This is part I of a series about the concept of salvation in Christianity. In this series, I will attempt to describe some of the historical views, common views today and later in the series give the best representation of a particular view. I pray that this series will be edifying and a cause for discussion regarding this very important area of theology.
Throughout the history of the church many questions have arisen when theologians, philosophers, and scholars examined difficult concepts of the Bible. In the 3rd and 4th century we have for us several great examples of these trying times regarding those difficult questions. In those days many debates arose over the Trinity, deity of Christ, and the natures of the God-Man. Out of those debates (or Councils) we were given Creeds such as the Nicene Creed and Chalcedonian Creed, which are relevant even today.
Soteriology is the study of salvation, and the concepts involved. In like manner, many questions arose out of trying to establish sound doctrines regarding sin, justification, the atonement, etc. The primary question in which all others would stem from: ‘For why/what/whom did Christ die?’ Like the challenges that came with answering the questions regarding Christ, the questions of salvation would cause for great distinction and division among the early church fathers.
In one of the books written in a response to the death of his brother Satryus, Ambrose the Bishop of Milan wrote the following: ‘In Adam I fell, in Adam I was cast out of Paradise, in Adam I died; how shall the Lord call me back, except He find me in Adam; guilty as I was in him, so now justified in Christ. If, then, death be the debt of all, we must be able to endure the payment.’ (Book II, section 6) Here we get a look into early (4th century) consideration of justification and atonement, work that would later influence Augustine of Hippo.
Aurelius Augustine was born in 354 to a pagan father and Catholic mother. In his youth he aimed to be a great philosopher and sought out many teachers under various schools of thought. His primary focus was to understand the origins of evil, and mankind’s tendency toward it. In Manicheism he learned the ultimate principals of Light and Darkness. Not satisfied with the theories of this philosophy he began to read Neo-Platonist works, where he found more informative answers. It wasn’t until he began attending the sermons of Ambrose, convicted by the conversions of others, that he began to move towards seeking answers in Christianity.
His conversion is later given to us in his writings where he describes in the year 386 that a specific text of the New Testament (Rom. 13:13-14) spoke directly to him and his lifestyle. He began writing philosophical works against the various schools that he had become familiar with, in favor of the Christian view. In one of his writings (‘Free Choice of the Will’) against the Manichees he initially argues for a human will that is totally free and not coerced to sin yet ultimately doing so thus being held responsible for it.
A few years later a contemporary of Augustine’s by the name of Pelagius would go beyond his teachings to say that a man could live completely sinless without any aid from God. Pelagius believed that everything God had made was good, and mankind remained as such. His teachings stressed the autonomy of man and his utter freedom of will to obey God’s commandments. The teachings of Pelagius had caught the attention of Augustine who immediately and most vehemently opposed the monk’s work.
When confronted with the views of Pelagius, Augustine began to devote his study back to understanding the origins of evil, and mankind’s tendency toward it. Understanding human nature in his experiences, the work of his mentor Ambrose and a deeper study of the apostle Paul, Augustine began to develop doctrines on the fall, on sin and on grace. He came to realize that all have sinned ‘in Adam’ and the result being an inclination towards sin. As fallen man freely or willingly chooses to sin, he retains a will to do what he wants but not what he ought to do until changed by grace.
Augustine would go on to teach that God, in His mercy, had chosen to save a people by grace. A grace that precedes any ‘good’ will of man, and in converting his will, effectively altering his inclination so that the soul responds gladly and freely. Once made new, it is then both by grace and the will of man to work out his salvation, and without God’s help man would soon lapse. This being known as the gift of perseverance, that none shall be lost.
Augustine’s teachings didn’t go unopposed. Many believed that this stress on God’s grace and human inability would lead to complacency. Many still disagreed that it was God who had to make the first move in salvation, and yet not totally denying Original Sin as Pelagius did. They would claim that the sinner is sick, not dead, and all he need do is ask and it will be given. This view would become known later as Semi-Pelagianism, which Augustine also opposed in his writings ‘The Predestination of the Saints’ and ‘The Gift of Perseverance’.
Many Councils were held to deal with this controversy that lasted well after Augustine and Pelagius’ death. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418. But it wasn’t until the year 529, at the Council of Orange, that Semi-Pelagianism was condemned. However, not all that Augustine taught was made canon (church tradition). Original Sin, Predestination (to salvation), and the need for a prevenient grace were all affirmed. However, Augustine’s teachings were molded to the Catholic form of the sacramental system with an emphasis on good works. For example, the actuation of saving grace being tied to the sacrament of baptism and the cooperative grace to others such as the Lord’s Supper.
These three views of Salvation (Augustinianism, Pelagianism, and Semi-Pelagianism) are our first early historical views. This is by no means a full account of all individuals or factors involved, or a complete retelling of these three views. In part II we’ll see how a resurgence of Semi-Pelagianism influences a key player before the Reformation. It is there where I will introduce you to the ideas of Arminianism, and the response that came by way of Augustinianism in what would later be called Calvinism.