Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special Divine aid.

The Semi-Pelagian Theology of John Cassian

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  • The Semi-Pelagian Theology of John Cassian

    Do Arminian Theology, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy Have Similar Roots?

    John Cassian was a contemporary of St. Augustine in Gaul (modern France). A Semi-Pelagian monk and founder of many monasteries, he wrote The Institutes and Conferences and slightly modified Pelagius's teachings. "The Semi-Pelagian doctrine taught by John Cassian (d. 440) admits that divine grace (assistance) is necessary to enable a sinner to return unto God and live, yet holds that, from the nature of the human will, man may first spontaneously, of himself, desire and attempt to choose and obey God. They deny the necessity of prevenient but admit the necessity of cooperative grace and conceive regeneration as the product of this cooperative grace." A.A. Hodge

    While the Pelagian controversy was at its height, John Cassian, of Syrian extraction and educated in the Eastern Church, having removed to Marseilles, in France, for the purpose of advancing the interests of monkery in that region, began to give publicity to a scheme of doctrine occupying a middle position between the systems of Augustine and Pelagius. This system, whose advocates were called Massilians from the residence of their chief, and afterward Semipelagians by the Schoolmen, is in its essential principles one with that system which is now denominated Arminianism, a statement of which will be given in a subsequent part of this chapter. Faustus, bishop of Priez, in France, from A. D. 427 to A. D. 480, was one of the most distinguished and successful advocates of this doctrine, which was permanently accepted by the Eastern Church, and for a time was widely disseminated throughout the Western also, until it was condemned by the beautifully written Canons of Orange, A. D. 529. Sadly, just as Eastern Orthodoxy had done, Roman Catholicism in the middle ages also abandoned the clear teachings on grace that were agreed upon in this synod. Later, Arminans were to take the same path.

    Eastern Orthodox will argue that Cassian was not a semi-pelagian (and fail to explain why not) but Cassian himself saw grace and freedom as parallel, grace always cooperating with the human will for man's salvation." (p. 56; cf. Phil. 2:12-13) He teaches that the grace of God always invites, precedes and helps our will, and whatever gain freedom of will may attain for its pious effect is not its own desert, but the gift of grace." This is none other than the historical error of Semi-pelagianism/Arminianism, call it what you will. See his writing, On Grace and Free Will: his famous Conference XIII.

    B.B. Warfield said:

    "But Pelagianism did not so die as not to leave a legacy behind it. "Remainders of Pelagianism" soon showed themselves in Southern Gaul, where a body of monastic leaders attempted to find a middle ground on which they could stand, by allowing the Augustineian doctrine of assisting grace, but retaining the Pelagian conception of our self-determination to good. We first hear of them in 428, through letters from two laymen, Prosper and Hilary, to Augustine, as men who accepted original sin and the necessity of grace, but asserted that men began their turning to God, and God helped their beginning. They taught that all men are sinners, and that they derive their sin from Adam; that they can by no means save themselves, but need God's assisting grace; and that this grace is gratuitous in the sense that men cannot really deserve it, and yet that it is not irresistible, nor given always without the occasion of its gift having been determined by men's attitude towards God; so that, though not given on account of the merits of men, it is given according to those merits, actual or foreseen. The leader of this new movement was John Cassian, a pupil of Chrysostom (to whom he attributed all that was good in his life and will), and the fountain-head of Gallic monasticism; and its chief champion at a somewhat later day was Faustus of Rhegium (Riez)."

    Led by John Cassian, Hilary of Arles, Vincent of Lerins, and Faustus of Riez, joined in the controversy. These men objected to a number of points in the Augustinian doctrine of sin and grace, namely, the assertion of the total bondage of the will, of the priority and irresistibility of grace, and of predestinarian thought. They partly agreed with Augustine as to the seriousness of sin, yet they regarded his doctrine of predestination as new, therefore in conflict with tradition and dangerous because it makes all human efforts superfluous. In opposition to Augustinianism, Cassian taught that though a sickness is inherited through Adam's sin, human free will has not been entirely obliterated. Divine grace is indispensable for salvation, but it does not necessarily need to precede a free human choice, because, despite the weakness of human volition, the will takes the initiative toward God. In other words, divine grace and human free will must work together in salvation. In opposition to the stark predestinarianism of Augustine, Cassian held to the doctrine of God's universal will to save, and that predestination is simply divine foreknowledge of who will chose God.

    To conclude, on these very critical points of soteriology (free will and predestination), Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Arminians are in full agreement. All three movements reject the clear biblical teaching of monergistic regeneration believing somehow that man has the will and desire to turn to God while still in his unregenerate state.
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