The early part of the fifth century witnessed a serious controversy in the church that is known as the Pelagian controversy. This debate took place principally between the British monk Pelagius and the great theologian of the first millennium, Augustine of Hippo. In the controversy, Pelagius objected strenuously to Augustine’s understanding of the fall, of grace, and of predestination. Pelagius maintained that the fall affected Adam alone and that there was no imputation of guilt or “original sin” to Adam’s progeny. Pelagius insisted that people born after the fall of Adam and Eve retained the capacity to live lives of perfect righteousness unaided by the grace of God. He argued that grace “facilitates” righteousness but is not necessary for it. He categorically rejected Augustine’s understanding that the fall was so severe that it left the descendents of Adam in such a state of moral corruption that they were morally unable to incline themselves to God. The doctrines of Pelagius were condemned by the church in 418 at a synod in Carthage.
Though Pelagianism was rejected by the church, efforts soon emerged to soften the doctrines of Augustine. In the fifth century the leading exponent of such a softening was John Cassian. Cassian, who was the abbot of a monastery in Gaul, together with his fellow monks, completely agreed with the condemnation of Pelagius by the synod in 418, but they objected equally to the strong view of predestination set forth by Augustine. Cassian believed that Augustine had gone too far in his reaction against the heresy of Pelagius and had departed from the teachings of some of the church fathers, especially Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome. Cassian said that Augustine’s teaching on predestination “cripples the force of preaching, reproof, and moral energy…plunges men into despair and introduces a certain fatal necessity.” This reaction against the implied fatalism of predestination led Cassian to articulate a position that has since become known popularly as “semi-Pelagianism.” Semi-Pelagianism, as the name implies, suggests a middle ground between Pelagius and Augustine. Though grace facilitates a life of righteousness, Pelagius thought it was not necessary. Cassian argues that grace not only facilitates righteousness, but it is an essential necessity for one to achieve righteousness. The grace that God makes available to people, however, can and is often rejected by them. The fall of man is real and serious, but not so serious as Augustine supposed, because a certain level of moral ability remains in the fallen creature to the extent that the fallen person has the moral power to cooperate with God’s grace or to reject it. Augustine argued that the very cooperation with grace was the effect of God’s empowering the sinner to that cooperation. Augustine again insisted that all of those who were numbered among the elect were given the gift of the grace of regeneration that brought them faith. Again, for Cassian, though God’s grace is necessary for salvation and helps the human will to do good, in the final analysis it is man, not God, who must will the good. God does not give the power to will to the believer because that power to will is already present despite the fallen condition of the believer. Further Cassian taught that God desires to save all people, and the work of Christ’s atonement is effectual for everyone.
Cassian understood that predestination was a biblical concept, but he made divine prescience primary over God’s choice. That is to say, he taught that though predestination is an act of God, God’s decision to predestine is based upon His foreknowledge of how human beings will respond to the offer of grace. For Cassian, there is no definite number of persons that are elected or rejected from eternity, since God wishes all men to be saved, and yet not all men are saved. Man retains moral responsibility and with that responsibility the power to choose to cooperate with grace or not. In the final analysis, what Cassian was denying in the teaching of Augustine was the idea of irresistible grace. For Augustine, the grace of regeneration is always effectual and will not be denied by the elect. It is a monergistic work of God that accomplishes what God intends it to accomplish. Divine grace changes the human heart, resurrecting the sinner from spiritual death to spiritual life. In this act of God, the sinner is made willing to believe and to choose Christ. The previous state of moral inability is overcome by the power of regenerating grace. The operative word in Augustine’s view is that regenerating grace is monergistic. It is the work of God alone.
Pelagius rejects the doctrine of monergistic grace and replaces it with a view of synergism, which involves a work of cooperation between God and man.
The views of Cassian were condemned at the Council of Orange in 529, which further established the views of Augustine as expressions of Christian and biblical orthodoxy. However, with the conclusion of the Council of Orange in the sixth century (529), the doctrines of semi-Pelagianism did not disappear. They were fully operative through the Middle Ages and were set in concrete at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. They continue to be a majority view in the Roman Catholic Church, even to the twenty-first century.
The majority view of predestination, even in the evangelical world, is that predestination is not based on God’s eternal decree to bring people to faith but on His foreknowledge of which people will exercise their will to come to faith. At the heart of the controversy in the fifth and sixth centuries, the sixteenth century, and today, remains the question of the degree of corruption visited upon fallen human beings in original sin. The controversy continues. The difference between the Pelagian controversy and the issues with semi-Pelagianism is that Pelagianism was seen by the church then and now as a sub-Christian and indeed anti-Christian approach to fallen humanity. The semi-Pelagian controversy, though a serious one, is not deemed to be a dispute between believers and unbelievers, but an intramural debate between believers.