An Ancient Tool for Distinguishing Churches

Augustine of Hippo
Reprinted with permission from Dan Miller’s book Spiritual Reflections. The text appears here verbatim.

As a pastor, I am occasionally asked to explain the difference between two denominations, synods, religious organizations, or the like. Such requests are perhaps parallel to accountants and attorneys fielding the inevitable dinner-party query about a legal interpretation or investment option.

I tend to wince at these requests because they are never easy to address. Churches and denominations are finely layered, ever-changing works of art. It is not always easy to understand, let alone to articulate, the differences between religious groups.

But I have discovered a helpful tool by which to distinguish the foundational moorings of various Christian movements (with implications extending beyond Christendom). This measuring rod is provided to us by two fifth-century theologians who engaged in a classic debate which distinguishes the beliefs and practices of various Christian traditions to this day. Whether perceived or not, churches gravitate toward either the Augustinian pole, or toward the Pelagian pole, with most landing somewhere between these two opposing positions.

Augustine served as the bishop of Hippo Regius in northern Africa from AD 395-430. In his youth he had struggled notoriously with depraved passions. But at age thirty-three Augustine was dramatically converted to Christ and began to experience a profound power over the sins that had long controlled him. His experience provided him an ideal context from which to interpret the Bible’s teaching regarding human nature.

Augustine’s study of the Scriptures led him to conclude that Adam was created “posse non peccare” (able not to sin), but that we are born in Adam’s fallen state and are therefore “non posse non peccare” (not able not to sin; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10-12; 5:12). People are thus incapable in themselves of choosing divine salvation, incapable of pleasing God in their own strength, and destined to die for their sin (Romans 6:23a). But in his mercy God chooses to open spiritually blinded eyes so that some are enabled to embrace the truth that Christ died to provide redemption from their sinful condition and to empower them to live righteously (Romans 8:28-9:24; Ephesians 2:1-10). Apart from Christ’s salvation, then, mankind is absolutely lost and without hope.

A Celtic monk named Pelagius did not at all appreciate Augustine’s position. Migrating from the British Isles to Rome around AD 400, Pelagius became the chief opponent of Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture.

Pelagius argued that Adam’s sin affected only Adam and had no direct bearing upon his offspring. People are born with an inherent capacity to do good and are fully capable of choosing not to sin. No one is spiritually blinded to the truth and power of God, and all have the native power to respond to him. Death, claimed Pelagius, is the mere consequence of finiteness, not the penalty for sin.

These two positions form two opposite poles of understanding and every church or religious organization gravitates toward one of them. Two defining questions clarify where a particular group stands. First, are all human beings sinful by nature or do human beings merely have the capacity to become sinful? Second, to what extent must God involve himself to rescue sinners from their sin?

If you believe people are basically good and God needs to do little (or nothing) to save us from evil, you are essentially Pelagian in your perspective. If you believe people are born morally corrupt and must be rescued from their sin by the unmerited grace of God, you are essentially Augustinian in your orientation. Mediating positions abound, of course, and partake of the corresponding implications of the pole to which they most gravitate.

The import of these distinctions must not be underestimated. This matter is not akin to choosing a political party or a favorite restaurant. Ephesians chapter 2 declares that God’s divine purpose for the ages (vs. 7), the eternal destinies of individual souls (vss. 8-9), and the relationship between salvation and righteous living (vs. 10) all rest on these distinctions. In other words, the Pelagian position denigrates the glory of God (vs. 7), jeopardizes the salvation of souls (vss. 8-9), and confuses the relationship between good works and salvation (vss. 8-10).

That is my opinion based on my understanding of Scripture. I stand with Augustine on these matters, and thus flows the course of my “spiritual reflections” in this book, my choice of church affiliation, my worldview, and on it goes.

But if this discussion provides any clarity, perhaps it also opens the door to fruitful dialogue. In this spirit consider the following illustration as an apologetic for my position.

Imagine that the two questions at issue represent the left and right sides of a double door. One’s view of the sinfulness of mankind is the left door, one’s view of God’s sovereign power and grace in saving people from sin is the right door. How far open you swing the doors determines the size of the opening through which the light of God’s glory shines.

Pelagians leave the doors closed, sing the glories of man in the dark, and strain to see the light of God’s glory through the narrow crack between the two doors. Semi-Pelagians crack open the doors a bit, permitting a little of God’s glory to shine through the gap between the doors.

Augustinians throw the doors wide open. People are spiritually dead and incapable of pleasing God on their own (the left door is flung open). God must, in consequence, act in sovereign grace to enliven the spiritually dead and rescue lost sinners (the right door is flung open). And rescued sinners may then stand in that broad opening and bask in the streaming light of the unequaled splendor of God’s glory displayed in his unmitigated mercy. Ask Augustine!

To which pole does your church gravitate? To which position does your personal understanding conform? First, it is important that your church’s position match your own. Second, if I may be so bold, it is important that your experience approximates Augustine’s on this point. If it does, you have the privilege to stand in the glorious light of God’s grace and to worship with those who see the same light. If it does not, I pray the doors will be opened to you soon as they were one memorable day for Augustine and for all those who have seen the same light.

Dan Miller has served as the Senior Pastor of Eden Baptist Church since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College with a B.S. degree in 1984 and his graduate degrees include a M.A. in History from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and the M.Div. and Th.M. from Central Baptist Theological Seminary. He is nearing completion of D.Min. studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dan is married to Beth and the Lord has blessed them with four children: Ethan, Levi, Reed and Whitney.
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There are 4 Comments

Alex Guggenheim's picture


But I have discovered a helpful tool by which to distinguish the foundational moorings of various Christian movements (with implications extending beyond Christendom). This measuring rod is provided to us by two fifth-century theologians who engaged in a classic debate which distinguishes the beliefs and practices of various Christian traditions to this day. Whether perceived or not, churches gravitate toward either the Augustinian pole, or toward the Pelagian pole, with most landing somewhere between these two opposing positions.

I do appreciate the thrust of the article, that is making proper distinctions between churches, denominations and so on. However, I do see a hazard in using this linear platform premise from this 5th century debate in attempting to ascertain the theological locality of any given body. I understand that you are not prescribing this as an apparatus by which a thorough theological profile for any given body is obtained, but even as a simple tool I believe I its application to be counter-effective.

The very first reason I would avoid attempting to use a linear means for measuring or evaluating where a particular body lies within Christendom is that such a scale sets up a certain system of manufactured points to which all others are, by default, viewed as either subordinate or some sort of eventual progeny of one of the two. Even in the least, as a simple tool this, to me, makes the suggestion that this is the normative method for theological examination, just on a smaller scale. And in developing profiles of bodies holding to certain theologies, I don't believe this produces the most effective and appreciative results.

A couple of disadvantages I see are:

1. The subjectivity of the scale itself. While each school, Augustinian and Pelagian can be sources of comparison and while on some issues they are quite far apart, on other issues they make similar confessions which places them in close proximity to one another, making inconsistent the use of this measure. As well, on this scale, Augustinian and Pelagian theologies are given a certain hierarchical elevation beyond all others in measuring any other body and this preclusion leads to my second observation.

2. Unique and proprietary teachings of varying bodies are de-emphasized or forcibly subdued by this linear approach, hence making them, by default, subordinate irrespective of their theological development and advancement.

When dealing with the issue of determining the theological locality of a particular body in Christianity there is another method that is used which appears to more effectively produce, even in simple measures, the theological position of any given body which is the "geographical platform". This scale, unlike the linear platform, gives opportunity to achieve, for the one developing the profile, a greater expanse for exacting determination while still recognizing relationships of schools without forcing them to be assigned a certain acquiescence to another.

In other words, while some bodies can properly be discovered as being born from one another or having some relationship, other bodies can be given their more appropriate proprietary recognition. And bodies that have some element of import of one or the other but whose theological development has surpassed such elements so much so that the effect of the imported theology is without distinction, they too are able to rightfully be given a positioning that is based on their present identification and not of some very long ago partial import or contribution from another school.

So, unlike the linear platform whose one dimensional nature, I believe, precludes too much necessary information in developing a proper theological profile (even on a simple scale) for any given body, the geographical platform enables the profiler to view not only the real or possible relationships between bodies, which the linear also seeks to do, but gives room for the recognition of proprietary values and status, hence the strength of its longitude and latitudinal design.

Alex Guggenheim's picture


My wife read your article and my response and being the kind of person she is (her work with the gov. is in a logistical field) challenged me with a couple observations.

First, she inquired about the practical and simple tool I was going to use for my platform. She stated that it would have been nice if I had wrapped it up with a practical application. She said yours was easily observable and mine did not exist in my response.

Secondly, she asked why an arbitrary scale was viewed, by me, as necessarily hazardous when, as you stated, it was merely for measuring one element of a church's position and not an overall placement which was what, in truth though I stated it could be done simply, I was forwarding since I still did not present a simple tool as you did.

I wasn't sure whether I should divorce her or fall in love with her some more, obviously my writing this means I took the latter course. But anyway, in having to go from idealism to realism in my hope to maintain proprietary values while assessing theological relationships my "practical" solution (which really is the test of any idea) was the use of a protractor.

The center point (globally the north pole) of the protractor is of course the Bible itself. And if one wishes to use the 5th century scale (or any two point scale) they then place the two schools, Augustinian and Pelagian east and west of each other and all other body's latitudinal (linear) relationships to both schools can still be achieved while being able to move them northward of southward (longitudinally) to distinguish their proprietary features that either move them further of even closer to the Bible.

Thanks again for the article.

Aaron Blumer's picture


I appreciate the clarity and practicality of the article... and the help informing folks of some important theological history--in plain language. And as a guide for grouping denominations and churches, there's a very useful measuring stick here as well. Dan's maturity in the Scriptures, in theology and in the pulpit shows through here.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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