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Augustine and Pelagianism: Myth, Heresy, and Orthodoxy

Review: Ali Bonner, The Myth of Pelagianism (Oxford University Press, 2018)

By Robert Evans

Ali Bonner has written a groundbreaking study of a crucial moment in the history of Christian theology. It deserves significant attention from both historians and theologians and is sure to be included in undergraduate reading lists on the subject henceforth.

Pelagius is not exactly a household name these days (although he was name-dropped in the 2004 film King Arthur). He was a British theologian who wrote and taught around the Mediterranean in the late fourth and early fifth century. Since then he has been known for his clash with St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, on the doctrines of original sin, free will, and predestination, which resulted in his condemnation as a heretic in 418. Ever since that debate, Pelagius has been attached to a position that denies original sin, proposes effective free will (to both good and bad), and interprets God’s predestination as foreknowledge rather than preordainment: the heresy of Pelagianism. On these grounds, he is the only theologian to be mentioned by name in the Church of England’s Articles of Religion (no. 9).

Bonner’s thesis is that the heresy of Pelagianism never existed and that the whole debate requires thorough re-evaluation. In this, Bonner joins a number of scholars seeking to understand with greater sympathy the so-called heretics of Church history.[i]

Her argument is very clearly laid out:

1. Pelagius did not in fact hold the majority of the positions ascribed to him.

Bonner shows this by comparing what survives of Pelagius’s writing with what might be called the “charge sheet” drawn up by Augustine and his followers. These were 14 tenets, contained in Augustine’s On the Deeds of Pelagius (a similar list was drawn up by the Council of Carthage in 418). Pelagius’s writings agreed with half of one and disagreed with seven (chapter 1).

2. Pelagius’s teachings were, in fact the majority position in the ascetic movement of the late fourth century.

Bonner discusses Athanasius’s Life of Anthony, its two Latin translations (chapter 2), the writings of Jerome, the exegesis of Ambrosiaster, and a few other examples in detail (chapter 3). These texts all shared Pelagius’s commitment to a positive understanding of human nature and effective free will both to the good and the bad. In a few cases (especially Jerome), these texts went a good deal further in agreeing with the 14 tenets condemned by Augustine. This did not turn such ascetics into arrogant Pharisees; Bonner presents a valuable discussion of how these ascetic writers were aware of, and warning against, the possibility of pride as a result of virtuous living.

3. The modern scholarly search for Pelagianism, either as a coherent movement or in the textual record, has been a wild goose chase.

Pelagius’s views cannot be distinguished from most contemporary ascetic writing, so any attempt at classification is doomed to be circular (chapters 4 and 5). This is why, as Bonner shows in chapter 7, his writings continued to be copied by medieval scribes under the names of Augustine and Jerome, because much of what he said was indistinguishable. Medieval copies of Pelagius’s writings run into the hundreds, and Bonner also discusses later marginalia from some of these manuscripts.[ii] This is not so much a discussion of the manuscript transmission as of these texts’ internal characteristics and what their survival represents. As a result, Bonner argues, we should abandon any attempt to use the word Pelagianism.

4. This raises the question of why on earth Pelagius was condemned (chapter 6).

Bonner argues that the debate was largely constructed by Augustine so that his teachings on original sin, prevenient grace, and predestination as preordainment (what Bonner calls the triune) could be smuggled into Catholic orthodoxy without confronting the much wider assumptions of the ascetic movement. Pelagius was a casualty of a wider attempt to relocate orthodoxy, which resulted in the Church holding simultaneously to doctrines about sin and free will that remained in tension throughout the Middle Ages.

Bonner’s analysis of the texts and the scholarship surrounding them is very persuasive and deeply engaging. Two historical quibbles might be raised. The first concerns the use of Athanasius’s Life of Anthony (chapter 2). There is no discussion of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, which deals with the question of human sin and Christ’s atonement in much greater detail. While the Life of Anthony does present a very positive understanding of human nature, as Bonner notes, it was written to motivate ascetic practice by Christians: this may have been compatible with a lower view of human nature prior to a person receiving the benefits of the Incarnation and Passion.

The second quibble would be about the sharp distinctions drawn between ascetic culture and episcopal authority. The former is depicted as feeling free to offer varying accounts of Christianity and Scripture, influenced by classical models of debate. The latter, represented by Augustine, is seen as restricting this variety using the spectre of heresy (e.g., pp. 183, 192). This perhaps underestimates the importance of asceticism for Augustine’s theology and community, and the extent to which ideals of free speech and debate survived into the Early Middle Ages.[iii]

The Myth of Pelaganism raises other significant questions for us about the history of Christian theology more widely:

How should the Church examine the messy and convoluted history of its own deeply held beliefs?

Bonner’s book shows that the whole debate was the “invention of heresy in order to relocate orthodoxy” (p. 26; see also p. 30). Augustine used underhanded tactics to have an existing consensus relabelled as heretical and his opinions affirmed as orthodoxy. He even wrote that it was good for this position to have been condemned “regardless of the sense in which Pelagius may or may not have held [these views]” (p. 23).

What then are we to do if we regard ourselves as standing in the Augustinian tradition?

I completely accept Bonner’s point that Pelagius’s name needs to be divorced from the theological position studied in opposition to that of Augustine, precisely because of the problems of classification Bonner so helpfully identifies. This holds for theologians as well as for historians.

Those wider problems of classification, however, do not negate the existence of such a theological position. Bonner is helpfully clear that there was a real point of debate between Augustine and Pelagius (and others) — and that these were mutually exclusive (pp. xii-xiii). It may not have been about what Augustine said it was about (the 14 tenets), but it was about something. Pelagius, as Bonner states, undoubtedly defended the goodness of human nature and effective free will (p. 27). Many of his contemporaries and plenty of theologians since have defended the same position. It is, in fact, a position that is widely and unconsciously held by many faithful Christians today in a variety of denominations and traditions.

This is why the debate has been so paradigmatic for later Christian theologians (as Bonner notes, p. 300). Generations of theology students — from early medieval monks to contemporary clergy and ordinands — have studied this debate and its texts as a way of engaging with the big questions about sin, grace, free will, and divine sovereignty: all foundational Christian doctrines.[iv]

Augustine’s victorious position has been accepted as the Church’s doctrine (see again the Articles of Religion). It has been defended and developed by major theological figures: Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and many more. The debate seems to have been re-enacted by Thomas Bradwardine in 14th-century Oxford, by Martin Luther and Erasmus in the 1520s, by Dominicans and Jesuits and Calvinists and Arminians in the 17th century, and (perhaps less well known) by Augustus Toplady and John Wesley during the evangelical revival.[v]

That’s why the label Pelagianism has persisted for so long: it has been central to defining orthodoxy in matters of salvation.

One challenge of Bonner’s book is that many of the Church Fathers are implicated in this theological position. Can we continue to hold both Athanasius and Augustine as representatives of the one true Catholic faith? To a certain extent, this is the easier challenge for Anglicans, thinking from a post-Reformation perspective. Luther may have pre-empted Bonner’s argument by noticing that Jerome and Augustine definitely did not agree about grace. His Bondage of the Will, written against Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1525, was clear that Jerome was “in error and ignorant” compared to Augustine. In the wake of Luther, the Protestant tradition became particularly content with accepting that the theologians of the past could be right about some things and wrong about others (arguably, of course, this was true since the writing of Peter Abelard’s Sic et Non and a key part of scholastic method). As a result, the Fathers should be read and respected but be measured against Scripture alone for their orthodoxy.

We could propose an alternative narrative for the debate whereby Augustine was leading a charge against an existing consensus about sin and grace that he perceived as threatening to the witness of Scripture and the life of the Church. Such a narrative would, however, ignore Bonner’s very significant critique of Augustine’s methods and motives in attacking Pelagius. This brings us onto the much more provocative questions raised by this book. How can the Church hold to an orthodoxy that is shown to have been accepted through underhanded tactics by an Augustine who hardly appears sympathetic? If orthodoxy is simply a power play, is it really orthodoxy?

In chapter 6, Bonner makes great use of interactionist sociological theory, especially that of Howard Becker, to explain the debate. The interactionist argument is that deviance — in this case the religious deviance of heresy — is always created as a political process and thus “always part of a struggle for power” (p. 266). This goes back to Walter Bauer’s 1934 argument about orthodoxy being the result of particular patterns of power and authority. It has since been applied to most theological debates.[vi]

I have no intention of denying that Augustine was a powerful man who made morally dubious decisions — and the treatment of Pelagius does look pretty dubious. What is problematic about chapter six is that the whole debate is reduced to these terms. Bonner’s summary of George Zito’s account of the Arian debate is instructive:

although its concerns appeared to be purely metaphysical, in reality they were driven by considerations of power. According to Zito, beneath the accusation of heresy “lies that ‘will to power’ by which groups seek to appropriate the world for their own purposes and gratification.” (p. 276)

In Augustine’s case, it was about safeguarding epsicopal authority against asceticism, which happened to work because his strategy coincided with the crisis of confidence in the Western empire and its Christians brought about by barbarian invasion.

Of course, it is worth noting that most of the actors involved can be tarred with the same brush of wanting to safeguard their authority. Augustine is not the only (potential) villain of early Church history. To be fair to Bonner, she notes that this was not necessarily about Augustine (p. xvii) but about perennial questions for Western civilisation involving God, humanity, and freedom.

A far deeper problem with the interactionist model is that it is overly reductionist: it explains how the process took place, but little about why. Everything is to be explained by politics and power, even when the people involved claimed the arguments were about metaphysics, because “the will to power” is ultimately the only true reality and conflict its primary expression. This risks marginalising the power of the ideas — however grubbily those ideas were propagated. The behaviour of Augustine does not negate the possibility that his ideas made sense in and of themselves in addition to wider social and political factors. Augustine and his followers may have genuinely and sincerely promoted their views on the grounds that it made better sense of reality than the alternative held by so many contemporaries. The Church can agree on those same grounds, regardless of whether Augustine behaved acceptably, because the position against Pelagianism raises a legitimate protest against an alternative model of human autonomy. The legitimacy rests on the coherence of the ideas.

Regarding the truth or coherence of Augustine’s position, Bonner asserts that the debate was not resolved, because both sides represented legitimate interpretations of Scripture (p. 217). Both sides could adduce biblical texts to support their positions on will, grace, and predestination, and it is tempting to see the debate as a draw. I will suggest why it has made sense for the Church to take one position that is not related to the contingent political nature of the debate.

It is hard to reconcile the fourth-century consensus (as presented by Bonner) with the writings of St. Paul as now understood by modern scholars, even in light of the “new perspective on Paul.”[vii] There was a debate about the meaning of grace in the fourth century, which meant that it could mean many things. Grace in Paul certainly did mean many things, but it included Augustine’s emphasis on prevenience, which was compatible with the other meanings of grace (the grace of teaching, the grace of the sacraments, and so forth). Similarly, it is hard to see in Paul the kind of positive anthropology attacked by Augustine. Bonner notes that it was exegesis of Paul that brought many of these issues to light, and for good reason. If as the Church we hold the apostolic teaching to be authoritative, we cannot avoid the challenges it raises.

The Augustinian position simply provides a better account of Paul but also what Scripture reveals about the character of God. Medieval theologians saw the debate in terms of God’s transcendence: His simplicity, eternity, immutability, majesty, and omnipotence. Lupus of Ferrières, a ninth-century theologian, grounded predestination in the fact that to God “the past, the present, and the future are alike the present — for he is himself that which is, and nothing is added nor taken away from his knowledge.”[viii]

Lupus approached the problem in terms of what God is like, his ontology, using a vocabulary that had been well established before Augustine (including by Athanasius). As Matthew Levering has argued, modern theology is very bad at this kind of metaphysical work because it insists on treating the Bible as a text with opinions rather than as the self-disclosing word of God.[ix] When ontological questions about God’s transcendence were taken seriously, it became very difficult to deny Augustine’s understanding of grace as prevenient. It was also far easier to contain human free will or choice within this framework (as contingent) than the other way round.

The debate between the Augustinian position and its alternatives has been found throughout the Church’s history to have carried enormous pastoral implications. Ideas about free will and human goodness often seem attractive to a modern audience because they are associated with personal autonomy and liberty. Such approaches, however, often fail to account for the reality of lived experience of humanity, and they make human choice the ultimate arbiter of salvation (as Bonner shows Jerome taught). This places a heavy burden on the Christian disciple. It makes personal salvation at stake in every battle with sin and every effort towards virtue. The result is either arrogance or despair, as the ascetics themselves knew and tried to prevent.

The advance of Augustine’s theology is that it moved responsibility for salvation onto God’s love and mercy. This was, for generations of the faithful then and now, an enormous encouragement and comfort. This was why Luther raised the great protest against the church of his day, which held to a consensus about free will and grace that Luther believed was inconsistent with Scripture, reason, experience, and even tradition. In the Bondage of the Will, Luther wrote:

But now, since God has put my salvation out of the way of my will, and has taken it under His own, and has promised to save me, not according to my working or manner of life, but according to His own grace and mercy, I rest fully assured and persuaded that He is faithful, and will not lie, and moreover great and powerful, so that no devils, no adversities can destroy Him, or pluck me out of His hand. (On the Bondage of the Will 164)

Augustine may not have felt this comfort himself. He may have been a Richelieu-esque manipulator who got lucky. This does not, however, negate the extent to which the orthodoxy he proposed was agreeable to Scripture, reason, existing tradition, and human experience.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Evans is a historian in residence for Christian Heritage and assistant priest at Christ Church, Cambridge.


[i] As examples, for Arius, see Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2nd edn (SCM Press, 2001); for Marcion, see Judith Lieu, Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century (Cambridge University Press, 2015); for Nestorius, see Susan Wessel, Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy: The Making of a Saint and of a Heretic (Oxford University Press, 2004).

[ii] The examples of marginalia used are from British Library, Royal 6.D.i, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Lat. 18885; Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, San Croce Plut. 15. Dex. 13; and Oxford MS Bodl. 365 (all 12th century or later).

[iii] See especially the work of Irene van Renswourde.

[iv] E.g. Ben Quash and Michael Ward (eds), Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe (Baker Academic, 2007)

[v] For the latter, see Lee Gatiss, True Profession of the Gospel (Latimer Trust, 2010).

[vi] Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, ed. Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel (SCM-Canterbury Press, 1971).

[vii] John Barclay and Simon Gathercole (eds.), Divine and human agency in Paul and his cultural environment (T&T Clark International, 2008); John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015).

[viii] Lupus, Letters, 78, trans. G.W. Regenos, Letters of Lupus of Ferrières (Martinus Nijhoff, 1966).

[ix] Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). See also Mark Smith, “Only the non-suffering God can help”: recovering the glory of divine impassibility’, Churchman 126 (2012). I am grateful to Alden McCray for discussion on this point.


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