John Cassian, Grace, Free Will and Semipelagianism

As I was reading concerning Augustine and his diabolical scheme to end the Gospel’s message, erasing the Great Commission and the Commission given in Acts 1, I came across the mention of a monk still celebrated by the East, John Cassian. Cassian, as I came to find out, was attached and later defended John Chrysostom before the Roman bishop when the Patriarch had caused friction within the imperial household.

I cannot find scriptural support for a complete acceptance of Augustine’s notion of grace, prevenient and the host of others that he names, yet we know that man is born of a sinful nature and that while he may choose freely to accept God, grace must first call him to the choice. Augustine, writing against the infractions of the Pelagians, sought a much harsher path, dictating to those that would listen that God had before ordained certain ones to accept grace, believing that all of humanity was too trapped in sinful nature, with a predisposition to unrighteous acts. Pelagianism taught that the human will alone was enough to lead a person to a sinless life. Clearly neither fall within the scope of a biblical foundation – although Augustine – perhaps – was closer.

Cassian wrote three books, but traces of his ‘middle way’ have been found in Conferences: in book 3, the Conference of Abbot Paphnutius; book 5, the Conference of Abbot Serapion; and most especially in book 13, the Third Conference of Abbot Chaeremon. He was not alone in his theological assessment, and was followed or led by Hilary of Arles, Vincent of Lerins, and Faustus of Riez. It is denied by the East that Cassian was a semi-pelagian, as they do not hold Augustine in such high regard.

Hodge, the 19th century Calvinist Systematic Theology of the Reformed Church, says,

“The Semi-Pelagian doctrine taught by John Cassian (d. 440) admits that divine grace (assistance) is necessary to enable a sinner to return unto God and live, yet holds that, from the nature of the human will, man may first spontaneously, of himself, desire and attempt to choose and obey God. They deny the necessity of prevenient but admit the necessity of cooperative grace and conceive regeneration as the product of this cooperative grace.” A.A. Hodge (The Semi-Pelagian Theology of John Cassian)

I am not expert on Cassian, or the Pelagian Debate, however I have selected some passages from the 13th Conference of John Cassian:

Conference 13.18,

AND from this it is clearly gathered by those who, led not by chattering words but by experience, measure the magnitude of grace, and the paltry limits of man’s will, that “the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, nor food to the wise, nor riches to the prudent, nor grace to the learned,” but that “all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will.” And therefore it is proved by no doubtful faith but by experience which can (so to speak) be laid hold of, that God the Father of all things worketh indifferently all things in all, as the Apostle says, like some most kind father and most benign physician; and that now He puts into us the very beginnings of salvation, and gives to each the zeal of his free will; and now grants the carrying out of the work, and the perfecting of goodness; and now saves men, even against their will and without their knowledge, from ruin that is close at hand, and a headlong fall; and now affords them occasions and opportunities of salvation, and wards off headlong and violent attacks from purposes that would bring death; and assists some who are already willing and running, while He draws others who are unwilling and resisting, and forces them to a good will. But that, when we do not always resist or remain persistently unwilling, everything is granted to us by God, and that the main share in our salvation is to be ascribed not to the merit of our own works but to heavenly grace, we are thus taught by the words of the Lord Himself: “And you shall remember your ways and all your wicked doings with which you have been defiled; and you shall be displeased with yourselves in your own sight for all your wicked deeds which you have committed. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall have done well by you for My own name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your wicked deeds, O house of Israel.” And therefore it is laid down by all the Catholic fathers who have taught perfection of heart not by empty disputes of words, but in deed and act, that the first stage in the Divine gift is for each man to be inflamed with the desire of everything that is good, but in such a way that the choice of free will is open to either side: and that the second stage in Divine grace is for the aforesaid practices of virtue to be able to be performed, but in such a way that the possibilities of the will are not destroyed: the third stage also belongs to the gifts of God, so that it may be held by the persistence of the goodness already acquired, and in such a way that the liberty may not be surrendered and experience bondage. For the God of all must be held to work in all, so as to incite, protect, and strengthen, but not to take away the freedom of the will which He Himself has once given. If however any more subtle inference of man’s argumentation and reasoning seems opposed to this interpretation, it should be avoided rather than brought forward to the destruction of the faith (for we gain not faith from understanding, but understanding from faith, as it is written: “Except ye believe, ye will not understand”) for how God works all things in us and yet everything can be ascribed to free will, cannot be fully grasped by the mind and reason of man.

Strengthened by this food the blessed Chæremon prevented us from feeling the toil of so difficult a journey


And so the manifold wisdom of God grants with manifold and inscrutable kindness salvation to men; and imparts to each one according to his capacity the grace of His bounty, so that He wills to grant His healing not according to the uniform power of His Majesty but according to the measure of the faith in which He finds each one, or as He Himself has imparted it to each one.

Compare with 13.16,

But let no one imagine that we have brought forward these instances to try to make out that the chief share in our salvation rests with our faith, according to the profane notion of some who attribute everything to free will and lay down that the grace of God is dispensed in accordance with the desert of each man: but we plainly assert our unconditional opinion that the grace of God is superabounding, and sometimes overflows the narrow limits of man’s lack of faith.

While I was looking for more on Cassian, I came across this post which I highly recommend. For me, who can see a corporate Calvinism – in that God has ordained that the Church be saved, that the Church is His Elect(ion) from before the Ages (which started with the Expulsion) – and an individual Free Will (in that we are called by Grace but the choice remains in us), it is important to reading varying viewpoints from across history – even Paul read other books than the bible. I am just now starting my reading into this doctrinal subject; however, if any would like to point me in the right direction, please feel free to.

Ahh the things we miss when we arrive late for the discussion!

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8 Replies to “John Cassian, Grace, Free Will and Semipelagianism”

  1. Coming at this from the Eastern Orthodox perspective, there is a good book by Fr Seraphim (Rose) called The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church which, while being basically an argument that St Augustine should be honoured by Orthodox, also states clearly his errors on the issue of free will and shows how St John Cassian is a faithful representative of the Orthodox teaching on this subject.

    Columba Stewart’s Cassian the Monk also argues against the convention of calling him ‘Semi-Pelagian’ and suggests that we try to understand St Cassian’s teachings against the background of Eastern Christianity rather than within the context of the Pelagian controversy or through the criticisms of the hyper-Augustinian Prosper of Aquitaine.

  2. Not sure if you’re still interested in this, but I just did a paper on Augustine, Pelagius, and Cassian on Original Sin. One book helpful for me on Cassian was “Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy.”

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