English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

A closer look at conflicts over Justification


Our explication of Genesis 1-3 has given us a picture of what launched history on its course, according to the traditional Christian picture of history - namely, the original creation of the cosmos and mankind, and mankind's fall, which causes the nature of the human race to be changed ever after. Out of this narrative, we developed a good deal of the basics of traditional Christian theology, which came to be crystallized in the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430). To construct the rest of the traditional Christian picture of history, we had to do two additional things: we need see how these theological postulates shaped the interpretation of subsequent episodes that were understood to be historical happenings. And we had to consider the theology that was developed to cover the predicament mankind is placed in by the fall, or, put the other way round, the way traditional Christianity went about explaining God's plan for redeeming fallen humanity.

We took as the raw material for the former, in the first instance, a number of Biblical stories. These range from certain highpoints in the Mosaic books and the remainder of the Old Testament, the career of Jesus culminating in the Crucifixion, the missionary work of the Apostles (especially Paul and Peter), and the prophecies of Revelations. We added to this a host of subsequent happenings affecting the spread and institutionalization and frustrations of Christendom.

For the second task, we set out to look at the way Christianity developed "justification theory." In particular, we looked at a dispute that developed in Late Medieval times between the justification theory that Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) developed in accordance with the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the one that had been bequeathed to the Middle Ages by the Late Classical theologian Augustine of Hippo (d. 430). We were anticipating the outbreak of the Reformation, because, as we pointed out, both Luther and Calvin saw themselves as returning the Church to the path of Augustine.

The Pelagian alternative.

We can sharpen our sense of what is at stake in medieval and Reformation disputes over justification theory - and set the stage for some developments that emerge as part of the 18th-century Enlightenment - if we add a third term to the contrast we have already looked at between the schola antigua (the Thomistic position) and the schola augustiniana (the position which, elaborated in different ways, became the backbone of Lutheranism and Calvinism). This third position is associated with a contemporary of Augustine known as Pelagius (d. ca. 420) and bitterly opposed by both Augustine and Aquinas - and by Luther, Calvin, and the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church. Pelagius came to Rome from Britain sometime around 400 CE, where he engaged in a protracted dispute with Augustine over the nature of original sin and of the role of divine grace in salvation. Pelagius' goal was to improve the moral conduct of Christians, and he found an obstacle to his project in the excuses made by sinners that their sins were the result of their human weakness - in effect, that they sinned because of sin. He insisted that God had made human beings capable to free choice between good and evil, and that sin is a voluntary violation of God's law. In other words, he maintained that justification could be achieved by the exercise of natural human powers - i.e., that salvation by works (decent, morally disciplined conduct) was possible.

One of Pelagius' disciples, Celestius, maintained that Adam and Eve's sin affected only themselves, and, accordingly, argued that infant baptism was unnecessary. These theses - together henceforth known as Pelagianism ­­ were condemned in 416 and again in 418 by two councils of African bishops meeting in Carthage, and dominated (not without the help of bribery) by Augustine and his followers. Pelagius and Celestius were excommunicated and nothing more is heard of them. (They may have gone into silent exile.)

The cause of human freedom was taken up and argued vigorously by Julian of Eclanum, who was still active at the time of Augustine's death. Julian and his predecessors were finally condemned by the Council of Ephesis in 431. This phase of the conflict, incidentally, is the focus of one of our optional extra-credit assignments.


Pelagian theses resurfaced during the Reformation, in the writings of the Italian Fausto Sozzini (1539­1604), more widely known under the Latin form of his name, Faustus Socinius, who arrived at them from the direction of an anti-trinitarian position grounded in scriptural interpretation. Socinius accepted the idea that Christ was without sin, but maintained that he was not divine by nature, and that his significance under God's Providence was to show the way to salvation by serving as a model of how to bear one's sufferings and of how to achieve moral perfection through a life of penitence and service in accordance with God's will. If the crucifixion did not accomplish any atonement for human sin, such an atonement was unnecessary in the first place, and salvation was achievable through the proper use of human beings' God-given moral powers. Socinius' writings (which owed some inspiration to the thought of his uncle Laelius Socinius [1525-1562]), were influential in the thought of John Biddle (1615-1652), the founder of English Unitarianism.


About the same time, something akin to the Pelagian position - at least in the view of its opponents ­­ arose independently within the Dutch Reformed Church as a protest against the implications of tenets central to its Calvinist heritage. A central figure here is Jacobus Arminius, in Dutch known as Jakob Hermandszoon (1560-1609). His objections to strict predestination implied a stress on the power of all persons to accept God's grace. The Arminians had an important impact in the 18th Century upon John Wesley (1703-91), the founder of Methodism.

To confirm your sense of what is as stake in Pelagianism and its alternatives, you could check out what it looks like from the standpoint of its opponents. (Be sure to check out at least one of the following.)

For a starker sense of how these two strands of contemporary Calvinism differ from each other, consider the question of whether those who have been granted faith by God's grace have the freedom to fall back into sin. First, page down to Chapter 9 of the Grace Valley Center's "Statement of Faith" (authored by P.G. Mathew), on the topic of "Free Will" (keeping in mind, however, the important limitation on freedom of the will declared in Chapter , "Of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and of the Punishment Thereof ").  Compare what you find there, and in Chapter 17, "Of the Perseverence of the Saints," with Michal Bremmer's views in his article on "The Doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints."

Finally, for the way Calvinism appears through Arminian spectacles, take a peek at Clark H. Pinnock's "From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology."

It should be clear that in disputes over justification theory, differences over the nature and effects of original sin are crucial. The greater the depravity of the descendants of Adam and Eve, the more salvation depends on the direct intervention (and hence choice) of God -- i.e., upon divine grace. Conversely, the more a theology is prone to credit God with everything good (including the salvation of the saints), the more it will emphasize the weakness and evil of post-lapsarian humanity. To drive this home, you might consult the following discussions of Original Sin and Grace, in light of the above discussion of "Pelagianism."  Contrasting the Catholic picture with either of the Calvinist ones should make the point clear.  (This is optional only.)

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      Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 01 February 1999.