift of God, by which God voluntarily breaks the hold of sin upon humanity. Redemption is possible only as a divine gift. It is not something which we can achieve ourselves, but is something which has to be done for us. Thus, Augustine emphasizes that the resources of salvation are located outside of humanity, in God himself. It is God who initiates the process of salvation, not men or women.5

Ultimately, Pelagius and Augustine had two fundamentally different views of sin and salvation. McGrath succinctly summarizes the Pelagian-Augustinian debate:

The ethos of Pelagianism could be summed up as “salvation by merit,” whereas Augustine taught “salvation by grace.” It will be obvious that these two different theologies involve very different understandings of human nature. For Augustine, human nature is weak, fallen, and powerless; for Pelagius, it is autonomous and self-sufficient. For Augustine, humanity must depend upon God for salvation; for Pelagius,

God merely indicated what has to be done if salvation is to be attained, and then leaves men and women to meet those conditions unaided. For Augustine, salvation is an unmerited gift; for Pelagius, salvation is a justly earned reward.6

Augustine’s view that Christianity is a religion of divine rescue finally overcame Pelagius’s self-help perspective. In the year AD 431, at the Council of Ephesus, Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy. Augustine’s teaching of salvation by grace, in which he was deeply influenced by the Apostle Paul’s epistles, would significantly influence the Protestant Reformers of the Sixteenth century. Augustine later became known as the doctor gratiae (“doctor of grace”).7

  1. Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology (Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 1998), 26–27.
  2. McGrath, 34, 72–79.
  3. McGrath, 35–37, 79–85.
  4. Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), s.v. “Predestination.”
  5. McGrath, 36.
  6. Ibid.
  7. McGrath, 35.