Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


Click to enlarge

Semipelagianism, a doctrine of grace advocated by monks of Southern Gaul at and around Marseilles after 428. It aimed at a compromise between the two extremes of Pelagianism and Augustinism, and was condemned as heresy at the Ecumenical Council of Orange in 529 after disputes extending over more than a hundred years. The name Semi pelagianism was unknown both in Christian antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages; during these periods it was customary to designate the views of the Massilians simply as the “relics of the Pelagians” (reliquice Pelagianorum), an expression found already in St. Augustine (Ep. ccxxv, n. 7, in P.L., XXXIII, 1006). The most recent investigations show that the word was coined between 1590 and 1600 in connection with Molina’s doctrine of grace, in which the opponents of this theologian believed they saw a close resemblance to the heresy of the monks of Marseilles (cf. “Revue des sciences philos. et theol.”, 1907, pp. 506 sqq.). After this confusion had been exposed as an error, the term Semipelagianism was retained in learned circles as an apt designation for the early heresy only.

ORIGIN OF SEMIPELAGIANISM (A.D. 420-30).—In opposition to Pelagianism, it was maintained at the General Council of Carthage in 418 as a principle of faith that Christian grace is absolutely necessary for the correct knowledge and performance of good, and that perfect sinlessness is impossible on earth even for the justified. Since these declarations coincided only with a portion of St. Augustine’s doctrine of grace, the anti-Pelagians could without reproof Continue their opposition to other points in the teaching of the African Doctor. This opposition Augustine was soon to encounter in his immediate neighborhood. In 420 he found himself compelled to direct to a certain Vitalis of Carthage, who was an opponent of Pelagius and recognized the Synod of Carthage (418), paternal instructions concerning the necessity of grace at the very beginning of the assent of the will in faith and concerning the absolute gratuity of grace (Ep. ccxvii in P.L., XXXIII, 978 sqq.). As is clear from the tenor of this writing, Vitalis was of the opinion that the beginning of faith springs from the free will of nature, and that the essence of “prevenient grace” consists in the preaching of the Christian doctrine of salvation. On the basis of such faith man, as Vitalis held, attains justification before God. This view was entirely “Semipelagian”. To controvert it, Augustine pointed out that the grace preceding faith must be an interior enlightenment and strengthening, and that the preaching of the Word of God could not, unassisted, accomplish this; consequently the implanting of grace in the soul by God is necessary as a preliminary condition for the production of real faith, since otherwise the customary prayer of the Church for the grace of conversion for unbelievers would be superfluous. Augustine also introduces his view of an absolute predestination of the elect, without however especially emphasizing it, by remarking: “Cum tam multi salvi non fiant, non quia ipsi, sed quia Deus non vult” (Since so many are not saved, not because they themselves do not will it, but because God does not will it). Vitalis seems to have acquiesced and to have disclaimed the “error of Pelagius”.

The second dispute, which broke out within the walls of the African monastery of Hadrumetum in 424, was not so easily settled. A monk named Florus, a friend of St. Augustine, had while on a journey sent to his fellow-monks a copy of the long epistle which Augustine had addressed in 418 to the Roman priest, afterwards Pope Sixtus III (Ep. cxciv in P.L., XXXIII, 874 sqq.). In this epistle all merit before the reception of grace was denied faith represented as the most gratuitous gift of God, and absolute predestination to grace and glory defended. Aroused to great anger by this letter, “more than five monks” inflamed their companions to such an extent that the tumult seemed destined to overwhelm the good abbot, Valentinus. On his return, Florus was loaded with the most violent reproaches for sending such a present, and he and the majority, who were followers of Augustine, were accused of maintaining that free will was no longer of any account, that on the last day all would not be judged according to their works, and that monastic discipline and correction (correptio) were valueless. Informed of the outbreak of this unrest by two young monks, Cresconius and Felix, Augustine sent to the monastery in 426 or 427 the work, “De gratia et libero arbitrio” (P.L., XLIV, 881 sqq.), in which he maintains that the efficacy of Divine grace impairs neither the freedom of the human will nor the meritoriousness of good works, but that it is grace which causes the merits in us. The work exercised a calming influence on the heated spirits of Hadrumetum.

Apprised of the good effect of this book by Florus himself, Augustine dedicated to the abbot and his monks a second doctrinal writing, “De correptione et gratia” (P.L., XLIV, 915 sqq.), in which he explains in the clearest fashion his views upon grace. He informed the monks that correction is by no means superfluous, since it is the means by which God works. As for the freedom to sin, it is in reality not freedom, but slavery of the will. True freedom of the will is that effected by grace, since it makes the will free from the slavery of sin. Final perseverance is likewise a gift of grace, inasmuch as he to whom God has granted it will infallibly persevere. Thus, the number of those predestined to heaven from eternity is so determined and certain, that “no one is added or subtracted”. This second work seems to have been also received approvingly by the mollified monks; not so by subsequent ages, since this ominous book, together with other utterances, has given occasion to the most violent controversies concerning the efficacy of grace and predestination. All advocates of heretical predestinarianism, from Lucidus and Gottschalk to Calvin, have appealed to Augustine as their crown-witness, while Catholic theologians see in Augustine’s teaching at most only a predestination to glory, with which the later “negative reprobation” to hell is parallel. Augustine is entirely free from Calvin’s idea that God positively predestined the damned to hell or to sin. Many historians of dogma (Harnack, Loofs, Rottmanner, etc.) have passed a somewhat different censure on the work, maintaining that the Doctor of Hippo, his rigorism increasing with his age, has here expressed most clearly the notion of “irresistible grace” (gratia irresistibilis), on which Jansenism later erected, as is known, its entire heretical system of grace. As the clearest and strongest proof of this contention, the following passage (De correptione et gratia, xxxviii) is cited: “Subventum est igitur infirmitati voluntatis human, ut divina gratia indeclinabiliter et insuperabiliter ageretur et ideo, quamvis infirma, non tamen deficeret neque adversitate aiiqua vinceretur.” Is this not clearly the “inevitable and unconquerable grace” of Jansenism? The mere analysis of the text informs us better. The antithesis and the position of the words do not allow us to refer the terms “inevitably and unconquerably” to the grace as such, they must be referred to the “human will” which, in spite of its infirmity, is, by grace, made “unyielding and unconquerable” against the temptation to sin. Again the very easily misunderstood term ageretur is not to be explained as “coercion against one’s will” but as “infallible guidance”, which does not exclude the continuation of freedom of will (cf. Mausbach, “Die Ethik des hl. Augustins”, II, Freiburg, 1909, p. 35).

The monks of Southern Gaul, who dwelt in peace at Marseilles and on the neighboring island of Lerinum (Lerins), 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 “Trattoria” 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 praecedens seu praeveniens) 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 Zacchaeus and the Good Thief on the cross. This view was no longer Augustinian; it was really “half Pelagianism”. 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: (I) In distinguishing between the beginning of faith (indium fidei) and the increase of faith (augmentum fdei), 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 praedestinatione sanctorum” (P.L., XLIV, 959 sqq.) and “De dono perseverantae” (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 (I Cor., iv, 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 praedest. 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 (Greek: 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 elegiacs. At the time of the composition of this poem (429-30), Augustine was still alive.

THE CULMINATION OF SEMIPELAGIANISM (430-519).—On August 29, 430, while the Vandals were besieging his episcopal city, St. Augustine died. As his sole champions, he left his disciples, Prosper and Hilarius, on the scene of conflict in Southern Gaul. Prosper; rightly known as his “best disciple”, alone engaged in writing, and, immersed as he was in the rich and almost inexhaustible mind of the greatest of all the Doctors of the Church, he subsequently devoted the utmost pains to soften down with noble tact the roughness and abruptness of many of his master’s propositions. Filled with the conviction that they could not successfully engage such learned and respected opponents, Prosper and Hilary journeyed to Rome about 431 to urge Pope Celestine I to take official steps against the Semipelagians. Without issuing any definitive decision, the pope contented himself with an exhortation to the bishops of Gaul (P.L., L, 528 sqq.), protecting the memory of Augustine from calumniation and imposing silence on the innovators. On his return Prosper could claim henceforth to be engaging in the conflict “in virtue of the authority of the Apostolic See” (cf. P.L., LI, 178: “ex auctoritate apostolic sedis). His war was “pro Augustino”, and in every direction he fought on his behalf. Thus, about 431-32, he repelled the “calumnies of the Gauls” against Augustine in his “Responsiones ad capitula objectionum Gallorum” (P.L., LI, 155 sqq.), defended temperately in his “Responsiones ad capitula objectionum Vincentianarum” (P.L., LI 177 sqq.), the Augustinian teaching concerning predestination, and finally, in his “Responsiones ad excerpta Genuensium” (P.L., LI, 187 sqq.), explained the sense of excerpts which two priests of Genoa had collected from the writings of Augustine concerning predestination, and had forwarded to Prosper for interpretation. About 433 (434) he even ventured to attack Cassian himself, the soul and head of the whole movement, in his book, “De gratia et libero arbitrio contra Collatorem” (P.L., LI, 213 sqq.). The already delicate situation was thereby embittered, notwithstanding the friendly concluding sentences of the work. Of Hilary, Prosper’s friend, we hear nothing more. Prosper himself must have regarded the fight as hopeless for the time being, since in 434—according to Loofs; other historians give the year 440-he shook the dust of Gaul from his feet and left the land to its fate. Settling at Rome in the papal chancery, he took no further part directly in the controversy, although even here he never wearied propagating Augustine’s doctrine concerning grace, publishing several treatises to spread and defend it. The Massilians now took the field, confident of victory. One of their greatest leaders, the celebrated Vincent of Lerins, under the pseudonym of Peregrinus made in 434 concealed attacks on Augustine in his classical and otherwise excellent work, “Commonitorium pro catholicie fidei veritate” (P.L., L, 637 sqq), and in individual passages frankly espoused Semipelagianism. This booklet should probably be regarded as simply a “polemical treatise against Augustine”.

That Semipelagianism remained the prevailing tendency in Gaul during the following period, is proved by Arnobius the Younger, so called in contrast to Arnobius the Elder of Sicca (about 303). A Gaul by birth, and skilled in exegesis, Arnobius wrote about 460 extensive explanations of the Psalms (“Commentarii in Psalmos” in P.L., LIII, 327 sqq.) with a tendency towards allegorizing and open tilts at Augustine’s doctrine of grace. Of his personal life nothing is known to us. Certain works from other pens have been wrongly ascribed to him. Thus, the collection of scholia (“Adnotationes ad quiedam evangeliorum loca” in P.L., LIII, 569 sqq.), formerly attributed to him, must be referred to the pre-Constantine period, as B. Grundi has recently proved (cf. “Theol. Quartalschr.”, Tubingen, 1897, 555 sqq.). Likewise, the work “Conflictus Arnobii catholici cum Serapione Aegyptio” (P.L., LIII, 239 sqq.) cannot have been written by our Arnobius, inasmuch as it is entirely Augustinian in spirit. When Baumer wished to assign the author-ship to Faustus of Riez (“Katholik”, II, Mainz, 1887, pp. 398 sqq.), he overlooked the fact that Faustus also was a Semipelagian (see below), and that, in any case, so dilettante a writing as the above could not be ascribed to the learned Bishop of Riez. The true author is to be sought in Italy, not in Gaul. His chief object is to prove against Monophysitism, in the form of a disputation, the agreement in faith between Rome and the Greek champions of Orthodoxy, Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria. Naturally Arnobius overcomes the Egyptian Serapion. One can therefore scarcely err in regarding the “Catholic Arnobius” as an obscure monk living in Rome. Until recent times the authorship of the work called the “Liber praedestinatus” was also commonly ascribed to our Arnobius. The sub-title reads: “Praedestinatorum haeresis et libri S. Augustino temere adscripti refutatio” (P.L., LIII, 587 sqq.). Dating from the fifth century and divided into three parts, this work, which was first published by J. Sirmond in 1643, attempts under the mask of ecclesiastical authority to refute Augustine’s doctrine of grace together with the heretical Predestinarianism of pseudo-Augustine. As the third part is not merely Semipelagianism but undisguised Pelagianism, von Schubert has of late rightly concluded (“Der sog. Praedestinatus, ein Beitrag zur Gesch. des Pelagianismus”, Leipzig, 1903) that the author wrote about 440 in Italy, perhaps at Rome itself, and was one of the associates of Julian of Eclanum (for further particulars see Predestinarianism).

The most important representative of Semipelagianism after Cassian was undoubtedly the celebrated Bishop Faustus of Riez. When the Gallic priest Lucidus had drawn on himself, on account of his heretical predestinationism, the condemnation of two synods (Arles, 473; Lyons, 474), Faustus was commissioned by the assembled bishops to write a scientific refutation of the condemned heresy; hence his work, “De gratia libri II” (P.L., LVIII, 783 sqq.). Agreeing neither with the “pestifer doctor Pelagius” nor with the “error pra destinationis” of Lucidus, he resolutely adopted the standpoint of John Ca Sian. Like him, he denied the necessity of prevenient grace at the beginning of justification, and compares the will to a “small hook” (qumdam voluntatis ansula) which reaches out and seizes grace. Of predestination to heaven and final perseverance as a “special grace” (gratia specialis, personalis) he will not hear. That he sincerely believed that by these propositions he was condemning not a dogma of the Church, but the false private views of St. Augustine, is as certain in his case as in that of his predecessors Cassian and Hilary of Arles (see above). Consequently, their objectively reprehensible but subjectively excusable action has not prevented France from honoring these three men as saints even to this day. The later Massilians were as little conscious as the earlier that they had strayed from the straight line of orthodoxy and the infallible authority of the Church had not yet given a decision.

One should, however, speak only of a predominance, and not of a supremacy, of Semipelagianism at this period. In proof of this statement we may cite two anonymous writings, which appeared most probably in Gaul itself. About 430 an unknown writer, recognized by Pope Gelasius as “probatus ecclesiae magister”, composed the epoch-making work, “De vocatione omnium gentium” (P.L., LI, 647 sqq.). It is an honest and skillful attempt to soften down the contradictions and to facilitate the passage from Semipelagianism to a moderate Augustinism. To harmonize the universality of the will of redemption with restricted predestination, the anonymous author distinguishes between the general provision of grace (benignitas generalis) which excludes no one, and the special care of God (gratia specialis), which is given only to the elect. As suggestions towards this distinction are already found in St. Augustine, we may say that this work stands on Augustinian ground (cf. Loofs, “Dogmengesch.”, 4th ed., Leipzig, 1906, p. 391). Another anonymous writing dating from the middle of the fifth century reckoned among the works of Augustine, and edited by the Academy of Vienna, bears the title: “Hypomnesticon contra Pelagianos et Coelestianos” (Corpus scriptor. ecclesiast. latin., X, 1611 sqq.). It contains a refutation of Semipelagianism, as it condemns the foundation of predestination on the “faith foreseen” by God (fides praevisa). But it also sharply challenges the irresistibility of grace and predestination to hell. As the ground for eternal damnation the Divine foresight of sin is given, although the author cannot help seeing that eternal punishment as the consequence of sin is settled from all eternity. A third work deserves special attention, inasmuch as it reflects the views of Rome towards the end of the fifth century; it is entitled: “Indiculus seu praeteritorum Sedis Apostolicae episcoporum auctoritates” (in Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchiridion”, Freiburg, 1908, nn. 129-42), and emphasizes in twelve chapters the powerlessness of man to raise himself, the absolute necessity of grace for all salutary works, and the special grace-character of final perseverance. The “deeper and more difficult questions” concerning grace, as they emerged in the course of the discussion, were passed over as superfluous. The Augustinian standpoint of the compiler is as unmistakable as the anti-Semipelagian tendency of the whole work. Regarded in earlier times and to some extent even today as a papal instruction sent by Celestine I to the bishops of Gaul together with the document mentioned above, this appendix, or “indiculus”, is now considered unauthentic and its origin referred to the end of the fifth century. It is certain that about A.D. 500 this work was recognized as the official expression of the views of the Apostolic See.

Decline and End of Semipelagianism (519-30).—Not at Rome or in Gaul, but after a roundabout passage through Constantinople, the Semipelagian strife was to break out with new violence. It happened in this wise: In 519, Scythian monks under Johannes Maxentius who was versed in Latin literature, appeared at Constantinople with the intention of having inserted in the symbol of the Council of Chalcedon (451) the Christological formula, “Unus de s. Trinitate in came crucifixus est”, in view of the Theopaschite quarrel, which was then raging. In this clause the fanatical monks saw the “standard of orthodoxy”, and regarded the solemn reception of the same into the symbol as the most efficacious means of overthrowing Monophysitism. With their untimely proposition they importuned even the papal legates, who were entrusted with the negotiations for the reestablishment of official relations between Rome and Byzantium. When Bishop Possessor from Africa approached the hesitating legates with quotations from the works of the recently-deceased Faustus of Riez, Maxentius did not hesitate to denounce Possessor and his abettors curtly as “partisans of Pelagius” (sectatores Pelagii; cf. Maxentius, “Ep. ad legatos” in P.G., LXXXVI, 85). Thus the question of the orthodoxy of Faustus suddenly arose, and simultaneously that of Semipelagianism in general; henceforth, the conflict never abated until its final settlement. As no decision could be reached without the concurrence of Rome, Maxentius started for Rome in June, 519, with several fellow-monks to lay their petition before Pope Hormisdas. During their fourteen months’ residence at Rome they left no means untried to induce the pope to recognize the Christological formula and to condemn Faustus. Hormisdas, however, refused to yield to either request. On the contrary, in a reply to Bishop Possessor of August 20, 520, he complains bitterly of the tactless and fanatical conduct of the Scythian monks at Rome (cf. A. Thiel, “Epistole Romanor. Pontif. genuine”, I, Braunsberg, 1868, 929). As for Faustus, Hormisdas declares in the same letter that his works certainly contain much that is distorted (incongrua) and is, moreover, not included among the recognized writings of the Fathers. The sound doctrine on grace and freedom could be taken from the writings of St. Augustine.

This evasive answer of the pope, showing no inclination to meet their wishes, was far from pleasing to Maxentius and his companions. Turning elsewhere for support Maxentius formed a league of the African bishops, who, in consequence of the Vandal persecution of the Catholics under King Thrasamund (496-523), were living in exile on the Island of Sardinia. Fulgentius of Ruspe, the most learned of the exiles, inquired into the matter on behalf of his fellow-bishops. In a long epistle (Fulgentius, Ep. xvii, “De incarnation et gratia”, in P.L., LXV, 451 sqq.), he gratified the Scythian monks by approving the orthodoxy of the Christological formula and the condemnation of Faustus of Riez. Unfortunately his polemical work in seven books against Faustus is lost, but in his numerous writings, which he composed partly during his exile in Sardinia and partly after his return to Africa, there breathes a spirit so truly Augustinian that he has been rightly called the “epitomized Augustine”. The blow dealt to Faustus had its effect both in Gaul and at Rome. Bishop Caesarius of Arles, although a pupil of Lerins, subscribed to the Augustinian doctrine of grace, and his views were shared by many of the Gallic episcopate. Other bishops were indeed still inclined towards Semipelagianism. At a Synod of Valence (528 or 529) Caesarius was attacked on account of his teaching, but was able to reply effectively. Having been assured of the “authority and support of the Apostolic See“, he summoned on July 3, 529, the sharers of his views to the Second Synod of Orange, which condemned Semipelagianism as heresy. In twenty-five canons the entire powerlessness of nature for good, the absolute necessity of prevenient grace for salutary acts, especially for the beginning of faith, the absolute gratuity of the first grace and of final perseverance, were defined, while in the epilogue the predestination of the will to evil was branded as heresy (cf. Denzinger-Bannwart, nn. 174-200). As Pope Boniface II solemnly ratified the decrees in the following year (530), the Synod of Orange was raised to the rank of an ecumenical council. It was the final triumph of the dead Augustine, the “Doctor of Grace“.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!