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Semi-pelagian Controversy

With the condemnation of Pelagianism the doctrine of Augustine in its
logically worked out details was not necessarily approved. The necessity
of baptism for the remission of sins in all cases was approved as well as
the necessity of grace. The doctrine of predestination, an essential
feature in the Augustinian system, was not only not accepted but was
vigorously opposed by many who heartily condemned Pelagianism. The ensuing
discussion, known as the Semi-Pelagian controversy (427-529), was largely
carried on in Gaul, which after the Vandal occupation of North Africa,
became the intellectual centre of the Church in the West. The leading
opponent of Augustine was John Cassian (ob. 435), abbot of a monastery at
Marseilles, hence the term Massilians applied to his party, and his pupil,
Vincent of Lerins, author of Commonitorium, written 434. The chief
Augustinians were Hilary and Prosper of Aquitaine. The discussion was not
continuous. About 475 it broke out again when Lucidus was condemned at a
council at Lyons and forced to retract his predestinarian views; and again
about 520. The matter received what is regarded as its solution in the
Council of Orange, 529, confirmed by Boniface II in 531. By the decrees of
this council so much of the Augustinian system as could be combined with
the teaching and practice of the Church as to the sacraments was formally

(a) John Cassian. Collationes, XIII. 7 ff. (MSL, 49:908.)

John Cassian, born about 360, was by birth and education a man of
the East, and does not appear in the West until 405, when he went
to Rome on some business connected with the exile of Chrysostom,
his friend and patron. In 415 he established two monasteries at
Marseilles, one for men and the other for women. He had himself
been educated as a monk and made a careful study of monasticism in
Egypt and Palestine. Western monasticism is much indebted to him
for his writings. De Institutis Coenobiorum and the
Collationes. In the former, he describes the monastic system of
Palestine and Egypt and the principal vices to which the monastic
life is liable; in the latter, divided into three parts, Cassian
gives reports or what purports to be reports of conversations he
and his friend Germanus had with Egyptian ascetics. These books
were very popular during the Middle Ages and exerted a wide

Ch. 7. When His [God's] kindness sees in us even the very smallest spark
of good-will shining forth or which He himself has, as it were, struck out
from the hard flints of our hearts, He fans it and fosters it and nurses
it with His breath, as He "will have all men to be saved and to come unto
the knowledge of the truth" [I Tim. 2:4]. For He is true and lieth not
when He lays down with an oath: "As I live, saith the Lord, I will not the
death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his way and live" [Ezek.
33:11]. For if he willeth not that one of His little ones should perish,
how can we think without grievous blasphemy that He willeth not all men
universally, but only some instead of all be saved. Those then who perish,
perish against His will, as He testifieth against each of them day by day:
"Turn from your evil ways for why will ye die, O house of Israel?" [Ezek.
33:11] The grace of Christ is then at hand every day, which, while it
"willeth all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth,"
calleth all without exception, saying: "Come all unto me all ye that labor
and are heavy laden and I will give you rest" [Matt. 11:28]. But if he
calls not all generally but only some, it follows that not all are heavy
laden with either original sin or actual sin, and that this saying is not
a true one: "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" [Rom.
3:23]; nor can we believe that "death passed on all men" [Rom. 5:12]. And
so far do all who perish, perish against the will of God, that God cannot
be said to have made death, as the Scripture itself testifieth: "For God
made not death, neither hath He pleasure in the destruction of the living"
[Wisdom 1:13].

Ch. 8. When He sees anything of good-will arisen in us He at once
enlightens it and strengthens it and urges it on to salvation, giving
increase to that which He himself implanted or He sees to have arisen by
our own effort.

Ch. 9. But that it may be still more evident that through the good of
nature, which is bestowed by the kindness of the Creator, sometimes the
beginnings of a good-will arise, yet cannot come to the completion of
virtue unless they are directed by the Lord, the Apostle is a witness,
saying: "For to will is present with me, but to perform what is good I
find not" [Rom. 7:18].

Ch. 11. If we say that the beginnings of a good-will are always inspired
in us by the grace of God, what shall we say about the faith of Zacchaeus,
or of the piety of that thief upon the cross, who by their own desire
brought violence to bear upon the Kingdom of Heaven, and so anticipated
the special leadings of their callings?

Ch. 12. We should not hold that God made man such that he neither wills
nor is able to do good. Otherwise He has not granted him a free will, if
He has suffered him only to will or be capable of evil, but of himself
neither to will nor be capable of what is good. It cannot, therefore, be
doubted that there are by nature seeds of goodness implanted in every soul
by the kindness of the Creator; but unless these are quickened by the
assistance of God, they will not be able to attain to an increase of
perfection; for, as the blessed Apostle says: "Neither is he that planteth
anything nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase" [I Cor.
3:7]. But that freedom of will is to some degree in a man's power is very
clearly taught in the book called The Pastor,(179) where two angels are
said to be attached to each one of us, i.e. a good and a bad one, while
it lies in a man's own option to choose which to follow. And, therefore,
the will always remains free in man, and it can either neglect or delight
in the grace of God. For the Apostle would not have commanded, saying,
"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" [Phil. 2:12], had he
not known that it could be advanced or neglected by us. But that they
should not think that they did not need divine aid he adds: "For it is God
who worketh in you both to will and accomplish His good pleasure" [Phil.
2:13]. The mercy of the Lord, therefore, goes before the will of man, for
it is said, "My God will prevent me with His mercy" [Psalm 59:10], and
again, that He may put our desire to the test, our will goes before God
who waits, and for our good delays.

(b) Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, chs. 2, 23, 26, (MSL, 50:659.)

The rule of Catholic verity.

Vincent of Lerins wrote his Commonitorium in 434, three years
after the death of Augustine, who had been commended in 432 to the
clergy of Gaul by Celestine of Rome [Ep. 21; Denziger, nn.
128-142; Mansi IV, 454 ff.]. Vincent attacked Augustine in his
Commonitorium, not openly, but, so far as the work has been
preserved, covertly, under the pseudonym of Peregrinus. The work
consists of two books, of which the second is lost with the
exception of what appear to be some concluding chapters, or a
summary taking the place of the book. In the first book he lays
down the general principle as to the tests of Catholic truth. In
doing so he is careful to point out several cases of very great
teachers, renowned for learning, ability, and influence, who,
nevertheless, erred against the test of Catholic truth, and
brought forward opinions which, on account of their novelty, were
false. It is a working out in detail of the principles of the idea
of Tertullian in his De Proescriptione [v. supra, 27]. The
Augustinian doctrines of predestination and grace could not stand
the test of the appeal to antiquity. After laying down his test of
truth it appears to have been the author's intention to prove
thereby the doctrine of Augustine false. The so-called "Vincentian
rule" is often quoted without a thought that it was intended,
primarily, as an attack upon Augustine. The Commonitorium may be
found translated in PNF, ser. II, vol. XI.

Ch. 2 [4]. I have often inquired earnestly and attentively of very many
men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and, so to
speak, universal rule I might be able to distinguish the truth of the
Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity, and I have always,
and from nearly all, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or
any one else should wish to detect the frauds of heretics as they arise,
or to avoid their snares, and to continue sound and complete in the faith,
we must, the Lord helping, fortify our faith in two ways: first, by the
authority of the divine Law, and then, by the tradition of the Catholic

But here some one, perhaps, will ask: Since the canon of Scripture is
complete and sufficient for everything, and more than sufficient, what
need is there to add to it the authority of the Church's interpretation?
For this reason: because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not
accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words one
way, another in another way; so that almost as many opinions may be drawn
from it as there are men. Therefore it is very necessary, on account of
so great intricacies, and of such various errors, that the rule of a right
understanding of the prophets and Apostles should be framed in accordance
with the standard of ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself all possible care should be taken
that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by
all. For that is truly and properly "Catholic" which, as the name implies
and the reason of the thing declares, comprehends all universally. This
will be the case if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent. We
shall follow universality in this way, if we confess that one faith to be
true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if
we in nowise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were
notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent in like
manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions
and determinations of all, or at least almost all, priests and doctors.

Ch. 23 [59]. The Church of Christ, the careful and watchful guardian of
the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them,
never diminishes, never adds; does not cut off what is necessary, does not
add what is superfluous, does not lose her own, does not appropriate what
is another's, but, while dealing faithfully and judiciously with ancient
doctrine, keeps this one object carefully in view--if there be anything
which antiquity has left shapeless and rudimentary, to fashion and to
polish it; if anything already reduced to shape and developed, to
consolidate and strengthen it; if any already ratified and defined, to
keep and guard it. Finally, what other objects have councils ever aimed at
in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in
simplicity, should in the future be believed intelligently; that what was
before preached coldly, should in the future be preached earnestly; that
what before was practised negligently, should henceforth be practised with
double solicitude?

Passage referring especially to Augustine.

Ch. 26 [69]. But what do they say? "If thou be the Son of God, cast
thyself down"; that is, "If thou wouldest be a son of God, and wouldest
receive the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven, cast thyself down; that
is, cast thyself down from the doctrine and tradition of that sublime
Church, which is imagined to be nothing less than the very temple of God."
And if one should ask one of the heretics who gives this advice: How do
you prove it? What ground have you for saying that I ought to cast away
the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church? he has only the
answer ready: "For it is written"; and forthwith he produces a thousand
testimonies, a thousand examples, a thousand authorities from the Law,
from the Psalms, from the Apostles, from the prophets, by means of which,
interpreted on a new and wrong principle, the unhappy soul is precipitated
from the height of Catholic truth to the lowest abyss of heresy. Then with
the accompanying promises, the heretics are wont marvellously to beguile
the incautious. For they dare to teach and promise that in their church,
that is, in the conventicle of their communion, there is a certain great
and special and altogether personal grace of God, so that whosoever
pertain to their number, without any labor, without any effort, without
any industry, even though they neither ask, nor seek, nor knock,(180) have
such a dispensation from God, that borne up of angel hands, that is,
preserved by the protection of angels, it is impossible they should ever
dash their feet against a stone, that is, that they should ever be

(c) Council of Orange, A. D. 529, Canons. Bruns II, 176. Cf.
Denziger, n. 174.

The end of the Semi-Pelagian controversy.

The Council of Orange, A. D. 529, was made up of several bishops
and some lay notables who had gathered for the dedication of a
church at Orange. Caesarius of Arles had received from Felix IV of
Rome eight statements against the Semi-Pelagian teaching. He added
some more of his own to them, and had them passed as canons by the
company gathered for the dedication. It is noteworthy that the lay
notables signed along with the bishops. Boniface II, to whom the
canons were sent, confirmed them in 532: "We approve your above
written confession as agreeable to the Catholic rule of the
Fathers." Cf. Hefele, 242. For the sources of the canons, see
Seeberg, History of Doctrines, Eng. trans., I, 380, note 3. For
the sake of brevity the scriptural quotations are not given,
merely indicated by references to the Bible.

Canon 1. Whoever says that by the offence of the disobedience of Adam not
the entire man, that is, in body and soul, was changed for the worse, but
that the freedom of his soul remained uninjured, and his body only was
subject to corruption, has been deceived by the error of Pelagius and
opposes Scripture [Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 6:16; II Peter 2:19].

Canon 2. Whoever asserts that the transgression of Adam injured himself
only, and not his offspring, or that death only of the body, which is the
penalty of sin, but not also sin, which is the death of the soul, passed
by one man to the entire human race, wrongs God and contradicts the
Apostle [Rom. 5:12].

Canon 3. Whoever says that the grace of God can be bestowed in reply to
human petition, but not that the grace brings it about so that it is asked
for by us, contradicts Isaiah the prophet and the Apostle [Is. 65:1; Rom.

Canon 4. Whoever contends that our will, to be set free from sin, may
anticipate God's action, and shall not confess that it is brought about by
the infusion of the Holy Spirit and his operation in us, that we wish to
be set free, resists that same Holy Spirit speaking through Solomon: "The
will is prepared by the Lord" [Proverbs 8:35, cf. LXX; not so in Vulgate
or Heb.], and the Apostle [Phil. 2:13].

Canon 5. Whoever says the increase, as also the beginning of faith and the
desire of believing, by which we believe in Him who justifies the impious,
and we come to the birth of holy baptism, is not by the free gift of
grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit turning our will
from unbelief to belief, from impiety to piety, but belongs naturally to
us, is declared an adversary of the apostolic preaching [Phil. 1:6; Ephes.
2:8]. For they say that faith by which we believe in God is natural, and
they declare that all those who are strangers to the Church of Christ in
some way are believing.

Canon 6. Whoever says that to us who, without the grace of God, believe,
will, desire, attempt, struggle for, watch, strive for, demand, ask,
knock, mercy is divinely bestowed, and does not rather confess that it is
brought about by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in us
that believe, will, and do all these other things as we ought, and annexes
the help of grace to human humility and obedience, and does not admit that
it is the gift of that same grace that we are obedient and humble, opposes
the Apostle [I Cor. 4:7].

Canon 7. Whoever asserts that by the force of nature we can rightly think
or choose anything good, which pertains to eternal life, or be saved, that
is, assent to the evangelical preaching, without the illumination of the
Holy Spirit, who gives to all grace to assent to and believe the truth, is
deceived by an heretical spirit, not understanding the voice of the Lord
[John 15:5], and of the Apostle [II Cor. 3:5].

Canon 8. Whoever asserts that some by mercy, others by free will, which in
all who have been born since the transgression of the first man is
evidently corrupt, are able to come to the grace of baptism, is proved an
alien from the faith. For he asserts that the free will of all has not
been weakened by the sin of the first man, or he evidently thinks that it
has been so injured that some, however, are able without the revelation of
God to attain, by their own power, to the mystery of eternal salvation.
Because the Lord himself shows how false this is, who declares that not
some, but no one was able to come to Him unless the Father drew him [John
6:4], and said so to Peter [Matt. 16:17] and the Apostle [I Cor. 12:3].

The canons that follow are less important. The whole concludes
with a brief statement regarding the points at issue, as follows:

And so according to the above sentences of the Holy Scriptures and
definitions of ancient Fathers, by God's aid, we believe that we ought to
believe and preach:

That by the sin of the first man, free will was so turned aside and
weakened that afterward no one is able to love God as he ought, or believe
in God, or do anything for God, which is good, except the grace of divine
mercy comes first to him [Phil. 1:6, 29; Ephes. 2:8; I Cor. 4:7, 7:25;
James 1:17; John 3:27].

We also believe this to be according to the Catholic faith, that grace
having been received in baptism, all who have been baptized, can and
ought, by the aid and support of Christ, to perform those things which
belong to the salvation of the soul, if they labor faithfully.

But not only do we not believe that some have been predestinated to evil
by the divine power, but also, if there are any who wish to believe so
evil a thing, we say to them, with all detestation, anathema.

Also this we profitably confess and believe, that in every good we do not
begin and afterward are assisted by the mercy of God, but without any good
desert preceding, He first inspires in us faith and love in Him, so that
we both faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism, and after baptism with
His help are able to perform those things which are pleasing to Him.
Whence it is most certainly to be believed that in the case of that thief,
whom the Lord called to the fatherland of paradise, and Cornelius the
Centurion, to whom an angel of the Lord was sent, and Zacchaeus, who was
worthy of receiving the Lord himself, their so wonderful faith was not of
nature, but was the gift of the divine bounty.

And because we desire and wish our definition of the ancient Fathers,
written above, to be a medicine not only for the clergy but also for the
laity, it has been decided that the illustrious and noble men, who have
assembled with us at the aforesaid festival, shall subscribe it with their
own hand.

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