The Doctrine of Sin, The Second Period—250-730 A.D., The Pelagian Controversy, Semi-Pelagianism

We remarked at the close of our preceding article that the Augustinian and Scriptural doctrine of sin and grace is never popular. We may recall that Cassian, the founder and abbot of the monastery of Massilia, stood at the head of the Semi-Pelagian party. A certain Prosper Aquitanus, an Augustinian divine and poet, wrote a book against this Cassian, and he also composed a long poem in defense of Augustine and his system. But, the Semi-Pelagian doctrine was the more popular and made great progress in France. We were to call attention to this development in this article.

Of interest is what Philip Schaff writes about this in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, 862 ff:

“But the Semi-Pelagian doctrine was the more popular, and made great progress in France. Its principal advocates after Cassian are the following: the presbyter-monk Vincentius of Lerinum, author of the Commonitorium, in which he developed the true catholic test of doctrine, the threefold consensus, in covert antagonism to the novel doctrines of Augustinianism (about 434); Faustus, bishop of Phegium (Riez), who at the council of Arles (475) refuted the hyper-Augustinian presbyter Lucidus, and was commissioned by the council to write a work upon the grace of God and human freedom (notice how soon after Augustine’s death, relatively speaking, a hyper Augustinian was already refuted at a church council—H.V.); Gemradius, presbyter at Marseilles (died after 495), who continued the biographical work of Jerome, down to 495, and attributed Augustine’s doctrine of predestination to his itch for writing (so, Augustine’s doctrine as emphasizing the truth of predestination was attributed simply to Augustine’s desire for writing—H.V.); Arnobius the younger; and the much discussed anonymous tract Praedestinatus (about 460), which, by gross exaggeration, and by an unwarranted imputation of logical results which Augustine had expressly forestalled, placed the doctrine of predestination in an odious light, and then refuted it (how often this is done today: first make a caricature of the doctrine of ‘predestination, and then refute it—H.V.). 

The author of the Praedestinatus says, that a treatise had fallen into his hands, which fraudulently bore upon its face the name of the orthodox teacher Augustine, in order to smuggle in, under a Catholic name, a blasphemous dogma, pernicious to the faith. On this account he had undertaken to transcribe and to refute this work. The treatise itself consists of three books; the first, following Augustine’s book, De haeuesibus, gives a description of ninety heresies from Simon Magus down to the time of the author, and brings up, as the last of them, the doctrine of a double predestination, as a doctrine which makes God the author of evil, and renders all the moral endeavors of men fruitless; the second book is the pseudo-. Augustinian treatise upon this ninetieth heresy, but is apparently merely a Semi-Pelagian caricature by the same author; the third book contains the refutation of the thus travestied pseudo-Augustinian doctrine of predestination, employing the usual Semi-Pelagian arguments. 

A counterpart to this treatise is found in an also anonymous work, which endeavors to commend Augustinianism by mitigation, in the same degree that the Praedestinatus endeavors to stultify it by exaggeration. It has been ascribed to Pope Leo I (dies 461) of whom it would not be unworthy; but it cannot be supposed that the work of so distinguished a man could have remained anonymous. The author avoids even the term pvaedistinatio, and teaches expressly, that Christ died for all men and would have all to be saved; thus rejecting the Augustinian particularism. But, on the other hand, he also rejects the Semi-Pelagian principles, and asserts the utter inability of the natural man to do good. He unhesitatingly sets grace above the human will, and represents the whole life of faith, from beginning to end, as a work of unmerited grace. He develops the three thoughts, that God desires the salvation of all men; that no one is saved by his own merits, but by grace; and that the human understanding cannot fathom the depths of divine wisdom. We must trust in the righteousness of God. Every one of the damned suffers only the righteous punishment of his sins; while no saint can boast himself in his merits, since it is only of pure grace that he is saved. But how is it with the great multitude of infants that die every year without baptism, and without opportunity of coming to the knowledge of salvation? The author feels this difficulty, without, however, being able to solve it. He calls to his help the representative character of parents, and dilutes the Augustinian doctrine of original sin to the negative conception of a mere defect of good, which, of course, also reduces the idea of hereditary guilt and the damnation of unbaptized children. He distinguishes between a general grace which comes to man through the external revelation in nature, law, and gospel, and a special grace, which effects conversion and regeneration by an inward impartation of saving power, and which is only bestowed on those that are saved. 

Semi-Pelagianism prevailed in Gaul for several decades. Under the head of Faustus of Rhegium it gained the victory in two synods, at Arles in 472 and at Lyons in 475, where Augustine’s doctrine of predestination was condemned, though without mention of his name.

And so the groundwork is laid for the Council of Orange in A.D. 529. We may note the following. The doctrine of Augustine, setting forth the Scriptural truths of man’s being saved solely by grace and the absolutely sovereign character of Divine predestination was subjected to severe criticism almost immediately upon the death of this church father. A caricature is drawn of the doctrine of predestination in which that doctrine is presented as making God the author of evil and rendering all moral endeavors of men fruitless. The teaching was set forth that Christ died for all men and that He would have all men be saved. It is true that they would hold to the teaching that man is utterly incapable of doing any good but it is also stated that the human understanding cannot fathom the depths of the wisdom of the Lord. The teaching is developed and set forth that God desires the salvation of all men. And as far as the problem is concerned concerning infants who die every year without being baptized and without the opportunity of coming to the knowledge of salvation, this presented a problem which could not be solved. It is also striking that it was also during this period that men spoke of a general and a special grace of God. The general grace of God came to man through the external revelation in nature, the law and the gospel. So, already in this period they spoke of the gospel as a proof for the general grace of God. This, of course, can mean only one thing, and that is that God would save all men through the preaching of the gospel. And then they spoke of a particular or special grace of God which effects conversion and regeneration by an inward impartation of saving power, and which is only bestowed upon those who are saved. And we do well to note that this distinction between a general and a special grace of God was the presentation of the Semi-Pelagians and of those who opposed the Augustinian system. It is certainly true that the groundwork had been laid for the Council of Orange in 529 which sealed the victory of Semi-Augustinianism. 


Concerning this Synod of Orange, Schaff writes as follows, Vol. III, 865 ff.:

But these synods (at Aries in 472 and at Lyons in 475) were only provincial, and were the cause of a schism. In North Africa and in Rome the Augustinian system of doctrine, though in a somewhat softened form attained the ascendancy. In the decree by Pope Gelasius in 496 the writings of Augustine and Prosper Aquitanus are placed among books ecclesiastically sanctioned, those of Cassian and Faustus of Rheium among the apocryphal or forbidden. Even in Gaul it found in the beginning of the sixth century very capable and distinguished advocates, especially in Avitus, archbishop of Vienne (490-523), and Caesarius, archbishop of Arles (502-542). Associated with these was Fulgentius of Ruspe (died 533) in the name of the sixty African bishops banished by the Vandals and then living in Sardinia. 

The controversy was stirred up anew by the Scythian monks, who in their zeal for the Monophysite theopaschitism, abhorred everything connected with Nestorianism, and urged first pope Hormisdas, and then with better success the exiled African bishops, to procure the condemnation of Semi-Pelagianism. 

These transactions terminated at length in the triumph of a moderate Augustinianism, or of what might be called Semi-Augustinianism, in distinction from Semi-Pelagianism. At the synod of Orange (Arausio) in the year 529, at which Caesarius of Arles was leader, the Semi-Pelagian system, yet without mention of its adherents, was condemned in twenty-five chapters or canons, and the Augustinian doctrine of sin and grace was approved, without the doctrine of absolute or particularistic predestination. A similar result was reached at a synod of Valence (Valencia), held the same year, but otherwise unknown. 

The synod of Orange, for its Augustiuian decisions in anthropology and soteriology, is of great importance. But as the chapters contain many repetitions (mostly from the Bible and the works of Augustine, and his followers, it will suffice to give extracts containing in a positive form the most important propositions.

To this synod we hope to call attention in a subsequent article. However, of this synod the Rev. H. Hoeksema writes as follows:

The synod is especially known because of its consistent condemnation of Semi-Pelagianism. For this reason many historians have the impression, and leave the impression, that this synod represents a last victory for the Augustinian conception of predestination and sovereign grace. This last, however, is not the case. The synod left much rather the impression that it was afraid of the strict Augustinian principles. His doctrine certainly was not maintained by the synod. On the one hand, and indeed rather inconsistently, the synod maintained the total incapability of man to do any good, over against the Semi-Pelagians. But, on the other hand, it denied the infallible and irresistible operation of sovereign grace. In fact, as far as predestination is concerned, the synod was satisfied simply to express that a predestination unto evil is to be condemned; in other words, it must have nothing of sovereign reprobation.

However, the Lord willing, we will call attention to this synod and its decisions in a later article.