Saint Augustine: Four Anti-Pelagian Writings

A theologian writes a critical response to a popular teaching. He destroys it. The teaching and teacher are irredeemably branded as heresy and heretic. Augustine vs. Pelagius, the battle of the ages. Today I read what nobody else wants to read to find out was Saint Augustine correct? Is Pelagianism a heresy and Pelagius a heretic?”

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Saint Augustine: Four Anti-Pelagian Writings” translated by John Mourant and William Collinge. 372 pages, published by The Catholic University of America Press in January 1992. It’s available in Amazon for USD42.24 (as of the date of recording) and in Logos for USD30.99.

Pelagius Was Not A Heretic

“Pelagius was not a heretic. The church has gotten him wrong.”

This was news to me. When I first started reading theology, I learnt that Pelagius taught that man, by nature, is able to live completely sinless lives and that this was heresy. And the man who succeeded in destroying this heresy is a hero of the church, the same man who wrote Confessions and City of God, Saint Augustine of Hippo.

So I was surprised to hear that heretic Pelagius was misunderstood and great man Augustine wrote a hit job on him. I have no skin in the game, if Pelagius was truly innocent of the charges, then let justice be done.

I began by reading Pelagius in his own words. I found Pelagius’ Letter to Demetrias, which is available for free online. And I was shocked!

Let me read from that letter:

Nor is there any reason why it is made difficult for us to do good other than that long habit of doing wrong which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over many years and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself, so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature. We now find ourselves being resisted and opposed by all that long period in which we were carelessly instructed, that is, educated in evil, in which we even strove to be evil, since, to add to the other incentives to evil, innocence itself was held to be folly.

Pelagius does not believe that we inherit the sinful nature from Adam, but instead we copied what we see around us. In short, Pelagius does not believe in, what we know today as, Original Sin, an idea we have Augustine to thank for. Augustine was right to condemn it!

Without reading Augustine, I already know I am against Pelagianism. Someone might say that’s because I have already been corrupted little by little over many years by Augustine. In response, I concede that the books I read favour Augustine, but I truly believe my convictions come directly from the Bible.

I could leave it as that. Sustaining my position on biblical grounds. But since the discussion is on two separate but related questions: Is Pelagianism a heresy? Is Pelagius a heretic?

If we want to properly answer these questions, we should read the man who was instrumental in the condemnation. We should read Augustine’s own words and not what other people said he said. We need the primary source.

Read The Primary Source

I searched and bought a translation of Saint Augustine: Four Anti-Pelagian Writings. I hope to find out answers to a few questions like: What did Augustine understand of Pelagianism? Was he fair in his criticism? Did Augustine respond with biblical truth or philosophical arguments or did he just rile up religious fervour?

Most, if not all, of the answers to those questions can be found in the first two writings collected in the book. They are On Nature and Grace and On the Proceedings of Pelagius. They were written in 415-416AD, shortly after Pelagius went to court. These are hot off the press responses from Augustine on the events of the day.

The other two are shorter and written much later. The titles are On the Predestination of the Saints and On the Gift of Perseverance. These were not written to address Pelagianism directly but they are here because Augustine is dealing with a related problem.

Working Out Theology is Not Neat and Tidy

The first thing that struck me was how messy everything was. Let me explain. Any good book on Systematic Theology will say this is what Augustine believed, this is what Pelagius believed. If the book had a bit more space to spare, they quote a sentence, a paragraph from Augustine and/or Pelagius. Everything is neat and tidy.

When you read this book, it’s not. Here, you see Augustine trying to get a handle on Pelagius. “Did he really say what he said?” Christian leaders are pestering Augustine to respond to Pelagius’ teaching. Augustine is reluctant to go after the man but is compelled to go against the teaching.

Listen to this.

The love we have for him [Pelagius] now is different from the love we had for him formerly; then we loved him as one who seemed to be of the true faith, whereas we now love him in order that, by the mercy of God, he may be set free from those antagonistic views which he is said to hold against the grace of God. It was not easy to believe this about him, when the rumor began to be circulated some time ago — for rumor is usually a liar — but what brought it home to us and made us believe it was a certain book of his which aims to set forth theories intended to destroy and remove from faithful hearts any belief in the grace of God bestowed on the human race through the one Mediator of God and men, Christ Jesus.

Some have accused Augustine of misrepresenting Pelagius. They say, “If only we had his writings, then we could show how arrogant Augustine villainized poor Pelagius.”

To those people I say, “Have you actually read Augustine?” Because I didn’t before and what I see here astounds me. He liberally quotes Pelagius. Augustine tells us that he was himself accused of saying things he did not say. So he does not want the same thing to happen to Pelagius. Over and over again, he gives Pelagius the benefit of the doubt, saying in effect, “While it is possible that we have misunderstood him, to the best of our knowledge, what I quote here is what he wrote and what he wrote should be condemned.”

Are Man Able To Lead Sinless Lives?

Pelagius says that Man are able to lead sinless lives. Augustine says that Man cannot for all man are born sinners.

Let me read from the middle of the argument. Listen to how Augustine interacts with Pelagius.

He [that is Pelagius] adds still further, Because indeed the possibility of not sinning does not depend upon us, even if we should want not to be able not to sin, we cannot not be able not to sin. He has said this in a convoluted manner and for this reason somewhat obscurely. But it is possible to put it more clearly as follows: because the possibility of not sinning does not depend upon us, then, whether we wish it or not, we are able not to sin. For he does not say, “Whether we wish it or not, we do not sin” — undoubtedly we do sin if we wish to. Nevertheless, whether we wish it or not, we have, he asserts, the possibility of not sinning, which he says is inherent in our nature. Yet it can reasonably be said of a man with healthy feet that whether he wish it or not he has the possibility of walking, but if they are broken, then even if he wishes, he does not have this possibility. Thus our nature is corrupted, of which it is written, “Why is earth and ashes proud?” It is corrupted and it implores the physician: “Save me, O Lord,” it cries; “Heal my soul,” it cries. Why does Pelagius block these cries, and thus hinder the future health [of the soul] by defending it as a present possibility?

I Do Not Think Grace Means What You Think It Means

Defenders for Pelagius are quick to remind all that Pelagius was cleared of the charges brought against him.

The church leaders asked Pelagius whether Man could live sinless lives by the grace of God. He answered yes, by the grace of God, yes. And, if I can paraphrase Pelagius, he says, “As I have said many times, it is possible to lead a sinless life by the grace of God. Maybe it has not happened yet but how can we deny that possibility? Why do people accuse me of denying the grace of God?”

Surely what Pelagius said doesn’t sound so bad after all? If God saw fit to empower, through the Holy Spirit, a man to lead a sinless life, who are we to deny God? And for that reason, on this position, the church leaders heard Pelagius and declared him orthodox. His belief is acceptable within the church.

Augustine was anguished. He does not blame the council for their decision. They were good people. The problem was they were not familiar with Pelagius’ teaching and so they did not ask the right questions, namely what does Pelagius mean by the grace of God?

This is how Augustine responds to Pelagius affirming the grace of God:

When I read these words, I confess to you, dear ones, that I was suddenly filled with joy, because the author did not deny the grace of God, through which alone a man can be justified. It is such a denial that I detest and dread above all else in controversies of this sort. But in continuing to read further, I began to be suspicious, at first because of some of the comparisons he presented. For he writes, Now if I were to say that a man can dispute, a bird can fly, a rabbit can run, and I were not also to mention the means by which these acts can be accomplished, namely, the tongue, the wings, and the feet, then have I denied the conditions of these activities, when I have recognized the activities themselves? It certainly seems as if he has mentioned things which are effective by nature, for these members, namely the tongue, the wings, and the feet, have been created for natures of a particular kind. Nor has he proposed anything that we would want to understand to be of grace, without which no human being is justified, for there the question concerns the healing rather than the formation of natures. From here on I began to read with misgivings and soon discovered that my suspicions were not unwarranted.

Why does Augustine have such deep misgivings? If both can agree that it is possible to lead a sinless life by the grace of God, does it really matter whether the grace of God is God creating in us a human nature able to overcome sin, so Pelagius, or the grace of God is the Holy Spirit indwelling in us, so Augustine?

This is how Augustine and the church has understood the implications.

Augustine writes:

Could he [a man], or could he not, have become just by his own nature and free will? If they say he could have, then see what amounts to rendering the cross of Christ void: to contend that without it anyone can be justified by the law of nature and the choice of his will. Let us also say here: “Then Christ died in vain.”

If a man can be just without Christ, then Christ died in vain. It would actually be a cosmic joke because the son of God descended, suffered and died, when he didn’t have to. If it was possible, if I only needed to try harder to be sinless, then I can rightly boast that all I needed was the body or nature that God gave me in the beginning, and I have no need for the cross of Christ. This religion of works is contrary to the Gospel.

And yet, despite all the evidence, Augustine is still willing to give Pelagius the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Pelagius did not mean what he wrote.

For it is “the grace of God, by Jesus Christ our Lord,” the grace by which Pelagius has nowhere been willing to say we, when we pray, are helped, so as not to sin. If by chance he implicitly acknowledges this, he must forgive us for having suspected otherwise. In that case, it is he himself who is the cause of all the discredit which he suffers on this matter, for he is willing to acknowledge it and yet unwilling to confess or declare it.

Internet Forums in Antiquity

You know what this book reminded me of? It reminded me of the drama in some internet forums. There are some who are quick to put words in other people’s mouths. This is what you say, what you mean, and you are bad for even saying such things. Then there are some who genuinely try to understand what the other guy is saying, even when it sounds wrong, but he hopes that it was all a misunderstanding. That would be Augustine. When you read this book, you don’t just learn the proof text and theological points, you also sit under a saint.


There is more to the Pelagian controversy than I can get into in this review. There were multiple charges against Pelagius, not just one, but the one I described was one of the main charges.

As you read the book, there are many things familiar and many things foreign.

When Augustine writes on the Grace of Final Perseverance, he expounds from the Lord’s Prayer, and concludes that people who pray to God, by their actions, admit God to be sovereign. This is what J.I. Packer presented in his book, “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God”, which I reviewed in Episode 87.

Almost like a side remark, Augustine points out that we believe God puts people in earthly kingdoms, so why should we find it difficult to believe that God puts people in his heavenly kingdom? John Piper elaborated on this and more in his 800-page book “Providence”, which I reviewed in Episode 7.

Let me share one more familiar note:

Faith, then, both in its beginning and in its completion, is a gift of God, and let it not be doubted by anyone who does not wish to contradict the most evident sacred writings that this gift is given to some, but to others it is not given. Why this gift is not given to all should not disturb the believer, who believes that from one man, all have gone into condemnation, a condemnation undoubtedly most just, so much so that even if no one were freed therefrom, there would be no just complaint against God.

If God did not save anyone, he would still be just.

I am not saying that Augustine originated these ideas, I would argue everything I just read comes from Scripture. The sense of familiarity makes reading easier and gives the reader confidence to read further and push through unfamiliar territory.


One that comes up often is baptism. Pelagius, Augustine and the early church have a different understanding of baptism than I do.

Pelagius is quoted to say, “through baptism the Church is purified from every spot and wrinkle.”

The synod approves of this saying.

And Augustine? He writes:

For who among us denies that the sins of all men have been remitted through baptism and that all the faithful arise without spot and wrinkle from the bath of regeneration?

Because of this, I have to adjust my understanding to make sense of some of the points made in this book. And I’ll be honest, sometimes I fail to make sense of it, so I skip.

I have learnt to not let what I don’t understand prevent me from getting what I do understand. If I insisted on understanding everything that I read, I wouldn’t be able to read past Genesis 1:1. With the Bible, we get help from commentators. With Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian Writings, we get help from the translators.


There are four writings in this book and each of them has their own introduction from the translators. They give the background, synopsis, translation issues and appendix.

You could jump straight into Augustine’s writings, just like you could jump straight into the middle of a TV series. But if you want to understand what is going on, it helps to have someone next to you explain who are the characters, what is the motivation behind their actions and what are they aiming for.

Before this book, I only knew Pelagius, as well, the heretic. This is how the translator presents Pelagius:

Pelagius must be understood as primarily a moralist, a religious teacher calling for a reform of Christians’ lives according to a more demanding standard than that which he perceived to be prevalent, and not as a speculative theologian. Nevertheless, his moral teaching drew on (and perhaps also issued into) a distinctive and fairly well articulated theological anthropology.

If we keep this in mind, it helps to understand Augustine’s reluctance to go on the attack and also his annoyance in having to do so. It also helps explain why Augustine had written a letter to Pelagius commending him, which Pelagius read out in his defence, much to the consternation of Augustine.

I found it useful to read the synopsis first so that I have a mental map of where Augustine is going. Hearing this, a purist might argue that I’m letting the translator influence my interpretation of Augustine. I am aware of the danger. But as I said, I found the translator’s sypnosis helpful, otherwise I would be lost. And I make a conscious effort to read Augustine’s text for myself. That’s why I am reading this book and not someone’s write up of Augustine.

Redeeming Pelagius

Let’s go back to where I started this review.

“Is Pelagianism a heresy? Is Pelagius a heretic? Was Augustine fair in his treatment of the teaching and the teacher?”

Can the answer to these questions be found in today’s book? Yes.

And anyone who is serious should read this book because no one can give the excuse that this book is too difficult to read. It’s harder than what we are used to reading today but it’s not inaccessible.

There are some today who wish to see justice done for Pelagius, for they believe he was wrongly accused of heresy. I commend them for desiring justice but I think they are redeeming the wrong guy.

Consider this, if there is a court, with a proper judge and jury, who are sincerely doing their duty to evaluate the evidence and make the right verdict, and they find a man guilty. Then later, much later, people raise doubts on the verdict. The right way is to review the case, are there are new evidences? Was there a mistake? If there was a miscarriage of justice, then let justice prevail, though delayed. There are people who wish to overturn the verdict, by ignoring the original witnesses, by relying on what others heard from the witnesses.

In the case against Pelagius, Augustine recorded his words and his own words bear witness against him. If Pelagianism is accepted, then Christ died in vain. Then anyone who accepts Pelagianism, also shares in Pelagius’ condemnation. Am I being too harsh here?

I don’t enjoy calling others heretics. Neither does Augustine.

If you are not particularly motivated to read Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian writings, a better place to start on Augustine is his Confessions or City of God. I haven’t read them yet, they are in my bucket list.

Before I end this review, let me read the concluding paragraph in “On the Predestination of The Saints”. Augustine writes:

Therefore, we undertook, as far as we could, to show that even this very beginning of faith is a gift of God. And if we have done this at greater length than might have been desired by those for whom it was written, we are ready to be reproached by them for it, provided that they nevertheless will admit that, even if at much greater length than they would like, even at the cost of boredom and weariness on the part of those who understand, we have accomplished what we set out to do: that is, have shown that even the beginning of faith, like continence, patience, justice, piety, and other things of which there is no dispute with our brothers, is a gift of God. Therefore, let us conclude this volume, that too great a length of one book may not be displeasing to the reader.

Isn’t that every writer’s hope? That too great a length of one book may not be displeasing to the reader.


This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “Saint Augustine: Four Anti-Pelagian Writings” translated by John Mourant and William Collinge. 372 pages, published by The Catholic University of America Press in January 1992. It’s available in Amazon for USD42.24 (as of the date of recording) and in Logos for USD30.99.

Book List

  • Saint Augustine: Four Anti-Pelagian Writings” translated by John Mourant and William Collinge. Amazon. Logos.