Augustine and a British Heretic

I’m not sure that it’s a great claim to fame but Britain managed to produce one of the most significant heretics of church history.  Who was he and why was he significant? Well, read on to find out more but before we meet the villain of our story first of all there’s a fantastic hero to meet too.

  1. Confessions of a saved sinner

Augustine was born on the 13/11/354 in Thagaste (modern day Souk Ahras, Algeria). His mother, Monica was a devout Christian but his father Patricus was a pagan who converted on his deathbed.  Augustine died on the 28/8/430.

In his autobiographical “Confessions” he describes something of his youth and the temptation to sin. In one part he vividly describes stealing from a pear tree.

“…it was not the pears that my unhappy soul desired.  I had plenty of my own, better than those, and I only picked them so that I might steal.  For no sooner had I picked them than I threw them away, and tasted nothing in them but my own sin, which I relished and enjoyed.  If any part of one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavour.”[1]

Aged 19 he took a lover and fathered  a son with her. He then got involved in Manicheanism –a form of Gnosticism strong emphasis on dualism

“In those days I lived with a woman, not my lawful wedded wife, but a mistress whom I had chosen for no special reason but that my restless passions had alighted on her.”[2]

Between 373-74 he taught rhetoric in Carthage but found the scholars unruly and moved to Rome to found a school but was also disappointed in the quality of scholars there, finding them apathetic. They tended to do a runner whenever it was time to pay their fees! He then moved to Milan.  His mother followed him there

He goes on to describe his own conversion in 386 AD.  Here it is in his own words.

“My inner self was a house divided against itself.”[3]

“This was the nature of my sickness.  I was in torment, reproaching myself more bitterly than ever as I twisted and turned in my chain.  I hoped that my chain might be broken once and for all, because it was only a small thing that held me now.”[4]

“I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the sing song voice of a child in a nearby house.  Whether it was the voice of a boy, or a girl I cannot say but again and again it repeated the refrain ‘take it and read, take it and read.”[5]

He “stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the passage on which my eyes should fall.”[6]

“I seized it and opened it, and in the silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites.  I had no wish to read more and no need to do so.  For in an instant as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.”[7]

In 391 he became a Priest in Hippo (Annaba in modern Algeria). Then in 395 he was made Bishop of Hippo a role he accepted reluctantly.

  1. Introducing Pelagius

In a recent King Arthur film he was portrayed as the hero and Augustine as the baddy. The film laves Pelagius as Arthur’s mentor encouraging him to stand up for freedom.

“Today Pelagius is often regarded as a sympathetic figure – especially by British theologians who obviously want to defend their earliest-known colleague.  He is sometimes thought of as a sort of early liberal whose optimistic belief in humanity led him to oppose Augustine’s depressing notion of original sin.” [8]

He was born about 354 and moved to Rome in 380AD. He was horrified at the licentious behaviour of supposed Christians and their self-justification. He taught and modelled an ascetic lifestyle. So he wasn’t exactly a liberal.

He was seriously disturbed when he read in Augustine’s Confessions:

“There can be no hope for me except in your great mercy.  Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will.  You command us to control our boldily desires. And as we are told, when I knew that no man no man can be master of himself, except of God’s bounty, I was wise enough already to know whence the gift came.  O Love ever burning, never quenched! O Charity of God, set me on fire with your love! You command me to be continent.  Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will.”[9]

  1. The Dividing Point

Pelagius wanted to emphasise human responsibility and therefore free will. In his view when we sin we choose to follow Adam’s example.  However, it is our own individual choice (c.f. Romans 5:12). This will also mean that we are responsible for living a good life. If we don’t then we lose our salvation.  In effect Jesus on the Cross gives us a second chance but then it is up to us.

This is contrasted with two things that Augustine emphasises:

–          Predestination (that God is sovereign over what happens).

–          Original Sin (that when Adam sinned there is a sense in which we sinned with him and so inherit the sinful condition meaning that we are unable of ourselves to live sin free).

Augustine is then seen as the bad guy who presents a cruel, authoritarian, arbitrary God

  1. What did Augustine really think?


  1. Some careful distinctions


  1. Between providence and fate

“The cause then of the greatness of the Roman empire is neither fortuitous nor fatal, according to the judgement or opinion of those who call things fortuitous which either have no causes or such causes as do not proceed from some intelligible order, and those things fatal which happen independently of the will of God and man by the necessity of a certain order.”[10]

“In a word, human kingdoms are established by divine providence.”[11]

“…and if anyone attributes their existence to fate, because he calls the will or the power of God itself by the name fate, let him keep his opinion but correct his language.”[12]

“But those who are of the opinion that, apart from the will of God, the stars determine what we shall do, or what good things we shall possess, or what evils we shall suffer must be refused a hearing by all, not only by those who hold true religion , but by those who wish to be the worshippers of any gods whatsoever, even false gods.”[13]

In fact he mocks the idea of fate

He was a sort of pioneer for Twins study!  He talks about a doctor identifying  two people as twins who died of same disease.  He asks if this is proof of fate/the stars?  His response is that it is not. Rather, it reflects the parent’s disposition towards certain conditions and the environment they were brought up in[14]

Fate leads us to fearful inaction or arrogant complacency so that whatever will be will be.  Augustine says

“But let those perplexing debatings and disputations go on as they may, we, in order that we may confess the most high and true God himself, do confess His will, supreme power, and presence.  Neither let us be afraid lest, after all, we do not by will that which we do by will because He whose foreknowledge is infallible, foreknows that we would do it.”[15]

In other words when we really put our trust in the loving and sovereign God it motivates us to godly action.

  1. Between God’s Creating providence and his Ruling providence

“But God as He is the supremely good creator of good natures so is He of evil wills most just ruler; so that whilst they make an ill use of good natures He makes a good use of evil wills.  Accordingly, He caused the devil (good by God’s creation, wicked by His own will) to be cast down from his high position, to become the mockery of the angels – that is He is caused his temptations to benefit those to whom he wished to injure by them.”[16]

This is an important development in human thought. For Augustine, Evil is not a physical entity. It is definitely not equal with good. Evil is the privation or absence of good

“These things which we call evil are either the defects of good things which cannot exist anywhere by themselves outside of good things, or they are the punishments of sins, which arise from the beauty of justice….Therefore evil is only a privation of the good.  Thus it never exists except in some good thing, which is not supremely good, for something supremely good, such as God, lasts without corruption or change.  Still evil exists only in something good, because it does harm only by diminishing what is good.”[17]

“If an angel turns away, he becomes impure, as are all those who are called unclean spirits….For evil has no positive nature but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil’.”[18]

  1. Providence is a good thing –the God who is both transcendent and immanent

It is seen in the beauty of even the humblest aspects of creation

“Plotinus…argues that all these frail and perishing could not have been so exquisite and elaborate a beauty, were they not fashioned by Him whose unseen and unchanging beauty continually pervades all things.”[19]

It is seen in history

“God can never be believed to have left the kingdoms of men, their dominations and servitudes outside the laws of his providence.”[20]

  1. There is original goodness as well as original sin

“Why should there be any punishment where there is nothing to punish? Wherefore we must say that the first men were indeed so created that if they had not sinned they would not have experienced any kind of death; but having become sinners, they were so punished with death, that whatsoever sprang from their stock should also be punished by the same death.”[21]

  1. Why does all this matter


  1. If we do not sin in Adam then are we saved in Christ? (Romans 5:14, 18)


  1. If it’s down to me living a perfect life then what chance does anyone have?

Let’s go back to the quote from Jonathan Hill that suggests at first glance that Pelagius was the good guy. The fuller quote from Hill paints a more accurate picture.

“Today Pelagius is often regarded as a sympathetic figure – especially by British theologians who obviously want to defend their earliest-known colleague.  He is sometimes thought of as a sort of early liberal whose optimistic belief in humanity led him to oppose Augustine’s depressing notion of original sin.  In fact Pelagius’s theology was far more negative than that of Augustine. His emphasis was not so much on the human ability to live perfectly as on our responsibility to do so. His teaching could be called a kind of ‘ethical cleansing’, a highly rigorist rejection of any kind of impaction in the Church.  If Pelagius had had his way, the Church would have been a very small society composed entirely of Monks.  He would have certainly confined more souls to hellfire than Augustine did.  Despite his obsession with universal sin and guilt, Augustine’s faith in the saving power of divine grace makes him ultimately a far more sympathetic thinker.”[22]


[1] Augustine, Confessions, IV.2. (Pine-Coffin, 72).

[2] Augustine, Confessions, II.6. (Pine-Coffin, 49).

[3] Augustine, Confessions, VIII.8. (Pine-Coffin, 170).

[4] Augustine, Confessions, VIII.11. (Pine-Coffin, 175).

[5] Augustine, Confessions, VIII.12. (Pine-Coffin, 177).

[6] Augustine, Confessions, VIII.12. (Pine-Coffin, 178).

[7] Augustine, Confessions, VIII.12. (Pine-Coffin, 178).

[8] Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought, 75.

[9] Augustine, Confessions, X.29. (Pine-Coffin, 233).

[10] Augustine, The City of God, 142.

[11] Augustine, The City of God, 143.

[12] Augustine, The City of God, 143.

[13] Augustine, The City of God, 143.

[14] Augustine, The City of God, 144.

[15] Augustine, The City of God, 153.

[16] Augustine, City of God, 361.

[17] Augustine, Answer to an enemy of the Law and the Prophets, 1.5.7. Cited in Shapers of Christian Orthodoxoy, 246-7.

[18] Augustine, City of God, 354.

[19] Augustine, City of God, 317.

[20] Augustine, City of God, 158.

[21] Augustine, City of God, 413.

[22] Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought, 75.