Aurelius Augustine was born Nov 13, 354 AD at Tagaste in Roman North Africa which is now Algeria and died near Hippo on August 28, 430 AD. He had a Christian mother (Monica) who warned Augustine not to commit fornication, advice he quickly dismissed and indulged himself even surpassing his friends at sixteen. He also had a pagan father who some have claimed converted on his death bed. At seventeen Augustine went to Carthage to further his studies but falling into deeper sin. He took a mistress and had a child. He also was converted to Manichaean religion founded by Mani (216-276) who was executed by the Persian government
Manichaeism was a Gnostic religion (these were the ones who believed in predestination) but drew from Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. It is interesting that some parts of Manichaeism would later be found in Augustine’s theology. Manichaeism is a religion based on the struggle of light and darkness. It was the Manichees who were to assist in the separation of light from the world by asceticism (reaching a higher spiritual state by self discipline and self denial), poverty, celibacy, and vegetarianism. By the way Augustine did practice all those things later in his life. The Manichees were also divided into two groups 1) a minority called “the elect” and 2) the Majority called the Auditors or Hearers. Augustine practiced this religion for nine years and made many converts. Augustine returned home to teach grammar (in Latin, he could never get Greek) and then went back to Carthage to teach rhetoric (speech or writing which is intended to be effective and influence people). After eight years Augustine became disillusioned with Manichaeism and left for Rome. In Rome Augustine found that students did not like to pay their bills so he took another position in Milan. It was here that he sent away his mistress and took another and then became a Christian.
Three things are said to have lead to Augustine’s conversion, according to Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism pg 48;
1) He was influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy (a revival of Platonic philosophy which involved the reality of a spiritual realm) and according to Peter Brown (Augustine of Hippo) “this philosophy did contribute to Augustine’s spiritual quest, but only because of his Manichaean background and the fact that he read into Neo-Platonism elements of Christianity that did not exist in it”.
2) He began attending the preaching of Ambrose and learned the allegorical interpretation of scripture (Gerald Bonner – Augustine of Hippo)
3) This is perhaps the greatest factor according to Phillip Schaff (History of Christianity – Vol 3) and the one most overlooked, was his reading of the Pauline epistles through Platonic eyes.
In his work “Confessions” Augustine says that while he was under a period of great conviction, he threw himself under a fig tree and wept. He then heard the voice of a child saying “take up and read” which Augustine understood as a command from heaven that he should open the book and read the first chapter he would see. He opened the book to (Rom 13:14)
(Romans 13:14 (ESV) 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires).
Soon after this he resigned his post, began writing, and prepared for baptism (by immersion) for the following Easter. After the death of his mother he went to Rome for a year and returned to his hometown for three years of monastic study. During a visit to Hippo in 391 AD, he was ordained presbyter and founded a monastery. In 396 AD he became bishop of Hippo until his death.
In Augustine’s theological works he wrote against three heresies;
1) The Manichaean heresy, which he began soon after his conversion (this was his former religion)
2) The Donatists – while Augustine and the Catholics focused on the unity of the church the Donatists insisted upon the purity of the church. They rebaptized all of them that came from the Catholics considering the Catholics corrupt.
3) The Pelagians – this is the controversy that is still raging today between the Calvinists and Arminians. It was Augustine’s writings against Pelagius in the fifth century that Calvin and Arminius continued in the sixteenth century.
Because of the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius is very similar to the Calvin and Arminius controversy, Calvinism is referred to as Augustinianism and Arminianism is called Semi-Pelagianism but often referred to as Pelagianism (a derogatory term used by Calvinists) because it is associated with Pelagius who threatened the “doctrine of Grace”. Augustine’s doctrine of grace was a direct reaction against Pelagius. Philip Schaff (vol 3) states that even Calvinists admit this. And many Arminians would note that nearly all the information that comes to us about Pelagius comes from the pen of Augustine.
Pelagius was born (because no one knows for sure) between AD 350-380 in Britain. He moved to Rome where he was appalled by the low moral standards of the city. He was called a monk but not because he was associated with any ecclesiastical order but because of his holy lifestyle. He had lived there for some time before the controversy with Augustine broke out. Pelagius overheard a Bishop quote from Augustine’s Confessions, a quote to which he took exception. The Bishop quoted “give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt” (Bonner pg 317, Augustine Confessions). It is interesting to note that until this incident both those who sided with Augustine, as well as Augustine himself took note of Pelegius’ upright character (Schaff History, pg 790, V3). This quote made Pelagius feel like a “puppet” in Gods’ hands. After the fall of Rome, Pelagius and one of his converts, Caelestius, went to Cathage, missing Augustine. The two never met face to face but by letters. It was at Carthage that Caelestius began to promote Pelagius’ ideas. It was also here that Caelestius also applied for ordination and then charged with heresy. According to Schaff (pg 793, V3), Caelestius taught that “Adam’s fall injured himself alone, not the human race” and that “children come into the world in the same condition that Adam was before the fall.” Caelestius was excommunicated and went to Ephesus. These beliefs are what caused Augustine to respond. Yet to Pelagius, the philosophy expressed in Augustine’s statement sounded like the total abandonment of human responsibility and a denial of the ethical dimensions of the Christian faith. If all moral action, thought Pelagius, depends solely on God – both the commanding as well as the ability to obey. God is either an arbitrary tyrant or else man is a creature deprived of free will. Pelagius conducted his teaching along these lines while he was in Rome. After leaving Rome Pelagius went to Africa and then after missing Augustine he went to Palestine.
He met with John, the bishop of Jerusalem, one who not only sympathized with his views but who became a political ally as well. His chief enemy was Jerome, the scholarly ascetic who had left Rome to establish a monastery in Bethlehem and who was critical of Pelagius and his views. Pelagius openly attacked Jerome’s asceticism especially his views on marriage. Yet because of John, Pelagius’ position seemed secure.
The turning point came, however, when the Augustinians presented a brief to Rome, requesting judgment on the validity of the condemnation of Pelagianism, in 411. Pope Innocent I expressed his sympathy with the North Africans and stated his views in a letter of excommunication of Pelagius, which reached Jerusalem in the winter of 417. Pelagius’ cause was further harmed when news reached Innocent that Jerome’s monastery had been sacked by an angry mob; it was unjustly assumed that Pelagius had participated in the violence. The letter of excommunication was followed by another sent directly to the bishop of Jerusalem renouncing both the attack on the monastery and the fact that John was harboring a heretic in his midst.
Pelagius’ fortunes seemed definitely on the downslide. One bit of hope, however, occurred when the news of Innocent’s death in March 417 arrived in Palestine. Perhaps his successor, Zosimus might be more sympathetic to Pelagius’ views. Therefore, Caelestius presented himself to Zosimus and argued his case. The Pope was impressed and for some time contemplated lifting the excommunication against them and pronouncing both Caelestius and Pelagius orthodox. But persuasive letters from North African bishops, as well as from Jerome, convinced him to rescind his tentative pronouncement in favor of Pelagianism. When Praylius, John’s successor in Jerusalem, joined in Zosimus ‘ final condemnation, Pelagius was beaten. Weary of the conflict, he left Palestine. History does not record where he went or what happened to him thereafter.
According to B R Rees in A Reluctant Heretic (quoted from internet, book no longer in print) the theological question to which Pelagius addressed himself had to do with man’s created capacity for good. Was it possible to lead a sinless life? Augustine answered No (with the exception of the Virgin Mary, whose sinlessness Augustine did assert); for Augustine divine grace must precede every virtuous act. Pelagius said that it was possible for man not to sin, but Augustine asserted that it was not possible for man not to sin. The caricature of Pelagianism found in many orthodox textbooks and devotional manuals is hardly one that Pelagius would recognize. He never, for instance, denied the need for grace or for infant baptism; he never accepted the position that man can, by his own moral efforts, achieve his salvation. On basic doctrinal issues, Pelagius was certainly orthodox; and on matters of Christian morality his chief concern was to foster among Christian people a right regard for the ethical responsibilities he saw as inherent in the Gospel message.