From New World Encyclopedia

Semi-Pelagianism is a Christian theological understanding about salvation, the process of restoring the relationship between humanity and God. It arose among the monks of southern France in the fifth century, in reaction to the teachings of Pelagius and to Augustine’s doctrines of divine grace and predestination. Semi-Pelagianism asserted that humans could make the first move towards God of his own free will, thus opening the way for salvation through divine grace.

Semi-Pelagians included Jerome (c. 340-420, Dialogi contra Pelagianos), John Cassian (c. 360–c. 435, Collations of the Fathers or Conferences of the Egyptian Monks), and Vincent of Lerins (Commonitorium, 434). The best known defender of Semi-Pelagianism was Faustus (c. 405–c. 490), Bishop of Riez, who wrote De gratia (Concerning Grace, c. 474) at the request of the bishops of Arles and Lyons. After a century of debate, Semi-Pelagianism was officially condemned as a heresy by the Synod of Orange in 529. Afterwards, certain aspects of Semi-Pelagianism were incorporated into the theological doctrines of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, such as the concept that human could redeem himself through repentance and penance.


Semi-Pelagian teaching is derived from the earlier teaching of Pelagius, who rejected the doctrine of original sin and maintained that humans could achieve salvation entirely by his own effort; and of Augustine, who insisted that salvation was predestined for a fixed number of elect and was only possible through divine grace and not through any human effort. Semi-Pelagianism accepted the existence of original sin as a consequence of the Fall of Man, but it taught that a human could, of his own free will (unaided by grace), voluntarily make the first move toward God, and thus receive the divine grace which would culminate in salvation.

The doctrine of Semi-Pelagianism was developed primarily by ascetic monks, who believed that human beings must voluntarily participate in their own salvation, and that human effort to lead a moral life had merit in the eyes of God. They emphasized the importance of the will to seek salvation rather than simply the physical performance of religious duties and good moral practices.

Semi-Pelagianism is distinct from the traditional patristic doctrine of synergeia, that the process of salvation is cooperation between God and man from start to finish.

Development of Semi-Pelagianism

At the beginning of the fifth century, because of the Vandal invasion, the leadership of the Church passed from Rome to southern France. During the same period, among the monks in southern France, a movement developed which rejected the doctrine of predestination and affirmed the value of ascetic practices and the voluntary efforts of humans to lead a moral life, while maintaining a dependence upon God for salvation.

In early and medieval Christianity, the views of the Massilians were referred to as “relics of the Pelagians” (reliquiœ Pelagianorum). The word “semi-pelagianism” appears to have been coined between 1590 and 1600 in reference to the doctrine of grace expounded by Luis Molina, whose opponents believed they detected a close resemblance between his theory and the heresy of the monks of Marseille (cf. "Revue des sciences phios. et théol.," 1907, pp. 506). After the misunderstanding was resolved, the term continued to be used to refer to the beliefs of the fifth century monks.


Pelagianism is a doctrine derived from the teachings of Pelagius (c. 354–c. 418), a monk and theologian who emphasized the primacy of human effort in spiritual salvation. Pelagius came to Rome in 380 C.E. and was highly distressed by the laxity of Roman Christians, which he blamed on the doctrine of divine grace as expressed in the Confessions of St. Augustine. Pelagius attacked this teaching on the grounds that it removed all motivation to follow moral law. Pelagius gained a considerable following of ascetic Christians, who believed that humans have the capacity to seek God in and of themselves, apart from any movement of God or the Holy Spirit. Pelagianism denied original sin and instead attributed the existence of sin to the bad example set by Adam at the time of the Fall. Pelagius insisted that man had a basically good moral nature and that salvation could be achieved by voluntarily choosing to live a life of Christian asceticism.

After the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410 C.E., Pelagius went to Africa where he was strongly criticized in a series of denunciatory letters by St. Augustine, and by the Latin biblical scholar Jerome (c. 340-420). In response to their attacks, Pelagius wrote De libero arbitrio (On Free Will) in 416, and was subsequently condemned by two African councils and excommunicated in 417 by Pope Innocent I. Church councils condemned Pelagianism in 418 and again in 431.

Augustinian doctrine of divine grace

Augustine taught that humanity shared in Adam’s sin and was therefore condemned to damnation from which one could not extract himself by his own efforts. God, in his wisdom, chose some individuals to be saved and granted them special and unmerited grace that would infallibly but freely lead them to salvation. A set number of individuals were predestined for salvation, and this number could neither be increased nor decreased.

Advocates of Semi-Pelagianism

A number of theologians could neither fully accept Augustine’s doctrines of predestination and irresistible grace, nor Pelagius’ doctrine that man could achieve salvation through his own efforts. Unlike the Pelagians, who denied original sin and believed in perfect human free will as the vehicle for salvation, semi-Pelagians believed in the universality of original sin and believed that salvation could not be achieved without God's grace. Contrary to Augustine, however, they taught that divine grace could be received on the basis of man’s initial voluntary effort.

Vitalis of Carthage and a community of monks at Hadrumetum, Africa (c. 427), argued against Augustine’s principles on the grounds that they destroyed freedom of the will and all moral responsibility. Instead, they claimed that the free will performed the initial act of faith, and that any “prevenient grace” consisted of preaching about salvation to inspire the will to action. Augustine, in response, produced Grace and Free Will and Rebuke and Grace, containing a resume of his arguments against them and emphasizing that the will must first be prepared by divine grace before making any effort.

Jerome (c. 340-420) wrote Dialogi contra Pelagianos, ascribing a share of salvation to the human will but declaring that divine grace was necessary for salvation. He supported the doctrine of original sin, but taught that man first merits grace through his efforts and then is justified by God.

John Cassian (c. 360–c. 435, also called Johannes Eremita, or Johannes Massiliensis), a monk and ascetic writer of Southern Gaul and founder of the abbey of Saint-Victor at Marseille, is often regarded as the originator of Semi-Pelagianaism. Cassian originally became a monk in Bethlehem and received training from the hermits and monks of Egypt, before traveling to Constantinople, Rome (where he was ordained priest), and eventually France. Cassian was the first to introduce the rules of Eastern monasticism into the West, and his theological ideas stemmed from his concept of monasticism. The third, fifth, and thirteenth Conferences of his Collations of the Fathers (or Conferences of the Egyptian Monks), written as dialogues of the Desert Fathers, claimed that the initial steps to salvation were in the power of each individual, unaided by grace. Cassian, preoccupied with morality, saw an element of fatalism in the doctrines of Augustine. He maintained that after the Fall man’s soul was still inherently good, and contained "some seeds of goodness … implanted by the kindness of the Creator," which, however, must be "quickened by the assistance of God" or "they will not be able to attain an increase of perfection." … "we must take care not to refer all the merits of the saints to the Lord in such a way as to ascribe nothing but what is perverse to human nature." [We must not think that] "God made man such that he can never will or be capable of what is good, or else he has not granted him a free will, if he has suffered him only to will or be capable of what is evil" (Coll., XIII, 12).

In 434, Vincent, a monk of Lerins, wrote Commonitorium. Without attacking Augustine by name, he argued against his teachings on grace and predestination and claimed they were without support in Catholic tradition.

The best known defender of Semi-Pelagianism was Faustus (c. 405–c. 490), abbot of Lerins and later Bishop of Riez. Faustus opposed Pelagius, whom he called “Pestifer,” but was equally adamant against the doctrine of predestination, which he said was "erroneous, blasphemous, heathen, fatalistic, and conducive to immorality." The doctrine of predestination had been expounded by a presbyter named Lucidus and condemned by two synods, Arles and Lyons (475). At the request of the bishops who composed these synods, and especially Leontius of Arles, Faustus wrote a work, Libri duo de Gratiâ Dei et humanae mentis libero arbitrio (De gratia, Concerning Grace, c.474), refuting both predestination and Pelagianism, and giving Semi-Pelagianism its final form. Faustus accepted the doctrine of original sin, but held that men have "the possibility of striving for salvation…Grace is the divine promise and warning which inclines the weakened but still free will to choose the right rather than an inward transforming power…God foresees what man will do with the invitations of the Gospel, He does not predestinate them."

The Synod of Orange (529)

In 529, Caesarius (469-542), Bishop of Arles, held a synod in Orange, with the resulting canons receiving the official approval of Pope Boniface II (530-532). This synod attacked the Libri duo de Gratiâ Dei of Faustus and attempted to put an end to the Semi-Pelagian controversy. The Synod of Orange (529) affirmed that:

  • Man is not only under Original Sin, but has lost all power to turn to God, so that "it is brought about by the infusion of the Holy Spirit and His operation in us that we wish to be set free."
  • It is "by the free gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit," that people have "the desire of believing" and "come to the birth of holy baptism."
  • All good in humanity is the work of God.

The Synod of Orange, however, did not affirm Augustine’s insistence on the irresistibility of divine grace, and diluted the concept of irresistible grace by associating grace with baptism, saying, “grace having been received in baptism, all who have been baptized, can and ought, by the aid and support of Christ, to perform those things which belong to the salvation of the soul, if they will labor faithfully."

Acceptance of Semi-Pelagianism in the medieval Church

Though Semi-Pelagianism was officially condemned by the Synod of Orange, some of its positions were absorbed into Roman Catholic theology. Gregory the Great (c. 540–604), the first monk to be made a pope, became the interpreter of Augustine to the medieval Church. He upheld Augustine’s view that there is a fixed number of “elect” who will receive salvation, and that salvation depends upon God, but he did not share Augustine’s belief in predestination. Instead, he spoke of it as simply divine foreknowledge (prescience). Gregory developed a doctrine of atonement for sins committed after baptism through repentance and penance, saying that,”… sins after baptism must be satisfied…works of merit wrought by God's assisting grace make satisfaction…The good that we do is both of God and of ourselves; of God by prevenient grace, our own by good will following."

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bonner, Gerald. Church and Faith in the Patristic Tradition: Augustine, Pelagianism, and Early Christian Northumbria. Variorum, 1996. ISBN 0860785572
  • Dietrich, Mark A. Semi-Pelagian Thought in the Second Council of Orange (529 C.E.). Virginia Beach: Regent University, 1995.
  • Sheneman, Paul D. A Pauline and neo-Augustinian response to major semi-Pelagian assertions in the interpretation of William Langland's Piers Plowman B. 1996.
  • Tyndal, John. Modern Pelagianism J. Nisbet, 1858.
  • Weaver, Rebecca Harden. Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0865544918

External links

All links retrieved January 25, 2023.

General philosophy sources


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