Grace, Free Will, & Synergy in Orthodoxy: A Brief Excerpt from St. Faustus of Riez

Saints Vincent and John Cassian

Over a year ago, I wrote a series of posts concerning Pelagius, St. Augustine, and St. John Cassian’s teachings on grace and free will. As do many Orthodox commentators on this Latin doctrinal debate in the early history of the Church, I held St. John Cassian up as the one teaching the Orthodox position on this subject. Since then, however, I have noticed that Cassian’s work, the Conferences, is neither a succinct work or highly systematic work. Furthermore, the work deals with many other issues besides free will and grace. Therefore, he is relatively easy to misread and accuse of Semipelagianism. Those who accuse him of heresy tend to be either Calvinist or Catholic. Orthodox, of course, reject these charges and argue that they have misunderstood the Orthodox position of synergy. In order to find a more succinct and clear Orthodox discussion of this subject, I have examined the work of St. Faustus, bishop of Riez. St. Faustus came from the monastery of Lérins, which is associated with both St. John Cassian and St. Vincent of Lérins. Commissioned by the Council of Arles in 473, Faustus wrote a most excellent work concerning the synergy between free will and God’s grace in the salvation of humanity. This work, De gratia libri duo, is succinct and is directly concerned about Augustinianism and Pelagianism. Therefore, I have taken the liberty of translating some excerpts from it below. Faustus’ position can be summed up briefly as follows: 1.) humanity did not become totally depraved after the Fall, but merely damaged and inclined towards evil; 2.) that God’s grace is far and above superior to the works of any person; 3.) that free will itself is a form of general grace implanted in all human beings. As one should be able to see, this formulation precludes any accusation of Semipelagianism on account that the dichotomy between grace and free will is non-existent. Both are grace in this framework. However, what this framework affords, unlike its strict Augustinian counterpart, is an avoidance of the extreme doctrine of predestination that Augustine held as well as some intelligible affordment for personal agency. Translated below are two chapters from De gratia as well as the canons from the Council of Arles (473), which is recorded in one of St. Faustus’ letters.

Book I, Chapter VII: Against this Idea Which They Declare that Free Will Has Suffered Completely

The promoter of this wicked conviction supposes that humanity – having been enriched with respect to understanding, furnished with respect to reason, graced with respect to the honor of the divine image – ought to be compared to brutish animals and senseless beasts of burden, with the result that they rightly are brought to [eternal] life not by their own conduct, but only by the violent command of the [divine] Author. By which sort, they even contend to compare humanity to the senseless elements: with the result that, just as from the reason of the lands, they bring about nothing of fruitfulness by means of their will, are ignorant of their own fruitfulness for which of any sense neither freedom nor the will support, [and] moreover the yields of [these] fruits are taken from these lands by a cultivator at work. Therefore, the desired and successful fruits of justice and of good things are claimed from humanity’s idle exercise of every virtue by the persevering God alone. And as if in nothing they either agree or consent, thus, whoever has sought after or has produced [anything], in nothing are they deemed to have pursued an endeavor and desire. And just like the great sea, which hither and thither is tossed about by means of raging winds, thus the human mind is whirled about to whatever good or deed, without any of their own influence, by the impulse of divine power alone. Be that as it may, if the intellect does not admonish the human away from the perversity of evil, if desire does not rouse [one] towards the right choice (dexteram) of the good, they will already be held not by the condition of humanity, but of cattle.

Behold! The heretical one, under the pretext of grace, wishes to be such a human after grace. And thus, if the free will perished entirely, which by all means consists in the love of innocence or the working of justice or the sanctification of the body, [again] if this [free will] has suffered completely in the fall of the first human, why then do we read, “Acquire justice, you who inhabit the earth!” (Isaiah 26:9). And again, “But the righteous one lives by my faith” (Hebrews 10:38). And, “The just will posses the earth by means of inheritance” (Psalms 36:29 Vulgate). And, “The eyes of the Lord are upon the just and his ears up to their prayers” (Psalms 33:16 Vulgate). Was innocence utterly lost, because its owner neglected to stand firm on his original path? I do not think so, because it was written, “The innocent and the righteous have adhered to me” (Psalms 24:21 Vulgate). And again, “Because who will stand in His holy place? The innocent with respect to their hands and the clean with respect to their heart!” (Psalms 23:3-4 Vulgate). And again, “The Lord will not deprive those walking in innocence from good things” (Psalms 83:13 Vulgate). Should it be believed that the sanctification of the body was lost entirely, because of its slavery to its members in service of rebellion [against God] and that the dignity of the original purity was shattered? Not by any means, because we read, “Be holy, because I am holy!” (Leviticus 19:2). Thus on account of this origin of good things – of which the inhabitant of paradise having badly secured what they had received from the benign Author – agency did not perish, although perfection was lost. I am not saying that the purity of these virtues perish, although their maidenly integrity was desecrated.

Book I, Chapter VIII: How the Weakness of Free Will Ought to Be Understood

But you may ask and say: “How should the weakened will of the human mind be understood?” One’s weakened will requires more help, just like a human made very weak needs more supports and consolations on account of their stumbling steps. Therefore, just as right after the long standing custom of wantonness, the repair of continence will consist of much work, and just as one is seized with excessive enjoyment of drunkenness, sobriety with the violence of a rigid cross is received with difficulty. Formerly sobriety, because it was being held without harm, was preserved with little difficulty. Indeed, the inviolate conscience is possessed with a certain pleasure. And as, after many delights of the carnal vices – the vices which a person retaining their condition from youth would have had easily been able to trample upon – one is returned to the path of virtue as though climbing against a steep mountain. Thus the freedom of the human will granted by God ruined the flower and vigor of its grace, but it did not perish, in order that one supposes that the divine gifts are not so much as forbidden from themselves, as that they understand that the divine gifts ought to be renewed for themselves with the greatest effort and labor through the patronage of assistance.

Listen to the calculating law giver concerning the will of freedom, when he says: “I have placed before your face life and death, good and evil. Choose life, so that you live (Deuteronomy 30:19).” And again, “I have chosen the way of truth. Your judgments I have not forgotten” (Psalms 118:30 Vulgate). You see here that he forces upon no one a necessity of either a fate or an imposed perdition, when the power of choosing takes action. Nor does predestination incline towards one decision, when the choice of both decisions is granted. Again, “Let your hand do, so that it might save me, because I have chosen your commandments” (Psalms 118:173 Vulgate). This is to say, “Indeed, the ruinous pleasure of the world was inciting me towards the sinister choice (sinistram), but the utility of your commandments inclined me towards the right choice (dexteram).” And thus, when these very pagans are led to a judgment of good or evil by their implanted will, how much greater is a humble Christian – a Christian who is fixed in the virtue of God’s help, to which it is said, “If you wish to be perfected, go, sell what you own” (Matthew 19:21); and again, “Do you wish to be made whole?” (John 5:6) – able to direct the freedom of their will towards a good choice? A knowledgeable person, to the extent that the capable agent has imparted [the individual free will] to the human heart, questions their will, which is ready to be well. For also, elsewhere [in the Scriptures] it shows the wondering people with a given freedom of the will as thus, “Bring forth the people that are blind and have eyes, and those that are deaf and have ears” (Isaiah 43:8). Here, whoever is deaf and whoever is blind is understood to be so out of arrogance, not out of nature. And in the Gospel, it clearly shows that the affect of good will was implanted: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23). This is to say, “It is characteristic of my mercy, when you call out, but it is the commitment of your will, when you follow.”

Let us see if God invites a human to Himself through leisure. He says, “Let them deny themselves” (Luke 9:23). That is [to say], he who is evil strives to be good and begging says, “And I will confess Him from my will” (Psalms 27:7 Vulgate). Everyone is ordered to be converted out of their will, lest the sinner perhaps have no hope that they are able to be changed into something better. He says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let them deny themselves,” (Luke 9:23). That is [to say] one is influenced out of the other. Let patience conquer irascibility, let temperance restrain concupiscence, let humility drive away pride, let the cross grind away desire. Does anyone suppose that their sleeping selves are united through grace alone without the labor of the heart, without the affliction of either the flesh, or without the great toil of the human? “Let him deny himself” (Luke 9:23). This is to say, “Oh human! Do not think that you are so made by your [divine] Author that you are unable to be just rather than wicked, chaste rather than wanton, kind rather than malevolent!” What is changed in you, so that you might follow, is not the work, but is life. Now, after saying these things, we do not equate work with grace, but we entirely place grace above all without comparison.

Council of Arles (473)

Canon 1. Therefore, anathema against that person, who – among the impious remnants of Pelagius – have argued that a human is born without sin and that through work alone he is able to be saved from the presumption of being damned; and who have believed that he is able to be freed without the grace of God.

Canon 2. Again, anathema against that person, who has asserted that a human solemnly baptized with the faithful confession, who declares the universal faith, and a little afterwards has fallen through many reproaches of this world, has perished in Adam and in Original Sin.

Canon 3. Again, anathema against that person, who has said that through the foreknowledge of God a human is forced unto [spiritual] death.

Canon 4. Again, anathema against that person who has said that he, who has perished, was not received [at all by God] so that he was able to be saved – that is [to say], in the case of a baptized person or even a pagan of the same age, who was able to believe and did not wish to do so.

Canon 5. Again, anathema against that person who has said that a vessel of indignity is unable to rise in order that it may become a vessel unto honor.

Canon 6. Again, anathema against that person who has said that Christ did not die for all nor did he wish for all humans to be saved.


I, Bishop Auxanius, have read and signed in the name of Christ.

I, Faustus, have read and signed the exemplar of my letter.

I, Bishop Paul, have read and signed in the name of Christ.

I, Bishop Eutropius, have read and signed in the name of Christ.

I, Bishop Pragmatius, have read and signed in the name of Christ.

I, Bishop Patiens, have read and signed in the name of Christ.

I, Euphronius, have read and admired the sanctified fullness.

I, Bishop Megethius, have read and signed.

I, Bishop Claudius, have read and signed in the name of Christ.

I, Bishop Leucadius, have read and signed in the name of Christ.

I, Bishop Julianus, have read and signed in the name of Christ.

I, Presbyter Lucidus, have read and signed.

Note: It should also be said that among these signatories, in addition to Faustus, Archbishop Patiens of Lyons is a saint.

Primary Sources:

Faustus of Riez, De gratia libri duo, edited by Augustus Engelbrecht CSEL 21 (Prague: Bibliopola Academiae Litterarum Caesareae Vindobonensis, 1891).

Giovanni Domenico Mansi, ed., Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collection 7 (Florence, 1762), 1007-1012.

Suggested Readings:

John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church AD 450-680 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), 130-139.

Thomas A. Smith, De gratia: Faustus of Riez’s Treatise on Grace and Its Place in the History of Theology (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990).

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