The Councils of Carthage: Augustian/Pelagian Controversy Over Free Will

Council of CarthageAfrica Carthage Map

Dear hijas,

The Augustinian/Pelagian controversy over free will, was taken up in the city of Carthage in 412 AD. There were actually several councils that met in this African city, not just one, and it is the councils of 412, 416, and 418 that we are concerned about here and that condemned Pelagianism in all its forms.

Remember from our last post that Pelagius, perhaps from the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), believed that human beings started out ‘tabula rasa’, a blank sheet of paper. He believed man was perfectly capable of obeying and pleasing God, no one was contaminated by the Fall of Adam, nor were they born in sin. In essence, he denied the doctrine of original sin and the fallen nature of man, and saw man today in the same state as Adam was when he was created. Pelagius taught that sin was not inevitable, that there were many who had never sinned, that Adam was created mortal, physical death was a natural occurrence even to Adam, and he (Adam) would have eventually died even if he had never sinned.

By combining the teaching that man has a will and can avoid the consequences of the Fall and a denial of man’s sin nature, Pelagius made salvation by grace through faith unnecessary. Man wasn’t born in sin, therefore one doesn’t need Christ, for only sinners need a Savior.

Augustine on the other hand, from Scripture, believed that man is born “dead” in sin and trespass (Rom. 6:11, 8:10), cannot please God in and of himself, and that we’re dependent on the grace that God gives us to obey and please Him. He believed that the whole of man was corrupted by the Fall. Not just his moral aspects, but his will and intellect were fallen as well. We speak of this as the ‘noetic’ effects of sin (from nous, the “mind”, noeo, “think”). Augustine believed, per Scripture, that Adam was created immortal and sinless, perfect and whole in his being, and because of his rebellion, and God’s curse, man today was now corrupted in the totality of his being.

What flows from this per Rom. 6:23 that ‘the wages of sin is death’, is seen in that physical death had been promised as a result of disobedience (Gen. 2:17), confirmed in Gen. 3:19 ‘to dust you shall return’, and one of the chief evidences that we are all sinners is that death is the common occurrence of us all. We all ‘die’. Physical death is the indication that we are all living in the corruptible state of spiritual death. If as Pelagius believed, Adam was created mortal and would have died whether he had sinned or not, it would remove the Biblical evidence for the veracity of God in placing the curse on disobedient Adam and his posterity in the first place. If unfallen Adam would have died anyway, then the threat of God (Gen. 2:17) would have been meaningless. It would have been a nonsense statement. This view took Pelagius further away from Biblical truth, for if Adam would have died anyway, and death wasn’t a punishment for sin, then Christ would not have had to die a physical death to defeat death. What would be the purpose?

The two views of Augustine and Pelagius were diametrically opposed. The 412 AD council, 416 AD council and two years later in the 418 AD council, overwhelming settled the issue in favor of Augustine, and proclaimed Pelagius and his followers as heretics. The council reaffirmed that man was conceived and brought forth in sin (Ps.51:5). Man’s will was not free, or “well”, as per Pelagius, but instead was in bondage to its sinful nature. As a result of the Fall, given the opportunity to choose between good and evil, God or Satan, unregenerate man would always and ‘freely’ choose evil unless God Himself intervened.

There was dissent in some quarters however. Bishop of Rome, Zosimus, sided with Pelagius and penned a letter denouncing the council’s ‘anathema’ of Pelagius. It was this presage on the part of Zosimus and later Popes towards Pelagianizing tendencies that became the “works righteousness” of the Roman Catholic belief system. By the Middle Ages, Rome via Zosimus and these Pelagianizing tendencies began to metastasize and spread, and by the time of the Reformation, was teaching that man saved himself by cooperating with the grace of God; a position known as semi-Pelagianism.

It is then to the Reformation we now must turn to find the next characters in the debate: Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus.

And remember, to always,

Vaya con Dios mis hijas!

Dear ol’ Dad


The Augustinian/Pelagian Controversy Over Free Will

Dear hijas,


“Lord, give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt.” -Augustine

“If I ought, I can.” -PelagiusPelagius

Is there a conflict between these two statements? Oh, but we wish there weren’t! Augustine’s simple prayer, ‘Lord, give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt’ explicitly implies that we are dependent on the grace God gives us to accomplish His commands. In other words, we’re asking for God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. It’s a prayer I’m sure you’ve prayed many, many times. It is a proper prayer to pray, recognizing our utter dependence on God to help us obey and carry out His commands; to give us His power, His grace, to live holy lives before Him.

The British monk Pelagius on the other hand opposed this simple prayer of Augustine. Pelagius said and taught that God would never give a command unless man was capable of his own free will and ability to accomplish it.

At the heart of this controversy was the nature and debate of the Fall of Adam in Genesis 3. Augustine believed rightly, following Scripture such as Ps. 51:5, that man was conceived and brought forth in sin, inheriting the sin nature post-Fall of representative Adam as head of the entire human race. We know it as “original sin”.

Pelagius taught and believed that a baby was born ‘tabula rasa’, Latin for a blank sheet of paper, therefore perfectly capable of obeying and pleasing God. Each of us was a new Adam, in the same state that Adam was at creation. He believed that no one was contaminated by the Fall, nor were they born in sin. That man was not overcome by sin to the point that he could do nothing to satisfy God.

So, the question arose, “Does man need God’s grace in order to stand before Him in righteousness?

Pelagius’ answer: NO, while God’s help is appreciated, it’s not absolutely necessary. Man can simply exercise his free will and choose not to sin.

Augustine’s answer: YES, man is utterly dependent on God’s grace because he was ruined by the sin of Adam and can do absolutely nothing to redeem himself before the wrath of an infinitely holy God.

The debate was centered around principles at the core of the Christian belief system:

1) the fundamental nature of God

2) man

3) the gospel

The stakes couldn’t be higher. It would take a council of Christian leaders within the growing Church in 412 A.D. to settle the issue.

Vaya con Dios mis hijas!

Dear ol’ Dad

Predestination and Free Will: Preliminary Questions

Question Mark Contemplative

Dear hijas,

As we begin our journey through time; through councils and synods and creeds and confessions of our historic Christian faith and our Judeo-Christian system of thought, think hard about your answers to these related questions:

1) How is a fallen, fallible, and finite sinner redeemed before an infinite, just, and holy God?

2) How does one escape the judgment of God?

3) Who gets the glory in the process of redeeming man from his sins and pardoning him from the judgment those sins deserve?

4) How does fallen man come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ?

These questions are related, but I’m asking that you jot your answers down on a piece of paper which shows that you have contemplated them and have put a little effort into thinking through your answer. Jot any Scripture references that come to mind in thinking about your answer. Think about the five Sola’s that we discussed earlier.

We’ll come back to these questions in future posts, but it is important to keep these questions in the forefront of our minds, for these are not new questions that only we in the 21st century have sought answers for concerning our subject of free will and predestination. We’ll see that our learned forefathers in the faith who came before us, have analyzed, scrutinized, and dissected these very same issues. Their discussions and answers will benefit us immensely.

As always, I remain,

Dear ol’ Dad

Vaya con Dios mis hijas!

Predestination and Free Will: Augustine and Pelagius


Dear hijas,

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and the British monk Pelagius (354-418). Do you think these two guys had anything to do with our topic of predestination and free will?

Enough with the mysteries you say, tell us straight forward. Speak the truth without deviation. But what about Luther and Erasmus I say?

Martin LutherDesiderius Erasmus

‘Enough,’ you say, ‘enough.’ This is too much. How can Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, Calvin and Arminius have anything to do with predestination and free will? Stop the torture you say, how can there be so many people involved in this? I thought it was so simple. “Can’t you just point to one or two verses in Scripture to settle all this?”

Ah, well there, mis hijas, is the rub. It’s not so simple. The philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) is famous for saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We do well to pay attention to church history; to the councils and creeds and confessions that came out of the doctrinal disputes and clarifications of our learned fathers in the faith through time. ‘That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done, So, there is nothing new under the sun.” Do you know which great philosopher said that? The philosopher and wise King Solomon (Ecc. 1:9).

Do we really think that we’re the first and only ones to struggle with the question of predestination and free will? That our brothers and sisters in the faith who came before us didn’t have this question?

So how did they resolve it? What were their answers? This, mis hijas, will take us on a journey through time; to look at Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, Calvin and Arminius. At councils and synods, confessions and creeds. At anathema’s and Remonstrances. Are you ready?

Vaya con Dios mis hijas,

Dear ol’ Dad

Predestination vs. Free Will: Calvin and Arminius

John CalvinJacob Arminius

Dear hijas,

John Calvin (1509-1574) and Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). Calvinism and Arminianism. Both came out of the Protestant Reformation. Their theologies competed for viability within the early Protestant faith. Both theologies are found in the various Protestant churches of today. It’s important to know what the pastor and elders of your church adhere to. Are they Calvinists or Arminians? Which theology does your denomination follow; that of Calvin or that of Arminius? Or neither?

Do you think the questions concerning predestination and free will have any bearing on these two men and their competing theologies within Protestantism?

They most certainly do.

Do a web search on these two men to gain some historical insight into what they were proposing, and we’ll flesh it out in our next post.

As always, I remain,

Dear ol’ Dad

Vaya con Dios mis hijas!

Predestination and Free Will

Dear hijas,

I was recently asked about predestination and free will. The question is usually posed in a contested framework. Free will versus predestiantion. One or the other. Which one is correct? Do we choose Jesus or does He choose us? Are we free moral beings with true choice or just programmed robots?

What we have to understand firstly is the nature of presuppositions. Remember that a presupposition is an elementary or foundational assumption in one’s reasoning, or in the process by which one’s opinions are formed. It’s not just any assumption, but a personal commitment at the level of one’s most basic network of beliefs. Presuppositions form the foundational perspective and starting point in terms of which everything else is interpreted and evaluated. As such, they have the greatest authority in one’s thinking, treated as one’s least negotiable beliefs and being granted the highest revision to immunity (Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 1998).

The question and topic touches on the three components of a worldview, or the three areas of philosophical thought that we’ve been discussing: one’s metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology. It hinges on the Creator – creature distinction that we’ve been talking about. Non-Christian thought and Christian thought have different starting points, use different presuppositions in argument, and come to vastly different conclusions about the world around them, their role in it, and what it all means.

With that as backdrop, our apologetic and evangelistic effort to the unsaved man or woman, is asking them to make a choice, isn’t it? We’re asking them to give up and change their presuppositions based on their own human autonomy to start with themselves and their minds (their reasoning abilities and powers) and surrender that ability to decide truth for themselves and those presuppositions (that they alone can decide truth), to the presupposition that God is, and that what God has said about truth, true truth, real truth, in His inscripturated Word is the right and only presupposition to start with.

We’re asking them to recognize that the evidence about God is already known to them (in the world around them and in their own constitutional makeup, Rom. 1: 19-20), and to choose not to suppress this knowledge of the truth, but to let it lead them to further knowledge of who Christ is, who they are as finite, fallible individuals, their offense against a holy God, and to the answer in Christ as Savior as found in God’s revelation to man in Scripture. But they have to make the choice, don’t they? They have to exercise their will to decide one way or the other, right? They’re not forced to make this choice, but can choose to refuse, or follow and obey.

So how does that jive with those verses in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures that affirm predestination; that God chooses those He wishes to choose, and has chosen them before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4-5)? Or that God will have mercy on whom He desires and hardens whom He desires (Rom. 9:18)? Or, how about this one, that God makes from the same lump (as a potter would) some vessels for honorable use and others for common use (Rom. 9:21)? Or finally, Jesus Himself, that to all that God has given Him (Jesus), He may give eternal life (implying that there are some that God didn’t give? John 17: 2)?

Is this a jye bu kai de wenti? One of those puzzles that can’t be solved?

With love, I remain,

Dear ol’ Dad

Vaya con Dios mis hijas!

The Altogether Grand Other Who Speaks

Dear hijas,

The Judeo-Christian position for the answer to the problem of knowing is that of God’s self-existence, as well as self-contained knowledge existing in the triune Godhead before there was anything else. And by ‘anything else’, I mean everything that we see and observe on earth, in the skies with our telescopes, and under the seas with our cameras. This altogether grand Other, the infinite-personal God of Judeo-Christianity created ‘from nothing’ everything that is ‘there’, including man in His image. It is because He has spoken that the epistemological question is answered. The Judeo-Christian answer posits two levels of existence: God’s existence as self-contained, infinite, and personal, and man’s existence as derived, personal, and finite. We see the level of God’s knowledge as absolutely comprehensive, and the level of man’s knowledge which is not comprehensive, but derivative and reinterpretative. Our knowledge is rational because God is ultimately rational. So how does He speak?

Let me answer that question by telling a story. Suppose there is this altogether Grand Other who is omniscient in knowledge, omnipotent in power, omnibenevolent in love and goodness, perfect in every way our minds can conceive of perfection, existing as tri-unity: three Persons, one Godhead, sharing love and communion with each other before anything existed. Eternal, from which there is no cause, always having been there. Then suppose He created ‘from nothing’ everything that now exists, including man and woman and placed them on a rotating mass of ground (earth), spinning around a bigger mass of light(the sun), with other rotating and spinning masses in the skies above this man and woman He has created.

Now suppose, because He is infinite, everything else would be limited in contrast to His enough-ness, or infinite-ness. Man and woman are created as personal on the side of His personalness, yet finite as opposed to His infinite-ness. Would it be strange to think that this infinite, uncreated Personal, would not want to communicate to the created, limited personal to which He has created? To tell them of what He has done, the nature of the things around them, and something of Himself as their uncreated Creator? Of course, if this uncreated Personal were to communicate to this created personal, He would not exhaust Himself in His communication, but would tell her things that are true. He would not lie, for what would be the purpose?

It would also not be unexpected, if the uncreated Personal really cared for the created personal, to speak of things in a propositional nature; to communicate in the same way that the created personal communicates to other created personals. As a limited, finite reference point, the created personal if she began with herself, would not be able to know everything there is to know about everything if this uncreated Personal didn’t tell her those things. Of course, she wouldn’t know everything because that would make her God, wouldn’t it, but at minimum she would know those things that the uncreated Personal wanted her to know, and those things He wanted her to know would be true. Because He created the world she lives on, and the universe she lives in, He would also create in her a spirit of discovery; a rational mind to uncover other things about herself and the world around her. Her knowledge of those things would need to be in relation to Him; analogical to His knowledge though for them to be true to what is, and true to His creation of those things in the first place.

What we have in the above then, is exactly what the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, the Bible, claims for itself. It claims to be propositional revelation from the uncreated Personal to the created personal in verbalized form. God speaks, and we have His knowledge as non-created Personal, perfect and infinite, to tell us what He wants us to know as the created, finite personal.

Would it be wise to listen to what He has to say?

(Source: Francis A. Schaeffer, He is There and He is not Silent, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 1984).

Vaya con Dios mis hijas,

Dear ol’ Dad

Is Anyone ‘There’ to Speak?

Dear hijas,

Is there anyone there to speak? What a simple and profound question. Does man, being finite, gather enough facts, enough particulars, and try to make her own universals, her own overarching unifying truth? Can she do this with her reasoning powers alone? Where does she start? Her life is only 80-90 years, can she just begin with herself? Or must she go back further than herself, gathering the knowledge of these things from past generations? But where does she stop unless she goes back to some beginning of all things? Is there an answer somewhere back there along the line, or must she go back to when it all began? And what beginning does she choose, an impersonal beginning, or a personal one?

You see, she’s trying to answer the question of who she is, of ‘what’ is this world she is born into, of what purpose or meaning for her existence, if any, there is, and how she knows. What does it all mean, what can I believe is true, and what is not true? This is the epistemological problem she faces, trying to make sense of all the particulars in her life, and tying them into one overarching unity. The one and the many, particulars and universals, diversity and unity. Is there an answer?

There is no satisfactory answer if she chooses the impersonal beginning. If she’s honest with herself, and this is right where she is, that’s what has caused the confusion in the first place. But if she begins with the personal, and the Judeo-Christian infinite-personal God, then there is someone there to speak. He’s personal, on the same side as she is personal, yet He’s infinite, to her finiteness. He is the creator of all else, and therefore does speak. He speaks about Himself, His character, His attributes, so that she can know who He is, not exhaustively but truly, and He speaks about history and the cosmos, so that she can know things about herself and the world around her. She has an answer to the nature of reality, to who she is, and to her existence and place in this vast universe. He speaks and answers her questions about meaning and purpose, about values and ethics, not exhaustively but truly. He speaks and answers her most deep and profound questions about life and death, and what happens after death. His answers bring the satisfaction that was missing for her. They make sense and are truly fulfilling. They bring peace to her troubled soul.

It is on the side of the personal-infinite God of the Judeo-Christian system, on the basis of propositional, verbalized revelation, that God speaks and provides these answers to her epistemological problem, the problem of knowing. He is the Creator, she is the creature, and it is on this basis that what He says will be true to what is. There will be no error, for everything comes from Him. The question of knowing is solved in Him and in what He has spoken and she can rest, satisfied that His knowledge is perfect knowledge.

Vaya con Dios mis hijas,

Dear ol’ Dad

Man’s Greatest Need

Dear hijas,

Modern man doesn’t ‘know’ who she is. One of the biggest questions she faces in life is to try and find an answer to ‘who’ am I? She either struggles with this question all her life in some form or another, or she faces it once in a while, thinks she knows the answer, and pushes it away, moving on with daily living. But for what purpose?

The more thoughtful of her kind will realize that if she is just the byproduct of a long impersonal evolutionary process, kicked up out of the pond scum by blind chance, then in reality, she’s nothing more than a cog in the machine; a nothing really, in an empty, meaningless universe. She sees only silence in the things that man desperately needs most—values, ethics, purpose, and meaning. Many people come to this sad state of affairs. The suicide rates all over the world are testament to some aspect of this. No purpose, no meaning, nothing to live for. Might as well die.

This question of ‘knowing’ who she is, is part and parcel to the epistemological question we’ve been discussing. Her greatest need is to ‘know’ herself; to ‘know’ what purpose she is here on earth, what meaning there is to her existence. And no matter how much she knows she needs these things, she comes to the conclusion that there is only silence.

Her greatest ‘need’ is to know whether there is anyone adequately ‘there’ in the universe to speak. Her deepest longing and question becomes, “Can someone please say something?”

Vaya con Dios mis hijas,

Dear ol’ Dad