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


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