The Councils of Carthage and Orange

Theological Anthropology

Theological anthropology refers to the doctrine of humanity, how humans relate to God, and the human condition before and after the Fall. Secular anthropologies root the evil in the world in oppressive social structures, inherited situations, or psychological disorders. Christian anthropology is very different as it deals with the contrast that exists between Adam’s created state before the Fall and the mess of the human condition after sin.

History and Content

In the fifth and early sixth-centuries, theological anthropology was a major topic of debate. The church articulated its doctrines of the Trinity, God, Christ, and Holy Spirit in the first four centuries after Jesus Christ. The Council of Carthage (418) outlawed Pelagianism in unambiguous terms.

Pelagius asserted (against Augustine) that humans were not born corrupt but gradually made corrupt after repeatedly sinning. Though the Council of Carthage ruled against this, affirming that humans had inherited a fallen nature from Adam, many disliked the rulings. Those who questioned Carthage thought that the idea that fallen humans were unable to freely choose good in their unredeemed state was contrary to the teaching of the Bible and led to fatalism. In the seventeenth century these “dissenters” were labeled “Semi-Pelagians,” which links them much closer to the Pelagian heresy than they actually were.

After the Council of Carthage, the Council of Orange (529) was the next to deal significantly with theological anthropology. The Council insisted that death was not essential to human nature but a contingent effect of Adam’s sin, that original sin was passed from Adam to every man, that baptism was the way in which this sin was to be cleansed, and that grace was not merely an add-on to assist our own free-will but a catalyst through which we were able to do that which we could not do on our own. In addition, the Council ruled that any conception of predestination to evil (i.e., reprobation) was heretical.

Some argue that the Councils were so concerned with Pelagianism that they ruled out legitimate understandings of the grace of God and human salvation.

Some today question how firmly we must hold the rulings at Orange and Carthage. For one, the Councils of Orange and Carthage were not ecumenical councils. This means that they were not universally-affirmed by the Eastern and Western branches of the church. In addition, some argue that the Councils were so concerned with Pelagianism that they ruled out legitimate understandings of the grace of God and human salvation.

Contemporary Relevance

There are several common threads that unite both those who side with Augustine and those who wanted to avoid the heresy of Pelagius without sacrificing legitimate expressions of human freedom. Both sides absolutely affirms “that humanity’s present condition does not correspond to God’s ultimate purpose and original intention in its creation.” Moreover, they agreed that humans are responsible for their sinful condition, and that God is ultimately responsible for reversing the curse and restoring that which had been broken. Put differently, salvation is by grace alone and nothing that humans can do could warrant their acceptance before a holy God. This is an offense to most contemporary secular anthropologies. Christians believe that the problem with humanity is not something imposed upon us over which we had no control. Instead, we understand that it is we who are the problem—we choose sin over obedience—death over life.