Later in life Augustine found himself engaged in a final philosophical controversy with Pelagius (c. 354-420), a Christian layman who had lived for many years in Rome and who believed that humans not only could, but must, perfect themselves. He denied original sin and believed in free will. Yet such an exaltation of human possibilities is in its essence non-Christian, since it diminishes God’s majesty.
Pelagius’s ideas affected questions of Christian behavior. For example, if there were no original sin, then newborn infants could not be guilty of it, and infant baptism was unnecessary. The Pelagian message, that one must simply will oneself to obey God’s commandments, meant that every Christian must lead a monk’s life. In Rome many upper-class Christians regarded Pelagius’s views as a summons to reform and purify themselves.
Augustine fought Pelagius’s ideas, recognizing that for the first time he had met an intellectual opponent of his own caliber. He feared “the crisis of piety” that the Pelagians could create. On the practical level, he preferred to see rich, puritanical radicals give their property to the church rather than directly to the poor. On the theological level, he argued that not all sins were committed willfully or could be willfully avoided; some came through ignorance, weakness, or even against the desire of the sinner. It was for these sins that the church existed. Baptism was the only way to salvation. For Pelagius, humans were no longer infants dependent upon a heavenly Father; they were emancipated beings who must choose to be perfect. For Augustine, human behavior was still dependent upon God. Human beings were not perfect, for they had sinned.
Pelagius had won a considerable following in the Holy Land. In 419 a young and brilliant successor, Julian, bishop of Eclanum, took up the contest with the aging and determined Augustine. Augustine defended the concept of original sin by citing the passage in Genesis in which Adam and Eve instantly cover their genitals after they have eaten of the forbidden fruit—there was the point, Augustine said, at which sin had arisen. All sexual feelings create guilt; only baptism and the Christian life could wipe it out. Julian answered in disgust that this imagery was blasphemous, making the devil into the true creator of humanity, destroying free will, and sullying the innocence of the newborn. Sexual power, he said, was a natural good, a sixth sense.
Both positions were held by devout Christians. Yet to Julian, Augustine’s god seemed unjust, a persecutor of infants, and not the loving god who sacrificed his only son for human salvation. Justice must underlie all society and all religion. For Augustine, God’s justice was indisputable and could not be defined by mere human reason. God had said he would visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, and so Adam’s sin had been visited upon all humanity. The world of the fifth century was large enough for both points of view to be heard, but it was Augustine’s view that would prevail, for Julian was seen as too intellectual, too insistent on a solely rational god, while the clergy preferred a god whose mystery could not be fully grasped.
In his old age Augustine came to believe that God had already chosen those people who would attain salvation and that a person’s actions were predestined, or determined beforehand. In the face of new barbarian onslaughts—this time from the Vandals—on the hitherto safe shores of North Africa itself, predestination was a message with some comfort for those who had persevered in what was believed to be God’s work.
When Augustine died, a year before the Vandals devastated Hippo, a disciple listing his writings said that no one could ever hope to read them all; and yet anyone who did would still have missed the greatest experience— knowing Augustine as a human being, or seeing him in the pulpit and listening to him preach. Although the Catholic church turned away from the doctrine of predestination—always insisting that God’s grace must be supplemented by good works before a person could be saved—it still considered Augustine the greatest Western father of the church. More than a thousand years later, other non-Catholic Christians would return to his teaching of predestination.