Rabanus and the Victory of Semi-Pelagianism (1)

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


In the last two articles I talked about the battle between Augustine on the one hand, and Cassianus and Faustus on the other, over the doctrine of sovereign grace. This battle continued after the death of these men for 100 years, until official decisions were made by the synod of Orange (529) and approved by Pope Boniface II.

But even these decisions of Orange did not settle the matter. There continued to be defenders of Augustine and defenders of Semi-Pelagianism for another 300 years. The controversy climaxed in the life of Rabanus who, though an extremely gifted man, proved a terrible enemy of the doctrine of sovereign grace. In fact, he was the man who, more than any other, was responsible for the murder of Gottschalk, a courageous defender of sovereign grace and double predestination.

One wonders sometimes why the battle was so prolonged. There was something inevitable about the adoption of Semi-Pelagianism by the Roman Catholic Church. Given its prior history, especially its approval of monasticism, it could hardly have adopted the theology developed by Augustine. Yet, the Lord prolonged the controversy for 400 years.

It is probably not possible to determine why the Lord worked in this mysterious way. God’s ways are always higher than our ways, and the mysteries of His providence are the mysteries of the works of One who does all things perfectly from the beginning to the end of time, who knows the end from the beginning, and who sees the perfect pattern into which every event must be fitted.

But two ideas suggest themselves. The first is that the prolonged battle demonstrates vividly that, even as the clouds of apostasy lowered on the Romish Church, God preserved a faithful remnant ready to defend, at the cost of their lives, the truths of sovereign grace. The second is that the Romish Church had abundant opportunity to know the terrible error to which the church was determined to commit itself. Yet it persisted in its evil way. One is reminded of what the Lord says of Judah: “What could be done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” (Is. 5:5). And yet it brought forth wild grapes. The Romish Church has no excuse for its terrible denial of salvation by grace alone.

The story begins with Rabanus and Gottschalk.

The Life of Rabanus

Rabanus lived during the time of the great Frankish king Charlemagne, who carved out a kingdom from the wilds of France and Germany, and who is the founder of what became known as the Holy Roman Empire. Rabanus was born around 776 in Germany in the town of Mainz. He was educated in the abbey at Fulda, and thus destined for monkhood. He entered the Benedictine Order, became a deacon in 801, and went to Tours in France to study theology and the liberal arts under Alcuin, the great educator in Charlemagne’s empire.

Rabanus completed his education and returned to Fulda to teach in the school which was connected with the abbey. His administrative and teaching abilities were so great that the school grew rapidly. Attending it were many sons of noblemen, but also future ministers and teachers who, upon completing their studies, fanned out into all parts of Charlemagne’s domain.

In 814 Rabanus became a priest, and in 822 the abbott of the abbey in Fulda. The choice proved to be a good one, for Rabanus ruled the abbey well, supervised the rebuilding of the abbey itself, encouraged and promoted the building of many other churches in the surrounding area, and ruled the monks with wisdom, discretion, and firmness. He helped artistic monks to develop their talents, and instructed them to use their artistic abilities to decorate the new churches built in the area. He increased the property holdings of the monastery and made it one of the leading monasteries in the whole of Europe. He taught and preached regularly and produced an enormous amount of material. He wrote a commentary on all the canonical books of the Bible and on all the apocryphal books.

In 842, Rabanus retired to spend his time in a nearby church where he could concentrate on devotional activities and writing. However, in 847 he was called out of retirement to become archbishop of Mainz. It was during this period of his life that Rabanus showed how deeply he was committed to Roman Catholicism in its most virulent forms.


I must at this point remind our readers of Gottschalk, who, in my judgment, was one of the great men of Medieval times. I cannot give you here his entire biography, but the interested reader can find it in my book on church fathers.

Gottschalk was born in 806 and was placed by his parents in the monastery at Fulda when he was a child. Upon arriving at years of discretion he asked to have his monastic vows canceled because he had had no choice in making them when still a child. This request was first granted, but was vetoed by Rabanus, the abbott of the monastery.

Rabanus was an ardent and radical defender of monasticism and all the theology implied in that strange Roman Catholic institution. Rabanus firmly believed that once someone had taken a monastic vow, that vow was absolutely unbreakable. He could not, therefore, grant Gottschalk a release. Instead, Rabanus sent Gottschalk to Orbais to be ordained as a member of the Benedictine Convent there.

Because Gottschalk saw no hope of ever being delivered from a monastic life, he devoted himself to a study of Augustine, and became persuaded of Augustine’s teaching concerning the sovereignty of grace, including Augustine’s doctrine of double predestination. He was so enthralled with these views and their biblical character that he traveled through the Mediterranean world bringing the gospel of sovereign grace to all who would hear.

Such practices as this soon got him into trouble with the church authorities. A bishop from Verona took exception to Gottschalk’s teaching and referred the matter to Rabanus in Mainz, who was, after all, Gottschalk’s superior. Rabanus condemned Gottschalk’s views out of hand, but Gottschalk had the courage to stand up to Rabanus and condemn his views as being Semi-Pelagian. The controversy between the two soon reverberated throughout Europe.

The Synod of Mayence (848)

Because of Gottschalk’s refusal to kowtow to the judgment of Rabanus, Rabanus called a synod to meet in Mayence. Gottschalk, a bit naive, was convinced that when it was shown to the synod that what he taught was pure Augustinianism and in keeping with Scripture besides, he would be completely exonerated. He set forth his views at the synod “in the joyous conviction that it was in accordance with the one doctrine of the church” — as one historian put it. But the poor monk had no conception of ecclesiastical politics. The synod condemned him, and Rabanus handed him over to Hincmar of Rhiems (in France) with this paragraph in the accompanying letter: “We send to you this vagabond monk, in order that you may shut him up in his convent, and prevent him from propagating his false, heretical, and scandalous doctrine.”

He was now at the mercy of Hincmar, a man noted for his cruelty. Gottschalk was never to escape from the convent, nor from the prison into which he was eventually put. Beaten, starved, cruelly treated, he finally died. But he never denied his faith.

Synod of Chiersy (849)

While Gottschalk still lived, his courageous stand continued to stir up discussion, and various other synods were forced to meet to consider the matter. One such synod was the synod of Chiersy. It made every effort to persuade Gottschalk to retract his views, but it failed miserably. Gottschalk was convinced that the truth he confessed was the truth of God.

But the synod did make some notable decisions about doctrine. Concerning predestination the synod said two things. 1) God elected a people out of the fallen human race to eternal life. 2) God did not predestinate the rest that they should perish, but He predestinated them to eternal punishment because He foreknew they would not believe. This is the doctrine of conditional reprobation, taught later by the Arminians, and held to by many today.

The synod also said that grace works in such a way that man’s will is made free, so that the depravity of man’s nature is mitigated by the power of grace. This is the doctrine of preparatory grace, which is given to all who hear the gospel or to all who are baptized.

Further, God wishes that all men be saved, and expresses that wish in the preaching. So, also, Christ died for all; but the fact that His death did not set all men free “is the fault of those who are unbelieving, or who do not believe with the faith that works love.” So salvation is dependent upon the choice of man’s will made free by preparatory grace.

Gottschalk did have some supporters, men who were appalled at the cruel treatment he had received, and who were in basic agreement with his views.

Although the names mean nothing, let me just mention a few of them.

Ratramnus insisted that God is the “Ruler” though not the author of sin. In this way he insisted on the sovereignty of God over sin.

Prudentius repudiated the idea of a universal atonement and insisted that Christ died only for the elect whom it was God’s purpose to save.

Lupus agreed with Gottschalk that I Timothy 2:4 referred to different kinds of people and a limited number, not to all men head for head. He also held, against those who charged Gottschalk with creating carnal Christians with his doctrine of sovereignty, that the elect can never be carnally secure because they see their need of Christ and go to Him. Nevertheless, on the doctrine of reprobation, Lupus was weak.

All this led to another synod. To that synod, the synod of Valence, we will turn our attention next time, D.V.