Synod of Orange Struggled with Choice

Dan Graves, MSL

Synod of Orange Struggled with Choice

Do babies go to Hell if they die before they are baptized? Did God choose some people to be damned long before they were born? Can a person take the first step toward his or her own salvation? Does God choose some people to do evil? How can a person have any responsibility if God completely decides his fate? When a Briton named Pelagius taught that a person has a good deal of say in his or her own salvation, St. Augustine of Hippo replied with powerful arguments that showed that only by God's grace from first to last could anyone be saved.

Augustine won the day and the church condemned the teachings of Pelagius. Augustine went on to write many pages about grace and how men are saved. His final teaching was that all of mankind shares Adam's sin. Every single person is damned. No one can get himself out of this mess: only God by his grace can do that. And God doesn't do it on the basis of anyone's merit: He chooses some people to be saved and grants them various graces to make sure they are saved. This is called election or predestination. The number of elect was set beforehand and cannot be changed.

Whoa! said some thinkers, shortly after Augustine's death. Augustine has gone too far. If what Augustine said was true, it seemed to say that God had chosen some people from all eternity to be damned. What is more, it made no sense for anyone to try to obey God, because no matter what a person did, God would save or damn that person as he chose. In fact, it even seemed that God had chosen some people to do evil. To others it looked as if Augustine was saying that babies who died, before they even knew right from wrong, could go to Hell.

In Southern Gaul (France) a hot debate raged over these topics into the sixth century. Some theologians felt that both Augustine and Pelagius were too extreme; they tried to find a middle ground between them. In later centuries, these theologians were called Semi-Pelagians, although they could just as well have been called Semi-Augustinians.

On this day, July 3, 529 a new church was dedicated at Orange (Arausio) in Gaul. Thirteen bishops were present. The dedication became more than usually significant when Caesarius of Arles asked the bishops to sign a statement. Caesarius, who had been in touch with Pope Felix IV, held Augustine's position. His statement, however, did not teach that divine grace was irresistable and specifically denied that God predestined anyone to do evil. The thirteen bishops and some other people who were in attendance signed the document, and sent it to Rome. Eighteen months later, Pope Boniface II approved it, making it official church doctrine. That ended the Semi-Pelagian controversy for the time being.

However, the relationship between what God does and what we do remained so unclear that the question has come up in one form or another ever since. During the Reformation, the Roman Church declared that Luther's theology violated the doctrine settled at Orange. Another reformer, John Calvin, took the position that divine grace is irresistable. The Calvinist theologian Jacob Arminius insisted that man has a certain amount of free will to resist divine grace. Because of this, he is sometimes accused of being a Semi-Pelagian, but he taught that a man cannot save himself or do any real good apart from grace. John Wesley followed the views of Jacob Arminius.

As to whether innocent children are damned if they die without baptism, the Bible suggests not. David clearly expected to go where his dead baby went (2 Samuel 12:23); God took the life of King Jeroboam's child because only in him was any good found (1 Kings 14:12, 13), and Jesus declared that we must become as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:15).


  1. Kyle, R. "Semi-Pelagianism." Elwell Evangelical Dictionary.
  2. "Orange, Councils of" and "Semi-Pelagianism." The New Catholic Encyclopedia.
  3. "Orange, Councils of." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1911.
  4. "Semipelagianism." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  5. Various internet articles and discussions.

Last updated July, 2007

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