Free Will – Antinomianism, Pelagianism, Semipelagianism, and the Augustine Dogma


What do the terms “Pelagianism,” “Semi-Pelagianism,” and “Arminianism” mean, and how do they relate to each other?


The terms “Pelagianism,” “Semi-Pelagianism,” and “Arminianism” have in common that they all present a form of synergistic theology; that s, the beginning of man’s salvation, in regeneration, is not accomplished by the sole and unilateral act of God, but is produced by God and man “working together,” in some sense. Each of these synergistic systems is in opposition to “Calvinism” or “Augustinianism,” which teaches that God sovereignly gives to each of his elect a new, living heart which cannot do otherwise than believe in Christ, and so be justified and eternally saved.

Pelagianism, the first and most radical of these synergistic theologies, was expounded by a fourth-century British monk named Pelagius. Pelagius taught that man’s nature was not affected by Adam’s fall, but that all men are still free to choose good or evil, to obey God or disobey him. Men are not guilty by nature, but only become guilty when they choose to do that which is evil; and Adam’s failure did not corrupt his offspring, it just gave them a bad example, which they could choose to follow or not to follow. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, was Pelagius’ great adversary, and he taught that man is bound in sin according to the scriptures, and that God’s commands do not imply man’s moral ability to obey them. Pelagianism was officially condemned by the Church in AD 431, at the Council of Ephesus.

“Semi-Pelagianism” is a Reformation-era term that came to designate a softer sort of Pelagianism that arose after the Council of Ephesus, in the sixth century. According to Semi-Pelagianism, man is not free to choose good or evil, but he is at least free to make the first move to God, to turn to him in faith, and so be given the power to choose good by God’s grace. Man is not free to do good in his fallen nature, but he is at least able to believe and come to God in his own native strength. This softer variety of Pelagianism was officially condemned by the Church in 529, at the Council of Orange; however, the Reformers rightly recognized that the Roman church of the sixteenth century had become thoroughly Semi-Pelagian again.

“Arminianism” refers to the teachings of Jacobus Arminius, and the five points of the Remonstrance which he headed. According to Arminius, man is not so depraved that he cannot naturally seek God; God’s election of men is based on his foreseeing the faith they would come to in time; the atonement of Christ was intended for every person on earth, but whether it will actually be applied to anyone in particular rests upon his free decision to believe or not to believe; God’s grace is sufficient to enable men to believe if they so choose, but does not necessitate faith; and after a man has come to a genuine saving faith in Christ, he is still free to turn aside and fall away from grace, and so be eternally lost. The Synod of Dort, in 1618-1619, officially condemned Arminianism, and upheld the so-called five points of Calvinism; however, there are many Protestant churches and denominations today that hold to an Arminian theology. Arminianism differs from Semi-Pelagianism in the former’s teaching on prevenient grace: against Semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism usually teaches that man does not have the natural ability to believe; however, God extends his prevenient grace to all men without exception, giving them all the moral ability to choose to believe or not to believe. Whether or not any man is actually saved depends entirely on whether a person chooses to improve upon this prevenient grace, and believe in God




Antinomianism anti, against, and nomoslaw)


The heretical doctrine that Christians are exempt from the obligations of moral law. The term first came into use at the Protestant Reformation, when it was employed by Martin Luther to designate the teachings of Johannes Agricola and his sectaries, who, pushing a mistaken and perverted interpretation of the Reformer’s doctrine of justification by faith alone to a far-reaching but logical conclusion, asserted that, as good works do not promote salvation, so neither do evil works hinder it; and, as all Christians are necessarily sanctified by their very vocation and profession, so as justified Christians, they are incapable of losing their spiritual holiness, justification, and final salvation by any act of disobedience to, or even by any direct violation of the law of God. This theory — for it was not, and is not necessarily, anything more than a purely theoretical doctrine, and many professors of Antinomianism, as a matter of fact, led, and lead, lives quite as moral as those of their opponents — was not only a more or less natural outgrowth from the distinctively Protestant principle of justification by faith, but probably also the result of an erroneous view taken with regard to the relation between the Jewish and Christian dispensations and the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Doubtless a confused understanding of the Mosaic ceremonial precepts and the fundamental moral law embodied in the Mosaic code was to no small extent operative in allowing the conception of true Christian liberty to grow beyond all reasonable bounds, and to take the form of a theoretical doctrine of unlimited licentiousness.

Although the term designating this error came into use only in the sixteenth century, the doctrine itself can be traced in the teaching of the earlier heresies. Certain of the Gnostic sect — possibly, for example, Marcion and his followers, in their antithesis of the Old and New Testament, or the Carpocratians, in their doctrine of the indifference of good works and their contempt for all human laws — held Antinomian or quasi-Antinomian views. In any case, it is generally understood that Antinomianism was professed by more than one of the Gnostic schools. Several passages of the New Testament writings are quoted in support of the contention that even as early as Apostolic times it was found necessary to single out and combat this heresy in its theoretical or dogmatic as well as in its grosser and practical form. The indignant words of St. Paulin his Epistles to the Romans and to the Ephesians (Romans 3:8, 316:1Ephesians 5:6), as well as those of St. Peter, the Second Epistle (2 Peter 2:18, 19), seem to lend direct evidence in favour of this view. Forced into a somewhat doubtful prominence by the “slanderers” against whom the Apostle found it necessary to warn the faithful, persisting spasmodically in several of the Gnostic bodies, and possibly also coloring some of the tenets of the Albigenses, Antinomianism reappeared definitely, as a variant of the Protestant doctrine of faith, early in the history of the German Reformation. At this point it is of interest to note the sharp controversy that it provoked between the leader of the reforming movement in Germany and his disciple and fellow townsman, Johannes Agricola. Schitter, or Schneider, sometimes known as the Magister Islebius, was born at Eisleben in 1492, nine years after the birth of Luther. He studied and afterwards, taught, at Wittenberg, whence, in 1525, he went to Frankfort with the intention of teaching and establishing the Protestant religion there. But shortly afterwards, he returned to his native town, where he remained until 1536, teaching in the school of St. Andrew, and drawing considerable attention to himself as a preacher of the new religion by the courses of sermons that he delivered in the Nicolai Church. In 1536 he was recalled to Wittenberg and given a chair at the University. Then the Antinomian controversy, which had really begun some ten years previously, broke out afresh, with renewed vigor and bitterness. Agricola, who was undoubtedly anxious to defend and justify the novel doctrine of his leader upon the subject of grace and justification, and who wished to separate the new Protestant view more clearly and distinctly from the old Catholic doctrine of faith and good works, taught that only the unregenerate were under the obligation of the law, whereas regenerate Christians were entirely absolved and altogether free from any such obligation. Though it is highly probable that he made Agricola responsible for opinions which the latter never really held, Luther attacked him vigorously is six dissertations, showing that “the law gives man the consciousness of sin, and that the fear of the law is both wholesome and necessary for the preservation of morality and of divine, as well as human, institutions”; and on several occasions Agricola found himself obliged to retract or modify his Antinomian teaching. In 1540 Agricola, forced to this step by Luther, who had secured to this end the assistance of the Elector of Brandenburg, definitely recanted. But it was not long before the wearisome controversy was reopened by Poach of Erfurt (1556). This led ultimately to an authoritative and complete statement, on the part of the Lutheran, of the teaching upon the subject by the German Protestant leaders, in the fifth and sixth articles of the “Formula Concordiae”. St. Alphonsus Liguori states that after Luther’s death Agricola went to Berlin, commenced teaching his blasphemies again, and died there, at the age of seventy-four, without any sign of repentance; also, that Florinundus calls the Antinomians “Atheists who believe in neither God nor the devil.” So much for the origin and growth of the Antinomian heresy in the Lutheran body. Among the high Calvinists also the doctrine was to be found in the teaching that the elect do not sin by the commission of actions that in themselves are contrary to the precepts of the moral law, which the Anabaptists of Munster had no scruple in putting these theories into actual practice. <hardpoint=”ad-cathen-middle” categories=”4674472789+5369458742+1557183615″> </hardpoint=”ad-cathen-middle”>

From Germany Antinomianism soon travelled to England, where it was publicly taught, and in some cases even acted upon, by many of the sectaries during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. The state of religion in England, as well as in the Colonies, immediately preceding and during this troublesome period of history was an extraordinary one, and when the independents obtained the upper hand there was no limit to the vagaries of the doctrines, imported or invented, that found so congenial a soil in which to take root and spread. Many of the religious controversies that then arose turned naturally upon the doctrines of faith, grace, and justification which occupied so prominent a place in contemporary thought, and in these controversies Antinomianism frequently figured. A large number of works, tracts, and sermons of this period are extant in which the fierce and intolerant doctrines of the sectaries are but thinly veiled under the copious quotation from the Scriptures that lend so peculiar an effect to their general style. In the earlier part of the seventeenth century, Dr. Tobias Crisp, Rector of Brinkwater (b. 1600), was accused, in the company of others, of holding and teaching similar views. His most notable work is “Christ Alone Exalted” (1643). His opinions were controverted with some ability by Dr. Daniel Williams, the founder of the Dissenters’ Library. Indeed, to such an extent were extreme Antinomian doctrines held, and even practiced, as early as the reign of Charles I, that, after Cudworth’s sermon against the Antinomians (on John 2:3-4) was preached before the Commons of England (1647), the Parliament was obliged to pass severe enactments against them (1648). Anyone convicted on the oaths of two witnesses of maintaining that the moral law of the Ten Commandments was no rule for Christians, or that a believer need not repent or pray for pardon of sin, was bound publicly to retract, or, if he refused, be imprisoned until he found sureties that he would no more maintain the same. Shortly before this date, the heresy made its appearance in America, where, at Boston, the Antinomian opinions of Anne Hutchinson were formally condemned by the Newton Synod (1636) ….



.. the doctrine of Christian grace was everywhere vague and undefined; even the West was convinced of nothing more than that some sort of assistance was necessary to salvation and was given gratuitously, while the nature of this assistance was but little understood. In the East, moreover, as an offset to widespread fatalism, the moral power and freedom of the will were at times very strongly or even too strongly insisted on assisting grace being spoken of more frequently than preventing grace (see GRACE). It was due to the intervention of St. Augustine and the Church, that greater clearness was gradually reached in the disputed questions..


Of far-reaching influence upon the further progress f Pelagianism was the friendship which Pelagius contracted in Rome with Caelestius, a lawyer of noble (probably Italian) descent. A eunuch by birth, but endowed with no mean talents, Caelestius had been won over to asceticism by his enthusiasm for the monastic life, and in the capacity of a lay-monk he endeavored to convert the practical maxims learnt from Pelagius, into theoretical principles, which successfully propagated in RomeSt. Augustine, while charging Pelagius with mysteriousness, mendacity, and shrewdness, calls Caelestius (De peccat. orig., xv) not only “incredibly loquacious”, but also open-hearted, obstinate, and free in social intercourse. Even if their secret or open intrigues did not escape notice, still the two friends were not molested by the official Roman circles. But matters changed when in 411 they left the hospitable soil of the metropolis, which had been sacked by Alaric (410), and set sail for North Africa. When they landed on the coast near Hippo, Augustine, the bishop of that city, was absent, being fully occupied in settling the Donatist disputes in Africa. Later, he met Pelagius in Carthage several times, without, however, coming into closer contact with him. After a brief sojourn in North Africa, Pelagius travelled on to Palestine, while Caelestius tried to have himself made a presbyter in Carthage. But this plan was frustrated by the deacon Paulinus of Milan, who submitted to the bishop, Aurelius, a memorial in which six theses of Caelestius — perhaps literal extracts from his lost work “Contra traducem peccati” — were branded as heretical. These theses ran as follows:

1.       Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died.

2.       Adam’s sin harmed only himself, not the human race.

3.       Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall.

4.       The whole human race neither dies through Adam’s sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of Christ.

5.       The (Mosaic Law) is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel.

6.       Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin.

On account of these doctrines, which clearly contain the quintessence of Pelagianism, Caelestius was summoned to appear before a synod at Carthage (411); but he refused to retract them, alleging that the inheritance of Adam’s sin was an open question and hence its denial was no heresy. As a result, he was not only excluded from ordination, but his six theses were condemned. He declared his intention of appealing to the pope in Rome, but without executing his design went to Ephesus in Asia Minor, where he was ordained a priest.

Meanwhile the Pelagian ideas had infected a wide area, especially around Carthage, so that Augustine and other bishops were compelled to take a resolute stand against them in sermons and private conversations. Urged by his friend Marcellinus, who “daily endured the most annoying debates with the erring brethren”, St. Augustine in 412 wrote the famous works: “De peccatorum meritis et remissione libri III” (P.L., XLIV, 109 sqq.) and “De spiritu et litera” (ibid., 201 sqq.), in which he positively established the existence of original sin, the necessity of infant baptism, the impossibility of a life without sin, and the necessity of interior grace (spiritus) in opposition to the exterior grace of the law (litera). When in 414 disquieting rumours arrived from Sicily and the so-called “Definitiones Caelestii” (reconstructed in Garnier, “Marii Mercatoris Opera”, I, 384 sqq., Paris, 1673), said to be the work of Caelestius, were sent to him, he at once (414 or 415) published the rejoinder, “De perfectione justitiae hominis” (P.L., XLIV, 291 sqq.), in which he again demolished the illusion of the possibility of complete freedom from sin. Out of charity and in order to win back the …


dogmatic critique

He who would place the reason of predestination either in man alone or in God alone would inevitably be led into heretical conclusions about eternal election. In the one case the error concerns the last end, in the other the means to that end. Let it be noted that we do not speak of the “cause” of predestination, which would be either the efficient cause (God), or the instrumental cause (grace), or the final cause (God’s honor), or the primary meritorious cause, but of the reason or motive which induced God from all eternity to elect certain definite individuals to grace and glory. The principal question then is: Does the natural merit of man exert perhaps some influence on the Divine election to grace and glory? If we recall the dogma of the absolute gratuity of Christian grace, our answer must be outright negative (see GRACE). To the further question whether Divine predestination does not at least take into account the supernatural good works, the Church answers with the doctrine that heaven is not given to the elect by a purely arbitrary act of God’s will, but that it is also the reward of the personal merits of the justified (see MERIT). Those who, like the Pelagians, seek the reason for predestination only in man’s naturally good works, evidently misjudge the nature of the Christian heaven which is an absolutely supernatural destiny. As Pelagianism puts the whole economy of salvation on a purely natural basis, so it regards predestination in particular not as a special grace, much less as the supreme grace, but only as a reward for natural merit.






The monks of Southern Gaul, who dwelt in peace at Marseilles and on the neighboring island of Lerinum (Lérins), read the above-cited and other passages of Augustine with other and more critical eyes than the monks at Hadrumetum. Abbot John Cassian of the monastery of St. Victor at Marseilles, a celebrated and holy man, was, together with his fellow-monks, especially repelled by the arguments of St. Augustine. The Massilians, as they were called, were known throughout the Christian world as holy and virtuous men, conspicuous for their learning and asceticism. They had heartily acquiesced in the condemnation of Pelagianism by the Synod of Carthage (418) and the “Tractoria” of Pope Zosimus (418), and also in the doctrines of original sin and grace. They were, however, convinced that Augustine in his teaching concerning the necessity and gratuity especially of prevenient grace (gratia prœcedens seu prœveniens) far overshot the mark. Cassian had a little earlier expressed his views concerning the relation of grace and freedom in his “Conferences” (Collatio xxiv in P.L., XLIX, 477 sqq.). As a man of Eastern training and a trusted disciple of St. John Chrysostom, he had taught that the free will was to be accorded somewhat more initiative than he was accustomed to find in the writings of Augustine. With unmistakable reference to Hippo, he had endeavored in his thirteenth conference to demonstrate from Biblical examples that God frequently awaits the good impulses of the natural will before coming to its assistance with His supernatural grace; while the grace often preceded the will, as in the case of Matthew and Peter, on the other hand the will frequently preceded the grace, as in the case of Zacchæus and the Good Thief on the cross. This view was no longer Augustinian; it was really “half Pelagianisin“. To such a man and his adherents, among whom the monk Hilarius (already appointed Bishop of Arles in 428) was conspicuous, the last writings from Africa must have appeared a masked reproof and a downright contradiction.

Thus, from being half friendly, the Massilians developed into determined opponents of Augustine. Testimony as to this change of feeling is supplied by two non-partisan laymen, Prosper of Aquitaine and a certain Hilarius, both of whom in their enthusiasm for the newly-blossoming monastic life voluntarily shared in the daily duties of the monks. In two distinct writings (St. Augustine, Epp. ccxxv-xxvi in P.L., XXXIII, 1002-12) they gave Augustine a strictly matter-of-fact report of the theological views of the Massilians. They sketched in the main the following picture, which we complete from other sources:

1.       In distinguishing between the beginning of faith (initium fidei) and the increase of faith (augmentum fidei), one may refer the former to the power of the free will, while the faith itself and its increase is absolutely dependent upon God;

2.       the gratuity of grace is to be maintained against Pelagius in so far as every strictly natural merit is excluded; this, however, does not prevent nature and its works from having a certain claim to grace;

3.       as regards final perseverance in particular, it must not be regarded as a special gift of grace, since the justified man may of his own strength persevere to the end;

4.       the granting or withholding of baptismal grace in the case of children depends on the Divine prescience of their future conditioned merits or misdeeds.

This fourth statement, which is of a highly absurd nature, has never been condemned as heresy; the three other propositions contain the whole essence of Semipelagianism.

The aged Augustine gathered all his remaining strength to prevent the revival of Pelagianism which had then been hardly overcome. He addressed (428 or 429) to Prosper and Hilarius the two works “De prædestinatione sanctorum” (P.L., XLIV, 959 sqq.) and “De dono perseverantiæ” (P.L., XLIV, 993 sqq.). In refuting their errors, Augustine treats his opponents as erring friends, not as heretics, and humbly adds that, before his episcopal consecration (about 396), he himself had been caught in a “similar error”, until a passage in the writings of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 4:7) had opened his eyes, “thinking that the faith, by which we believe in God, is not the gift of God, but is in us of ourselves, and that through it we obtain the gifts whereby we may live temperately, justly, and piously in this world” (De prædest. sanct., iii, 7). The Massilians, however, remained unappeased, the last writings of Augustine making no impression upon them. Offended at this obstinacy, Prosper believed the time had arrived for public polemics. He first described the new state of the question in a letter to a certain Rufinus (Prosper Aquit., “Ep. ad Rufinum de gratia et libero arbitrio”, in P.L., XLI 77 sqq.), lashed in a poem of some thousand hexameters (Peri achariston, “hoc est de ingratis”, in P.L., LI, 91 sqq.) the ingratitude of the “enemies of grace”, and directed against an unnamed assailant — perhaps Cassian himself — his “Epigrammata in obtrectatorem Augustini” (P.L., XLI, 149 sqq.), written in clegiacs. At the time of the composition of this poem (429-30), Augustine was still alive.



dogmatic critique

he Semipelagians, too, depreciated the gratuity and the strictly supernatural character of eternal happiness by ascribing at least the beginning of faith (initium fidei) and final perseverance (donum perseverantiœ) to the exertion of man’s natural powers, and not to the initiative of preventing grace. This is one class of heresies which, slighting God and His grace, makes all salvation depend on man alone. But no less grave are the errors into which a second group falls by making God alone responsible for everything, and abolishing the free co-operation of the will in obtaining eternal happiness. This is done by the advocates of heretical Predestinarianism, embodied in its purest form in Calvinism and Jansenism. Those who seek the reason of predestination solely in the absolute Will of God are logically forced to admit an irresistibly efficacious grace (gratia irresistibilis), to deny the freedom of the will when influenced by grace and wholly to reject supernatural merits (as a secondary reason for eternal happiness). And since in this system eternal damnation, too, finds its only explanation in the Divine will, it further follows that concupiscence acts on the sinful will with an irresistible force, that there the will is not really free to sin, and that demerits cannot be the cause of eternal damnation.

Between these two extremes the Catholic dogma of predestination keeps the golden mean, because it regards eternal happiness primarily as the work of God and His grace, but secondarily as the fruit and reward of the meritorious actions of the predestined. The process of predestination consists of the following five steps: (a) the first grace of vocation, especially faith as the beginning, foundation, and root of justification; (b) a number of additional, actual graces for the successful accomplishment of justification; (c) justification itself as the beginning of the state of grace and love; (d) perseverance or at least the grace of a happy death; (e) lastly, the admission to eternal bliss. If it is a truth of Revelation that there are many who, following this path, seek and find their eternal salvation with infallible certainty, then the existence of Divine predestination is proved (cf. Matthew 25:34Revelation 20:15). St. Paul says quite explicitly (Romans 8:28 sq.): “we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints. For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son; that he might be the first born amongst many brethren. And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified.” (Cf. Ephesians 1:4-11) Besides the eternal “foreknowledge” and foreordaining, the Apostle here mentions the various steps of predestination: “vocation”, “justification”, and “glorification”. This belief has been faithfully preserved by Tradition through all the centuries, especially since the time of Augustine.



St. Augustine – On Grace and Free Will 


Chapter 4. — The Divine Commands Which are Most Suited to the Will Itself Illustrate Its Freedom.

What is the import of the fact that in so many passages God requires all His commandments to be kept and fulfilled? How does He make this requisition, if there is no free will? What means the happy man, of whom the Psalmist says that his will has been the law of the Lord? Does he not clearly enough show that a man by his own will takes his stand in the law of God? Then again, there are so many commandments which in some way are expressly adapted to the human will; for instance, there is, Be not overcome of evilRomans 12:1 and others of similar import, such as, Be not like a horse or a mule, which have no understanding; and, Reject not the counsels of your mother; Proverbs 1:8 and, Be not wise in your own conceit; Proverbs 3:7 and, Despise not the chastening of the Lord; Proverbs 3:11 and, Forget not my law; Proverbs 3:1 and, Forbear not to do good to the poor; Proverbs 3:27 and, Devise not evil against your friend; Proverbs 3:29 and, Give no heed to a worthless womanProverbs 5:2 and, He is not inclined to understand how to do good; and, They refused to attend to my counsel; Proverbs 1:30 with numberless other passages of the inspired Scriptures of the Old Testament. And what do they all show us but the free choice of the human will? So, again, in the evangelical and apostolic books of the New Testament what other lesson is taught us? As when it is said, Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth; Matthew 6:19and, Fear not them which kill the body; Matthew 10:28 and, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself; Matthew and again, Peace on earth to men of good will. Luke 2:14 So also that the Apostle Paul says: Let him do what he wills; he sins not if he marry. Nevertheless, he that stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own will, and has so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, does well. 1 Corinthians 7:36-37 And so again, If I do this willingly, I have a reward; 1 Corinthians 9:17 while in another passage he says, Be sober and righteous, and sin not; 1 Corinthians 15:34 and again, As you have a readiness to will, so also let there be a prompt performance;2 Corinthians 8:11 then he remarks to Timothy about the younger widows, When they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they choose to marry. So in another passage, All that will to live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution;2 Timothy 3:12 while to Timothy himself he says, Neglect not the gift that is in you. 1 Timothy 4:14 Then to Philemon he addresses this explanation: That your benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but of your own will. Servants also he advises to obey their masters with a good will. Ephesians 6:7 In strict accordance with this, James says: Do not err, my beloved brethren . . . and have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ with respect to persons; and, Do not speak evil one of another. James 4:11 So also John in his Epistle writes, Do not love the world, 1 John 2:15 and other things of the same import. Now wherever it is said, Do not do this, and Do not do that, and wherever there is any requirement in the divine admonitions for the work of the will to do anything, or to refrain from doing anything, there is at once a sufficient proof of free will. No man, therefore, when he sins, can in his heart blame God for it, but every man must impute the fault to himself. Nor does it detract at all from a man’s own will when he performs any act in accordance with God. Indeed, a work is then to be pronounced a good one when a person does it willingly; then, too, may the reward of a good work be hoped for from Him concerning whom it is written, He shall reward every man according to his works. Matthew 16:27  

Chapter 6 [IV.]— God’s Grace to Be Maintained Against the Pelagians; The Pelagian Heresy Not an Old One.

It is, however, to be feared lest all these and similar testimonies of Holy Scripture (and undoubtedly there are a great many of them), in the maintenance of free will, be understood in such a way as to leave no room for God’s assistance and grace in leading a godly life and a good conversation, to which the eternal reward is due; and lest poor wretched man, when he leads a good life and performs good works (or rather thinks that he leads a good life and performs good works), should dare to glory in himself and not in the Lord, and to put his hope of righteous living in himself alone; so as to be followed by the prophet Jeremiah’s malediction when he says, Cursed is the man who has hope in man, and makes strong the flesh of his arm, and whose heart departs from the Lord. Jeremiah 17:5 Understand, my brethren, I pray you, this passage of the prophet. Because the prophet did not say, Cursed is the man who has hope in his own self, it might seem to some that the passage, Cursed is the man who has hope in man, was spoken to prevent man having hope in any other man but himself. In order, therefore, to show that his admonition to man was not to have hope in himself, after saying, Cursed is the man who has hope in man, he immediately added, And makes strong the flesh of his arm. He used the word arm to designate power in operation. By the term flesh, however, must be understood human frailty. And therefore he makes strong the flesh of his arm who supposes that a power which is frail and weak (that is, human) is sufficient for him to perform good works, and therefore puts not his hope in God for help. This is the reason why he subjoined the further clause, And whose heart departs from the Lord. Of this character is the Pelagian heresy, which is not an ancient one, but has only lately come into existence. Against this system of error there was first a good deal of discussion; then, as the ultimate resource, it was referred to sundry episcopal councils, the proceedings of which, not, indeed, in every instance, but in some, I have dispatched to you for your perusal. In order, then, to our performance of good works, let us not have hope in man, making strong the flesh of our arm; nor let our heart ever depart from the Lord, but let it say to him, Be Thou my helper; forsake me not, nor despise me, O God of my salvation.

Chapter 7. — Grace is Necessary Along with Free Will to Lead a Good Life.

Therefore, my dearly beloved, as we have now proved by our former testimonies from Holy Scripture that there is in man a free determination of will for living rightly and acting rightly; so now let us see what are the divine testimonies concerning the grace of God, without which we are not able to do any good thing. And first of all, I will say something about the very profession which you make in your brotherhood. Now your society, in which you are leading lives of continence, could not hold together unless you despised conjugal pleasure. Well, the Lord was one day conversing on this very topic, when His disciples remarked to Him, If such be the case of a man with his wife, it is not good to marry. He then answered them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. Matthew 19:10 And was it not to Timothy’s free will that the apostle appealed, when he exhorted him in these words: Keep yourself continent? 1 Timothy 5:22 He also explained the power of the will in this matter when He said, Having no necessity, but possessing power over his own will, to keep his virgin. 1 Corinthians 7:37 And yet all men do not receive this saying, except those to whom the power is given. Now they to whom this is not given either are unwilling or do not fulfil what they will; whereas they to whom it is given so will as to accomplish what they will. In order, therefore, that this saying, which is not received by all men, may yet be received by some, there are both the gift of God and free will.


Catholic controversies

he theory of predestination ante prævisa merita

This theory, championed by all Thomists and a few Molinists (as Bellarmine, Francisco Suárez, Francis de Lugo), asserts that God, by an absolute decree and without regard to any future supernatural merits, predestined from all eternity certain men to the glory of heaven, and then, in consequence of this decree, decided to give them all the graces necessary for its accomplishment. In the order of time, however, the Divine decree is carried out in the reverse order, the predestined receiving first the graces preappointed to them, and lastly the glory of heaven as the reward of their good works. Two qualities, therefore, characterize this theory: first, the absoluteness of the eternal decree, and second, the reversing of the relation of grace and glory in the two different orders of eternal intention (ordo intentionis) and execution in time (ordo executionis). For while grace (and merit), in the order of eternal intention, is nothing else than the result or effect of glory absolutely decreed, yet, in the order of execution, it becomes the reason and partial cause of eternal happiness, as is required by the dogma of the meritoriousness of good works (see MERIT). Again, celestial glory is the thing willed first in the order of eternal intention and then is made the reason or motive for the graces offered, while in the order of execution it must be conceived as the result or effect of supernatural merits. This concession is important, since without it the theory would be intrinsically impossible and theologically untenable.

But what about the positive proof? The theory can find decisive evidence in Scripture only on the supposition that predestination to heavenly glory is unequivocally mentioned in the Bible as the Divine motive for the special graces granted to the elect. Now, although there are several texts (e.g. Matthew 24:22 sq.Acts 13:48, and others) which might without straining be interpreted in this sense, yet these passages lose their imagined force in view of the fact that other explanations, of which there is no lack, are either possible or even more probable. The ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans in particular is claimed by the advocates of absolute predestination as that “classical” passage wherein St. Paul seems to represent the eternal happiness of the elect not only as the work of God’s purest mercy, but as an act of the most arbitrary will, so that grace, faith, justification must be regarded as sheer effects of an absolute, Divine decree (cf. Romans 9:18: “Therefore he hath mercy on whom he will; and whom he will, he hardeneth”). Now, it is rather daring to quote one of the most difficult and obscure passages of the Bible as a “classical text” and then to base on it an argument for bold speculation. To be more specific, it is impossible to draw the details of the picture in which the Apostle compares God to the potter who hath “power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour” (Romans 9:21), without falling into the Calvinistic blasphemy that God predestined some men to hell and sin just as positively as he pre-elected others to eternal life. It is not even admissible to read into the Apostle’s thought a negative reprobation of certain men. For the primary intention of the Epistle to the Romans is to insist on the gratuity of the vocation to Christianity and to reject the Jewish presumption that the possession of the Mosaic Law and the carnal descent from Abraham gave to the Jews an essential preference over the heathens. But the Epistle has nothing to do with the speculative question whether or not the free vocation to grace must be considered as the necessary result of eternal predestination to celestial glory [cf. Franzelin, “De Deo uno”, thes. lxv (Rome, 1883)].

It is just as difficult to find in the writings of the Fathers a solid argument for an absolute predestination. The only one who might be cited with some semblance of truth is St. Augustine, who stands, however, almost alone among his predecessors and successors. Not even his most faithful pupils, Prosper and Fulgentius, followed their master in all his exaggerations. But a problem so deep and mysterious, which does not belong to the substance of Faith and which, to use the expression of Pope Celestine I (d. 432), is concerned with profundiores difficilioresque partes incurrentium quæstionum (cf. Denz., n. 142), cannot be decided on the sole authority of Augustine. Moreover, the true opinion of the African doctor is a matter of dispute even among the best authorities, so that all parties claim him for their conflicting views [cf. O. Rottmanner, “Der Augustinismus” (Munich, 1892); Pfülf, “Zur Prädestinationslehre des hl. Augustinus” in “Innsbrucker Zeitschrift für kath. Theologie”, 1893, 483 sq.]. As to the unsuccessful attempt made by Gonet and Billuart to prove absolute predestination ante prævisa merita “by an argument from reason”, see Pohle, “Dogmatik”, II, 4th ed., Paderborn, 1909, 443 sq.

The theory of the negative reprobation of the damned

What deters us most strongly from embracing the theory just discussed is not the fact that it cannot be dogmatically proved from Scripture or Tradition, but the logical necessity to which it binds us, of associating an absolute predestination to glory, with a reprobation just as absolute, even though it be but negative. The well-meant efforts of some theologians (e.g. Billot) to make a distinction between the two concepts, and so to escape the evil consequences of negative reprobation, cannot conceal from closer inspection the helplessness of such logical artifices. Hence the earlier partisans of absolute predestination never denied that their theory compelled them to assume for the wicked a parallel, negative reprobation — that is, to assume that, though not positively predestined to hell, yet they are absolutely predestined not to go to heaven (cf. above, I, B). While it was easy for the Thomists to bring this view into logical harmony with their præmotio physica, the few Molinists were put to straits to harmonize negative reprobation with their scientia media. In order to disguise the harshness and cruelty of such a Divine decree, the theologians invented more or less palliative expressions, saying that negative reprobation is the absolute will of God to “pass over” a priori those not predestined, to “overlook” them, “not to elect” them, “by no means to admit” them into heaven. Only Gonet had the courage to call the thing by its right name: “exclusion from heaven” (exclusio a gloria).

In another respect, too, the adherents of negative reprobation do not agree among themselves, namely, as to what is the motive of Divine reprobation. The rigorists (as Alvarez, Estius, Sylvius) regard as the motive the sovereign will of God who, without taking into account possible sins and demerits, determined a priori to keep those not predestined out of heaven, though He did not create them for hell.

A second milder opinion (e.g. de Lemos, GottiGonet), appealing to the Augustinian doctrine of the massa damnata, finds the ultimate reason for the exclusion from heaven in original sin, in which God could, without being unjust, leave as many as He saw fit. The third and mildest opinion (as Goudin, Graveson, Billuart) derives reprobation not from a direct exclusion from heaven, but from the omission of an “effectual election to heaven“; they represent God as having decreed ante prævisa merita to leave those not predestined in their sinful weakness, without denying them the necessary sufficient graces; thus they would perish infallibility (cf. “Innsbrucker Zeitschrift für kath. Theologie”, 1879, 203 sq.).

Whatever view one may take regarding the internal probability of negative reprobation, it cannot be harmonized with the dogmatically certain universality and sincerity of God’s salvific will. For the absolute predestination of the blessed is at the same time the absolute will of God “not to elect” a priori the rest of mankind (Suarez), or which comes to the same, “to exclude them from heaven” (Gonet), in other words, not to save them. While certain Thomists (as Bañez, Alvarez, Gonet) accept this conclusion so far as to degrade the “voluntas salvifica” to an ineffectual “velleitas”, which conflicts with evident doctrines of revelation, Francisco Suárez labours in the sweat of his brow to safeguard the sincerity of God’s salvific will, even towards those who are reprobated negatively. But in vain. How can that will to save be called serious and sincere which has decreed from all eternity the metaphysical impossibility of salvation? He who has been reprobated negatively, may exhaust all his efforts to attain salvation: it avails him nothing. Moreover, in order to realize infallibly his decreeGod is compelled to frustrate the eternal welfare of all excluded a priori from heaven, and to take care that they die in their sins. Is this the language in which Holy Writ speaks to us? No; there we meet an anxious, loving father, who wills not “that any should perish, but that all should return to penance” (2 Peter 3:9). Lessius rightly says that it would be indifferent to him whether he was numbered among those reprobated positively or negatively; for, in either case, his eternal damnation would be certain. The reason for this is that in the present economy exclusion from heaven means for adults practically the same thing as damnation. A middle state, a merely natural happiness, does not exist.

The theory of predestination post prævisa merita

This theory defended by the earlier Scholastics (Alexander of HalesAlbertus Magnus), as well as by the majority of the Molinists, and warmly recommended by St. Francis de Sales “as the truer and more attractive opinion”, has this as its chief distinction, that it is free from the logical necessity of upholding negative reprobation. It differs from predestination ante prævisa merita in two points: first, it rejects the absolute decree and assumes a hypothetical predestination to glory; secondly, it does not reverse the succession of grace and glory in the two orders of eternal intention and of execution in time, but makes glory depend on merit in eternity as well as in the order of time. This hypothetical decree reads as follows: Just as in time eternal happiness depends on merit as a condition, so I intended heaven from all eternity only for foreseen merit. — It is only by reason of the infallible foreknowledge of these merits that the hypothetical decree is changed into an absolute: These and no others shall be saved.

This view not only safeguards the universality and sincerity of God’s salvific will, but coincides admirably with the teachings of St. Paul (cf. 2 Timothy 4:8), who knows that there “is laid up” (reposita estapokeitai) in heaven “a crown of justice”, which “the just judge will render” (reddetapodosei) to him on the day of judgment. Clearer still is the inference drawn from the sentence of the universal Judge (Matthew 25:34 sq.): “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat” etc. As the “possessing” of the Kingdom of Heaven in time is here linked to the works of mercy as a condition, so the “preparation” of the Kingdom of Heaven in eternity, that is, predestination to glory is conceived as dependent on the foreknowledge that good works will be performed. The same conclusion follows from the parallel sentence of condemnation (Matthew 25:41 sq.): “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat” etc. For it is evident that the “everlasting fire of hell” can only have been intended from all eternity for sin and demerit, that is, for neglect of Christian charity, in the same sense in which it is inflicted in time. Concluding a pari, we must say the same of eternal bliss. This explanation is splendidly confirmed by the Greek Fathers. Generally speaking, the Greeks are the chief authorities for conditional predestination dependent on foreseen merits. The Latins, too, are so unanimous on this question that St. Augustine is practically the only adversary in the Occident. St. Hilary (In Ps. lxiv, n. 5) expressly describes eternal election as proceeding from “the choice of merit” (ex meriti delectu), and St. Ambrose teaches in his paraphrase of Rom., viii, 29 (De fide, V, vi, 83): “Non enim ante prædestinavit quam præscivit, sed quorum merita præscivit, eorum præmia prædestinavit” (He did not predestine before He foreknew, but for those whose merits He foresaw, He predestined the reward). To conclude: no one can accuse us of boldness if we assert that the theory here presented has a firmer basis in Scripture and Tradition than the opposite opinion.


The Pelagian Controversy y R.C. Sproul

“Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.” This passage from the pen of Saint Augustine of Hippo was the teaching of the great theologian that provoked one of the most important controversies in the history of the church, and one that was roused to fury in the early years of the fifth century.

The provocation of this prayer stimulated a British monk by the name of Pelagius to react strenuously against its contents. When Pelagius came to Rome sometime in the first decade of the fifth century, he was appalled by the moral laxity he observed among professing Christians and even among the clergy. He attributed much of this malaise to the implications of the teaching of Saint Augustine, namely that righteousness could only be achieved by Christians with the special help of divine grace.

With respect to Augustine’s prayer, “Oh God, grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire,” Pelagius had no problems with the second part. He believed that God’s highest attribute was indeed His righteousness, and from that righteousness He had the perfect right Himself to obligate His creatures to obey Him according to His law. It was the first part of the prayer that exercised Pelagius, in which Augustine asked God to grant what He commands. Pelagius reacted by saying that whatever God commands implies the ability of the one who receives the command to obey it. Man should not have to ask for grace in order to be obedient.

Now, this discussion broadened into further debates concerning the nature of Adam’s fall, the extent of corruption in our humanity that we describe under the rubric “original sin,” and the doctrine of baptism.

It was the position of Pelagius that Adam’s sin affected Adam and only Adam. That is to say, as a result of Adam’s transgression there was no change wrought in the constituent nature of the human race. Man was born in a state of righteousness, and as one created in the image of God, he was created immutably so. Even though it was possible for him to sin, it was not possible for him to lose his basic human nature, which was capable always and everywhere to be obedient. Pelagius went on to say that it is, even after the sin of Adam, possible for every human being to live a life of perfect righteousness and that, indeed, some have achieved such status.

Pelagius was not opposed to grace, only to the idea that grace was necessary for obedience. He maintained that grace facilitates obedience but is not a necessary prerequisite for obedience. There is no transfer of guilt from Adam to his progeny nor any change in human nature as a subsequence of the fall. The only negative impact Adam had on his progeny was that of setting a bad example, and if those who follow in the pathway of Adam imitate his disobedience, they will share in his guilt, Pelagius asserted, but only by being actually guilty themselves. There can be no transfer or imputation of guilt from one man to another according to the teaching of Pelagius. On the other side, Augustine argued that the fall seriously impaired the moral ability of the human race. Indeed, the fall of Adam plunged all of humanity into the ruinous state of original sin. Original sin does not refer to the first sin of Adam and Eve, but refers to the consequences for the human race of that first sin. It refers to God’s judgment upon the whole human race by which He visits upon us the effects of Adam’s sin by the thoroughgoing corruption of all of his descendants. Paul develops this theme in the fifth chapter of his epistle to the Romans.

The key issue for Augustine in this controversy was the issue of fallen man’s moral ability — or lack thereof. Augustine argued that prior to the fall, Adam and Eve enjoyed a free will as well as moral liberty. The will is the faculty by which choices are made. Liberty refers to the ability to use that faculty to embrace the things of God. After the fall, Augustine said the will, or the faculty, of choosing remained intact; that is, human beings are still free in the sense that they can choose what they want to choose. However, their choices are deeply influenced by the bondage of sin that holds them in a corrupt state. And as a result of that bondage to sin, the original liberty that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall was lost.

The only way that moral liberty could be restored would be through God’s supernatural work of grace in the soul. This renewal of liberty is what the Bible calls a “royal” liberty (James 2:8). Therefore, the crux of the matter had to do with the issue of moral inability as the heart of original sin. The controversy yielded several church verdicts including the judgment of the church in a synod in the year 418, where the Council of Carthage condemned the teachings of Pelagius. The heretic was exiled to Constantinople in 429. And once again, Pelagianism was condemned by the church at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Throughout church history, again and again, unvarnished Pelagianism has been repudiated by Christian orthodoxy. Even the Council of Trent, which teaches a form of semi-Pelagianism, in its first three canons — especially in the sixth chapter on justification — repeats the church’s ancient condemnation of the teaching of Pelagius that men can be righteous apart from grace. Even as recently as the modern Roman Catholic catechism, that condemnation is continued.

In our own day, the debate between Pelagianism and Augustinianism may be seen as the debate between humanism and Christianity. Humanism is a warmed-over variety of Pelagianism. However, the struggle within the church now is between the Augustinian view and various forms of semi-Pelagianism, which seeks a middle ground between the views of Pelagius and Augustine. Semi-Pelagianism teaches that grace is necessary to achieve righteousness, but that this grace is not imparted to the sinner unilaterally or sovereignly as is maintained by Reformed theology. Rather, the semi-Pelagian argues that the individual makes the initial step of faith before that saving grace is given. Thus, God imparts the grace of faith in conjunction with the sinner’s work in seeking God. It seems a little mixing of grace and works doesn’t worry the semi-Pelagian. It is our task, however, if we are to be faithful first to Scripture and then to the church’s ancient councils, to discern Augustine’s truth and defend it aright.





TULIP and Reformed Theology: An Introduction 




Tulip, the Five Points of Calvinism

T ~Total Depravity This lesson examines human nature, and the mechanism by which sin and death spread to all. Is it by heredity or by contagion?

U ~Unconditional ElectionHas God unconditionally chosen or elected some people for eternal life, whilst passing others by?

L ~Limited AtonementThe question uppermost in our mind, when we consider the doctrine of “Limited Atonement” is this: Did Jesus die for some and not for others?

I  ~Irresistable GraceCan anyone resist the grace of God? This Bible study answers that question as it relates to human nature and God’s will.

P ~Perseverance of the SaintsCan a saved person cease to be saved and become lost again? The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints says No. Is that right or wrong?

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