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In our preceding article we began calling attention to the doctrine of Semi-Pelagianism. How true it is that the union of the Pelagian and Augustinian elements never really satisfies either the one interest or the other! Compromises never satisfy. And, as we noted in our preceding article, the view known as Semi-Pelagianism is really more dangerous than outright Pelagianism. Any attempt which takes off the sharp edges constitutes a sinister attack upon the fundamentals of the Word of God. It is well, therefore, that we pay attention to this doctrine known as Semi-Pelagianism and trace its historical development in the church of God. This is important because the enemies of the truth always resort to these tactics to introduce heresy and the lie into the Church of the living God. We are reminded, in this connection, of what we read inEph. 4:14-15: “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into Him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.” How unmercifully the apostle here attacks the enemies of the truth. He declares of them that they introduce heresy with cunning craftiness, that they lie in wait to deceive, that all these winds of doctrine are by or “in” the sleight of men, born in, have their origin in this sleight of men, and this “sleight” of men means that these men gamble with the truth. 

Calling attention to the main features of the origin and progress of this school, which produced this Semi-Pelagianism, Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, 859, ff., writes as follows:

The Pelagian system had been vanquished by Augustine, and rejected and condemned as heresy by the church. This result, however, did not in itself necessarily imply the complete approval of the Augustinian system. Many, even opponents of Pelagius recoiled from a position so wide of the older fathers as Augustine’s doctrines of the bondage of man and the absolute election of grace, and preferred a middle ground.

Here we wish to make a comment. Schaff remarks that the rejection and condemnation of the Pelagian heresy by the church did not in itself necessarily imply the complete approval of the Augustinian system. How true! And how characteristic of the struggle for the truth within the Church throughout the ages! The Church of God does not stand very long upon the pinnacle of the truth of the Word of God. The forces of heresy always continue to operate within the Church of the Lord. This also applies to the Augustinian system of sin and grace and its emphasis upon the sovereign character of Divine predestination. 

Of this development Schaff continues and writes as follows:

First the monks of the convent of Adrumetum in North Africa differed among themselves over the doctrine of predestination; some perverting it to carnal security, others plunging from it into anguish and desperation, and yet others feeling compelled to lay more stress than Augustine upon human freedom and responsibility (this opposition to Divine predestination as expressed in emphasizing human freedom and responsibility we also encounter in our present day—H.V.). Augustine endeavored to allay the scruples of these monks by writing two treatises, De gvatia et libero arbitvio, and De correptione et giatia. The abbot Valentinus answered these in the name of the monks in a reverent and submissive tone. 

But simultaneously a more dangerous opposition to the doctrine of predestination arose in Southern Gaul, in the form of a regular theological school within the Catholic church (we must bear in mind that the “Catholic Church” here does not refer to the present, Roman Catholic Church, but to the Church of God in those days which was truly Catholic or universal—H.V.). The members of this school were first called “remnants of the Pelagians,” but commonly Massilians, from Massilia (Marseilles), their chief centre, and afterwards Semi-Pelagians. Augustine received an account of this from two learned and pious lay friends, Prosper, and Hilarius, who begged that he himself would take the pen against it. This was the occasion of his two works, De Praedestinatioue sanctonlm, and De dong pevseverentiae, with which he worthily closed his labors as an author. He deals with these disputants more gently than with the Pelagians, and addresses them as brethren. After his death (430) the discussion was continued principally in Gaul; for then North Africa was disquieted by the victorious invasion of the Vandals, which for several decades shut it out from the circle of theological and ecclesiastical activity. 

At the head of the Semi-Pelagian party stood John Cassian, the founder and abbot of the monastery of Masstiia, a man of thorough cultivation, rich experience, and unquestioned orthodoxy. He was a grateful disciple of Chrysostom, who ordained him deacon, and apparently also presbyter. He is treated thoroughly and at length by Wiggers. He has been mistakenly supposed a Scythian. His name and his fluent Latinity indicate an occidental origin. Yet he was in part educated at Bethlehem and in Constantinople, and spent seven years among the anchorites in Egypt. He mentioned John Chrysostom even in the evening of his life with grateful veneration. His Greek training and his predilection for monasticism were a favorable soil for his Semi-Pelagian theory. He labored awhile in Rome with Pelagius, and afterwards in Southern France, in the cause of monastic piety, which he efficiently promoted by exhortation and example. Monasticism sought in cloistered retreats a protection against the allurements of sin, the desolating incursions of the barbarians, and the wretchedness of an age of tumult and confusion. But the enthusiasm for the monastic life tended strongly to over-value external sects and ascetic discipline, and resisted the free evangelical bent of the Augustinian theology. Cassian wrote twelve books, in which he first describes the outward life of the monks, and then their inward conflicts and victories over the eight capital vices: intemperance, unchastity, avarice, anger, sadness, dullness, ambition, and pride. More important are his fourteen treatises, conversations which Cassian and his friend Germanus had had with the most experienced ascetics in Egypt, during a seven years’ sojourn there.

I believe it is striking that a man as Cassian should be at the head of the Semi-Pelagian party. He was the founder and abbot of the monastery of the monastery of Massilia. Now it is true that Augustine also advocated monasticism. But the defense of monasticism and an ascetic life does go hand in hand with Semi-Pelagianism. To conceive of the conflict of the Christian as over against the eight capital vices mentioned in the above quotation, instead of as over against the inner power of sin and corruption surely can lead to the theory that man can of himself fight these vices, and this can understandably to a semi-Pelagian conception of sin and grace.

In this work, especially in the thirteenth Colloquy, he rejects decidedly the errors of Pelagius and affirms the universal sinfulness of men, the introduction of it by the fall of Adam, and the necessity of divine grace to every individual act. But, with evident reference to Augustine, though without naming him, he combats the doctrines of election and of the irresistible and particular operation of grace, which were in conflict with the church tradition, especially with the Oriental theology, and with his own earnest ascetic legalism.

Cassian, the head of the Semi-Pelagian party, although rejecting the errors of Pelagius, nevertheless opposed the Augustinian doctrines of Divine election and the irresistible and particular character of God’s grace. In the following quotation, we note how Cassian opposed these Augustinian doctrines:

In opposition to both systems he taught that the divine image and human freedom were not annihilated, but only weakened by the fall; in other words, that man is sick, but not dead, that he cannot indeed help himself, but that he can desire the help of a physician, and either accept or refuse it when offered, and that he must co-operate with the grace of God in his salvation. The question, which of the two factors has the initiative, he answers, altogether empirically, to this effect: that sometimes, and indeed usually, the human will, as in the cases of the Prodigal Son, Zacchaeus, the Penitent Thief, and Cornelius, determines itself to conversion; sometimes grace anticipates it, and, as with Matthew and Paul, draws the resisting will—yet, even in this case, without constraint—to God. Here, therefore, the gratia praeveniens preceding grace—H.V.) is manifestly overlooked. 

These are essentially Semi-Pelagian principles, though capable of various modifications and applications. The church, even the Roman church, has rightly emphasized the necessity of prevenient grace, but has not impeached Cassian, who is properly the father of the Semi-Pelagian theory (of course, as we know, the Roman Catholic Church of today has certainly adopted the pelagian conception of grace and stands opposed to the Augustinian doctrine of Divine sovereign election and reprobation, even simply denying the latter—H.V.). Leo the Great even commissioned him to write a work against Nestorianism, in which he found an excellent opportunity to establish his orthodoxy, and to clear himself of all connection with the kindred heresies of Pelagianism and Nestorianism (the latter denies that Christ is one person—H.V.) which were condemned together at Ephesus in 431. He died after 432, at an advanced age, and though not formally canonized, is honored as a saint by some dioceses. His works are very extensively read for practical edification.

However, these sentiments of Cassian did not go unchallenged. Concerning this, Schaff writes as follows:

Against the thirteenth Colloquy of Cassian, Prosper Aquitanus, an Augustinian divine and poet, who, probably on account of the desolations of the Vandals, had left his native Aquitania for the South of Gaul, and found comfort and repose in the doctrines of election amid the wars of his age, wrote a book upon grace and freedom, about 432, in which he criticizes twelve propositions of Cassian, and declares them all heretical, except the first. He also composed a long poem in defense of Augustine and his system, and refuted the “Gallic slanders and Vincentian imputations,” which placed the doctrine of predestination in the most odious light.

However, the Semi-Pelagian doctrine was the more popular, and made great progress in France. This, of course, need not surprise us. The Augustinian and Scriptural doctrine of sin and grace is never popular. But, to this we call attention, the Lord willing, in our following article.