“But all Christendom, and especially Augustine, knew that only Christ could act Christ”

“Augustine, from his small seaport on the North African coast, swayed the whole Western Church as its intellectual dictator” [N. P. Williams]. He had been converted like St. Paul; he had seized Christ through Paul. He rose into Christendom from what seemed to him catastrophes. And the great primal catastrophe was the situation into which every man was born; the New Birth was the freedom from that catastrophe. Two famous sayings epigrammatize the change. The first is the reluctant sigh: “Make me chaste, my Lord, but not yet!” The second is the reconciled joy: “Command chastity; give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt!” Both come from the Confessions, which (Augustine said scornfully) men read from curiosity, or (he might have added) from a human sense of the human; it is not what that great Refuser of Images wished. Few things seemed to him more imbecile than that his autobiography should be admired for everything except the whole conclusion, climax, and cause of his autobiography. But a phrase in it—the second of the two quoted—was permitted by our Lord the Spirit to become the occasion of more controversy and of high decision in Christendom.

There was a meeting in Rome—perhaps a clerical conference or something of the kind. A certain Pelagius, an Irish Christian, was present at it. He was not a priest but he was in Rome on an effort to revive and excite religion; he was conducting a mission to the Romans. His particular method was to encourage men to be men. He was orthodox enough, and full of a real love for, and desire for the good of, his fellow-creatures, but he thought his fellow-creatures were perfectly capable of fulfilling the Will of God and of being chaste (or whatever) if they wished. Men need not sin unless they chose, and if they did not choose they need not sin. Ibis too was orthodox enough. He had had some success, and his influence was spreading. At this meeting there was “a certain brother, a fellow-bishop of mine,” says Augustine. The bishop during the meeting quoted from the Confessions, already in wide circulation, the phrase: “da quod iubes,” “give what thou commandest.” This, Augustine adds, Pelagius ferre non potuit—Pelagius simply could not stand that sort of thing. Man was not in that kind of situation at all; no doubt he was tempted, but he could resist temptation. “Pull yourself together, my dear fellow,” he said in effect, and he actually did say that to talk of virtue being hard or difficult, or to say it could not be done, or to moan about the weakness of the flesh was to contradict God flatly, and to pretend either that he did not know what he had made or did not understand what he was commanding: “as if … he had forced upon man commands man could not endure.”

But this, which to Pelagius seemed so scandalous, seemed to Augustine merely truth. Chaste was what the law had bidden him to be and what he had not been able to be. The law was precisely impossible. Man precisely was not in a situation—not even in a difficult situation. He was, himself, the situation; he was, himself, the contradiction; he was, himself, death-in-life and life-in-death. He was incompetent. Augustine had felt that acutely; since his conversion he had been teaching it—that man was the situation and only the grace of God could alter the situation. Both Pelagius and he felt strongly the desirability of man overcoming sin, but the problem was what was sin and how best did you overcome it. The expanding circles of doctrine spread outward from Rome and Hippo. Never before had Christendom felt the two views so fully and so honestly developed. It bad previously accepted a general notion that men were in a “fallen” state, but it had not pressed any definition of it. What definitions it had produced had tended to relate to the Person who redeemed men from the state. That, after all, was what its greatest minds and noblest souls had been concerned with. The clash of Pelagius and Augustine altered all that.

That man, in the person of Adam, had fallen was common ground. Pelagius said, in effect, that (i) Adam had been created in a state of natural good, (ii) that he had somehow sinned, and set a bad example of sinning, so that a sort of social habit of sin had developed, into which men were introduced as they grew up before they were reasonable, (iii) but that any man at any moment could get out of this distressing social habit by simply being firm with himself—“have courage, my boy, to say no,” (iv) and that therefore no particular grace of God was needed to initiate the change, though that grace was a convenient and necessary help: which was always to be found by the right-willing man.

Against this the Augustinian view—with the great help of Augustine himself—asserted (i) that man was created in a state of supernatural good, of specific awareness of God, (ii) that Adam had got himself out of that state by sin, and his sin was ” pride “—that is, “the act of deserting the soul’s true ‘principle’ and constituting oneself one’s own principle” [Nigel Abercrombie].  He had, as it were, claimed to have, and behaved as if he had, a necessity of being in himself. He had, somehow and somewhere, behaved as if he were God. (iii) His descendants therefore were not at all in a mere social habit of sinning; they did not merely sometimes sin; they were sinners, which was not at all the same thing. Nay, more, they had, all of them, been involved in that first original iniquity, and in its guilt. “Omnes enim fuinius in illo uno quando omnes fuimus ille unus“—we were all in that one man when we all were that one man. Thus, being all guilty, we all deserved, and were on our way to, hell by the mere business of getting ourselves born, though not, of course, for getting ourselves born. This was precisely the agony: to be born was good, but that good meant the utmost evil, life-into-death and death-into-life. Some who managed to die again before the age of reason might suffer less thereafter. But for the rest men were corrupt; they existed in the night of dreadful ignorance and the storm of perverse love; they were for ever and ever sharers in that primal catastrophe which was the result of Adam imagining that he had a principle and necessity of existence within himself. (iv) It was therefore blasphemous and heretical nonsense to talk of man as being mildly and socially habituated to sin : he was in sin, and he could not get out by his own choice. He could not move but by grace, by that principle which was not in him. To Augustine Pelagius was practically teaching men to follow, to plunge deeper into, that old original catastrophe; he was almost declaring that man was his own principle, that he did his own good deeds. But all Christendom, and especially Augustine, knew that only Christ could act Christ. …

“The first modern,” as Augustine has been called, had uttered the word “grace” with a new accent. Adam had suddenly returned. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” was to be analysed and discussed as the Nature of our Lord Jesus Christ had been. The secrets of man’s corruption were to become as much a matter for the brooding intellect of Christendom as the secrets of his Redemption had been. The inclusion of the Saviour in the Godhead was followed by the exclusion of Adam to the opening, at least, of the pit, and of all his children whom the unpredictable Equity did not choose out of so many myriads to redeem. Yet it may be noticed that Augustine, perhaps to the danger of his own thought, and certainly to the danger of the thought of his successors, was aiming at the same principle of inevitable relationship which in so many other things governed the orthodoxy of the Church. “Fuimus ille unus” he said; “we were in the one when we were the one.” Whatever ages of time lay between us and Adam, yet we were in him and we were he; more, we sinned in him and his guilt is in us. And if indeed all mankind is held together by its web of existence, then ages cannot separate one from another. Exchange, substitution, co-inherence are a natural fact as well as a supernatural truth. “Another is in me,” said Felicitas; “we were in another,” said Augustine. The co-inherence reaches back to the beginning as it stretches on to the end, and the anthropos is present everywhere. “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive”; coinherence did not begin with Christianity; all that happened then was that co-inherence itself was redeemed and revealed by that very redemption as a supernatural principle as well as a natural. We were made sin in Adam but Christ was made sin for us and we in him were taken out of sin. To refuse the ancient heritage of guilt is to cut ourselves off from mankind as certainly as to refuse the new principle. It is necessary to submit to the one as freely as to the other.

Charles Williams

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8 Responses to “But all Christendom, and especially Augustine, knew that only Christ could act Christ”

  1. The obligatory rejoinder: https://www.academia.edu/29213788/Inherited_Guilt_in_Saints_Augustine_and_Cyril

    Guilt is a poor way to translate Augustine’s reatus, IMHO. Further argument still needs to be made, but I believe it can be demonstrated that Augustine intends reus/reatus to be a parallel of the Greek tradition’s κατακριμα/κατακριμεθα; a term that appears early and often in Greek theological literature referring to the state of humanity after Adam.

    There is also the problem of how to distinguish between Pelagius himself and the later Celestius and Julian. Williams’ quote here appears to jumble these three authors together; but I think recent scholarship demonstrates a need to take them independently. That the heresy came to bear Pelagius’ name is somewhat unfortunate. Pelagius’ fault, most likely, is simply being a rural, unsophisticated moral theologian. This can be contrasted with the metaphysics of Celestius and Julian.


  2. brian says:

    No doubt, Williams will not stand up to the quibbles of contemporary scholarship. I don’t think Descent of the Dove should be read as that kind of scholastic text. It’s a kind of theological poem in prose — and surely Williams is still correct that Pelagius represented a kind of virile, “muscular Christianity,” the kind that was evident later in much Victorian spirituality that was heavy on moral exhortation and light on metaphysical acumen.


  3. Mike H says:

    It’s helpful to see the Pelagius/Augustinian debate spelled out so succinctly. Makes you realize just how much nuance is needed, how terms like natural good/supernatural good, “fall”, grace, original sin (or “inherited guilt) etc. all require further semantic clarification. But both narratives appear to utilize (and are dependent on) the same protology, and the ontological solutions make sense only in terms of that narrative.

    A DB Hart quote that I like:

    –“And in Gregory’s thought, with an integrity found only also in Origen and Maximus, protology and eschatology are a single science, a single revelation disclosed in the God-man.”
    –The Moral Meaning of Creation ex Nihilo

    A single science. I find that connection between protology and eschatology to be deeply true. You know, I can’t help but attempt to combine the nature of “free will” with the position/narrative held by Augustine (or Pelagius for that matter). Not free-will as a most basic and apparently aimless “power of volition”, but free-will in the sense of the oft-quoted DB Hart citation:

    –“But, on any cogent account, free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

    Now take William’s summary of the Augustinian position:

    –“Against this the Augustinian view – with the great help of Augustine himself – asserted (i)that man was created in a state of supernatural good, of specific awareness of God, (ii) that Adam had got himself out of that state by sin, and his sin was “pride”….

    Would Augustine (or Pelagius) say that “getting himself out of that state by sin” was accomplished by “free-will”?

    If man is:
    (1) created in a state of supernatural good
    (2) possesses a specific awareness of God
    how can these axioms (which are necessary for the coherence of the narrative) be combined with the axiom of the transcendental orientation to the good (the relevant definition of free-will)?

    This cannot be dismissed as mere paradox or mystery. There is a real dilemma.

    I see only a few options (and perhaps these overlap in places):

    1 – This “state of supernatural good” and “specific awareness of God” needs to be highlynuanced. It is more “ignorance” than actual “supernatural good” or “specific awareness of God” (see #3 below).
    2 – Free will (in the relevant sense) existed, but the fall displays that it cannot carry nearly the amount of protological/eschatological weight that’s been assigned to it. Things are more complex.
    3 – Free will, in the relevant sense, has never actually existed (it exists only in logic, as a principle). We might say that, essentially, it is still being created – it is not something that was (or can be) lost.

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    • In both the Greek and Latin traditions, man is oriented towards natural goods. He cannot will supernatural good apart from a supernatural gift above and beyond nature (this is explicitly articulated in both Athanasius and Augustine). Man was created and given this gift, but it was subsequently forfeited by Adam.

      Thus, man possesses free will. He can even chose among the goods to which he is oriented. When he does so, he does so freely. Man can also abuse his will by suspending his rational faculties for more base ones. But man cannot again perfectly will perfect good (that is, as you say, “supernatural good”) without the supernatural gift regained in baptism.


  4. brian says:

    I do think its important to understand Creation as a flourishing that is only complete in the eschaton. Our understanding of persons, freedom, and creation itself are imperfect and likely wrongheaded if we think these terms are univocally stable or merely deformations of prior metaphysical perfections.


  5. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I am puzzled as to what is the real distinction maintained between Augustine and Pelagius’s proposition (i) – what is “supernatural” rather than “natural” good? I also fail to follow the basis for inherited guilt (if that is actually what Augustine taught): guilt is moral imputation and i can’t see how it can be transmitted or inherited whilst still using any the word “guilt” in any meaningful sense. To say God imputes “guilt” in such circumstances is to impute irrationality to God.
    That we inherit a flawed nature inevitably prone to sin from Adam at least makes sense, if acquired characteristics can be inherited, but is surely unnecessary: if Adam in paradise with direct access to God in a sinless world was vulnerable to sin, what chance have we got in a world in which we are awash in sin from birth, even if you don’t assume our nature any more flawed than his was.
    Augustine seems to me to be using an unjust and irrational imputation of guilt by God to retrospectively justify the further slander of God that is limited election, rather than arguing out of logic or biblical basis.
    In so far as the articles report of Pelagius’ views are not parody, the error seems to me to be in underestimating the extent of our fall and in overestimating our capacity to escape it, not in asserting we are damned by our own fault rather than another’s.


  6. I see this question in the “salvation” of Peter story. What caused Peter to sink, when commanded to come? Jesus was in control of the wind which caused Peter to fear and sink. So, was Jesus also in control of Peter being in spirit to cross part way? Is it a perfect response to imperfect obedience? Peter was commanded earlier to take the boat across the lake. Now Peter wants to abandon the first command and command a new command, which is granted. Now what? Well, so Peter is saved from sinking (pride ouch), made to climb back in the boat himself (pride ouch) and observe his shipmates worship. This is a strong argument for grace outside of obedience or even a perception obedience.


  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    If I were going to write a paper on St Augustine, I would not use Williams as a source. Williams was neither a trained historian nor theologian. For Descent of the Dove, he relied on the standard histories of doctrine that were available to him back in the early 1940s (the book was published in 1945).

    As Brian has suggested above, the best way to approach Descent of the Dove is as a theological poem written in prose. Pay attention especially to the notion of coinherence in this citation, as well as the previous ones.

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