Cassianus, Faustus, and Semi-Pelagianism (1)

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


The attack against the doctrines of sovereign grace which had been made by Pelagius and his disciple Celestius were answered by the great bishop of Hippo, Augustine. But Augustine was only one individual in the church. He was its greatest thinker; he was its soundest theologian; he towered over his age like a colossus. But what he believed and taught, while influential in the lives of many others, could not become official church dogma until the church adopted his position.

Would the church do this? That was the crucial question of the age. Sooner or later the church was going to have to say something about the matter. It could not turn its eyes the other way and act as if the controversy did not exist. The differences of opinion were too sharp, the divisions too deep. A doctrine of "one, holy, catholic church" required a statement on this divisive issue of sovereign grace.

If one knew nothing about the outcome of the controversy and had no idea of what the church ultimately decided, one could almost certainly predict that Augustine would lose, his views would be rejected, and his position repudiated. And so it happened. There is an irony here: Rome has canonized Augustine; in Rome's book of saints, Augustine's name is written in large letters. But he is apparently, according to Rome, a saint who had his theology all mixed up. He goes down in Rome's annals as one who attained sainthood in spite of terrible heresies. This anomaly Rome has yet to explain.

The story of how and why Rome repudiated Augustine is a long one. It cannot be told in one article. It extends over 400 years. But it is an interesting story that is worth telling. I can think of at least three reasons why the story is so interesting. One is that the struggle was long and bitter, and indeed ended in the brutal murder of one of Augustine's most eloquent defenders. A second reason is the fact that, when one carefully considers the problem Rome faced, he sees that Rome really had little choice but to repudiate Augustine's views. Rome could not be Augustinian and remain Rome. This was true already in Augustine's lifetime, but it became more abundantly clear in the centuries following Augustine. We shall have to examine why what I say is true. And the third reason why the story is interesting is that the controversy shows, in an astonishing way, how the issues that faced the church a millennium and a half ago are issues which still divide the church today. Pushing aside for the moment many different questions that were discussed, we can say with certainty that the real issue was this: Is the grace of Almighty God sovereign or resistible? And, in this same connection, it is interesting to observe that the defenders of, e.g., the well-meant offer of the gospel, raise today the same objections to the view held in the Protestant Reformed Churches which the enemies of Augustine raised in his day against Augustine's teachings. 

With that, let us get on with the story.

John Cassianus and Faustus of Riez

These two men are not, taken by themselves, very interesting or important men. Not a whole lot is known of their lives, nor did they contribute anything substantial to the history of the church of Christ or the history of the development of the doctrine of Scripture. Their importance lies strictly in this: they both were sharp opponents of Augustine's doctrines.

A word or two about their lives will suffice.

John Cassianus was born in or near Marseilles in southern France. Although he received some education in his hometown, he soon traveled to the East, where he entered a monastery in Bethlehem. In Bethlehem he came under the tutorship of Germanus, the head of the monastery, and an extremely influential man in Palestine and Egypt. 

Apparently both Cassianus and Germanus were fascinated with the whole concept of monasticism, because they traveled together to Egypt to visit with the Egyptian monks. They stayed on for seven years and learned the theory, practice, and doctrine of monasticism.

At this point I must say something which needs to be explored more fully at some later point. The fact is that monasticism was based on a certain theology, although the theology was primarily ethical. Monasticism taught that one who practices celibacy, self-denial through various ascetic practices, and poverty lived on a higher level of holiness than the child of God who married, brought up a family, and earned a living. Because these monks (and nuns) lived on this higher plane of holiness, closer to heaven and God, they were saints of a higher caliber. It is not difficult to see that such thinking would inevitably lead to the notion that such saints, practicing such self-denial, were more pleasing to God than the ordinary run-of-the-mill Christian who struggled with raising his children, loving his wife, and earning his daily bread. But if God was more pleased with the monk who starved himself than with the hard working laborer who enjoyed his evening meal, then some works merited favor in God's sight. The determinative word here is "favor." In other words, out of monkery came the idea of the meritorious value of good works. Monks, quite generally, believed they were meriting with God. So did John Cassianus. 

But more about that at another time.

After seven years in Egypt, John and Germanus traveled to Constantinople. Nothing much happened here of importance, except two things: one was that John met Chrysostom, the golden-tongued preacher, and studied under him. Chrysostom also ordained John as a deacon. The other event was that, when Chrysostom was exiled because he attacked the wickedness of the empress, John and Germanus, friends of Chrysostom, thought it the better part of wisdom to leave.

John returned to Southern France (Gaul, as it was known in those days) and spent the rest of his life in his hometown.

John's name has gone down in Roman Catholic history as the real founder of monasticism in the West. He had learned his lessons well in Bethlehem and Egypt. Upon returning to France, he founded two monasteries, one for men, one for women. The one for men became in time one of the most famous monasteries in Europe, the Abbey of St. Victor. Over these monasteries he exercised his rule, and for these monasteries he drew up a set of rules.

The dates of John's birth and death are obscure. He was apparently born around 360, although even that is in question. He died anywhere from 435-448; but he is said, by at least one historian, to have died when he was 97 years old. Some quick figuring will show that the dates do not come out very well.

Faustus of Riez was, like Pelagius himself, a native Englishman. He was born around 410, and he chose also the monastic life. He soon moved to Brittany, and from Brittany to Southern France. He is said, by his contemporaries, to have been a very pious and self-sacrificing man who devoted his life to helping others. His reputation as a pious man, a preacher, and a writer soon earned him a bishopric in Riez. One outstanding event in his life (in our judgment, at any rate) was the fact that at the synod of Lyons he was instrumental in having a certain Lucidus condemned for his views on predestination. Lucidus followed Augustine closely, and that kind of adherence to Augustine could not be tolerated. In fact, Faustus has the dubious honor of persuading Lucidus to retract his "heresy."

Other honors came his way. Faustus was chosen by the emperor to engage in negotiations with Euric, king of the Visigoths. The barbarians had already made several successful incursions into Italy and had even sacked Rome. Efforts were being made to keep the empire intact. Faustus loved politics.

But enough of that.

A Brief Statement of Augustine's Views

We would probably call Augustine a Calvinist if he had lived in our day — at least as far as the truth of God's grace is concerned. He held firmly to the five points of Calvinism, although he lived over 1000 years before Dordt. Augustine not only taught total depravity, but specifically denied the freedom of the will and the whole concept of merit. He insisted that, because man is totally depraved, grace is absolutely essential for salvation. God has to take the initiative, for man can do nothing of himself. Grace is irresistible in its operations, so that God's intentions and purposes are always accomplished. And grace is particular, rooted in the eternal decree of predestination.

Some have challenged the assertion that Augustine taught double predestination, i.e., election and reprobation. There can be no doubt about it that he did. Nor did Augustine teach some wishy-washy conditional reprobation, a reprobation based on God's prediction that man would reject the gospel. Augustine taught a sovereign reprobation which reflects God's own purpose and will — not man's unbelief.

Perhaps by way of a footnote, I could add here that I have searched many of Augustine's writings to learn what his teachings on predestination were. I have in my file numerous quotes in which Augustine speaks emphatically and unequivocally of reprobation. The conclusion I have come to is the conclusion of other scholars of Augustine as well, even some who disagree violently with Augustine's position.

It nevertheless remains a fact that Augustine, while believing in all the truths of sovereign grace from the beginning of his controversies with Pelagius and Celestius, sharpened and clarified his position when Cassianus and Faustus attacked him and he defended himself against their attacks. This became known as the Semi-Pelagian controversy.

But our discussion of this must wait till next time.