“Just do It? Augustine and Pelagious and the need for Grace

Author: The Rev. Canon Christopher A. Brown, PhD.

    In 405 A.D., a British monk named Pelagius attended a public reading of one of the best-selling of books of that decade – and of all time.  And he didn’t like what he heard.

Published seven years before, the Confessions of Augustine was a new sort of book; it did not fit into any of the established genres of the time.  It was a poignant autobiographical account of his conversion to Christianity delivered in the form of an extended prayer, and interwoven with theological reflections of remarkable and penetrating originality.

Especially compelling – for modern readers, at least – is Augustine’s candor.  He displays a self-awareness that is disarmingly contemporary. Augustine had a profound sense of his own moral fragility.  At one point he says, “I became a problem to myself.” It would hardly be surprising to hear that said by an introspective college student today, but in Late Antiquity such statements were rare, especially from Christian bishops.  In large measure, Augustine worked out the “problem” of himself in the course of his conversion. But the acuity of his self-awareness was such that he always recognized that his conversion was a work in progress.

It was Augustine’s awareness of his continuing inward struggle after conversion and baptism that lay behind the famous statement that aroused the ire of the British monk, Pelagius, “Give me what you command and command what you will.”

“No Excuses”

Pelagius was a rigorist who strove to lead a holy life with unyielding resolve.  Even Augustine, his implacable opponent, admitted that Pelagius was “’a holy man, who, I am told, has made no small progress in the Christian life.”  Pelagius took with the utmost seriousness the admonition to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matthew 6:48) He believed that for the Christian, there was no excuse for anything less than perfection. “Since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.”

For Augustine to pray that God would “give what He commands,” was, in Pelagius view, to make excuses for his own moral failures.  He recognized quite correctly the implication embedded in Augustine’s prayer: that apart from God’s help it was not possible fully to obey God’s commandment.  For Pelagius this was a ridiculous assertion that masked a lack of zeal and genuine religious conviction. He regarded it as simple common sense that human nature was capable of fulfilling God’s commands no matter how demanding. Pelagius said,

“Whenever I have to speak of laying down rules for behavior in the conduct of a holy life, I always point out, first of all, the power and functioning of human nature, and what it is capable of doing….lest I should seem to be wasting my time, by calling on people to embark on a course which they consider impossible to achieve.”

Just Do It!

In 1988, executives of the Nike Corporation met to address the fact that Nike was faltering in its struggle with archrival, Reebok, for pre-eminence in the world of sports attire.  Dan Weiden, the head of Nike’s advertising agency said, “You Nike guys, you just do it,” which inspired Nike’s iconic advertising slogan, “Just do it!” The result was dramatic. According to Newsweek Magazine,

“Nike rose about as high and fast in the ‘90s as any company can. It took on a new religion of brand consciousness and broke advertising sound barriers with its indelible Swoosh [and] “Just Do It” slogan.  Nike managed the deftest of marketing tricks: to be both anti-establishment and mass market, to the tune of $9.2 billion dollars in sales in 1997.”

The slogan, “Just do it” projects a brash and bold confidence.  It exemplifies an unhesitating activism, unhampered by self-doubt – and it captures the moral stance of Pelagius.  This helps us see Pelagius in a distinctly positive light. Since majority opinion has always favored Augustine over Pelagius (whom the Church condemned as a heretic), it is worth trying to understand his appeal to his contemporaries.  There is a bracing and invigorating quality to Pelagius’ call to obedience, unhampered by nagging questions of human incapacity or the need for divine aid.

Stealing Pears

Yet in the end, Augustine has the deeper and more compelling understanding of human nature.  And Augustine has the greater compassion, since he sees in others what he finds in himself, both a consuming longing for God, as well as an inexplicable impulse to go his own way.  Augustine expresses this longing for God in the opening section of the Confessions, “O God, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are ever restless until they rest in you.”

But he was also aware of a rebellious strain deep in his nature, which he illustrates in a story he tells of stealing pears from a neighbor’s yard as a boy.  He was not especially hungry, it was simply the thrill of self-assertion and transgression of moral boundaries that motivated what was otherwise an irrational act.

“I was willing to steal, and steal I did, although I was not compelled by any lack, unless it were the lack of a sense of justice or a distaste for what was right and a greedy love of doing wrong. For of what I stole I already had plenty, and much better at that, and I had no wish to enjoy the things I coveted by stealing, but only to enjoy the theft itself and the sin…”

Our nature, according to Augustine, has a certain “incurvatus.” It is instinctively “curved in itself,” rather than being oriented to the service of God and our neighbor.  Augustine’s understanding is similar to that of St. Paul in the seventh chapter of Romans, in which the apostle speaks a “law of sin” dwelling within himself.

“I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…. I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:19, 21-22)

This leads Paul (as it does Augustine) to look to saving grace of God in Christ, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!…there is not condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 7:24-25, 8:1)

Original Sin

Augustine summed up this understanding of human nature with the somewhat forbidding term “Original Sin.”  While it is linked to the story in Genesis of the disobedience in the Garden of Eden, for Augustine the doctrine of Original Sin really emerges out of his observation of human nature, as he discerns it within himself and others.

For Augustine there was a coldness and arrogance in Pelagius’ assertion that we are fully able to attain to perfection by our own efforts. (Similarly, many critics saw Nike’s slogan, “Just do it,” as an “impatient-bordering-on-contemptuous exhortation,” that displayed a “poverty of warmth,” and was even “sociopathic.”)  While many people today regard the notion of “Original Sin” as excessively negative, for Augustine it was rooted in his empathy for others in their spiritual struggles – and directly linked with his awareness of the universal need for divine mercy, and of God’s eagerness to provide. For Augustine, the God’s work of salvation lay in the rectification of human nature through the infusion of the Holy Spirit which is “shed abroad in our hearts.”

Pelagius was not all wrong.  We are called to be “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” – but not in our own strength.  It is a work that God does within us. And we are called to “Just do it!” – unhesitatingly to obey God with all our heart.  Of course, we fall woefully short. Of course, perfect obedience lies beyond our capacity.  But like Peter stepping out of the boat onto the surface of the sea, faith trusts that God provides what we lack.  As the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, the “God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, [will] equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:20-21)

The Church Fathers and US

“Be Intentional About Unity”: Still-Relevant Advice from Ignatius of Antioch

In ca. 115 C.E., when he was still a relatively new bishop, Polycarp of Smyrna (died ca. 155/6) received two letters from Ignatius, bishop of Antioch. One was addressed to the entire Christian community at Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), the other was a more personal letter containing pastoral advice from the senior bishop to his younger colleague. Both letters were written somewhat in haste from Troas after Ignatius learned that he was to set sail almost immediately to Neapolis (Kavalla, Greece), the port of ancient Philippi (Krenides, Greece).

Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius had been arrested in Antioch, also known as Antioch-on-the-Orontes and Antioch-in-Syria (modern Antakya, Turkey) and was being taken under guard to Rome. Despite being accompanied by a contingent of 10 soldiers (Ign. Rom. 5.1), Ignatius was able to meet with members of Christian communities along the way, most notably at Smyrna. There he not only met, presumably for the first time, Bishop Polycarp and a number of Smyrnaean Christians, but also bishops, presbyters, and deacons from nearby Tralles (Aydin), Magnesia-ad-Maeandrum (Tekke), and Ephesus (Efes). Among them was a deacon from Ephesus named Burrhus (Ign. Eph. 2.1) who, perhaps as early as in Smyrna, served Ignatius as an amanuensis (scribe), traveling with him at least as far as Troas (Ign. Smyrn. 12.1; Ign. Phld. 11.2).

From Smyrna, Ignatius wrote a letter to each of the three churches which had sent delegations, as well as one to Rome, imploring the Christian community there not to intervene in what he hoped fervently would be his martyrdom (Ign. Rom. 4.2; 5.3; 7.2). From Troas, Ignatius, with the help of Burrhus, wrote to the church at Philadelphia which he had visited prior to arriving at Smyrna and, as noted, wrote also to the Smyrnaean church, as well as to its bishop. It is clear from Ignatius’s letter to Polycarp that he was extremely impressed with the younger bishop. Ignatius not only wishes Polycarp well but, taking on the role of mentor, gives him a great deal of pastoral advice. Perhaps the most important advice comes in the opening paragraph: “Be intentional about unity, for there is nothing better” (Ign. Polyc. 1.2).

Christian Unity

Unity is a recurring theme in Ignatius’s letters. He calls on his readers, with “the voice of God,” to “love unity” and to “shun divisions” (Ign. Phld. 7.1–2). He even describes himself as a man “perfectly fitted to provide guidance for unity” (Ign. Phld. 8.1). One wonders what had occurred exactly in Antioch that had caused Ignatius both to experience the pain of a divided Christian community and to come up with a way to ensure intra-church unity in the future. Reading between the lines, there appears to have been conflict in Antioch over two main issues. The first was the extent to which Jewish traditions and practices should remain part of Christianity (e.g., Ign. Magn. 9.1). The second, and probably the more important, was what Christians should believe about the full humanity of Jesus. Apparently “false teachers” had come promoting the view that Jesus, the divine Son of God, had only “appeared” to have a physical body (e.g. Ign. Trall. 10.1; Ign. Smyrn. 1–8). Ignatius learned from Onesimus, the bishop of Ephesus who met with him at Smyrna (Ign. Eph. 1.3, 2.1), that similar itinerant “Docetists” (from the Greek dokein: “to seem” or “to appear”) had come to Ephesus but had not found a hearing there (Ign. Eph. 6.2, 7.1–2, 9.1). Nor, apparently had Docetism taken hold in the other Christian communities which Ignatius visited or to which he wrote. He implored his audiences, however, to be ever vigilant against “seemingly trustworthy wolves” (Ign. Phld. 2.2; cf. Ign. Eph. 7.1; Ign. Trall. 7.1; Ign. Smyrn. 6.2; Ign. Polyc. 3.1).

Sound Advice

Ignatius’s own practical advice for ensuring unity of faith and practice was to stipulate that everything within the Christian community be done in concert with the will and authority of the bishop. He tells the Smyrnaeans:

Shun division as the origin of (all) evils. You must follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow members of the council of presbyters as if they were the Apostles. Regard the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do anything pertaining to the church apart from the bishop. Only that Eucharist is valid which is administered either by the bishop or by someone to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop is present there is the congregation, just as wherever Jesus Christ is there is the universal (catholic) church. It is not permitted either to baptize or to hold a love-feast (agape) apart from the bishop. (Ign. Smyrn. 7.2–8.2).

And, on the assumption that even his personal letter to Polycarp will be read to the whole Christian community, Ignatius reinforces the point by including in that letter the admonition: “Give heed to the bishop so that God will give heed to you” (Ign. Polyc. 6.1).

The Docetists, Ignatius tells the Smyrnaeans, “abstain from the Eucharist . . . as they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ” (Ign. Smyrn. 7.1). Perhaps they celebrated a non-Eucharistic “love-feast.” In any case, Ignatius warns, any such meals without the bishop are dangerous, potentially schismatic if not heretical affairs.

According to Ignatius, the bishop is both the symbol and facilitator of Christian unity. His presence, or at least his permission, legitimates authentic Christian faith and practice and guards against division and disunity. Only when the whole Christian community, is paying heed to the bishop can Christian unity be assured (Ign. Smyrn. 8.1–9.2).

Not everyone at the time shared Ignatius’s vision of Christian unity centered on the person and role of the bishop. Even in Rome, it took almost another eighty years for the kind of “monarchical episcopacy” which Ignatius advocated to begin to emerge under Victor (bishop ca. 189–ca. 198/9). The importance of the person and role of the bishop to Christian unity, however, must not be underestimated nor neglected in contemporary ecumenical discussions. Even in churches which do not have an episcopal structure of governance, the unity of the particular congregation, denomination, or world-wide Communion depends on the faithful exercise of the “episcopal” or “episcopacy-like” functions of those authorized (by whatever name or title) to exercise such functions. They are “guardians of the faith;” “shepherds of the flock;” and “celebrants of the sacraments.” In other words, whether or not this is fully understood and appreciated, episkopē (the role and function of ecclesiastical oversight) exists in all churches and should be exercised responsibly even when there are no church officials actually called episkopoi (bishops).

It must also be remembered that at the time of Ignatius and Polycarp the term “bishop” was only barely beginning to be distinguished from the term “presbyter” and applied to the “overseer” of a local congregation not of a diocese. Contemporary ecumenical discussions about Ignatius’s insights regarding the role of the “bishop” as embodying and facilitating Christian unity are, therefore, very much applicable to the local congregation. Indeed, Ignatius’s model, in its historical context, applied specifically to intra-church, rather than inter-church unity. Of course, as, over time, the role of bishop evolved from that of local episkopos to that of the “overseer” of multiple Christian communities in a metropolis or even wider geographic areas, Ignatius’s insights became just as applicable to and remain so for “Dioceses,” “Synods,” “Presbyteries,” “Conferences,” “Regions,” and other ecclesiastical structures—regardless of the title of the particular judicatory’s official “Head of Communion.”

It is as important as ever, if not more so, for all “bishops” in their exercise of episkopē to “be intentional about unity”—as “there is nothing better.” The rest of us Christians are called upon to take Ignatius’s sound advice to heart also and to follow and heed our (congregational or diocesan) bishops as they carry out their God-given “oversight” of Christian faith and practice. Now, as in the time of Ignatius, Christian unity depends on it.

Contributor — William Tabbernee