Prosper of Aquitaine and His Defense of God’s Grace

Prosper of Aquitaine and His Defense of God’s Grace

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.”[1]

            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.”[2] 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.”[3]

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.

            Prosper described Augustine’s opponents as Pelagianae reliquiae pravitatis (“remnants of the Pelagian perverseness”). But Augustine saw a difference between these men and the actual Pelagians, because these didn’t deny the lasting effect of the original sin on the human race and admitted that no one is sufficient to do any good without God’s grace.

            Augustine knew that the views of these “semi-Pelagians” were essentially contradictory because they affirmed that human beings had to take the first step toward God, who would then supply his grace. In other words, in their view, only the increase of faith, not its beginning, was a gift of God.

            He tackled this and other errors in two treatises, “On the Predestination of the Saints” and “On the Gift of Perseverance,” addressed to Prosper and Hilary.

            But in spite of these errors Augustine called these semi-Pelagians “brothers.” believing they could eventually understand the incongruity of their position, especially in the light of Scriptures. 

            All this happened between the years 426 and 430, and Augustine died shortly after writing these treatises, which didn’t resolve the controversy in the least. Prosper, who lived among those semi-Pelegians, was convinced that, on the issue of grace, there were only Augustinians or Pelagians, and these semi-Pelagians were only subtly hiding their Pelagian views. He then continued to defend Augustine’s doctrines of grace in a climate that became increasingly heated.

Prosper in Rome

            Around the year 440, however, Prosper was called to Rome to serve pope Leo I as an adviser or secretary. He continued to write about grace, and some of his works, particularly his Liber Sententiarum, became influential in the Second Council of Orange of 529, which firmly rejected the semi-Pelagian views. At the same time, he became increasingly convinced (probably because of Leo) that the Augustinian views were really the views of the church, and he addressed them as such.

            His commitment to a doctrine of grace that is all or nothing is evident in a letter he wrote to Demetrias, a rich teenager who had chosen to leave all her wealth and live a modest and chaste life. In this letter, called De vera humilitate (“Of true humility”) and written at the young lady’s request, he explained how “The essence of this virtue [humility] lies in acknowledging God’s grace, which is totally rejected unless it is totally accepted. ... We must therefore acknowledge the grace of God fully and truthfully, and the first thing that comes from this gift of his is the realization of his help.”[4]

            While in Rome, Prosper also compiled a survey of world history until the year 377, called the Epitoma Chronica, which included works by Eusebius and Jerome. It is through this work that we have been introduced to Pope Leo’s famous meetings with invading generals such as Attila and Geiseric.

The Call of All Nations

            Some believe that, by the time Prosper wrote his last work, De vocatione omnium gentium (“The Call of All Nations”), he had softened his position on predestination. But his convictions about the absolute necessity and the gratuitous nature of God’s grace were the same. He simply claimed that both God’s will for all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) and his election of some to be saved are biblical. How or “why this is so,” he said, “our human intellect can in no way find out.”[5]

            “If we do not search into what we cannot know, then we shall have no difficulty in reconciling the first point with the second, but we shall be able to preach and to believe them both with the security of an undisturbed faith. God indeed in whom there is no injustice and all of whose ways are mercy and truth, is the beneficent Creator of all men and their just Ruler. He condemns no one without guilt and saves no one for his merits. When He chastises the guilty, He

punishes our demerits, and when He makes us just, He bestows of His own gifts. Thus the mouth is stopped of them that speak wicked things and God is justified in His words and overcomes when He is judged. The condemned cannot complain in justice that they did not deserve punishment, nor can the justified truthfully claim that they have merited grace.”[6]

            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 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.”[7]

            Although he didn’t talk of sending missionaries to these people (we’ll have to wait for Patrick of Ireland and Gregory I to do that), he believed that it was in God’s plans to reach them, and he encouraged the church to pray to that effect.

[1] Prosper of Aquitaine, De Providentia Dei, ed. by Miroslav Marcovich, E. J. Brill 1989, 11-19

[2] Prosper of Aquitaine, “Letter to Rufinus” in Defense of St. Augustine, “Ancient Christian Writers,” transl.P. De Letter, Newman Press, 1962, 23, 36

[3] Ibid, 24

[4] Prosper of Aquitaine, Epistula ad Demetriadem: De vera humilitate, ed. by Sister M. Kathryn Clare Krabbe, Washington D. C., The Catholic University of America Press, 1965, pp. 161, 163.

[5] Prosper of Aquitaine, The Call of All Nations, The Works of the Fathers in Translation, ed. by Joseph C. Plumpe and Johannes Quasten, Washington D.C., The Catholic University of America Press, 1952, Book I, 87,

[6] Ibid., Book II:1, p. 88-89

[7] Ibid., Book II:17, p. 121


Simonetta Carr