Original Sin 19 – St. Augustine & Pelagius

It’s impossible to discuss the origin of the idea of original sin as the inherited or shared guilt of Adam without noting the context within which St. Augustine developed it. And the idea developed within the context of the long-running dispute between St. Augustine and Pelagius. I find that this particular dispute is often caricatured and positions are attributed to each man that do not appear to be entirely accurate.

So let’s start with Pelagius. While his teaching was ultimately condemned and he is considered a heretic (one who holds and teaches a different faith) in both the Eastern and Western Church, it doesn’t seem to have been as blatantly distinct from Orthodox faith as it is sometimes portrayed today. While Christianity had always taught and practiced the process of salvation as a lifelong synergy between God and man rooted in the amazing act of God in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, it seems that Pelagius taught that in light of Jesus’ accomplishment, man had the potential to “work out his salvation in fear and trembling” without anything else from God. Most wouldn’t or couldn’t, of course, and thus required the grace or energies of God. But it was at least possible.

Pelagius, however, seems to have been quite adept at putting that idea in terms that seemed orthodox. The reaction to him in many places was ambivalent and sometimes even accepting. And that seems to have infuriated St. Augustine, who ultimately did convince his fellow bishops to condemn Pelagius. St. Augustine, known for his piety, had a deep sense of his own sinfulness and his inability to make any headway without the grace of God (which is to say God himself). As easily happens in such situations, St. Augustine was striving to make his case and in this instance, seems to me (and many others) to have overreached in making a rhetorical point.

That does not then mean that Pelagius was right. Today a lot of people seem to cast the discussion as some sort of an either/or dichotomy. Either you accept everything that St. Augustine ever wrote over the course of the dispute or you accept that Pelagius was correct. And that’s a false dichotomy. It’s easy to believe that Pelagius taught something other than the faith handed down by the Apostles and still believe that St. Augustine overstated his own case and was even wrong on some points. I certainly believe that’s true when it comes to his formulation of original sin and so does all of Eastern Christianity.

Nothing human ever happens in a vacuum. There are always many dynamics and forces at work. And if you want to understand an end result, you have to have some insight into the process and circumstances that produced it. Hopefully this post helps adds some of that context to the discussion.

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  • By Scott Morizot on March 14, 2010 at 11:35 am

    New at Faith & Food: Original Sin 19 – St. Augustine & Pelagius http://bit.ly/aSAdPY

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