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“Cognate Fathers of the Church: Grace, Original Sin, and the Possibility of Sinlessness in the Anti-Pelagian Works of Jerome and Augustine”

Joseph F. Stanley

- Introduction and Historiography -

As a result of Constantine’s “vision” and the subsequent Edict of Milan (313), Christianity expanded rapidly throughout the Roman world during the fourth and fifth centuries. The Church was now an institution with the patronage of God and an empire, but its expansion experienced a multitude of growing pains. As Norman Tanner contends in his examination of the early ecumenical councils, Christianity fell under a very wide rubric, wherein the Church became determined to establish one true doctrine as universal.[1] It was during this turbulent period that the Church sought to eliminate the “heretical” teachings of Arius, Nestorius, and Mani to name but a few. During this time, Jerome and Augustine of Hippo emerged as staunch defenders of the Catholic faith, providing strong, and often vehement, support for ecclesiastical policies[C1]. In the controversy concerning Pelagius, both scholars denounced Pelagianism; never again do we see Jerome and Augustine employ their prose in defending the Church against one individual and his theological edification.[2] In terms of their theological attacks, the polemics of Jerome and Augustine appear remote from one another, and this notion is exacerbated by the limited scholarship that concurrently examines their reactions to Pelagius[C2]. Overall, this scholarship claims that Augustine was provoked to denounce the grounds of Pelagianism by means of his theology of grace and original sin.[3] Conversely, scholars contend that Jerome was incited to refute its possibility through his logic of dialogue and his views on the nature of man. However, a thorough analysis of Jerome’s Against the Pelagians and Augustine’s On Nature and Grace and On the Proceedings of Pelagius suggests that each author’s polemic offers many cases that resemble the other’s hermeneutical[C3][C4] grounds. This paper intends to bridge the historical and theological chasm that current scholarship has posited by examining Jerome and Augustine’s anti-Pelagian works in terms of their respective treatments of grace, original sin, and the possibility of a sinless life. An examination of their earlier writings further corroborates the parallel arguments found in their anti-Pelagian polemics and suggests that Jerome and Augustine collaborated in promoting a united, Catholic Church.

In order to explicate the nuances of patristic theology in this area, it is necessary to give a brief account of the man to whom Jerome and Augustine responded. Pelagius was born in Britain around 350. Due to a lack of documentation, the details of his life remain enigmatic.[4] Before 385, it is believed he arrived in Rome on a pilgrimage, and he settled there permanently. In Rome, Pelagius became an ascetic and began to preach the importance of asceticism while composing several theological treatises in favor of such a lifestyle. By the early fifth century, although radical in his religious devotion, Pelagius gained status as a well-respected theologian, with Augustine praising him on several accounts.[5]

Pelagius had an unwavering body of supporters who were determined to spread Pelagian ideas (via his letters) as far as Sicily, Britain, and Rhodes.[6] Pelagianism, primarily viewed as an ascetic movement by its contemporaries, had appealed to the masses that had witnessed the brutal purges, political assassinations, and barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries. Amidst this confusion, Pelagius offered Christians “absolute certainty through absolute obedience.”[7] As Pelagian popularity climbed and its followers reached all corners of the Mediterranean in the early years of the fifth century, Pelagius became adamant in promulgating his theology on free will and original sin.[8] Pelagian theology claimed that the gift of free will was implanted in our nature by God. Pelagius believed that once free will was bestowed, it became independent from God[C5] and, thus, through this freedom, one retained the power to live a life without sin. To reinforce the idea that a human was capable of a sinless life, Pelagius disputed the concept that original sin was transmitted through procreation. The harm done by Adam and Eve’s “Fall,” according to Pelagius, did not necessarily affect humanity, “but rather established a model for human disobedience to God.”[9] This archetype of an “inescapable habit of sinning,” impinged on humanity and Pelagius saw himself as the protagonist in its resolution.[10] According to Pelagius, it was impossible to sin without knowledge of one’s actions, and he extended this concept to the unbaptized infant: because of its ignorance, a deceased infant had not sinned and, thus, was guaranteed salvation.

It was in the second decade of the fifth century, on account of advocating his concepts of free will and original sin, that Pelagius found himself in hostile environments. His outspoken disciple, Celestius, only aggravated Pelagius’ situation when he was condemned publicly in Africa. With his name now permanently linked to Celestius, Pelagius, a refugee in Palestine, was brought as a heretic before the Synod of Diospolis in December 415, only to be acquitted after anathematizing Celestius.[11] As a result, Pelagius is believed to have attained newfound religious fervor that led to the composition of his most well-known epistles: On Nature and On Free Will. It is generally agreed that Jerome and Augustine composed their polemics denouncing Pelagius as these works were being disseminated (415-417). The austere attacks of Jerome and Augustine, it can be argued, led to the eventual demise of Pelagius and his followers. He was condemned by three future popes (Innocent, Zosimus, and Celestine) and excommunicated at the Council of Ephesus (431).[12]

Responsible for the downfall of a “heretical” sect that had garnered considerable size by the time of Pelagius’ excommunication, Jerome’s Against the Pelagians (c. 416) and Augustine’s On Nature and Grace (c. 416) and On the Proceedings of Pelagius (c. 416) deserve scholarly attention. An assessment of these works allows us to understand better the motives behind their composition and the theological prose employed by each author in the Church’s defense. There have been a small number of publications that examine the three polemics, all of which paint a similar picture. Unfortunately, these examinations are minor components of larger compositions and provide unsatisfactory analyses.[13]

In works that examine Jerome’s reaction to Pelagius, scholars tend to agree that, in refuting Pelagius, Jerome was most concerned with his past coming back to haunt him. Pelagius’ concept of life without sin, for Jerome, immediately called to mind the Stoic doctrine of apatheia, or freedom from passion or disturbance, a notion attributed to the “heretic” Origen.[14] In the early fifth century, Rufinus of Aquileia, a contemporary of Jerome and an adherent of Origen perfectionism made multiple claims that Jerome had ties with Origenism.[15] Over a decade later and under the assumption the Origen accusations had been put to bed, Jerome found his reputation at stake once again. On Nature did not necessarily invoke theological acrimony in Jerome but it did engender a lot of anxiety.[16] In Against the Pelagians, scholars find the crux of Jerome’s theological assault in his repudiation of the “possibility of a sinless life.” For Jerome, “sinlessness is impossible so long as man is in his present bodily state, since a sinless man would be one who directs his thoughts uninterrupted to virtue but man is always subject to hunger, thirst, and cold.”[17] Secondary literature generally concurs that Jerome saw Pelagius as the “continuer of perfectionism,” and as past history dictated, Jerome dedicated Against the Pelagians to refuting the notions of sinlessness and perfectionism.[18]

While scholarship regarding Jerome’s position on Pelagianism[C6] is markedly thin, secondary material devoted to Augustine’s reaction to the Pelagian controversy is in abundance. Robert Evans astutely observes that whenever we hear the name of Pelagius, we are conditioned to summon up the name of Augustine and “to consider the important historical and theological issues to center on the antithesis of these two figures.”[19] In this cast[C7], Augustine-Pelagian scholarship suggests first and foremost that Pelagius’ classification of grace (most notably outlined in Pelagius’ On Nature) is the catalyst that sparked Augustine. Augustine, it should be noted, wrote two letters that indirectly concerned Pelagianism before writing Grace and Proceedings of Pelagius: these were On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins (c. 412) and On the Spirit and the Letter (c. 412). However, the tone of these epistles is far less austere and there is no intimation of polemicism against Pelagius regarding grace.[20] Throughout Grace and Proceedings of Pelagius, however, Augustine recurrently argued that free will is not only bestowed upon us by the grace of God, but that grace continues to heal us as man’s nature is constantly “at a nadir of uncertainty.”[21] For Augustine, freedom can only be the culmination of a process of healing from original sin.[22][C8]

Scholarship also underscores Augustine’s definition of grace. In rebuking Pelagius, Augustine deepened the Church’s understanding of the doctrine of original sin; Adam and Eve were its culprits, and the effects of their transgression cascaded to all humanity. Thus, baptism is essential to humanity’s salvation, and this salvation is cultivated by the faith enabled by grace itself. In campaigning on behalf of the “Catholic faith,” Augustine’s rhetoric is regarded for its sober prose.[23] In his two letters, he openly attacked Pelagius, declaring his name repeatedly to remind the reader of the antagonist. By dismantling Pelagius’ heretical claims and restructuring them with a surfeit of Scripture, Augustine has received praise for his theological, as well as his rhetorical, prowess.[24]

In summation, our understanding of the Pelagian controversy stems from secondary analysis that has framed Jerome as the opponent of the “possibility of sinlessness” and Augustine as the “advocate of the grace of God.” Although they are both characterized as denouncing Pelagius, their motives and theological concerns are seen as different. The description of Jerome, it seems, fits well into the paradigm of what Peter Brown calls the “liberal East;” this “liberality” is evidenced by Jerome’s less malignant attack on Pelagius, and due to the view that he was more concerned with his own reputation than Pelagius’ theology. Augustine, by contrast, in his austere attack, represents for scholars the North African view that Pelagianism tested their rigid orthodoxy.[25]

In examining scholarship that analyzes Jerome and Augustine’s response to the Pelagian controversy, there are several features that appear problematic. First, the narratives of these studies often contradict one another due to the chronology of the texts in question. There have been numerous dates, for example, attributed to Jerome’s Against the Pelagians.[26] These various dates make one question if Against the Pelagians was written before or after the Synod of Diospolis; did Pelagius’ acquittal prompt Jerome, like Augustine, to produce this polemic?[27] Secondly, and more importantly, these examinations lack adequate comparative analyses between Jerome and Augustine that accurately reveal the “stark differences” in their reactions to the Pelagian controversy. Additionally, studies of Pelagius are far more concerned with Augustine’s reaction than Jerome’s to the Pelagian controversy as a result of his conflicting views on grace and baptism. Upon review of the three primary texts, however, it appears unbefitting to continue to accept this conclusion. In removing this overarching theme and casting a lens on the rhetoric of the polemics, there are, in fact, many similarities that bridge the chasm between Jerome and Augustine. What surfaces in this analysis is Jerome’s incorporation of factors previously deemed exclusively Augustinian; Jerome refuted Pelagianism not only in terms of the impossibility of “human sinlessness,” but also on the grounds of grace and original sin. And consonantly, Augustine displayed concerns with the possibility of Pelagianism that calls to mind the methodology of Jerome.

- Grace and Original Sin -

In Augustine’s Grace and Proceedings of Pelagius, his theology of grace and free will met Pelagius head on. Augustine’s concept of salvation certainly acknowledged the concept of free will, but a free will that was fastened to faith in grace. In formulating his own treatise, Augustine simply added this word onto Pelagius’ original title, hence, On Nature and Grace. It is this faith that allows us to identify the good “we ought to do,” he contended. He opened Grace claiming that the righteousness of God is “the aid afforded by the grace of Christ.”[28] Likewise in Proceedings of Pelagius, Augustine wrote “that without God’s grace no man can live rightly…they may be purged from their sins through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[29] Human nature, or free will, is constantly ailing, and, throughout both polemics, Augustine invoked the grace of Christ with the image of a physician who prescribed his grace to bring about convalescence and salvation.[30] Augustine scarcely addressed the logistics of how one could live a life without sin; he even admitted it might be “an open question among true and pious Christians” because the grounds, or causes, for its existence were fabricated by Pelagius.[31]

To warrant his reprisal against the grounds of a sinless life and his affirmation of the subsistence of Christ’s grace, Augustine summoned the work of Jerome on one occasion. In this (brief) chapter, he quoted Jerome: “The pure man is seen by his purity of heart; the temple of God cannot be defiled…God created us with free will.” [32] Augustine used Jerome’s excerpt to help support his claim that through “the forementioned presbyter…we may be able to look upon God with a pure heart, by his grace through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[33] Remarkably, Augustine’s use of Jerome in Grace has received little scholarly attention. The possibility that Augustine read Against the Pelagians is unlikely, as most scholars attribute the dating of Jerome’s text to after Augustine’s Grace and Proceedings of Pelagius. We are aware, however, that Augustine had read epistles attributed to Jerome earlier in his life.[34] Augustine’s reference to Jerome, nonetheless, merits an observation. At this stage (near the conclusion) of Grace, Augustine defended Catholic writers against Pelagius’ insistence that they accept the possibility of a sinless life. Using the support of Jerome (the extract is from Jerome’s Commemoration of Matthew, Book IV), Augustine repeated his belief that it is not the possibility, but the basis of living a sinless life in which grace is needed.

It is interesting that Augustine used Jerome in defense of his notion of grace. An assessment of Against the Pelagians, in fact, reveals many occasions in which Jerome is adamant in defending the concept of grace, exhibiting analogous attributes to Augustine. As stated above, Jerome’s connection with Origen often leads to the conclusion that his Against the Pelagians sought to stamp out perfectionism by means of revealing the impossibility of sinlessness. In Chapter 9 of Book I, for example, Jerome demanded Pelagius to provide “an instance of those who were for ever without sin…confess your impotence…you have not learned even the rudiments of logic.”[35][C9] He recurrently challenged the possibility of a sinless life by alluding to man’s confrontation with nature: “Find me a man who is never hungry, thirsty, or cold, who knows nothing of pain, or fever, or torture, and I will grant you that a man can think of nothing but virtue.”[36]

However, while Jerome’s dialogue is rife with references to perfectionism and sinlessness, it is simultaneously interspersed with defenses of grace. Like Augustine, in accepting free will, Jerome made it dependent on divine assistance. Illustrating the problems with Pelagius and Origen, Jerome concluded his prologue by denouncing those who put “the true faith in the power of my choice,” and, thus, refused to acknowledge the permanent priority of Christ’s grace.[37] Early in Book I, Jerome indicted Pelagius’ denial of “the grace which you banish from the parts of life” and underscored “the assistance of God in each action.”[38] This theme continues in Books II and III. In the third chapter of Book III, Jerome, like Augustine, attacked the grounds of Pelagianism when he wrote that sinlessness is not the issue at stake, but “the grace of God.”[39] In reminding Pelagius what was discussed, for he was “lost in forgetfulness,” Jerome took this opportunity to review his understanding that “grace wherewith He bestowed upon us free choice, assists and supports us in our individual actions.”[40] In fact, near the conclusion of Against the Pelagians, Jerome invoked the symbol of the “true physician, our Savior,” in order to illustrate how humanity needed to implore the help of grace to acquire salvation.[41] This image of Christ, the physician, underscores the importance of grace in his dialogue while evoking many examples of the “physician” employed by Augustine.[42]

While it is reasonable to characterize Jerome as the enemy of Pelagian perfectionism, specifically in his assaults on the possibility of sinlessness, one cannot deny the importance of grace in his attacks. Jerome repeatedly found fault in Pelagius’ denial of grace, applying similar theological prose to that of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian works. Thus, it is tempting to give more credence to Against the Pelagians in its illustration of a twofold[C10] concern with grace in addition to the possibility of a sinless life.

In the seventh accusation made at the Synod of Diospolis, one that concerned the Pelagian disciple, Celestius, the council asked Pelagius how “Adam was created mortal, and would have died whether he had sinned or not sinned; that Adam’s sin injured only himself and not the human race?”[43] Pelagius anathematized Celestius and denied all of the allegations of which the council subsequently acquitted him. Infuriated at the fallacy of Pelagius’ defense, Augustine wrote in regard to the ignorance displayed by the council members: “[Pelagius claims] That infants, even if they die unbaptized, have eternal life. That rich men, even if they are baptized… can[not] possess the kingdom of heaven.”[44]

Pelagian views of original sin and baptism formed another principle aspect for Augustine in defining the Pelagian heresy. For Pelagius, Adam and Eve were destined to die regardless if they committed original sin or not. With the view that original sin did not affect all of humanity, Pelagians argued that man had always been created free and had the power of choosing between doing and avoiding what was wrong. Sanctifying grace given in baptism, therefore, was not the necessary foundation of salvation; it was merely a remedy for actual sins.[45] In his refusal to acknowledge this interpretation, Augustine spent several chapters contradicting Pelagius with regard to Adam’s failing. This explanation supported Augustine’s cause in denying the grounds of a sin-free life. It is because of Adam’s transgression that we are born with original sin and automatically disposed to sin. “Man’s nature indeed,” wrote Augustine, “was created at first faultless and without any sin; but that nature of man in which every one is born from Adam, now wants the Physician.”[46] Augustine soon after warned Pelagius of the grave nature of his blasphemy. If human sins did not derive from Adam upon birth, questioned Augustine, then Pelagius rendered the crucifixion of “Christ of none effect.”[47] This inheritance revealed, thus, the necessity of baptism in attaining salvation. Related to this observation, Augustine devoted numerous chapters to promulgating the importance of infant baptism. Pelagius’ notion that unbaptized infants are innocent, thus free of sin and promised the kingdom of heaven, kindled vehement opposition in Augustine’s Grace and Proceedings of Pelagius. Ignorance is not an excuse for errant acts, claimed Augustine, and through the grace of baptism “even for the infants the help of the Great Physician is sought.”[48] In congruence with his defense of the continual grace of God, Augustine’s attack on Pelagius’ concept of original sin, coupled with his support of infant baptism, certainly appears to make a case against Pelagian sinlessness: because of the Fall of man, original sin precludes any possibility of being sinless.

Jerome attacked Pelagianism from a similar theological perspective. Opposed to Pelagian tenets, he staunchly affirmed the reality of original sin. He questioned the causality of sinlessness in the opening of Book II in quoting Romans: “Sinners are estranged from the womb; they sin ‘after the similitude of Adam.’”[49] Later in Book III, he claimed that all men are held liable for sin on account of their “ancient forefather Adam.”[50] He contended that baptism is a necessity because it annuls old sins, but in doing so he reminded Pelagius that baptism does not offer new virtues. Jerome stated that only after baptism, with Christ’s grace, is paradise attainable.[51]

Jerome dedicated the concluding chapters of Book III to the debate regarding infant baptism. Challenging the Pelagian belief that a deceased, unbaptized infant’s salvation is guaranteed, Jerome paraphrased the theology of Cyprian in arguing that an infant still incurs the taint of Adam. Moreover, Jerome wrote that Christians should be most concerned with an unbaptized infant because s/he exhibits several vices in the form of “cries and tears.”[52] One of the more fascinating aspects on infant baptism in Against the Pelagians is found in the conclusion of Book III. It is here that Jerome consulted “that holy man and eloquent bishop Augustin[e].”[53] As he leaves the reader with “one thing I will say and so end my discourse,” Jerome incorporates the words of Augustine to maintain that infants should be baptized for the remission of sins after the “likeness of the transgression of Adam.”[54] Jerome’s discourse on original sin and baptism offers strong evidence that, like Augustine, he was concerned with the concept of sinlessness. This is not to discount his arguments against the possibility of perfectionism, but it certainly appears feasible to maintain that both concerns bore similar weight for Jerome.

-Augustine and the Possibility of a Sinless Life-

As Jerome’s polemic reveals similarities with Augustine’s concern in refuting the grounds of Pelagianism, Augustine’s Grace and Proceedings of Pelagius equally expose an unease regarding the possibility of sinlessness for which Jerome was renowned.[55] It is accurate to contend that Augustine was most alarmed by the cause of sinlessness in Grace, but, before he addressed this concern, Augustine became engrossed in disproving any possibility of living a sinless life.[56] In Chapter 15, for example, he questioned this possibility by citing several passages of Scripture to reveal that “it is nowhere found that any man is described as being without sin, except Him only.”[57] In the ensuing chapters, Augustine appeared determined to refute Pelagius’ notion of sinlessness. He recurrently made references to James 3:8, “But the tongue no man can tame,” with the aim of claiming that sinlessness “does not appear…to be capable of the interpretation.”[58] With the support of James’ rhetoric, Augustine argued that man’s discourse was an unruly evil, full of poison that “kills the soul.”[59]Wisdom 1:11 assents, he wrote, for the “mouth that belies slays the soul.”[60] The intractability of man’s tongue was so intrinsic to Augustine’s thought that he suggested that even animals were more “tameable.”[61][C11]

Augustine also questioned the possibility of a sin-free life through the inherent defects of the flesh. Calling upon James again, he denied the integrity of man “for where there is envying and strife, there is confusion and every evil work.”[62] Augustine fittingly employed Romans 8:7-8, where it states “The wisdom of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God.”[63] He even purported that his treatment of Scripture in Grace was helpful, for “showing the impossibility of not sinning.”[64]

Further on in Grace, Augustine examined the shortcomings of man that denied the possibility of sinlessness and used examples that evoked those employed by Jerome. In Chapter 41, he asserted that “we cannot live here without sin…which is committed in ignorance or infirmity.”[65] Several chapters later, and without the support of Scripture (in which Augustine appeared vulnerable), he claimed that Abel must have “indulged in immoderate laughter…was ever jocose in moments of relaxation, or ever looked at an object with a covetous eye, or ever plucked fruit with extravagance.”[66] In Against the Pelagians, Jerome employed similar rhetoric when he demanded Pelagius to “Find me [Jerome] a man who is never hungry, thirsty, or cold who knows nothing of pain, or fever, or the torture of strangury.”[67] In concluding his analysis on the possibility of sinlessness, Augustine again cited the example of human and bestial intractability: “There are wretched shadows in the human soul, which knows how to tame a lion, but not how to live.”[68]

Interspersed in these chapters Augustine alluded to the power of grace “In order that we might be induced to request the help of [it] for the taming of the tongue.”[69] However, Augustine’s use of grace in this capacity did not question the grounds of living a sinless life; it merely acted as advice to lead a more virtuous, sin-free life.

Augustine devoted a large portion of Grace to dispute the logic of Pelagian grounds, but incorporated in this letter, particularly in the first half, are numerous references to the impossibility of a sinless life. In challenging this possibility tendered by Pelagius, Augustine employed a paradigm reminiscent of Jerome’s model of the invalidity of sinlessness given the nature of man and the elements of the earth. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that the possibility of a sinless life, albeit second to Pelagius’ understanding of grace and free will, was a concern for Augustine.

- Theological Pasts and Theologian Correspondence -

Another way in which to substantiate the parallel arguments found in Jerome and Augustine’s theological attacks on Pelagianism is through a comparison of earlier documents that hint at the basis of their similar anti-Pelagian polemics. Although it is beyond the scope of this essay to investigate the vast scholarship devoted to the interwoven scholarship of Jerome and Augustine, strong connections may be found upon review of their earlier anti-heretical writings, in addition to their correspondence concerning Pelagius.[70] In examining their reactions to Pelagius, it appears Jerome and Augustine may, in fact, have had similar stimuli in the condemnation of Pelagius. This first observation does not come from a detailed analysis of the primary material, but rather from the reordering of the historiographical clutter. As stated previously, scholars have attributed Jerome’s prime impetus to be Pelagius’ revival of old charges made against Jerome in earlier controversies concerning Origen and Jovinian.[71] In his two works, On the Ephesians and On the Galatians (c. 387), Jerome explicitly stated that he was an admirer of Origen.[72] However, by the early fifth century, Origen views regarding human perfection rendered his theology “deeply suspect” in the eyes of Jerome.[73] Pelagius and Jerome each composed letters to the virgin Demetrias, in 413, praising her eternal chastity and offering theological counsel in her maintenance of Christian virtue. The first letter, written by the pen of Pelagius, praised the concept of free will and its ability to prevent sin and cited Origen and Jerome as supporting theologians. Jerome, with knowledge that Pelagius had associated his name with Origen, subsequently warned Demetrias against “Origen’s errors” in his own letter.[74] Two years of fermentation were exacerbated by Pelagius’ newfound zeal after his acquittal at Diospolis and, as a result, Jerome composed Against the Pelagians. The notion of perfectionism, notes John Kelly, not only recalled Jerome’s history, but it also rekindled a heresy that was thought to have been eliminated. For these reasons, Kelly contends, Jerome felt obliged to weigh in against them. [75] In the prologue of Against the Pelagians Jerome appeared resolute when he wrote “Origen is peculiar in maintaining…that it is possible for man…to become so strong that he sins no more.”[76]

Augustine’s motives, again, were manifold and involved the Christian failure to stamp out Pelagianism at the Synod of Diospolis; he also reacted against Pelagius’ pride, falsehood, and ambiguity in On Nature.[77] Pelagius’ On Nature made a point of fundamental importance against the inevitability of sin: “Whatever is bound by natural necessity is thereby lacking in the choice and deliberation proper to will.”[78] This extract, noted Evans, evoked a position taken by Augustine in the third book of his earlier piece entitled On Free Choice (written twenty years prior to the Pelagian controversy, c. 388-395).[79] In this work, Augustine likewise wrote “when the soul moves from enjoyment of the Creator to enjoyment of the creature, it does so by a movement of its own will.”[80] This passage certainly exposed some congruity with the Pelagian idea of free will as Augustine suggested that the Creator’s assistance was not necessary. On Free Choice also showed Augustine’s allusions to the possibility of sinlessness. In the second book, he described the three types of “goods:” the great goods, the minimal goods and the middle goods.[81] These “goods,” Augustine argued, could be used both rightly and wrongly; he thus posited that free will is not only self-transcendent, but, if employed properly, may prevent sin.[82] Like Jerome, Pelagius seems to have brought to light memories of Augustine’s own theological past that he did not want to recall. More importantly, however, Jerome and Augustine’s respective theological “pasts” dovetailed in the sense that both men had previously made concessions regarding the possibility of sinlessness. Therefore, one may conclude that Pelagianism engendered anxiety for Jerome and Augustine about their past pronouncements and led them to launch similar polemics against the possibility of sinlessness.

Although Jerome and Augustine never met in person, they maintained a steady correspondence through numerous letters.[83] Their cordiality in doctrinal affairs was rough, at best, but in the early years of the fifth century their relationship became more amicable, and by the time of their last correspondence – that concerning Pelagianism – their letters exhibited camaraderie and a common cause in refuting Pelagius.[84] In 415, before the Synod of Diospolis and their respective anti-Pelagian writings, Augustine wrote Jerome two letters that questioned Pelagian denial of original sin. In the first letter Augustine attacked the grounds of Pelagianism in embracing Romans 5:12 and Corinthians 15:22: “The grace of Christ [is] necessary for salvation…bestowed only by baptism.”[85] Augustine’s second letter solicited Jerome’s guidance in interpreting the concept of virtue found in James 2:10, but still asserted that infants “incur the debt of sin which undoubtedly has to be cancelled by the sacrament of Christ’s grace.”[86] Augustine’s rigidity in denouncing the doctrine of Pelagianism was palpable in these letters and one wonders to what extent Jerome was induced by Augustine in his concluding remarks of Against the Pelagians: “[They] are free from all sin through the grace of God, which they received in their baptism.”[87] Perhaps Jerome’s response to Augustine (c. 416)[C12] offered credence to Augustinian influence when he replied: “[The two letters are] both very learned works, glittering with every brilliant rhetorical effect.”[88]

Augustine’s courier, Paulus Orosius, hand-delivered both letters to Jerome.[89] In his first letter, Augustine described Orosius as “a devout young man…who was reliable” whom he had instructed.[90] Maribel Dietz illustrates the many ways in which Orosius emulated Augustinian defense of grace and original sin, which is manifest in his Seven Books of History against the Pagans (c. 418).[91] Contemporary sources confirm that Orosius spent several months in Jerome’s monastery in 415, and although the extent of their private conversations is unknown, one can assume that Orosius professed Augustinian doctrine during their Pelagian deliberations. In his reply to Augustine, Jerome disclosed his admiration for Orosius as “an honorouable man who stands as a brother to me and a son to you [Augustine].”[92] The amalgamation of Augustine’s letters, coupled with the presence of his entrusted diplomat, provides strong basis for arguing that Jerome’s theological musings were strongly influenced by Augustinian doctrine in Against the Pelagians.

- Conclusion -

In the final chapter of Proceedings of Pelagius, Augustine praised God’s mercy in sparing the life of Jerome.[93] He expressed deep concern for Jerome’s well-being and Augustine’s contempt for the Pelagians was palpable when he anticipated their papal condemnation in response to their “scandalous enormities.”[94] In fact, the concluding chapters of the three polemics explored in this essay all remarked on the “venerable” and “eloquent” attributes of the author’s trans-Mediterranean, anti-Pelagian supporter.[95] As Carolinne White discerns, correspondence between Jerome and Augustine concluded with both men respecting and admiring one another in their devotion to a united, Catholic Church. [96]

It seems that Jerome and Augustine’s expostulations fittingly corresponded to the Christian world in which they lived. In the span of their lives, the Roman Empire helped foster a centralized Christian faith; from colluding in frequent acts of pagan eradication to the creation of the Theodosian Code (436-438), the Church and Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries were undergoing a process of integration that was directed toward the promulgation of Christianity and the consolidation of Christian doctrine.[97] In this sense, Jerome explicated the concept of unity in his last words to Augustine: “If…the heretics see that we hold conflicting opinions, they will falsely conclude that this is due to ill-feeling between us. I…admire you and defend your words as if they were my own.”[98][C13] The Pelagian controversy, analogous to the other heresies of the fourth and fifth centuries, threatened to rupture Christian doctrine and, in doing so, endangered Christian hegemony in the Mediterranean world. Jerome, it seems, conceded the consonance of his theology with Augustine’s when he wrote that, together, he and Augustine could “make a greater effort to eradicate that most dangerous heresy [Pelagianism] from the churches.”[99] In their staunch defense of authentic[C14] Christian doctrine, Jerome and Augustine clearly illustrated a collaborate effort. Their mutual ideologies of grace, original sin, and the impossibility of a sinless life, directed in this case against the threat posed by Pelagian theology, were an integral part of the preservation of ecclesial unity in the fifth century.

Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources

Augustine. On Nature and Grace. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1503.htm (accessed 02 November - 10 December, 2007).

Augustine. On the Proceedings of Pelagius. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1505.htm (accessed 02 November – 10 December, 2007).

Jerome. Against the Pelagians. http://www.newadvent.org/ fathers/3011.htm (accessed 02 November – 10 December, 2007).

White, Carolinne, ed. & trans. The Correspondence (394-419), between Jerome and Augustine of Hippo. Lewiston, UK: E. Mellen Press, 1990.

Secondary Sources

Adams, Jeremy du Quesnay. The Populus of Augustine and Jerome: A Study in the

Patristic Sense of Community. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2000.

__________. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Adversity, AD 200-1000. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

Collinge, William J., ed. and trans. Saint Augustine: Four Anti-Pelagian Writings. Fathers of the Church 86. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992.

Dietz, Maribel. Wandering Monks, Virgins, and Pilgrims: Ascetic Travel in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 300-800. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 2005.

Evans, Robert F. Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals. New York, NY: The Seabury Press, 1968.

Hritzu, John, ed. and trans. Saint Jerome: Dogmatic and Polemical Works. Fathers of the Church 53. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1965.

Kelly, John. Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1975.

Leff, Gordon. Bradwardine and the Pelagians. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1957.

O’Meara, John J. Understanding Augustine. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997.

Rees, B.R. The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1991.

_________. Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1988.

Tanner, Norman P. The Councils of the Church: A Short History. New York, NY: Crossroad, 2001.

Williams, Megan Hale. The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.



[1] Specifically the Councils of Nicaea Constantinople, and Chalcedon. See Norman P. Tanner, The Councils of the Church: A Short History (New York, NY: Crossroad, 2001).

[2] The Pelagian controversy engaged Jerome and Augustine from 414-417. Jerome’s (c. 347-420) biographer, John Kelly, calls the Pelagian controversy Jerome’s “Last Controversy.” Although Augustine (354-430) continued to write more treatises against heresy in the 420s, his last correspondence with Jerome (c. 416) concerned Pelagianism. See John Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1975), 309-323; Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 380-381.

[3] Augustinian scholar William Collinge uses the term “grounds” to show how Augustine refutes the foundation, or basis, of Pelagianism through the grace of Christ. See William J. Collinge, ed. and trans. Saint Augustine: Four Anti-Pelagian Writings, Fathers of the Church 86 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992), 19-20.

[4] For detailed biographies of Pelagius and his theology see Robert F. Evans, Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals (New York, NY: The Seabury Press, 1968); B.R. Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1988).

[5] Evans, Pelagius, 73.

[6] Brown, Augustine, 346.

[7] Ibid., 347.

[8] For a detailed account of Pelagius’ theology and letters, see B.R. Rees, The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1991), 29-35. Rees sees this transition in the early years of the 410s.

[9] Collinge, Augustine, 8.

[10] Ibid., 10.

[11] Rees, Reluctant Heretic, 2.

[12] Robert Evans confers more responsibility to Augustine in the ultimate papal condemnation. Evans, Pelagius, 3.

[13]These examinations fall under the categories of introductions to the primary materials or biographies of Jerome, Augustine, and Pelagius. The more recognized biographies are Evans, Pelagius; Rees, Reluctant Heretic; Gordon Leff, Bradwardine and the Pelagians (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1957); Kelly, Jerome; Megan Hale Williams, The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006); Brown, Augustine; John J. O’Meara, Understanding Augustine (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997).

[14] Collinge, Augustine, 17. Origen of Alexandria was a Christian scholar of the third century. His Platonic views of perfectionism were anathematized by Pope Anastasius I in 400.

[15] See Evans, Pelagius, 9-10. In particular, Rufinus claimed that Jerome had “turned his back upon the master [Origen] from whom he had learned so much.” Rufinus claimed Origen perfectionism is inundated in Jerome’s On the Ephesians (c. 387-389). In Jerome’s Apology for Himself against the Books of Rufinus (c. 402), he staunchly defies Rufinus’ claims, but, as Evans points out, Rufinus had a “legitimate point” which worried Jerome.

[16] See Collinge, Augustine, 16-17; Evans, Pelagius, 6-25 concerning the conflict between Jerome and Pelagius.

[17] Evans, Pelagius, 23.

[18] Jerome’s analysis of grace in Against the Pelagians is concluded as “superficial and inconclusive.” See Kelly, Jerome, 319.

[19] Evans, Pelagius, 3.

[20] See Evans, Pelagius, 73-75. Augustine actually shows Pelagius deference several times.

[21] Brown, Augustine, 369.

[22] Ibid., 375.

[23] See Evans, Pelagius, 82; Collinge, Augustine, 15-16.

[24] See especially On the Proceedings of Pelagius. In this letter, not only does Augustine reveal the flaws in Pelagius’ defense at the Synod of Diospolis, he also displays the incompetence of the council that was comprised of fourteen bishops.

[25] Brown, Augustine, 359. In addition, although the document of Pelagius’ On Nature was lost in the fifth century, his theology is well-preserved in his numerous other letters. See Rees, Letters of Pelagius.

[26] John Hritzu believes it is after the Synod of Diospolis. See Hritzu, ed. and trans., Saint Jerome: Dogmatic and Polemical Works, Fathers of the Church 53 (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1965), 227. Evans believes it to be 414 or 415, see Pelagius, 7. Williams claims it to be before the Synod in 415, see Monk, 300-301.

[27] In the most recent biography of Jerome, Megan Hale Williams dates Against the Pelagians to early 415, before the Synod, without citation. See Williams, Monk, 300. If this is the case, Against the Pelagians was not written in reaction to the council’s acquittal nor Pelagius’ On Nature. See Hritzu, Jerome, 227.

[28] Augustine, On Nature and Grace, Chapter 1, retrieved from http://www.newadvent.org/ -fathers/1503.htm (accessed 02 November - 10 December, 2007). This translation is taken, and revised, from the Fathers of the Church series (volume 86). See Collinge, Augustine, 3-90.

[29] Augustine, On the Proceedings of Pelagius, Chapter 3, retrieved from http://www.newadvent.org/ -fathers/1505.htm (accessed 02 November – 10 December, 2007). This translation is taken, and revised, from the Fathers of the Church series (volume 86). See Collinge, Augustine, 93-177.

[30] In Grace, Augustine refers to Christ the Physician in chapters 1, 6, 21, 23, 25, 29, 31, 39, 46, 57, 59, 63, 64, 65, and 76. The image of the physician is mentioned in Chapter 3 in On the Proceedings of Pelagius.

[31] See Augustine, Grace, Chapter 70.

[32] Ibid., Chapter 78.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Evans notes that in refuting Pelagius’ belief that Pope Xystus was the author of the Sextine Enchiridion, Augustine undoubtedly read Jerome, for it is on the same basis that he makes the same assertion. Pelagius, 46-53. Also, see below for a detailed analysis regarding Augustine-Jerome correspondence.

[35] In Against the Pelagians, Jerome and Pelagius assumed the names Atticus and Critobulus, respectively. For the quotation, see Jerome, Against the Pelagians, Book I, Chapter 9, retrieved from http://www.new -advent.org/ fathers/3011.htm (accessed 02 November – 10 December, 2007). This translation is taken, and revised, from the Fathers of the Church series (volume 53). See Hritzu, Jerome, 223-378.

[36] Ibid., Book III, Chapter 4.

[37] Ibid., Book I, Prologue.

[38] Ibid., Book I, Chapter 5.

[39] Ibid., Book III, Chapter 3.

[40] Ibid., Book III, Chapter 6.

[41] Ibid., Book III, Chapter 11.

[42] Both Jerome and Augustine made reference to the Gospel according to Matthew in offering the image of the physician. See Augustine, Grace, Chapter 1; Jerome, Against the Pelagians, Book III, Chapter 11.

[43] Augustine, Proceedings of Pelagius, Chapter 23.

[44] Ibid. Collinge observes that as a member of the council at the Synod of Diospolis, John of Jerusalem may have played a role in Pelagius’ acquittal as he was known to have had a sympathetic posture towards Pelagianism. Augustine revealed his strong reactions to the Synod as a result of Pelagius’ exoneration in addition to Pelagius’ role in publicizing his own acquittal throughout the Mediterranean. See Collinge, Augustine, 95-96.

[45] See Hritzu, Jerome, 224.

[46] Augustine, Grace, Chapter 39.

[47] Ibid., Chapter 7.

[48] Ibid., Chapter 23.

[49] Jerome, Against the Pelagians, Book II. Augustine does not ascribe chapters to the beginning of Book II.

[50] Ibid., Book III, Chapter 18.

[51] Ibid. Jerome wrote “baptism…set free from the chain of his own…sin by the blood of Christ.”

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., Book III, Chapter 19. Here, Jerome consulted the two treatises “on infant baptism” that Augustine wrote to Marcellinus.

[54] Ibid.

[55] See historiography above.

[56] This argument of “cause” is developed in the latter half of Grace, specifically in Chapters 48-81. In the first half, although Augustine discussed the importance of grace, he did introduce the grounds of living a sinless life.

[57] Augustine, Grace, Chapter 15. In particular, he cited Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, and John 1:8 & 3:9. Interestingly, however, Chapter 42 of Grace contradicted this notion of “Him only” when he wrote that “We must except the holy Virgin Mary…when it touches the subjects of sins.”

[58] Ibid. Augustine cites James 3:8 in chapters 16 and 17.

[59] Ibid., Chapter 16.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid. “It [man’s tongue] cannot be tamed by any man, although even beasts are tameable by human beings.”

[62] Ibid., Chapter 17. Extract taken from James 3:13.

[63] Ibid., Chapter 18.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid., Chapter 41.

[66] Ibid., Chapter 48.

[67] Jerome, Against the Pelagians, Book III, Chapter 4.

[68] Augustine, Grace, Chapter 47.

[69] Ibid., Chapter 16.

[70] For a thorough, comparative analysis of Augustine and Jerome, see Jeremy du Quesnay Adams, The Populus of Augustine and Jerome: A Study in the Patristic Sense of Community (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971); and Carolinne White, ed. & trans. The Correspondence (394-419), between Jerome and Augustine of Hippo (Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1990).

[71] See footnote 9. See Kelly, Jerome, 145.

[72] In fact, Jerome acted as one of its chief protagonists beyond the end of the fourth century. Kelly, Jerome, 210.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid., 312-315. Kelly offers insightful analysis on each letter written to Demetrias.

[75] Kelly, Jerome, 314-315.

[76] Jerome, Against the Pelagians, Prologue.

[77] See Collinge, 3-17, 93-103; Evans, Pelagius, 85. Furthermore, Augustine was enraged over the substantial number of Catholic theologians employed in warranting Pelagian theology that included both himself and Jerome. Although no copies of On Nature remain, we know from various sources, including Augustine, that Pelagius also used Lactantius, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Systus of Rome.

[78] Extract take from Augustine, Grace, Chapter 54.

[79] Evans, Pelagius, 86. Evans observes that by 415, Augustine showed that “he has either forgotten or abandoned positions which he had taken in [On Free Choice].”

[80] Augustine, On Free Choice, cited in Evans, Pelagius, 86-87.

[81] Evans, Pelagius, 87. These “goods” are comprised of virtues, bodily beauty, and will.

[82] Ibid.

[83] For a detailed analysis of their correspondence in addition to the translated texts see White, Correspondence.

[84] Ibid., 2-5. From 395 to 405, it should be noted, their communicative relationship was abrasive. In a letter written around 395, Augustine charged Jerome with an unsatisfactory interpretation of the Galatians. White attributes their ensuing coarse rapport to this accusation.

[85] Ibid., 51.

[86] Ibid., 208.

[87] Jerome, Against the Pelagians, Book III, Chapter 17.

[88] White, Correspondence, 227. White believes the letter was written in 416, which may have been composed during or after the writing of their anti-Pelagian writings.

[89] Paulus Orosius was a Spanish priest and close friend of Augustine. See White, Correspondence, 205.

[90] Ibid., 180-181.

[91] See Maribel Dietz, Wandering Monks, Virgins, and Pilgrims: Ascetic Travel in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 300-800 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 2005): 43-68. Dietz states that Augustine provided guidance for Orosius in composing Seven Books of History against the Pagans.

[92] White, Correspondence, 227.

[93] As a result of vocally denouncing Pelagius, Jerome’s monastery was sacked by avid Pelagians in 416. See Hritzu, Jerome, 228-229.

[94] Augustine, Proceedings, Chapter 66.

[95] In Chapter 78 of On Nature and Grace, Augustine refers to Jerome as the “venerable presbyter.” In Book III, Chapter 19 of Against the Pelagians, Jerome describes Augustine as a “holy man and eloquent bishop.”

[96] White, Correspondence, 10.

[97] See Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Adversity, AD 200-1000 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 35-38.

[98] White, Correspondence, 227.

[99] Ibid., 227.


[C1]Definitely vehement. Jerome was one cranky man when it came to heresy! And thank God for that!

[C2]Excellent sentence.

[C4]A fun term for “theological approach.”

[C5]And here’s where the heresy begins. It all depends on how you understand “independent.” Pelagius understood it really badly!!

[C6]Since you began the next paragraph with “Conversely,” can I assume that Jerome is “neglected” in this area?

[C7]Do you mean “case” here?

[C8]Brilliant!!!

[C9]Ouch. He didn’t pull any punches, eh?

[C10]How “twofold”? In terms of the original “grace”(gift) of free-will and the working of grace in every good act? You might want to clarify this.

[C11]I can see his point about man’s uncontrollable tongue, but I’d hesitate to say that he’s reducing man’s nature to sub-animal with this comment.

[C12]Response to whom? I was a little confused here.

[C13]Woohoo! The Fathers of the Church rock!

[C14]Adding “authentic” may be a little subversive by academia’s allegedly ‘objective’ evaluative approach, but it’s true!

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Last Updated: 8/14/14