Letting God decide the future of each soul freed Prosper to preach to others without wondering whether or not they were of the elect. He was in fact one of the first Christian voices to speak of bringing Christ outside the Roman Empire, and his De vocatione omnium gentium (“The Call of All Nations”), was the first Christian book to support this idea. “Today there are in the remotest parts of the world some nations who have not yet seen the light of the grace of the Saviour,” he wrote. “But we have no doubt that in God’s hidden judgment, for them also a time of calling has been appointed, when they will hear and accept the Gospel which now remains unknown to them.”
The fourth-century debate between Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius left a profound mark in church history, with Pelagius’s views condemned as heresy at the ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431. In a nutshell, Augustine explained that, because of the Fall, human beings are incapable of redeeming themselves and depend totally on God’s grace. Pelagius instead believed that God has endowed human beings with the ability to choose to obey God and to resist sin.
Augustine’s position led to a belief in predestination, since if God is the only agent in redemption, he is also the only one who can determine who will be saved. Those who believed that God’s grace was preeminent in salvation but were not ready to deny the importance of human agency often adopted the belief that the original sin had only a limited effect on human abilities and that man could contribute to his salvation by cooperating with God’s grace.
Augustine’s teachings continued to have many supporters. Among these was Prosper of Aquitaine, a poet and lay theologian who lived in Marseilles, France, in the fifth century, when these doctrines of grace were most fiercely debated. He is considered the author of the expression “semi-Pelagian” to denote anyone who tried to reach a compromise between Augustine and Pelagius.
The Development of Prosper’s Views
We know very little about Prosper’s life. He lived in Marseilles when some foreign populations such as the Vandals and the Goths were making their way into France. In fact, he was there when the Goths invaded the city and was taken prisoner for some time.
In a long poem entitled De Providentia Dei (Of God’s Providence), Prosper expressed his pain in seeing the devastation of his city. “O happy the man whom God has given such a power to live free from cares at a time like this! Who is not shaken by the heap of ruins all around him, remaining intrepid amids the flames and flood. But we, the weak ones, under such a tempest of evil, are cut down everywhere, and we fall. Each time the image of our fatherland, all in smoke,
comes to our mind, and the whole range of destruction stands before our eyes, we break down, and the tears water our cheeks beyond restraint.”
Prosper wrote De Providentia Dei when possibly still young in the faith, as a possible explanation of why God allowed such suffering. After a long discussion, he concluded that disasters were part of God’s punishment of evildoers, and that Christians were inevitably caught in them. At this time, his understanding of God’s grace was still limited by his emphasis on man’s free will.
Sometimes later, however, he was introduced to the writings of Augustine of Hippo (possibly by a deacon named Leontius), and became thoroughly convinced of their orthodoxy and authority. In a later letter, he described Augustine as “the first and foremost among the bishops of the Lord” and “the greatest man in the church today.” He was certain that “the church of Rome and of Africa and all the sons of the promise the world over agree with the teaching of this doctor both in the faith and in particular in the doctrine of grace.”
Denouncing the Semi-Pelagians
It was then only natural that, when some opposition to Augustine’s doctrines became vocal in his region, Prosper sent letters to Augustine, asking him to intervene. And he was not the only one. Another young supporter of Augustine, Hilary, did the same.