Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Second Council of Orange

The Second Council of Orange was in 529. Researching it now, I find descriptions of it as rejecting Pelagius and affirming Augustine. Is that what you had said last night? Do the Orthodox churches affirm Pelagius? I'm interested in what you were saying.

I think Pelagius was something of a strawman. The Pelagians were roughly the same people as the Nestorians, who had been rejected by the Council of Ephesus in 431. (The details of the heresies of Nestorianism and Pelagianism, as defined by the councils, cover different subjects, but the same people always seem to have held both sets of heretical beliefs, and they are sometimes held to be logically connected.)

The main target of the Second Council of Orange was in reality John Cassian, who held a position approximately half-way between those of Pelagius and Augustine. The article on Cassian in The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it this way: "St. Augustine regarded man in his natural state as dead, Pelagius as quite sound, Cassian as sick."

The three figures were roughly contemporary. Cassian wrote the official response of Rome to Nestorius, and he found in Nestorius a revival of Pelagianism, so he condemned the former along with the latter. Augustine wrote seven treatises against the Pelagians and three against the "Semipelagians" (a term that came to be used centuries later to describe the teaching of Cassian). Cassian, meanwhile, in his Conferences, tried to stake out the middle path between the extremes of Augustine and Pelagius.

Cassian was a monk in southern Gaul (near Marseilles). He had traveled extensively in the East and learned from the desert fathers. He came back home to Gaul, founded monasteries, and lived as a monk. His Conferences and Institutes, which summarize what he learned from Eastern monks, are required reading for Benedictines to this day – they are mentioned in the Rule of St. Benedict, though Benedict refrained from naming the author in an effort to avoid controversy.

The Second Council of Orange made small criticisms of Augustine's most extreme teachings on predestination, but it largely affirmed his teaching against that of Cassian, as well as that of Pelagius. Cassian's teaching was, essentially, just a summary of the theology of the Eastern church. While I have not read much of Cassian, I know the Eastern Church's teaching regarding synergy, or cooperation with grace, is sometimes described as Pelagian or Semipelagian by some Catholics and most Calvinists.

I think it could be argued that Orange was where the West first made an explicit, formal departure from the patristic consensus, implicitly elevating Augustine above all of the other fathers. Much of the East/West split can be traced to the Western Church's choices over the next few centuries to follow Augustine on exactly those points where he is most at odds with the other fathers.

Another dimension of this is the place of monasticism in the Church. Cassian was a monk who wrote for monks. Monasticism has always held a central role in the East – in fact, all Eastern bishops are under monastic vows. In the West, monasticism has never been quite as well integrated with the secular side of the Church, and it has never held as central a place in leading the Church – except in England, where a majority of the cathedrals were monastic foundations.


Trevor said...

"St. Augustine regarded man in his natural state as dead, Pelagius as quite sound, Cassian as sick."

When I first read this, I read it as, "St. Augustine regarded man in his natural state as dead, [he regarded] Pelagius as quite sound, [he regarded] Cassian as sick." :-) It was much funnier that way, even if it made me stop in my tracks and go back.

Curious about your thoughts on this. I remember when I was in (Evangelical) seminary, the prof I had for soteriology characterized RC doctrine as semi-Pelagian. He said that officially it must be semi-Augustinian, since Pelagius was a heretic, but in reality it was semi-Pelagian. I don't recall much about his argument for this, except that it probably had something to do with the place of works in salvation and maybe something with the ability of man to respond to natural revelation.

Benedict Seraphim said...

If I may, the term "semi-Pelagian" is wholly false when used against St. John Cassian. And describing St. John's soteriology as about half-way between St. Augustine and Pelagius is a bit misleanding. For that matter, if St. John is semi- anything he would more properly be semi-Augustinian.

I have composed a fairly meaty blogpost on this point: St. John Cassian: On Grace and Free Will.

Roland said...

I was inspired to post this message here because I was discussing the subject in this thread:


The first of my three posts is around the middle of the page, at 5:32pm. In my second post, at 7:14pm, I wrote in part:

The term “Semipelagian” is anachronistic. It was not coined until the late 16th century. Accusations of half-Pelagianism against the followers of Cassian have always been a libelous half-truth - an attempt to tar them by association with a known heretic rather than engaging their actual positions. Cassian was, in fact, an outspoken critic of both Pelagius and Nestorius - he actually wrote the official response of Rome to the latter, condemning him along with the former. Therefore Orange’s association of Cassian’s teachings with those of Pelagius was unfair.

So I agree that the term Semipelagian is unfair, but it is the term that Western theologians who identify with St. Augustine have used to characterize the position of Cassian and of the Eastern churches.

And, as Trevor notes, some Protestants even accuse Catholics of Semipelagianism. I think Calvinists and other hard-core Augustinians see Pelagianism everywhere they look because they have embraced the opposite heresy.

Thanks for the link - I printed the essay and I hope to read it soon.

Chris Jones said...


I think it could be argued that Orange was where the West first made an explicit, formal departure from the patristic consensus, implicitly elevating Augustine above all of the other fathers.

You could argue this, but I do not think you would win the argument. It seems to me that 2d Orange is perfectly consistent with the sensus patrum.

2d Orange affirms, along with St Augustine, the primacy of grace; but it is hardly the bedrock of monergism that the Reformed try to make of it. The canons of 2d Orange make it clear that, in the economy of salvation, God's grace must come first, and apart from grace fallen man is powerless even to begin the process of salvation. But 2d Orange is equally clear that grace, once given, does not preclude, but rather requires, the believer's cooperation. Read the concluding statement (following the canons themselves) of the council's decrees to see how definitively it teaches the necessity for cooperation, post-baptism.

The relationship among prevenient grace, human cooperation, and post-baptismal grace envisaged by 2d Orange is, in my view, pretty much identical with the teaching on the same subject in the Orthodox Confession of Dositheos. It is true that 2d Orange has never been explicitly recognized in the East as an orthodox council; but there is nothing in its decrees with which an Orthodox should disagree.

Roland said...


So . . . was the teaching of John Cassian covered by the anathemas of Orange or not?

I just downloaded and printed a copy of the Canons of the Second Council of Orange. In a cursory skimming, I did not see anything that could not be given an Orthodox spin. But everything I have read says that the purpose of the council was to condemn the teachings of Cassian and his successor Faustus of Riez. Did Faustus misinterpret Cassian and go too far? Or did the Augustinians misinterpret Cassian when they condemned him with Faustus?

As Benedict Seraphim states in his essay, Cassian was not a systematic theologian. So I suppose he might have been misunderstood - or misused - by those of a more polemical bent.

But this seems to re-open the questions of just what Cassian and Orange taught. Orange has always been read as upholding Augustine vs. Cassian. Is this incorrect?

Roland said...

Benedict Seraphim,

I finished reading your essay, "St. John Cassian: On Grace and Free Will," last night. Two comments:

I think the crux of the matter might be the question of irresistable grace. If God's grace is irresistable, then Augustine (and, by extension, Calvin) is right. But if God allows us to refuse his grace, then our cooperation is clearly required, at least insofar as we must consent to grace before God will bestow it. Raised as a good Methodist, I have always believed in free will and never accepted the irresistability of grace.

I think you might have erred early in your essay by conceding that "all of human nature is fallen." You begin to rescue yourself from this rhetoric in the conclusion, when you write, "If there is a bondage to the will, it is not due to human nature, but due to the hypostasis of human nature, that is to say, the person." I would argue that fallenness pertains to person (hypostasis), not to nature (physis). Human nature is as God created it, and neither the sin of Adam nor any other human action can alter it. As fallen creatures, we are alienated from our God-given human nature. That is, it is not our nature that is fallen, but we who are fallen away from our nature.

Benedict Seraphim said...


You're right: grace is not irresistible. The way modern-day Calvinists explicate irresistible grace is a mistaken view of God's sovereignty--which results in a confusion between the divine Persons and the divine nature.

As to the fallenness of human nature, I do believe such fallenness is pervasive, that our nature is indeed marred, in every aspect, by the fall. And I think St. John would also claim the same. Indeed, to hold that all or any portion of our nature is unfallen is precisely the Pelagian (or semi-Pelagian) claim.

But to be pervasively fallen does not entail, as Calvinists claim, complete depravity. That is to say, our nature does, indeed, retain the original capacities with which God created it, it is just that those capacities are now susceptible to error and sinful passions and choices.

Or, to say it this way, our nature does, indeed, desire the good. Our will extends itself out toward the good. The problem is we have a deliberative will (as distinct from the natural will) which fails to distinguish the truly good from the apparent good. The truly good is the Trinity of Persons and the divine energies, but we mistake apparent goods for these true goods. We desire the fruit of the tree instead of God's will.

By the way, my email is chealy5 at yahoo dot com.

Roland said...

Benedict Seraphim,

The Orthodox view, a la St. Maximus the Confessor, is that, while man is fallen, his nature is not. I find it hard to believe Cassian believed anything to the contrary, though he probably did not have access to this language in his day.

What would it even mean for man's nature to be fallen? Whether you conceive of human nature as something coded in the DNA or a Platonic form residing on the ideal plane, human nature, as created by God, is an unchanging reality. Moreover, this same nature was assumed by Christ in the Incarnation. He assumed our full nature, but not our fallenness. Our fallen state is, quite simply, unnatural. Among other things, our fallenness entails alienation from our own God-given nature.

npmccallum said...

Roland, I would disagree with your reading of Maximus. But, even if you are right, the Orthodox Church clearly teaches that human nature is fallen. If human nature is not fallen, than what is the point of Christ assuming our nature? Now "fallen" can mean many things, and Orthodox reject many of the interpretations. However, to argue that human nature is "pristine" and that it is merely persons who are fallen is Pelagianism and is heresy for all Christian churches.

Roland said...


I suspect that our disagreement is semantic, and that it has to do with differing understandings of what a nature is.

But St. Maximus and the Orthodox Church do not teach that human nature is fallen. Man is fallen, but men are persons, not natures.

john the greek said...

Our nature is fallen and Christ indeed assumed our fallen nature (e.g death and whatever innocent passion came after the fall, sadness etc.). That Christ did not assume sin does not mean that He did not assume our fallen nature. He did not assume sin because sin is unnatural.

(it happened to read one of your comments in the energetic procession blog)

Could you please tell me where St Maximus says that our nature is not fallen but only the persons?

Thank you.