Controversies of Anthropology


The Eastern Church, in this period, indulged very little debate on the subject of man's sinfulness and the province of divine grace in his recovery. While Eastern bishops in the synod at Ephesus in 431 pronounced against Pelagianism, their decision was more or less influenced by extraneous motives, and was not based upon any thorough investigation of the Pelagian system, or upon any profound aversion to the same. It was in the Latin Church alone that the great problems of anthropology received a profound and earnest canvassing.

The radical theories of Pelagius, a monk from Britain, were the primary cause of the controversy that arose. The more essential features of his doctrinal system were a denial of inherited corruption in the moral nature of man, a strong assertion of the freedom of the will, and a decided emphasis upon man's ability to work out his own salvation as opposed to his radical dependence upon divine grace. Such a system naturally provoked the profound opposition of Augustine, whose ardent soul was ever burning with zeal for the honor of divine grace. All the powers of his great mind were brought to the task of refutation. The Pauline conception of sin and grace found in him a more appreciative interpreter than the Church had as yet produced. He criticized, to good effect, the superficial points of Pelagianism, but greatly impaired his service by inculcating an exaggerated idea of divine sovereignty. Augustine was the first of the Christian Fathers to advocate the creed of unconditional predestination.

The positive beginning of the Pelagian controversy may be located about the year 412, when Cœlestius, a prominent disciple of Pelagius, was excommunicated by a Carthaginian synod. In 416 two African synods condemned the Pelagian doctrines, and the Roman bishop Innocent expressed his agreement with their decision. His successor, Zosimus, after a temporary show of favor to the condemned party, gave the full weight of his authority to their proscription. Some adherents still defended the doctrines of Pelagius, among whom the learned and talented Julian of Eclanum especially distinguished himself. No new sect, however, was formed in the interest of Pelagaianism; and, as a theoretical system, it was pretty well overthrown in the Latin Church before the death of Augustine. Semi-Pelagianism, which thrived especially in Gaul, maintained itself for a longer space, and was not emphatically disowned in that region till the sixth century. Still, it was not strict Augustinianism which held the field. In point of theory, the Latin Church showed an inclination to modify the radical tenets of Augustine; while in its spirit and practice it increasingly paid tribute to the idea of salvation by works, and really nurtured a crude species of practical Pelagianism.

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