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.