Willing to Believe (Part 2)

Posted: October 25, 2010 by Greg Burkheimer in Church History, Original Sin, Radical Depravity

In Chapters one and two of Willing to Believe we looked at the opposing views of Pelagius and Augustine. Pelagius believed that we are capable of obedience while Augustine said we were not. It all seemed to center around this issue of original sin and it’s affects on humanity.


“If anyone says that man’s free will [when] moved and aroused by God, by assenting to God… in no way cooperates… [and] that it cannot refuse its assent if it wishes…let him be anathema!” (Council of Trent)

Chapter three covers the semi-Pelagians. Pelagianism was condemned in (A.D. 431) by the third ecumenical council in Ephesus one year after Augustine’s death. However, not everyone accepted Augustine’s views. A semi-Pelagian movement formed and was lead by John Cassian, abbot of the monastery of Massillia. Both semi-Pelagians and Augustinians rejected Pelagianism.

Cassians Concerns
Cassian had several concerns about Augustine’s views. He believed that they were new and were a departure from what the church fathers taught. Augustine’s view of predestination, Cassian said, “cripples the force of preaching, reproof, and moral energy,…plunges men into despair,” and introduces “a certain fatal necessity.” Cassian did not see the strong views of Augustine as necessary to refute Pelagius. Cassian believed that God’s grace was necessary for salvation and assists the human will in doing good but it is man, not God, who must will that which is good. Grace is given “in order that he who has begun to will may be assisted,” not to give “the power to will.” God desires to save all people, and Christ’s atonement is available to all. For Cassian, predestination is based on God’s foreknowledge and there is not a “definite number of persons to be elected or rejected,” since God wants all to be saved, and yet not all are saved.

The main difference between Cassian and Augustine was over the initial step towards salvation. For Cassian, the will is seen as spiritually sick. For Augustine the will is spiritually dead. For Cassian, God extends His grace towards the sinner and the sinner must cooperate to be regenerated. Faith comes before regeneration. For Augustine, regeneration must come before faith.

The Debate Continues
This debate continued until 529 when the Synod of Orange condemned semi-Pelagianism by rejecting that the beginning point of faith is the fallen will. The ability to do good must proceed from grace imparted by regeneration. Issues of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism were raised again in the sixteenth century during the Protestant Reformation. At the council of Trent, the church condemned Pelagianism but essentially adopted the semi-Pelagian views of the will and original sin.

In the seventeenth century, Augustinianism is reviewed again by Pasquier Quesnel. This incites a group called the Jesuits who are successful in gaining 101 condemnations of Pasquier’s work. The Jesuits condemned the entire structure of Augustine saying that it is heretical to teach that the natural man is only sinful, that faith is a gift of God, that grace is given only through faith, that faith is the first grace, and that grace is needed for all good works. The Church continued to move away from Augustine.

The Catechism
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) contains several statements that deal with human responsibility and free will. It is clear that the church has adopted a semi-Pelagian view that upholds the ability of fallen man to choose good or evil. As far as original sin goes, the church rejected Pelagian and Protestant views stating that although man has an inherited tendency to do evil it is not insurmountable. It can be overcome by engaging in a “hard battle.”

Can there be a compromise between Pelagius and Augustine? Who makes the first move when it comes to salvation? Is mans will spiritually wounded or dead? With Rome affirming that fallen man has the ability to cooperate with the grace of God, semi-Pelagianism for now, is victorious over Augustinianism.

Willing to Believe, The Controversy over Free Will by R.C. Sproul


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