Berkoff’s “History of Christian Doctrine” notes that it wasn’t until the Augustine/Pelagius controversy that the doctrine of Original Sin came to the forefront.(History Of Christian Doctrine pgs 127-130 ) Until then the Greek Fathers didn’t believe in original sin. This was one of the reasons Pelagius’ views came about. But the Latin Fathers didn’t contribute significantly to the formation of the doctrine either. Tertullian, Cyprian, Hilary, and Ambrose did make some contribution toward a monergistic view of salvation and the corruption of men from Adam’s fall but it was Augustine that truly brought some substance to this doctrine.
One of my mentors in Reformed Theology has often pointed out to me that in God’s providence He allows errors to appear so that the Church can turn to God’s Word to understand what is truth and what is error. So it was in this case.
So what was the main issue between Augustine and Pelagius? It had to do with the extent of the Fall upon the descendants of Adam. As R.C. Sproul says:
The controversy began when the British monk, Pelagius, opposed at Rome Augustine’s famous prayer: “Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.” Pelagius recoiled in horror at the idea that a divine gift (grace) is necessary to perform what God commands. For Pelagius and his followers responsibility always implies ability. If man has the moral responsibility to obey the law of God, he must also have the moral ability to do it.
Pelagius categorically denied the doctrine of original sin, arguing that Adam’s sin affected Adam alone and that infants at birth are in the same state as Adam was before the Fall. Pelagius also argued that though grace may facilitate the achieving of righteousness, it is not necessary to that end. Also, he insisted that the constituent nature of humanity is not convertible; it is indestructively good. (Augustine and Pelagius by R. C. Sproul)
Augustine categorically opposed what Pelagius taught. As Sprouls says:
Augustine’s view of the Fall was opposed to both Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. He said that mankind is a massa precast, a “mess of sin,” incapable of raising itself from spiritual death. For Augustine man can no more move or incline himself to God than an empty glass can fill itself. For Augustine the initial work of divine grace by which the soul is liberated from the bondage of sin is sovereign and operative. To be sure we cooperate with this grace, but only after the initial divine work of liberation.
Augustine did not deny that fallen man still has a will and that the will is capable of making choices. He argued that fallen man still has a free will (liberium arbitrium) but has lost his moral liberty (libertas). The state of original sin leaves us in the wretched condition of being unable to refrain from sinning. We still are able to choose what we desire, but our desires remain chained by our evil impulses. He argued that the freedom that remains in the will always leads to sin. Thus in the flesh we are free only to sin, a hollow freedom indeed. It is freedom without liberty, a real moral bondage. True liberty can only come from without, from the work of God on the soul. Therefore we are not only partly dependent upon grace for our conversion but totally dependent upon grace.
This is articulated in the London Baptist Confession this way:
MAN, as he came from the hand of God, his creator, was upright and perfect. The righteous law which God gave him spoke of life as conditional upon his obedience, and threatened death upon his disobedience. Adam’s obedience was short-lived. Satan used the subtle serpent to draw Eve into sin. Thereupon she seduced Adam who, without any compulsion from without, willfully broke the law under which they had been created, and also God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. To fulfill His own wise and holy purposes God permitted this to happen, for He was directing all to His own glory.
Gen. 2:16,17; Gen. 3:12,13; 2 Cor.11:3.
By this sin our first parents lost their former righteousness, and their happy communion with God was severed. Their sin involved us all, and by it death appertained to all. All men became dead in sin, and totally polluted in all parts and faculties of both soul and body.
Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:10-19,23; 5:12-21; Titus 1:15.
The family of man is rooted in the first human pair. As Adam and Eve stood in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of their sin was reckoned by God’s appointment to the account of all their posterity, who also from birth derived from them a polluted nature. Conceived in sin and by nature children subject to God’s anger, the servants of sin and the subjects of death, all men are now given up to unspeakable miseries, spiritual, temporal and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus Christ sets them free.
Job 14:4; Ps. 51:5; Rom. 5:12-19; Rom. 6:20; 1Cor. 15:21-22, 15:45, 15:49; Eph. 2:3; 1Thess. 1:10; Heb. 2:14-15.
The actual sins that men commit are the fruit of the corrupt nature transmitted to them by our first parents. By reason of this corruption, all men become wholly inclined to all evil; sin disables them. They are utterly indisposed to, and, indeed, rendered opposite to, all that is good.
Matt. 15:19; Rom. 8:7; Col. 1:21; Jas. 1:14.
During this earthly life corrupt nature remains in those who are born of God, that is to say, regenerated. Through Christ it is pardoned and mortified, yet both the corruption itself, and all that issues from it, are truly and properly sin.
Eccles. 7:20; Rom. 7:18,23-25; Gal. 5:17; 1 John 1:8.
More to come…