Free Will and The West
Augustine wrote On Admonition and Grace in 426 or 427 AD to Valentine and the monks of Adrumetum who taught that the grace of God was given according to man’s merits. Man’s right conduct initiated conversion with God, and God completed man’s conversion by giving His Holy Spirit. This teaching of the monks of Adrumetum was later termed as Semi-Pelagianism since it was less extreme compared to Pelagius’ doctrine of man. The British monk Pelagius, who was condemned as a heretic in 416 AD, taught that man could turn to God by his own will without the assistance of the Holy Spirit at all. Augustine arose as the champion of orthodoxy against his heretical claim and asserted that man is not only in need of divine assistance in conversion, but is totally dependent upon it.
If by “Catholic” Augustine meant to include the Eastern Catholic position, he was inaccurate. When it came to the issues of Christian anthropology and soteriology there was always a difference between the Greek and Latin Fathers. Historian Peter Holmes writes: “The chief writers of the West, especially Tertullian and Cyprian in the third century, and Hilary of Poitiers and (notably) Ambrose in the fourth century, prominently state the doctrine of man’s corruption, and the consequent necessity of a change of his nature by divine grace; whilst the Alexandrian Fathers (especially Clement), and other Orientals (for instance, Chrysostom), laid great stress upon human freedom, and on the indispensable co-operation of this freedom with the grace of God” (Preface to Volume I of the Edinburgh Edition, NPNF). According to some Patristic scholars, the East remained in their un-advanced doctrine of man because they did not experience or have a desire to engage in the heresy of Pelagius. Even today there are some scholars who accuse the Eastern Orthodox of teaching Semi-Pelagianism.
So was Holmes’ assertion correct that Augustine’s teaching was consistent with the chief writers of the West? It is probable that Augustine had the Western Catholic position in mind when he used the term Catholic, since he often refers to Western Fathers like Cyprian and Ambrose (See for example Epistle 215, and On the Gift Of Perseverance, Ch. 7) to back up his position.
According to the Historian R. E. Holmes (In The Theology of Tertullian (1924), 149-165), there was an interest towards the doctrine of man in Tertullian that was not present in the Eastern Fathers of his day. This is significant considering Tertullian was a 2nd century Father and was not close in time to the heresy of Pelagius. According to Holmes, Tertullian does not go as far as Augustine in articulating total depravity, but does speak of man’s dependence on divine grace for reconciliation to God.
Historians and Augustine himself show that Cyprian believed the will was totally dependent upon divine grace in conversion and in all things. This can be seen in Cyprian’s writings such as De Bouo Patientiae, Ep. 2, Ad Donatom, and Testimonium ad Quirinum. Cyprian taught that every good thing comes from God, and constantly emphasized the disability and weakness of man’s will.
According to the preface to Hilary of Poitiers in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Hilary was another forerunner of St. Augustine. Hilary taught original sin without using the term, and also asserted that regeneration and faith were both unconditional gifts of God. The preface says: “His Augustinianism, if it may be called so, is but one of many instances of originality, a thought thrown out but not developed” Hilary is also considered a Doctor by the Roman Catholic Church even today.
According to the preface to Ambrose of Milan in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, “St. Ambrose ascribes the whole work [in justification] to the Holy Spirit.” For example, Ambrose writes: “The grace of the Lord is given not as a reward which has been earned [or merited], but simply according to the will of the giver” (Exhort. virginitatis 43). In another place Ambrose writes: “Call forth thy servant. Although I am bound with the chains of my sins, being now buried in dead thoughts and works, yet at thy call I shall go forth free and be found one of those sitting at thy feast” (De Poenitentia II:72). It is not a surprise that there is theological similarity between Ambrose and Augustine since Augustine was baptized and taught by Ambrose.
So if we understand Augustine using the term Catholic in reference to the consensus of the chief Western Fathers, which was probably his intention, his assertion was accurate. But does this mean divine monergism was therefore the official dogma of the Western Church at that time? Following, I will briefly examine some of the major ecclesiastical councils associated with doctrine of man and the heresy of Pelagius.
On May 1, 418 AD, with 200 bishops in attendance, the famous Council of Carthage again condemned Pelagianism as a heresy in eight canons. But nowhere do these canons affirm that the consensus of the Western Bishops was divine monergism. This was probably because the Bishops were focused on refuting some of Pelagius’ more extreme teachings. Pelagius taught that: 1) Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died. 2) Adam's sin harmed only himself, not the human race. 3) Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall. 4) The whole human race neither dies through Adam's sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of Christ. 5) The Mosaic Law is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel. 6) Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin. Therefore, this Western Council could reject and condemn these parts of his teaching without affirming Augustine’s doctrine of divine monergism.
At the 3rd Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 AD there was a renewal of the condemnation of Pelagianism, but since the council convened to settle a Christological dispute, the doctrine of man was not the focus. And even if it was, this council, like the first seven Ecumenical Councils, was conducted on Eastern territory, so it is likely Augustine’s doctrine of man would not have been affirmed. Nevertheless, Pelagiansim was condemned here as well as the Council of Carthage (418 AD). But what about Semi-Pelagiansim? What Western councils and ecclesiastical events dealt with it?
After nearly one hundred years of ecclesiastical dispute in the Western Church, a church council met in Orange on July 3, 529 AD, to finally reject and condemn Semi-Pelagianism. But unfortunately, only 14 Bishops attended this council. Perhaps this was because Pope Cœlestine (431 AD), Pope Gelasius (496 AD), and Pope Hormisdas (early 6th century) had already condemned Semi-Pelagianism and Western Bishops considered the issue settled? In that council the canons articulate Augustine’s doctrine of divine monergism, and in the following year, Pope Boniface II ratified the canons of this council. So according to ecclesiastical operation in the Western Church, divine monergism was her official doctrine. However, the historian B. B. Warfield writes: “But councils and popes can only decree…and [synergism] retained an influence among their countrymen which never died away” (Introductory Essay to the Augustine and Pelagian Controversy, NPNF, Xxi). And unfortunately, after the era of scholasticism we find that by the 16th century, the official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church was far from Augustine’s divine monergism. Nevertheless, Augustine’s claim that his doctrine was the true catholic faith was accurate in the light of the chief Western Fathers, and the decrees and canons associated with the Council of Orange.
So why is this a practical issue today? To begin with, it was the Lutherans and Calvinists who believed that they were returning to the true, apostolic, prophetic, and catholic faith concerning original sin and free will in the 16th century (although they came to different conclusions concerning predestination). The Lutherans boldly stated in the Conclusion of Part One of the Augsburg Confession that: “There is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman church, insofar as can be observed from the writings of the Fathers.” In other words, the Lutheran understanding of divine monergism, among other articles of faith, was not contrary to the chief writers of the early Western Catholic church, nor her ecclesiastical decrees. At the Council of Trent (16th century), and Vatican II (20th Century) Roman Catholics continue to insist that God predestines people to salvation according to the free response of faith foreseen, therefore rejecting Augustine’s doctrine of divine monergism. Therefore, conservative Lutherans, Calvinists, and Episcopalians have the responsibility in all current and future dialogues to show them from the writings of the chief Western Fathers and the decrees associated with the Council of Orange a reclaiming of their doctrine of divine monergism. In conclusion, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Episcopalians can rejoice that Augustine’s doctrine (actually Scripture’s doctrine), is the true, apostolic, prophetic, and Western Catholic faith.