Things That Go Over Heads: Grace & Freewill

One of my friends commented that my last post went over his head.  So, let’s try to sort out the content of said post.

We begin with the discussions of Grace & Freewill.  In our minds, as we look at theology in the West during Cassian’s day, two large figures arise surrounding this question: Pelagius, the heretic in favour of our ability to be saved by our own free will, and St. Augustine of Hippo, champion of salvation by the predestined grace of God.

Pelagius and his followers (some of whom went farther than he), as I understand it, taught that we only inherit Adam’s sin by bad examples.  We are born sinless and we can, through moral striving and ascetic effort, live a sinless, spotless, perfect life.  Our will is incapable of doing wrong; only our reason can do so.  We will wrong things only because we reason incorrectly.  Furthermore, of our own free will, not only can we live a perfect life, we can turn to God in faith.  God does not help the believer in this regard; to do so would be to obliterate his free will.  Since our wills are entirely good, we don’t even need God’s help!  God’s grace does not help the Christian turn in faith and be saved.

That is a heresy.  It is called Pelagianism; it is the heresy of pulling yourself up into heaven by your bootstraps.

St. Augustine, on the other hand, preached that God has predestined His elect for salvation.  We cannot will the good, since our wills are tarnished by the stain of Adam’s sin — for in Adam, as St. Paul says, all die.  Yes, we are saved through faith, but this faith is still bolstered by grace.  God’s grace enables us to have the faith whereby we are justified.  God is sovereign to save, and we are not.  No amount of effort and moral striving will save us from our sins; we are saved only by God’s grace, the grace that, in fact, enables us to live moral lives.

This is orthodoxy.  It is called predestination and is common to John Calvin and Martin Luther.

John Cassian, however, acknowledges that the Bible seems to say that we can, of our own free will, turn to God.  He also acknowledges that, due to our utter sinfulness, we require grace to be saved.  Throughout his works, as I mentioned, he runs counter to Pelagianism by stating the necessity of Grace in the ascetic life and that the monk must needs turn to God and his grace to be able to live as he should.  He gets into trouble, nonetheless, for stating that there is the possibility that someone could have the seed of faith and of turning to God of his own free will.  He qualifies this by saying that the grace of God takes this little seed and helps it germinate in the life of faith.  Cassian warns against Pelagianism on the one hand and extreme forms of predestinarianism (such as predestination unto death) on the other.

Cassian is accused by his opponent Prosper of Aquitaine — one of the men who helped forge Mediaeval “Augustinianism” — of directing many attacks against St. Augustine despite publicly approving of the African bishop.  Prosper is wrong.

Today, John Cassian is accused of being a “Semipelagian.”  Semipelagianism is half Pelagianism.  I don’t think it exists.

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3 thoughts on “Things That Go Over Heads: Grace & Freewill

  1. […] Boniface Ramsay, in his commentary to the Ancient Christian Writers translation of the Conferences calls Cassian’s view ‘semi-Augustinian’, interestingly enough. These people are often called Massilian because of their southern Gallic origins; they resist both extreme Augustinianism and Pelagianism. I have sympathies with their enterprise to do justice both to God’s grace and human responsibility/freedom. I’ve blogged on Cassian and this issue before. […]

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