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The Council of Orange

An Underrated Statement on Grace

It has been said that all of western philosophy is a long series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. It is also the case that one might say that all of western theology is a long series of footnotes to Augustine. After Augustine (A.D. 354-430), the Western church generally followed his teachings on grace, but the Western tradition is “Augustinian” with many interesting qualifications and developments. Augustine’s theology on grace “won”—generally—in the West, although not in the East.

The Council of Orange (A.D. 529) is one of two councils in Orange (the other was in 441), and is the more important of the two. Orange itself is in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France (in the south).

The Council of Orange was what is often called a “provincial” council, although Pope Boniface II confirmed its conclusions in 531. To understand the Council of Orange one must grasp something of the theological discussion and debate leading up to the council. In particular, one must understand the theological movement often labeled “semi-Pelagianism.”

The Semi-Pelagians

There are two groups who are commonly treated under the name “semi-pelagian: (1) some monks of Hadrumetum (Africa); and (2) some monks of Marseilles in southern Gaul (modern-day France). Augustine would write a number of letters and four key works that are related to, or are addressing, what would eventually be called “semi-Pelagianism.” It is fair to say that both the monks of Hadrumetum and the monks of Marseilles were attempting to understand Augustine, or at least understand what they took to be entailments of Augustine’s writings. The key letters related to this controversy are:[1]

  • Augustine’s Letter to Sixtus (=Letter 194)
  • A Letter of Bishop Evodius to Abbot Valentine
  • The First Letter of Augustine to Abbot Valentine (=Letter 214)
  • The Second Letter of Augustine to Abbot Valentine (=Letter 215)
  • A Letter of Abbot Valentine to Saint Augustine (Letter 216)
  • The Third Letter of Augustine to Abbot Valentine
  • A Letter of Prosper of Aquitaine to Augustine
  • A Letter of Hilary to Augustine

Augustine’s two volumes Grace and Free Choice and Rebuke and Grace are first and foremost written in response to the monks of Hadrumetum (Africa), while his two volumes The Predestination of the Saints and The Gift of Perseverance are first and foremost written in response to the monks of Marseilles in southern Gaul (modern-day France).[2]

Augustine’s Letter to Sixtus (Letter 194) generated concern and confusion amongst the monks of Hadrumetum. Augustine’s theology of grace comes through crystal clear in this letter. For example, he writes: “the one condemned is given the punishment that was deserved, while the one set free is given grace that was not deserved.”[3] He could also write that it is important to recognize that faith itself is not to be attributed to “human choice,” but is “a gratuitous gift of God.”[4] It has been said that all of western philosophy is a long series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. It is also the case that one might say that all of western theology is a long series of footnotes to Augustine. Click To Tweet

Augustine counsels that abbot Valentine (of Hadrumetum) and his monks should affirm that two things both exist: (1) “the free choice of a human being” and (2) “the grace of God without the help of which free choice can neither turn back to God nor make progress toward God” (“free choice” and grace should not be set against each other as antitheses).[5]

Moving to the monks of Gaul, Prosper of Aquitaine writes a letter to Augustine (Letter 225). Prosper in his letter summarizes the responses of the monks of Marseilles. Some accept Augustine’s teaching. Others object that what Augustine teaches seems at odds with the tradition of the Church up until that time. But the heart of the concerns seems to be classic issues related to notions of the sovereignty of God, and any notion that salvation might be particularized on the part of God. Prosper summarizes the teaching of his monks in Gaul:

Every human being certainly sinned, and no one can be saved by his own works but only by rebirth through the grace of God. All human beings without exception have, nonetheless, been offered the reconciliation that is present in the mystery of the blood of Christ, so that whoever chooses to come to the faith and to baptism can be saved. God, however, foreknew prior to the creation of the world those who were going to believe or who were going to continue in that faith, which after its reception needs the help of grace, and he predestined for his kingdom those whom he foresaw would, after having been gratuitously called, be worthy of election and would leave this life by a good death.[6]

For the monks of Marseilles, it cannot be the case that God gives a gift of perseverance that those who receive it will indeed persevere. Such a view (as Augustine’s), the monks assert, denude the importance of exhortation; why exhort, if God’s gift of perseverance is such that persons will of course persevere, and will not choose to not persevere? Could such an understanding be consistent with true freedom? In short, any meaningful understanding of perseverance must—for the monks of Marseilles—be such that “whatever has been given to the predestined can be lost or retained by each person’s own will . . .”[7]

Semi-Pelagian Leaders

John Cassian (A.D 360-435), Vincent of Lerins (died before A.D. 450), Faustus of Riez (died c. A.D. 490)

One of the most important figures associated with the monks of Marseilles is John Cassian (A.D. 360-435), who founded two monasteries in Marseilles (a men’s monastery and a women’s monastery). The heart of John Cassian’s position can be found in his work Conferences (Latin: Collationes). In XIII.VII.4 of his Conferences, Cassian writes: “When he [God] notices good will making an appearance in us, at once he enlightens and encourages it and spurs it on to salvation, giving increase to what he himself planted and saw arise from our own efforts.”[8] This is the key passage which will so ignite the pen of Prosper of Aquitaine, for it seems clearly to teach that it is only after the “good will” beings to make an “appearance in us,” that God’s grace begins to work. In short, and this is especially acute if we are speaking here of the unregenerate person: the sinner first moves toward God, then God responds in grace, and in his grace spurs us on or brings one along. This is the heart of what will be called Semi-Pelagianism. “Free choice” and grace should not be set against each other as antitheses Click To Tweet

Vincent of Lerins was the leader of the monastery at Lerins (an island off the French coast near Cannes). He held that Augustine’s position of radical depravity, where God must reach out efficaciously and bring man to faith failed to pass Vincent’s test of true or right doctrine. Vincent could write: “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”[9] In short, though Augustine is not named as such, it seems clear that Vincent is (not so?) subtly asserting that Augustine’s theology of grace is outside of that which “has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”

Faustus of Riez, who also served as an abbot in Lerins wrote On the Grace of God and Free Will and was clearly opposed to Augustine’s thesis of grace. In particular, he insisted—like Cassian below—that the first movement of faith, the initium fidei rested on man himself, and did not need any act of God’s grace to produce or bring about. Faustus could write: “To God, the liberality of reward; and to the human, the devotion of search.”[10]

Augustine’s Four Main Works Against the Semi-Pelagians

Augustine’s work, Grace and Free Choice, is the first of his works directed (generally) to the monks at Hadrumetum. He summarizes a key element of his argument: “Let no one, then, accuse God in his heart, but let each person blame himself when he sins. And when he does something as God wants, let him not take this away from his own will.”[11] Augustine here wants to affirm human responsibility—both when one sins, and in a unique sense, when one obeys God. That is, we exercise “free choice” both when we sin and we obey the Lord.

The grace of God in conversion was central to Augustine, and this grace will prove troubling to the monks of Hadrumetum. Speaking of the Apostle Paul, Augustine writes: “that he [Paul] received a call from heaven and was converted by such an efficacious calling was the grace of God alone, for his merits were great, but evil ones.”[12]  

In a particularly good summary of his position on the nature of the will, Augustine writes:

We, however, always have free will, but it is not always good. For it is either free from righteousness when it is enslaved to sin, and then it is evil, or it is free from sin when it is enslaved to righteousness, and then it is good. But the grace of God is always good, and this grace makes a human being who first had an evil wilt have a good will.[13]

Augustine’s work, Rebuke and Grace, is the second of two volumes written in response to the concerns of certain monks in Hadrumetum (Africa). It was written in 426 or 427. In Augustine’s Revisions he reflects back and comments on the occasion for the book: some persons had discovered Augustine’s writing on grace, and concluded that if Augustine is correct, and God must give the grace to keep God’s commands, there is no reason to engage in the rebuke of those not disobeying God. Why rebuke them, it is argued?

What they really need is for God in his grace to enable and bring about their obedience. All we can do, the argument goes, is pray for such persons who are not obeying God’s commands. Against such a notion, Augustine argued, in brief, that rebuke is a God-ordained means by which Christians are to spur others onto Christian faithfulness. Ultimately, one cannot ever get before God’s grace in how we relate to God: “to desire the help of grace is the beginning of grace.”[14]

One of the key issues in his first work written to the monks of Marseilles, The Predestination of the Saints , is Augustine’s passionate and dogged insistence that every act or moment or stage of faith is a gift of God. This includes the beginning or the first movement of faith. Augustine summarizes his opponents: those who think that “the beginning of faith comes from us and that the increase of faith comes from God.”[15]

In The Predestination of the Saints Augustine refers to earlier works, and contends that his earlier understanding and articulation of faith and the grace of God was undeveloped and ultimately deficient.[16]1 He had not fully grasped nor articulated that our initial faith is completely a gift of God. It is in this section that we see Augustine’s classic line: “In resolving this question I worked hard in defense of the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God conquered.”[17]

In the fourth of Augustine’s four key works addressing the “semi-Pelagians,” The Gift of Perseverance, Augustine continues the same general line of argument seen in The Predestination of the Saints, but with heightened attention on perseverance. Augustine writes: “We must now discuss perseverance with greater care.”[18] Augustine says of perseverance: “the perseverance by which one perseveres in Christ up to the end is a gift of God.”[19] He continues: “One who has not persevered up to the end is certainly not to be said to have this perseverance with which we are now dealing, the perseverance by which one perseveres to the end.”[20]

Augustine offers a helpful summary of his thought on how the grace of God relates both to the beginning of one’s Christian life and for perseverance in the Christian life: “the grace of God both for beginning and for persevering up to the end is not given according to our merits, but is given according to his most hidden and at the same time most just, most wise, and most beneficent will.”[21] God’s will and man’s will are mysteriously related: “We, then, will, but God also produces in us the willing; we, then, work, but God also produces in us the action in accord with good will.”[22]

The Council of Orange

With that brief review of the 5th century Semi-Pelagian controversy in the background, what was happening in the 6th century with the Council of Orange? The Council of Orange consists of twenty-five canons. Interpreters have generally posited that the Council of Orange vindicated key aspects of Augustine’s theology of grace, it was clearly anti-Pelagian, it condemned (generally) semi-Pelagianism, but ultimately falls a tad short of affirming completely Augustine’s doctrine of grace.

The Council of Orange condemns the following propositions:[23]

Canon 1: “That by the offence of the disobedience of Adam it was not the whole man that was changed for the worse, but that the freedom of his soul remained unimpaired, and only his body was subject to corruption.”

In Canon 2, the council condemns the idea that Adam’s sin effected only himself and not his progeny.

Canon 3 condemns the following: “That God’s grace can be bestowed in response to human invocation, but that it is not that very grace that brings it about that it is invoked by us . . .” In short, the council here condemns the idea of that the initium fidei—the beginning of faith—can come from man alone, apart from grace.

Canon 4 is similar, for it condemns the idea that the will (voluntas) “anticipates God.” Instead the council affirms that it is through “the infusion of the Holy Spirit and his operation in us that we wish to be purged.” Again, the council is clear. Given the reality and disastrous nature of sin, Christians cannot affirm that the will “anticipates” God. How could it? Rather, God must work so that we “wish to be purged.”

Canon 5 captures the heart of the previous Canon when it denies the following: “That the beginning of faith, as well as the increase of faith and the very desire of believing . . . is not through the gift of grace . . . but is in us by nature . . .” In short, whatever one says about being created—even if creation is considered a gracious act of God—we need something from outside of us to rescue us.

Canon 6 continues in the same trajectory. It condemns the following: “That to us who, without the grace of God, believe, will, desire, etc.  . . . mercy is divinely bestowed, and not that it is through the action of the Holy Spirit that we believe, etc., as we ought . . .”

Similarly with Canon 7, the council condemns: “That by the force of nature we can rightly think or choose or anything that is good . . . without the Holy Spirit’s illumination . . .”

Canon 8 condemns the notion that there is anyone who does not need grace to come to faith. It condemns: “That some can come to the grace of baptism by mercy, but others through free choice [liberum arbitrium] (which is certainly corrupted in all born since the fall) . . .”

Canon 25 affirms that we love God because He first loved us. Canon 25 states: “We were loved when we pleased him not, that there might spring up in us that which should please him (Romans 5.5).”

A further affirmation can state: “That through the sin of the first man, free choice [liberum arbitrium] was so warped and weakened that thereafter no one is able to love God as he ought, or believe in God, or do anything for God that is good, except the grace of god’s mercy prevent him.”[24]

It is important to note that the council condemns the idea that anyone has been predestined to evil by God. While Augustine (I don’t believe) ever explicitly says quite that, it is understandable that 5th  and 6th-century interpreters of Augustine might have concluded that this was an entailment of his theology.[25] The council could write: “But not only do we not believe that some have been predestined to evil by the divine power, but also, if there be any who will believe so evil a thing, we say to them, with all detestation, anathema . . .” Wrestling with Augustine is an endless adventure. Click To Tweet” username=”credomagazine”]

For Protestants who have embraced (at least generally) a more Augustinian/Calvinistic understanding of grace and salvation, wrestling with Augustine is an endless adventure. And as one explores how Augustine has been accepted or appropriate in the centuries since his time, one encounters fascinating twists and turns and puzzles. The Council of Orange is certainly “Augustinian,” although it by no means attempts to answer every question raised by Augustine’s thought, nor to summarize nor state a full soteriology. But, where it does speak to issues to which Augustine had spoken, it is line with the Doctor of Grace.

It is also worth noting that as Rome wrestled with Augustine over the years, it is probably fair to say that Augustine’s doctrine of grace was (generally) always held at arm’s length. Is B.B. Warfield right after all? Warfield wrote: “The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church.”[26] Suffice it to say that the Council of Orange—a significant attempt to wrestle with Augustine and his legacy, was one important component of a wrestling with the Doctrine of Grace that continues to this day.



[1] Helpfully, these are all collected in Answer to the Pelagians IV, volume 26, The Works of Saint Augustine, translated by Roland J. Teske, and edited by John E. Rotelle (Hyde Park, New York:  New City Press, 2017)..

[2] All of these volumes may be found in Answers to the Pelagians IV, volume 26, The Works of Saint Augustine, translated by Roland J. Teske, and edited by John E. Rotelle (Hyde Park, New York:  New City Press, 2017).

[3] Letter 194 2.4

[4] Letter 194 3.9. It is unlikely that Augustine actually denies that faith is somehow a human act (who else but the human person is exercising faith?). Rather, he appears to want to emphasize that even faith (which is inescapably a human act, it would certainly seem), is not autonomous, self-generated, or meritorious. Rather, faith is “a gratuitous gift of God.” The very fact that a sinner exercises faith is a gift of God.

[5] Augustine, Letter 214 7.

[6] “A Letter of Prosper of Aquitaine to Augustine,” 3. This letter is also known as Letter 225.

[7] “A Letter of Hilary to Augustine,” 6

[8] Cassian, Conferences XIII.VIII.4.

[9] Commonitory, ch. II, §6; NPNF Series II Vol. XI p. 132.

[10] Faustus, On the Grace of God and Free Will 1.7; quoted in Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Volume II, revised edition (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1992), 60.

[11] Grace and Free Choice 2.4.

[12] Grace and Free Choice 5.12.

[13] Grace and Free Choice 15.31.

[14] Rebuke and Grace 1.2.

[15] The Predestination of the Saints 2.5.

[16] The Predestination of the Saints 3.7-4.8. He especially has in mind his Commentary on Some Statements in the Letter to the Romans (written in 394 or 395). By 396, when Augustine writes To Simplicianus, Augustine has sharpened and focused his doctrine of grace in the kind of ways which will be seen in the remainder of his days.

[17] The Predestination of the Saints 4.8.

[18] The Gift of Perseverance 1.1.

[19] The Gift of Perseverance 1.1.

[20] The Gift of Perseverance 1.1.

[21] The Gift of Perseverance 13.33.

[22] The Gift of Perseverance 13.33.

[23] Conveniently, a number of these propositions can be found in Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 4th edition (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2011), 64-66.

[24] The word “prevent” appears to be a rather wooden translation of the Latin “praeveniret.” This Latin word might be better translated something like “come before.” Thus, what the council is saying would be more like: “no one is able to love God as he ought, or believe in God, or do anything for God that is good, except the grace of God’s mercy comes before [to] him.

[25] As a counter-point, here is one place where Augustine speaks of God’s relationship to evil: “But if God is able, whether through the angels, either good ones or bad ones, or in some other way, to work even in the hearts of evil persons in accord with their merits, though he did not produce their malice, but they either contracted it from Adam at their origin or increased it by their own will, why is it surprising if he produces good acts in the hearts of his chosen ones, since he worked to change these hearts from evil to good?” (Grace and Free Choice 21.43).

[26] B.B. Warfield, “Augustine,” in Calvin and Augustine, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1956), 322.

Bradley G. Green

Dr. Bradley G. Green is Professor of Theological Studies at Union University. He is the author of several books, including The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life (Crossway, 2010), Colin Gunton and the Failure of Augustine: The Theology of Colin Gunton in Light of Augustine (Wipf and Stock, 2011), and Covenant and Commandment: Works, Obedience, and Faithfulness in the Christian Life, New Studies in Biblical Theology, (IVP Academic, 2015). He also edited and contributed to Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians (IVP Academic, 2010).

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