Pagels’s Augustine: The Dark Prophet of Grace

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 2, 1988, p. 985. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A critique of Elaine Pagels’s Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Pagels’s success will encourage greater recognition of the religious foundations of our civilization, and lead even secularists to face the religious dimensions of their own post-Christian commitments.

Book Review: Adam, Even and the Serpent by Elaine Pagels. (Random House, 189 pp.)

Elaine Pagels has established her reputation by making the seemingly arcane topic of patristics, the theology of the early church, into a subject for celebrated and briskly selling books. As a follow-up to The Gnostic Gospel, which won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circles Award, the Princeton University professor has now published Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (Random House, 189 pp., $17.95)

With considerable simplicity and charm, Pagels begins her latest book assuming that the rise of Christianity is itself a very compelling business and that anyone willing to take a look will inevitably find themselves drawn to the topic. One of Pagels’s goals is to indicate how profoundly the Western world has been influenced by the patristic period, an acknowledgment resisted by many "secular humanist" historians. Pagels’s success will encourage greater recognition of the religious foundations of our civilization, and lead even secularists to face the religious dimensions of their own post-Christian commitments.

Reversing what she sees as a trend among historians, Pagels focuses not on the ways in which Christians were similar to their "pagan neighbors" (an emphasis useful in overcoming overstatements about the uniqueness of the early church) , but instead explores, in Tertullian’s phrase, the "peculiarities of the Christian society." However diluted and reinterpreted by Hellenistic culture it may have been, Christianity changed the evolution of the ancient world.

It would be too strong to say that the villain of her piece is St. Augustine; nevertheless, resistance to "Augustine’s singular dominance in much of Western Christian history" is central. Pagels acknowledges here an early admiration for Augustine’s "perceptive and candid" insights in the Confessions, and says she once took as a given the allegedly superficial rationalism of Augustine’s Pelagianist foes. Her Western Christian assumptions on these matters began to crumble, however, as she recognized the extent of Augustine’s departure from the mainstream of Catholic Christianity. As Pagels shows, from the second century to even the early Augustine himself, there was no real precedent for Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. She asks: Since the representatives of Christian orthodoxy, from Justin through Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, and Origen, had denounced gnostic interpretations of Genesis in the name of moral freedom, how could the majority of Christians in the fifth century be persuaded to give up this primary theme of Christian doctrine -- or, at least, to modify it radically -- following Augustine’s reinterpretation of Adam’s sin?

Also central to her book is the contention that in their opposition to the totalitarian Roman state, "Christians forged the basis for what would become, centuries later, the western ideas of freedom and of the infinite value of each human life." Pagels grants that many Christians were themselves slave owners, yet says others went among the Roman Empire’s wretched outcasts with the message of radical equality -- that class, education and gender "made no difference."

Pagels is a liberal democrat who stresses the liberty of the individual vis-à-vis the state. Thus the egalitarianism she "finds" in the early church does not lead her to pay even lip service to the fashionable Marxist, collectivist readings of the Christian ideal found in many seminaries. On the basis on her frankly Jeffersonian reading of the early church, she concludes, "Our secularized western idea of democratic society owes much to that early Christian vision of a new society -- a society no longer formed by the natural bonds of family, tribe, or nation, but by the voluntary choice of its members."

While Pagels argues that the phenomenon of pre-Augustinian Christian celibacy was an expression of this early Christian impulse toward freedom (rather than of a hatred of nature or the body) , she thinks Augustine’s defense of celibacy is the very antithesis of freedom. Pagels points out how promiscuity and immorality in the late Roman Empire resulted in widespread infanticide and abortion, as well as a slave trade in child prostitutes who were treated, in Justin’s phrase, "like herds of oxen, goats, or sheep." Sexual exploitation of the unborn, the new born and youth of both sexes, together with the fact that even free men and women were expected to marry (usually arranged) and bear and rear children as a duty to empire and family, meant for many Christians that the only route to personal liberty led through the "freedom" of celibacy. "Christian renunciation, of which celibacy is the paradigm, offered freedom -- freedom, in particular, from entanglement in Roman society."

But for Augustine celibacy was a different matter. Rather than viewing it as a decision made for the sake of living a life free from the world’s demands, Augustine agonized over the "evils" of sexuality in a doctrinal context that virtually denied the human capacity for free moral decision. Indeed, according to Pagels, Augustine viewed personal freedom "as total, obstinate perversity." She notes that Augustine accuses even those who are able to restrain "their passions through self control, leading temperate, just and holy lives," of neurosis, acting out of "illness" induced by "guilt." Augustine thought no one capable of righteous self-control, and thus, for him, "even the most advanced ascetic confronts the same continual insurrection within."

This "insurrection" stems from the initial sin of Adam and Eve, through which humanity not only lost the capacity to choose to live sinlessly, but which altered nature itself. For Augustine, there was literally no death prior to this fall, but as a divine punishment, nature itself now conspires against the fallen, morally enslaved children of the fallen first parents. Augustine claimed that "all nature was changed for the worse." Pagels comments: "Humankind, once harmonious, perfect and free, now, through Adam’s choice, is ravaged by mortality and desire, while all suffering, from crop failure, miscarriage, fever and insanity to paralysis and cancer, is evidence of the moral and spiritual deterioration that Eve and Adam introduced." Pagels finds Augustine’s pessimism inimical to democracy. Indeed, a humanity so utterly depraved must be strongly governed lest in its sin it destroy itself. Pagels concludes:

"Throughout western history this extreme version of the doctrine of original sin, when taken as the basis for political structures, has tended to appeal to those who, for whatever reason, suspect human motives and the capacity for self-government."

At one point, in what appears a clever lawyerlike play, Pagels discredits Augustine’s doctrine of the literal fall of Adam and Eve with the observation that it is hopelessly unscientific, and as a historian she feels compelled to add that Augustine’s great foe, Pelagius, would also have had no use for science. Nevertheless, Augustine’s insights are by modern standards more "scientific" than the Pelagian optimism regarding the possibility of moral freedom which Pagels appears to endorse.

Pelagians maintained that each individual is born into the world with the innocence of the first man and woman, and that each individual has the capacity to live a perfectly virtuous life. Indeed, the Pelagians claimed there were people who lived before Christ, or who lived after Christ but had never heard of him, who were nonetheless capable of earning their own salvation. Though they were without knowledge of Christ’s atoning work, their lives were blameless.

If Augustine’s modern, secular children Marx and Freud have taught us anything, it is that the idea that we are unaffected by the sins, economic interests and neuroses of our parents, class, nation, race and gender is absurd. In denying that our morality is affected by the actions (not to say sins) of others, Pelagianism represents moral individualism gone mad. And even if we do consider individuals as isalated entities, Augustine’s exposure of the moral ambiguity of every human initiative and intention -- indeed, the impossibility of even knowing for certain our real motives -- renders pure Pelagianism incomprehensible.

In another oversight, Pagels argues for the unprecedented character of Augustine’s doctrine, cutting Augustine off from the psychological and spiritual agonizing of the apostle Paul. Pagels is correct insofar as Augustine had a one-sided reading of Paul. However, Augustine had some extremely valid insights into the Pauline insistence on our radical dependence on grace, and unlike most of his Catholic predecessors Augustine caught something of the Pauline sense that everything is finally held in the electing hand of God: "For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all" (Rom. 11:32) Clearly, Augustine didn’t invent such themes. He believed that his doctrine of original sin was but a commentary on Paul’s thought, such as in Romans 1:24-25: "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator." Augustine set out to reassert Pauline Christianity, and he argued it with passion and comprehensiveness to an age rendered ready to hear it by the collapse of Rome. I find it less surprising than does Pagels that Augustinian views should have had such a powerful impact.

That Augustine’s is an overly dark reading of Paul is obvious. But it would be a mistake to suppose that an Augustinian emphasis on original sin or predestination (which, oddly, Pagels does not discuss) leads inevitably to a denial of the right of civil protest or to passive submission to authority. It is worth recalling that the Reformation was born of a Pauline and Augustinian revival, and that Calvinism remained the most revolutionary force in Europe for over a century. It’s true that the Jeffersonian contribution to our nation’s independence and its democratic structures has kinship with Pelagianism. But the Calvinist contribution to American political thinking must be noted with at least equal emphasis.

Pagels ignores altogether the fact that it was in the Byzantine Empire, where Augustinianism never had any appeal and where the old Pelagian understanding of free will prevailed, that the church was most radically and stubbornly subservient to imperial claims. One might well ask why and how it was that the bishops gathered by Constantine in Nicaea in 325, some three-quarters of a century before Augustine’s Confessions, accepted imperial patronage and privilege as if it were the church’s long-overdue right. Why was there so little protest in the name of religious liberty when Constantine deposed the Arian bishops?

Pagels fails to acknowledge that the roots of Christianity’s ready acceptance of a Christianized Roman imperialism and all the religious repression necessary to maintain it had nothing to do with Augustine. That move began much earlier, with the same second-century apologists whom she extols as champions of liberty. True, as a persecuted minority, they wanted religious freedom and called for a new society. But what was the alternative they sought to the rule of Rome with its evil pluralism and permissiveness? Clearly, they did not envision a society dedicated to the principle of pagan free speech.

The apologists saw Christianity as the fulfillment of the best of Hellenistic monotheistic philosophy, and not infrequently boasted about the superiority of Christianity as a religion and an ethic. In wondering at the injustice of so excellent a people as Christians being persecuted, the apologists offered a hint of how useful such a movement as Christianity could be in cementing the Pax Romana. In the light of the fact that Jesus (or the apologist Justin, for that matter) was killed by Rome, we must ask, Who made the greatest compromise, the church or its new Roman patron? Did Rome become less authoritarian, or had the preAugustinian church begun a sell-out to Roman authority and in so doing lost the distinction between Christ’s kingdom and the kingdoms of this world?

Whereas Pagels discusses second-century theologians who offer alternatives to Augustine’s problematic freedom, she ignores the great "heretic" Marcion, who finally concluded that the creator of a world in which there is so much evil is a deeply flawed deity, the very God from whom we must be redeemed. Far more than the wildly speculative gnostic Christians to whom Pagels devotes a chapter, Marcion, standing squarely in the Old Testament, was able to hit orthodox Christianity where it lived -- at the link between the Father and the Son, and its contention that the creator of the world was also its redeemer.

The only theologian of the era who came to grips with Marcion’s pessimism about creation was Irenacus, whose genius Pagels underestimates. Irenacus did not blunt the hard texts of Scripture by moralisms and allegory, nor did he resort to the naivet6 of Pelagianism, imagining that the problems of sin and death can be overcome by good works. Irenaeus taught that God created Adam and Eve as innocent but immature beings. Thus, God created humanity so that in the process of our coming to maturity we might contribute to the completion of our own created nature. Adam’s sin was deeply lamentable, but it is not bound up in the cosmic catastrophe that either Marcion or the later Augustine envisioned. Given Adam’s immaturity, sin might have been almost expected.

In answer to Marcion’s challenge as to how a supposedly loving God dared create a universe in which evil was all but inevitable, Irenaeus maintained that God’s justification lay in the deifying work of Jesus Christ and God’s power to redeem the creation he has placed at so great a risk. Irenaeus did, as Pagels claims, sometimes reflect a naively "Pelagian" view of freedom. For Irenaeus, however, our freedom was the fruit not of our own wills but of the liberating, ransoming work of Jesus Christ, who came both to free us from death’s stronghold and to complete our created natures by binding us to his deifying incarnation. Christ’s incarnation and cross not only set us free, but they rescued God’s honor from the charge that he has led us out into the desert of this world to die. Surely Irenaeus had the more biblical view of Christian liberty.

In comparing the great theologians of the patristic period, both Augustine and Irenaeus, despite their vast differences, are theologians of grace -- they operate within the same circle of faith. For Pelagius, however, human freedom had nothing to do with the work of Christ. Despite his problematic nature described by Pagels, Augustine, the dark prophet of Christ’s grace, can be adequately corrected only by theologians equally committed to Christ’s grace.