We’re in a series of articles exploring the councils and creeds of the Christian church. Why? Because when it comes to faithfully and diligently working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) we miss a great deal when we simply try to construct our own “real Christianity” with nothing more than a bible. To take heed from those who have gone before us is to benefit from the wealth found in the most important theological declarations of the Christian tradition.
Today we continue the series with a look at the council of Carthage and the council of Orange.
Having now firmly established a solid theology on the Trinity, the person and nature of Christ, and the Person of the Holy Spirit, the church now turns to develop a ‘theological anthropology’ a clear articulation of the nature and sinful state of humankind, and their relationship to God. It was during this time that questions arose around the degree of human responsibility and the extent of God’s sovereignty, especially in light of Adam’s fall, and God’s gracious act through Christ. In the debates at Carthage and Orange, theologians debated human responsibility for sin, and the implications drawn vis-à-vis that responsibility from the reality that we live in a fallen world.
Pelagius & Augustine
Pelagius was a British monk who was deeply devoted to living a moral life. He developed a doctrine of sin and salvation that hinged on good works and good morals. According to Pelagius, sin wasn’t inherently part of human nature but rather comes from bad decisions and habits willingly formed. He was concerned that if Christians held to the doctrine of original sin it would give them an excuse to be defeatist or apathetic towards their own sins. Augustine (a North African Bishop) firmly believed in original sin. Further, he believed that it was by grace alone that a person was freed from the grip of sin, bestowing the ability to resist sin and love God.
The eight canons that were passed at Carthage (418 A.D.) expressed significant support for Augustine. They recognised that a sinless life was impossible and that God’s grace – freely given and not earned – was the means by which a person was changed from the inside in order to “know what to seek, what we ought to avoid, and also that we should love to do so.” However, as council was not ecumenical it wasn’t universally accepted, and so a second council was convened at Orange a century later (529 A.D.) to revisit what was passed. After much debate, this council decided once more in support of Augustine; with 25 canons passed, many of which used Augustine’s language word for word.
Why it Matters
Even today Pelagianism (and semi-Pelagian) teachings creep into churches, leading young believers astray. We would like to believe that we have the power to choose good for ourselves, but the rulings of the council (and the words of Augustine) remind us that even if we were empowered with the free will to choose God on our own, due to our sinful nature we never would. The wonder of salvation for Augustine was that God loved him when he was deep (and inescapably) in sin. Rather than waiting for Augustine to exercise his own free will and choose to clean up his moral act, God broke in with scandalous disregard for what kind of person he was. Today we love and serve a God who loved us and saved us by giving his son for us, apart from anything we could or would have done.
but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, ESV)
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