26 September, 2016

The History of the Free Offer: Chapter One: "The Semi-Pelagian Controversy"

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, November 1982]

We turn our attention first of all to the Semi-Pelagian controversy that occupied so much of the attention of the great church father, Augustine. A study of this controversy will soon show that, while the issue of the free offer of the gospel was not itself explicitly a point of controversy, nevertheless many of the doctrinal implications of the idea of the free offer were. Anyone who has any acquaintance with the teachings of the free offer will recognize that related issues were indeed issues back already in the first part of the fifth century when Augustine fought hard and long for the truth of sovereign grace.

It is not our purpose here to deal in detail and at length with the whole question of' Semi-Pelagianism, for this would take far too much of our time. But it is our purpose to demonstrate that those who adopted a Semi-Pelagian position and opposed, often bitterly and fiercely, the teachings of Augustine, taught also many of the same doctrines which are an integral part of free offer theology and which are held by those who make the free offer an essential part of their teaching.

As is generally known, the Semi-Pelagian controversy followed upon the Pelagian controversy. And it is also rather well known that the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius had as its starting point the idea of the free will of man. In a way it was not surprising that this should indeed be the starting point of Pelagius’ error because the idea of free will had been, prior to this, rather generally accepted in the early church.

We must, however, understand exactly why this was so. Up to the time of Augustine the church had not really paid a great deal of attention to questions of soteriology. Preoccupied with the many and varied controversies concerning the doctrine of the Trinity and the Person and natures of Christ, the church had neither the time nor the occasion to deal extensively with the teaching of Scripture on the doctrines of salvation by grace. Generally speaking, therefore, a certain idea of free will prevailed in the thinking of the early church, perhaps as a reaction to Manichaean fatalism. However, strangely enough, the church also held to the truth of salvation by grace alone. The two doctrines were held together and little or no thought was given to the question of how these two doctrines could be reconciled. The question simply was not closely examined nor extensively studied in the light of Holy Writ.  

It was furthermore true that the church, already at this time, had committed itself to the idea of the meritorious character of good works, an idea which was finally to prevail in Roman Catholic thought and which was not banished from the thinking of the church until the time of the Protestant Reformation. But the idea of the meritorious character of good works is intimately connected with the idea of free will, for it is obvious that good works can have no merit unless, in some sense, they originate in the power of man to perform them. In fact, it was undoubtedly precisely this idea of merit that made it impossible for Augustinianism to prevail in the Roman Catholic Church after Augustine’s death. The church was, in a certain sense, confronted with the question of whether it was to adopt a pure Augustinianism which would require that it abandon its commitment to the merit of good works, or hold to this idea of the merit of good works and turn its back on Augustine’s teachings. As everyone knows, the Romish church followed the latter course of action.

Pelagius had taught that the will is free in an absolute sense of the word. Even after the fall, the will of man possessed the same power for good (or evil) that the will of Adam possessed. That is, at any point in the life of a man, when confronted with the choice of good or evil, it was within man’s capability to choose either the one or the other. It is true that man’s ability to choose the good is somewhat weakened by sin; but sin is only a habit and in no way affects the nature of man. While indeed a habit may become somewhat ingrained in the man’s way of life, the fact remains that the will is not essentially affected and the power to choose for the good remains intact and unimpaired.

It was against this heresy that Augustine carried out his polemic.  The result of his work was that Pelagianism was officially condemned by the church as early as the Council of Carthage in 416 and the Council of Ephesus in 431, the latter held one year after Augustine’s death.

But this was by no means the end of the matter. Opposition arose to Augustine’s teachings in various parts of the church, especially in Southern Gaul. Over against Pelagius Augustine had taught the absolute inability of the human will of fallen and natural man to choose for the good. Man fell in Adam, and the result of the fall for the whole human race was that man lost completely any ability to do the good not only, but also to will it. His salvation was dependent, therefore, upon grace. While Pelagius had also spoken of grace, he had insisted that grace was little more than a help, a measure of divine assistance, and was by no means essential to salvation. Augustine on the other hand, taught the absolute necessity of God’s work of grace in salvation. If the question was asked Augustine, as it was, what was the determining factor in who received this gift of grace and who did not, his answer was, sovereign predestination according to which God sovereignly chooses his own elect from all eternity.

These doctrines of the sovereignty of grace and predestination were the subjects of controversy. And it was in opposition to these views of Augustine that theological positions similar to those that are connected with the free offer were proposed.

One of the opponents of Augustine was Cassian. Cassian did not agree with the position of Pelagius that the will is free in an absolute sense of the word, but he did insist on maintaining that the will is free to a certain extent. Sin as it entered the human race through the fall of Adam did not rob man of a free will, but sin did weaken man’s will so that it is difficult for man to choose for the good; he is in need of divine assistance. 

Just as Augustine’s teaching of the inability of the human will to choose for the good led him to the doctrine of sovereign predestination via the truth of sovereign grace, so also did Cassian proceed from the idea of a free will to the doctrine of a divine love which wills the salvation of all. It ought to be clear how these two ideas stand connected: if salvation is ultimately dependent upon the choice of man’s will and not upon the choice of God in sovereign predestination, then it is obvious that God on his part loves all and seeks the salvation of all. God’s love, which is all-embracive, extends to all men. Whether a man is ultimately saved depends upon his own choice of the overtures of love. 

These views of Cassian were followed by Prosper. 

There has always been some question whether Prosper in fact taught Semi-Pelagian views. This doubt arises from the fact that Prosper engaged in extensive correspondence with Augustine over these questions and was the chief means by which Augustine learned of the teachings of various theologians in Gaul. It is not always easy to tell from Prosper’s correspondence whether he was expressing his own opinions or merely informing Augustine of what others taught and asking for more light on these matters.

However, it seems almost certain that he was not completely in agreement with the views of Augustine and that, especially towards the end of his life, he agreed substantially with the position which Cassian had taken. In fact, it is quite possible that he was responsible for advancing the views of Cassian in some respects. It is almost certain that Prosper is the one who introduced into the discussion the distinction in the will of God between one will which was universal and conditional, and another will which was particular and unconditional. Wanting in some sense to maintain the sovereignty of God in the work of grace and predestination, and yet committed to the idea of free will, he spoke of a will of God which was expressive of God’s desire to save everyone, a will which was therefore, conditional; and a will which was particular and unconditional, limited, therefore, only to the elect and realized in the work of sovereign grace.

That Prosper was Semi-Pelagian in his views is substantiated by the contention of many that he is the author of a pamphlet which appeared at that time under the title: De Vocatione Omnium Gentium. This pamphlet dealt particularly with the aspect of grace as it related to the controversy. The author made a distinction between general grace and particular grace. General grace stands connected with general revelation in the sense that general revelation reveals this general grace of God to all. In fact, however, this general grace that comes through God’s revelation in creation is also inwardly applied to the heart of every man so that it becomes in man the origin of all religion. Particular grace, on the other hand, is given only to some and is necessary to salvation. The general grace, which all receive, is expressive of God’s will that all be saved.2

Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the theology of the free offer recognizes immediately how all these ideas are an integral part of that concept. From the time that the idea of the free offer appeared in Reformed and Presbyterian thinking, it was inevitably discussed and developed in connection with the idea of a double will in God. And as often as not, the free offer stands also inseparably related to some notion of general grace. It is striking, therefore, to note that these views were held by the opponents of Augustine and repudiated by the great church father and valiant defender of the truth of sovereign, unconditional grace rooted in eternal election. 

One more opponent of Augustine occupies our attention. He was Faustus, ordained bishop in 454. He too spoke of a general grace which precedes special grace and the use of which is essential to special grace. General grace, bestowed without distinction upon all men, becomes the means whereby the free will of man is preserved along with a certain religious and moral sense. Only when, by the use of this general grace, a man, with his free will, chooses for the good, is special grace given to him by which he is actually saved. And so, for Faustus too, special grace was built upon general grace and salvation was dependent upon the will of man. 

Although Augustine had outlined his basic position in the Pelagian controversy, the attacks of the so-called Semi-Pelagians forced him to define more sharply and defend more carefully his views. It was because of the attacks of the Semi-Pelagians that Augustine was brought back once again to Scripture to study the Scriptural passages involved and to re-evaluate his work in the light of the Word of God. 

Augustine died in 430 and the battle was continued by his disciples.

It is of considerable significance that, already in Augustine’s day, the Semi-Pelagians quoted texts from Scripture which are still used today in the defense of the free offer. This is not to say that their arguments were always based on Scripture. In fact, many of the objections they raised against Augustine’s position were identical to the objections which today are brought against the truth of sovereign grace and sovereign and eternal predestination. Augustine often chides his opponents with being content with arguments from human reason rather that basing their position on the Word of God. But in so far as they did make use of Scripture, they appeal to such texts as Romans 2:4, I Timothy 2:4, and II Peter 3:9all texts which have been repeatedly appealed to by defenders of the free offer.

In his explanation of these passages Augustine insisted that they must be interpreted as applying only to the elect. And in defending this position on the basis of Scripture, he became increasingly convinced of the Biblical soundness of his position and of the wrongness of the position taken by his opponents. He reaffirmed and re-emphasized the truths of sovereign grace in all the work of salvation and of eternal and sovereign predestination.

His views, however, did not prevail in the church. Although several condemned to some extent the views of the Semi-Pelagians, none stood firmly for the doctrines of Augustine. As we suggested earlier, this was perhaps due to the fact that the church had already committed itself to some idea of free will in connection with its determination to preserve the merit of good works.3

Whatever the case may be, the fact is that in 529, the Council of Orange spoke decisively on this question. While this Council condemned certain aspects of the teachings of the Semi-Pelagians, and while it also affirmed certain doctrines of Augustine, the fact is that the Council refused to adopt a pure Augustinianism. While it affirmed the doctrine of original sin and the unconditional necessity of grace, it left room for the notion of sin as an illness rather than as spiritual death and it was silent on such key doctrines as the absolute inability of the will to choose for the good, and sovereign and double predestination. It only saw fit to warn against the notion of a predestination to evil, something which Augustine did not teach. In effect, Semi-Pelagianism won the day.

What is our conclusion?

In the first place, the idea of the offer of the gospel was not as such discussed during this controversy. In a way this was understandable. On the one hand, the whole truth concerning the preaching of the gospel had not received theological attention at this time and no Scriptural details of the doctrine had been set forth by the church. The question of the relation between these views of the Semi-Pelagians and the preaching was not, therefore, faced. On the other hand, Rome itself, with the development of the sacerdotal system, had already begun to de-emphasize preaching in favor of an emphasis on the sacraments.

Nevertheless, several ideas which have throughout history been closely associated with the doctrine of the free offer and which, in fact, have been woven into the warp and woof of free offer theology were already taught in this period. We refer to such ideas as the freedom of the will, a double will of God which both desires the salvation of all men and which wills the salvation only of the elect, a general grace which all receive and a special grace which is conditionally granted upon the choice of the will, and a general love of God for all which is expressed in the desire of God to save all.

Against all these views Augustine stood firm in his defense of sovereign grace. And, while his views surely did not prevail in his time nor in subsequent centuries, nevertheless, they were once again made the confession of the church and developed at the time of the Reformation. To the Reformers we next turn our attention.


2. This idea that particular grace is built upon general grace and that general grace stands connected with general revelation is an idea not foreign to many theologians who have in more recent years adopted the idea of the free offer. Confer, e.g., H. Bavinck’s Our Reasonable Faith, chapters 3 and 4; Masselink’s, General Revelation and Common Grace.

3. Cf. my study entitled, Augustine, Gottschalk and the Doctrine of Predestination, available from the Seminary.  

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