Augustine Part III: Heresies Battled and Defeated

In 04 Post-Nicean Fathers on 2012/01/11 at 12:00 PM

Augustine dealt a death blow to three major heresies: Manicheanism, Donatism and Pelagianism. Augustine’s approach was persuasion; leading to the sincere conversion of mind and heart.

DONATISM: Maintained that sanctity was a requisite for church membership and the administration of sacraments.   Donatism asked: Could the sinner be pardoned?  Do the priestly powers depend upon the moral worthiness of the priest? How can the holiness of the Church be compatible with the unworthiness of its clergy?  This heresy had a criminal history of appalling atrocities: cutting out tongues to prevent preaching by opponents and blinding eyes with a mixture of lime and vinegar.

At Carthage in 411 in presence of two hundred and eight six Catholic bishops and two hundred and seventy nine Donatist bishops,  Augustine established the Catholic principle that the Church, as long as it is upon earth, could, without losing its holiness, tolerate sinners within it for the sake of converting them. Augustine was so victorious in debating this schismatic and viciously violent movement that it gradually withered and died,  disappearing  with the coming of the Vandals.

PELAGIANISM: This heresy was more widespread and challenging.  Augustine was its main router.  Major support was given him by Jerome who although in his eighties was still full of fire.

Pelagius was a brilliant man; Augustine debated him.  Augustine’s series of sermons on Pelagianism gave the world a substantial amount of treatises on the subject.  His famous OF NATURE AND GRACE  gained him the appellation:  the Church’s Doctor of Grace.

In Palestine, the Pelagians burned Jerome’s Bethlehem monastery and its magnificent library.  They depriving the world of the extensive writing of one of the greatest Christian scholars, much to the sorrow of theologians and historians down the years.

When Augustine received news of this outrage, he convened episcopal synods in Africa and these appealed to Pope Innocent to settle the matter as they expressed it: “by the authority of the Apostolic See whose authority comes from the authority of the Holy Scriptures”.  At this time the Pope was considered the most important authority over the whole Church and he gave the ruling: “We judge by the authority of the Apostolic power that Pelagius be deprived of ecclesiastical communion until he returns to the faith out of the snares of the Devil.”

The Council at Carthage in 412 condemned Pelagians for their attacks upon the doctrine of original sin.  Augustineʼs  writings contributed to reiteration of the condemnations at later councils held at Carthage and Mileve, both of which were then confirmed by the Pope.  Heresy is rarely so easily destroyed and it resurged.  In a second wave of Pelagianism, the Pope enlightened by Augustine’s writings, solemnly condemned the heretics, and a later emperor barred all Pelagians from Rome.

Augustine’s defense of free will is a fountainhead of arguments for this argument which endure even today.  Unfortunately, Augustineʼs intricate theological speculations led later to unfortunate misinterpretation in later generation.  Incorrect interpretation of what Augustine wrote misled Calvinists and Jansenists centuries  to think that Augustine, who so loved the Church and served the Pope, supported their new conclusions and was of the same mind as themselves.

Augustine died in 430 but he still  battles heresy through his writings.  not counting the Bible, Augustine is the most cited individual in Councils, Church dogma, even up to the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church .

And, the question that remains today is how can an individual find out what the truth is when there are so many voices calling different tunes?

In one point alone, all the heresies seem universally to have agreed: hatred of the Church. St. Paul tells us that the heretic “ is condemned by himself.” From the Fathers  we know that sects are named for their founders or for their doctrine. The Church’s common name, however, which was understood in the market place and used in the palace, was the “Catholic Church” and as was recognized from the first earliest times by: Clement, Ignatius, Justin, Ireneaus, Cyprian, Athanasius, Cyril, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine.

Amid disorders and fears of those times, there was (and still is) one voice for whose decision the people wait and trust in, one Name and one See to which they look as home; that name is Peter and that see is Rome.

The rule was/is simple: The Church is everywhere, but it is one; sects are everywhere, but they are many, independent and discordant.  Catholicity is the attribute of the Church; Independency of Sectarians.

  1. “Pelagius was a brilliant man; Augustine debated him.”

    Augustine didn’t debate Pelagius. First, they never met. Second, Pelagius never wrote to Augustine. What really happened was that Augustine slandered Pelagius, and others (not Pelagius himself) took to their pens to defend Pelagius’ views; then Augustine slandered them too. Pelagius was not only right about the subject of Adam and Eve and human nature, but he was more mature than Augustine, who basically wrote lengthy tomes of na-na-na-boo-boo filled with twisting of Scripture and Manichean Gnostic ‘philosophy’.

    • You are correct if you think of “debate” in modern terms, which because of mobility, permits person to person live confrontation; however, in ancient times, debates were conducted by letters and epistles, because of the difficulty of travel and the lack of the means of communications.

      As to whether or not the two met, it is fact that when Alaric sacked Rome in 410, Pelagius fled to Carthage where he briefly encountered St. Augustine in person. Augustine called the Council of Carthage in 418 and there he stated nine beliefs that Pelagianism denied among which are: death came from sin, not man’s physical nature; justifying grace covers past sins and helps avoid future sins; the grace of Christ imparts strength and will to act out God’s commandments; no good works can come without God’s grace.

      Pelagius’ name has been used as an epithet for centuries by both Protestants and Catholics, and he has had few defenders. Most modern psychologists have tremendous respect for Augustine’s analysis.

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