Understanding Augustine, Pelagius, and Semipelagianism

Key Points during this time.

  • Augustine of Hippo came to be one of the most influential thinkers in western Christianity, shaped by a variety of life experiences culminating in his dramatic conversion to Christianity.
  • Augustine left a voluminous quantity of writings that have become classics in western Christianity, addressing theology, ecclesiology, exegesis, and spirituality.
  • In response to Donatism, Augustine formulated influential understandings of the sacraments and the church
  • In response to Pelagianism, Augustine formulated controversial but impactful understandings of divine predestination and election, salvation, and human sexuality
  • Pelagius and Celestius were moralizing reformers whose views on human free will prompted fierce controversy, especially in Rome and North Africa, resulting in their condemnation in multiple councils
  • John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, and others reacted to Augustine’s extreme views on divine election, holding to a position that allows a greater role for human free will in salvation, a view known as “Semipelagianism”

Due to the personal reflections he composed, we know more about Augustine’s life background and journey to Christian faith than we do most other patristic writers. His voluminous corpus of works illuminates our understanding of his pastoral career as bishop of Hippo and of the critical controversies of his setting. His writings have had a profound effect on western Christianity in most of its facets, covering theology, spirituality, exegesis, and numerous items involving pastoral care.

In response to Donatist emphases on purity, Augustine argued for an objective understanding of the sacraments’ effectiveness. He taught that a sacrament properly done, with the correct words spoken, was fully effective to the activity of God, irrespective of the purity of the administrator or the faithfulness of the church. Originally formulated to address the damaging effects of the Donatist schism, Augustine’s objective view of the sacraments became standard in western Christianity until challenged during the Reformation.

Pelagius was a moralizing reformer from Britain who taught in Rome and Palestine; his follower Celestius was also in Rome, in North Africa, and Sicily. They taught that humans had freedom of will to choose the good, that Adam’s sin laid down a bad example but did not convey actual guilt or weakness to other people, that it is possible for humans to do what is right and that some had in fact lived without sin, even before Jesus Christ. In response, Augustine formulated doctrines of original sin and divine election that came to exercise deep influence throughout the Middle Ages. He taught that Adam’s sin involved the entire human race in a fall, transmitting original sin through sexual activity, so that people are incapable of acting good or even exercising true faith on their own, without the intervening grace of God. In his grace, God elects some for salvation, working in their souls to trigger faith and restore their free will. Augustine points to the church’s tradition of infant baptism as evidence for his doctrine of original sin.

Though Pelagius, Celestius, and other followers of Pelagianism were condemned in multiple councils, not everyone followed Augustine’s extreme understandings of divine election either. Leaders such as John Cassian and Vincent of Lerins represent a “semipelagian” position, which allows a greater role for free will in human salvation. Cassian was also known for formalizing the fourfold method of reading scripture and Vincent for formulating the classic statement of the church’s doctrine on the role of tradition, both of which exercised great influence throughout the Middle Ages.


Church Life in the Second and Third Centuries

Key Points During this Time

  • After an intensive and often lengthy period of preparation, converts were initiated into Christianity through a highly symbolic baptism ritual
  • Christians were in the habit of meeting on Sundays and other times for worship and instruction; celebrating the Eucharist was central to Sunday gatherings
  • The church was known for advocating high standards of personal morality, including sexual behavior and charity
  • Women were prominent in the story of early Christianity, as celebrated martyrs, in special roles of church service, and defining new social roles through celibacy
  • Christian hope of bodily resurrection supplied a powerful testimony. Christian expectations included chiliastic and non-chiliastic understandings of the end times.


Although early Christian practices exhibit the influence of their social contexts, they also display distinctive features and definitively Christian expressions. Christians took seriously the matter of initiation into the church, requiring converts to undergo an intensive period of instruction and preparation prior to baptism. Understanding of doctrine and the practice of Christian moral behavior were expected. The baptismal ritual itself showed great care and abundant symbolism. Although initially baptism seems to have been intended for those capable of making a mature commitment, in time infant baptism came to be a routine practice. Christian art depicting baptism illuminates our understanding of early Christian conceptions of this ritual.

Christians were in the habit of meeting on Sundays from the earliest times, in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection. Weekly assemblies included the reading of Scripture, preaching, hymnody, prayer, and taking up collections for those in need, but centered on the celebration of the Eucharist. As a mystical participation in Jesus’ body and blood, the Eucharist functioned as an argument against Docetic and Gnostic interpretations of the incarnation. By the late third century, the unbaptized were excluded from the eucharistic portion of the assembly.

In addition to weekly assemblies, Christians met for worship and agape meals at other times. They observed regular fast days and had other personal devotions. The apologists stressed the high moral standards of Christians, pointing to their ethics as an argument for the truth of Christianity. Dependent partly on Jewish moral instruction, the moral philosophy of the day, and Jesus’ own teaching and example, Christians claimed a spiritual power to live extraordinary lives. Many early Christian texts focus on moral behavior, including celibacy as an expression of extreme devotion to God in Christ. Christian attitudes towards the state and military service remained ambivalent.

Women played a prominent role in the growth and stability of the early church. Many subverted social expectations by choosing to adopt lives of celibacy. Some became heroines as martyrs. Although women seem not to have been commonly involved in preaching and presiding at liturgical functions, in roles such as that of deaconess they served the church in key ways.

Christian attitudes towards death were very impactful as a part of the Christian witness. Christians observed many of the same burial practices as their Jewish and pagan neighbors, yet inscriptional and artistic evidence shows the hope with which Christians faced death. Partly as a matter of biblical interpretation and partly in response to Marcion and Gnostics, some Christian teachers held to a chiliastic understanding of the end, in which Christ would assume the rule of earth from Jerusalem for 1000 years after his return. The more pervasive view of the end saw the promised millennium as a more symbolic or spiritual event. Both groups taught the resurrection of the body and maintained the vindication of the righteous in the final judgment, resulting in heavenly reward.

Heresies and Schisms in the Second Century

Key Points During this Time

  • Early Christianity was characterized by a certain variety in belief and practice
  • A strategic and gifted administrator, Marcion led an effective movement that rejected Christianity’s Jewish roots, distinguished the creator god from the redeemer god, emphasized asceticism, and advocated an authoritative canon of Scripture based mainly on portions of Paul’s writings
  • In the 2nd century, Gnostic movements developed systems of belief that interacted and competed with catholic Christianity, combining Jewish, Christian, and pagan beliefs
  • In an attempt to achieve a philosophical-religious solution to the problem of evil, Gnostic groups taught complex cosmologies that tended to involve extreme dualism, a strong rejection of matter as evil, and redeemer myths
  • In rejecting Gnosticism, “orthodox” Christianity affirmed the oneness of God, the essential goodness of creation, the full incarnation of Jesus Christ, and bodily resurrection
  • Largely in response to perceived worldliness and formalization of the church, Montanism arose as an exuberant movement stressing prophecy, rigorous ethics, and eschatological enthusiasm
  • Encratism describes a tendency in some Christian circles towards extreme asceticism
  • The appeal to existing standards of belief and practice suggests that “orthodoxy” in some sense existed prior to Christian “heresy”


In the struggle to define boundaries of belief and practice, the early church grappled with the diversity to be found among those claiming to follow Christ. Early Christian doctrinal self-understanding took shape partly in response to these challenges. For instance, the wealthy shipbuilder Marcion rejected the Jewish roots of Christianity, teaching that the creator god and redeemer god are separate and that the savior Jesus is to be understood in a Docetic manner. He contended that Paul was the only true Apostle and put forward a canon of Scripture based on Paul that was highly selective and heavily edited. Despite the Roman church’s rejection of his teaching in 144, he effectively organized a movement of many Marcionite churches.

Gnosticism is an umbrella term that covers a number of different groups and teachings interacting with Christianity in the second and third centuries. Although our knowledge of Gnosticism was limited due to the shortage of ancient sources, modern discoveries have enriched our knowledge greatly—particularly the find in 1945 of a number of original Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Gnosticism drew on pre-Christian, Jewish, and Christian ideas, synthesizing them into fully developed Gnostic systems by the second century. Different teachers promoted distinct systems, each group being defined by its favored myth of origins, its sense of group identity, and its insider language. Common features included an account of a “fall” in the spiritual realm that resulted in the creation of matter, which is evil. A “redeemer” imparts knowledge (Gnosis) to save those with a spiritual nature, so that they may escape their material prison and be reunited with the divine in the spiritual realm. Valentinus was the most influential Gnostic teacher, but there were many teachers and groups. To escape material entanglement, most followed an ascetic ethic, though some may have been libertine instead. With its streamlined dualism and elitist mentality, Gnosticism’s mythological and philosophical answer to the problem of evil proved attractive to many in the Greco-Roman culture. In response, “orthodox” Christians taught that the creator God is the one true God and that creation is good. They insisted on the full incarnation of Christ and the salvific importance of his bodily death, the significance of history in revelation, and the resurrection of the body. Out of this conflict, a number of important lessons may be found for today’s church.

Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla began a prophetic movement in the churches of Phrygia in the 150s or 170s. Believing themselves to be the voices of the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete), the Montanists of “the New Prophecy” preached judgment, seeking to convict the established church of moral laxness and compromise with the surrounding culture. The movement may be seen partly as a reaction to growing institutionalism of the church in the generations following the Apostles. Montanism did not teach different doctrines, but their ascetic rigors and disruptive tendencies prompted negative reactions. The first known synods of bishops met in order to deal with the problem. Focusing on matters of authority, the synods emphasized the importance of Scripture and the place of bishop as authoritative teacher, resulting in the Montanists being declared as schismatic.

Encratism” describes a movement or tendency among some early Christians towards extreme asceticism. Many surviving apocryphal texts promote asceticism and the Syriac church (e.g. Tatian) was characterized by this tendency. A contemporary debate considers whether “orthodoxy” may be understood to have preceded “heresy,” or whether early Christianity was simply highly diverse at its origins. Though early diversity and a legacy of development are undeniable, the ability of the orthodox to make plausible appeals to existing standards indicates that there were inherited norms of belief and practice.

Preaching Christ in Every Sermon

Fred Malone has been writing a series on the topic of preaching Christ in every sermon. Today the Founder Ministeries posted the 4th in the series, How Should We Preach Christ in Every Sermon? – Leviticus 18:5. The post starts by saying,

“My last three posts have attempted to answer three questions: (1) “Should We Preach Christ in Every Sermon?”, (2) “Why Should We Preach Christ in Every Sermon?, and (3) “How Should We Preach Christ in Every Sermon?” In this post, I would like to illustrate how we should preach Christ in every sermon from Leviticus 18:5, which says, “So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the LORD.”

Malone early writes, “There have been times, however, when I’ve heard expositional preaching that makes little or no mention of the Lord Jesus Christ,” an unfortunate, but yet commonly made mistake from those that claim that expositional preaching is the only type of preaching. The series over the past two months has reminded me of the works that I read myself that forever changed my understanding of hermeneutics in 2005. Books like; Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Goldsworthy, God-Centered Interpretation by Poythress, and Beginning at Moses by Michael Barrett. The series of post is worth your time to read, and more so, to use.

What is With All this Gospel Talk?

“Almost everyone uses the word “gospel” in both a religious and a secular way. In the religious world it is used often without any real consensus as to what is meant by the term. Even when the word “gospel” is proposed as a biblically based term, there are some significant differences among, say, a Christadelphian, an evangelical, and a liberal view of gospel. Among evangelicals there are also differences in the way he word is used. It is a matter for some concern that some books and study courses on evangelism seen to assume that every Christian is absolutely clear about what the gospel is, and that what is needed most is help in the techniques of explaining the gospel to unbelievers. Experience suggests that this assumption is poorly based and that there is a great deal of confusion among believers about what the gospel is. Preachers may have a theoretical gospel and an operative gospel. Theoretically we will get into a theological mode and produce, as far as possible, a biblically based notion focusing on the person and work of Christ. But in pastoral practice it is easy to be pragmatic. Our operative gospel will be the thing that preoccupies us as the focus of our preaching and teaching. It may be a particular hobbyhorse or a denominational distinctive. Baptism, a particular view of the second coming, social action, creationism, spiritual gifts, and the like are all easily raised to the status of gospel by becoming the main focus of our preaching. This is especially deplorable when these spurious gospels are made the basis of our acceptance of other Christians.”

“The gospel is the message about Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection.”

Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, pp. 81-83.

Why Question Worship?

I am often struck by the number of church congregation services that seem to have an evangelists approach rather than a pastor leading his congregation in true worship of God during their Lord’s Day morning worship.  I think one of the largest issues with this problem in America is a question that is commonly asked among pastors, elders, small groups and within the church. It goes something like this, “what type of worship do you like?” or “what style of worship fo you favor?” or “how to you feel worship should be done?” Besides the problem of creating a dichotomy between singing and preaching on the Lord’s Day (as if only one of them are worshipping) lies the problem that Evangelicals continues to create, address, fix, create, address, fix again, crate, address with a different group, and are left to fix once again. The never ending cycle of programed worship, leading to only selective groups, leaving out others, left with continually fixing the worship style, pattern with man’s thoughts, feelings, and what they themselves enjoy during worship service. The problem, the church continues to ask the question “what do we want during worship service?” and not the question “What has God commanded of His people during worship service?” As long as Dispensational roots are sunk in deep to American Evangelicals, who really applies Deuteronomy 12:32, “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.” Dispensationalism or not, understanding the use of moral law would be of great help and discernment on what one does during worship,

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

This is just one of the many reasons why confessional protestantism helps again at truly understanding the Scriptures. Systematically looking at matters of importance throughout all of the Scriptures, identifying the Truths within Scripture and standing firm upon them within the Church. Recently chapter 22, section 1 of the London Baptist Confession has become a constant read for reminder in my family and personal life. It reads,

The light of nature shews that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is just, good and doth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart and all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.

As Jeremiah has said, “Who would not fear You, O King of the nations? Indeed it is Your due! For among all the wise men of the nations And in all their kingdoms, There is none like You.”

Baptist & Presbyterian Confessions for the sake of Protestantism

Presbyterians will at times make the remark that London Baptist copied their confession. While layout and words are almost identical at times (chapters 1, 9, 16, and 32) there are additions, differences, and sections condensed throughout the whole of the LBC. If you do not agree, you can take a look at a Tabular Comparison of the WCF & 2nd-LBC for yourself. An issue at times I have heard from my close Presbyterian brothers (closer than my American-Baptist brothers) is that the London Baptist stole their outline, or copied their work. During the 17-century there were a number of issues in England that help bring about the change from the 1st 1644 LBC to the 2nd 1689 LBC, but more so that the Baptist and Presbyterians would be closer in work and deed than further a part like that we see in America today. A number of issues came about that brought the Second London Baptist Confession in it entirety, and in its likeness of its earlier cousin the Westminster Confession of Faith.

1. 1661 – The Episcopalians had recaptured the machinery and endowments of the Church of England and they were bent on achieving uniformity in England, and not accepting Presbyterians, nor the WCF-1646.

2. 1661 -1665 – A series of coercive acts which form the Clarendon Code were put into act effect to suppress the dissant, namely Presbyterians, but yet effecting Baptist as well, and other Congregationalists throughout England.

3. 1672 – King Charles favored the restoration of Roman Catholicism and issued a Declaration of Indulgence which suspended all penal laws of an ecclesiastical nature against all Protestant dissenters, Presbyterian and Baptist.

4. 1673 – England Parliament passed the Test Act which barred non-conformist from all military and civil offices.

These four key issues brought the Particular Baptist of London to show their agreement with Presbyterians and other Congregationalists through England by making the Westminster Confession their basis of a new (2nd) confession of their own. Thus the London Baptist purpose has been clearly stated,

Our (Baptist) hearty agreement with them (Presbyterians) in that wholesome protestant doctrine, which, with so clear evidence of Scriptures they have asserted.”

I believe one of the most evident “Presbyterian-friendly” areas the authors saw fit to change in the 1689 can be found in chapter 30 on The Lord’s Supper, that it is not restricted to scripturally baptized people, as in the 1644-LBC. The assembly writing the 2nd-LBC saw fit to work with the Presbyterians, for the sake of Protestantism during their time. While yes, yes, yes I understand their are differences (chapters 19-23), sections belittle some Presbyterians might add (chapter 7 & 25 ), and chapters done better by the Baptists (chapter 17), in all they often have more similarities in purpose than one may think.