Johannine Themes in the Early Church Councils
by David Arias

The Necessity of Intrinsically Efficacious Actual Graces
for the Performance of Salutary Acts

Doctrines of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism:

The teachings of the Councils of Ephesus and Orange II were, in large part, directed against the two heretical doctrines of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. Moreover, one of the chief scriptural texts to which both of these Councils appealed, in order to justify their teachings against Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, was the latter half of John 15:5, "for without me you can do nothing." Accordingly, in order to understand the teachings of these Councils, and their interpretations of John 15:5, it is important to understand the chief doctrines of these two important heresies.

Pelagianism, named after the Irish lay-monk, Pelagius (ca. 420 AD), denies the reality of Original Sin as well as the need for the human person to be elevated into the supernatural order by grace. According to Pelagius and his followers Adam's sin only affects his descendants insofar as it provides them with a bad example. Furthermore, the Pelagians hold that the human person does not need grace in order to live a holy life meritorious of eternal life. Rather, it is possible, they say, for the human person, by the exercise of his natural will, to live a blameless life before God. Grace, at most, is a help which enables the human person to live a righteous life more easily. Because of this denial of the necessity of grace, Pelagianism teaches that Christ is merely a moral exemplar whose virtues and teaching are to be exemplified and followed (Ott, 223).

Semi-Pelagianism, on the other hand, recognizes the reality of Original Sin, the need for the human person to be elevated into the supernatural order through grace, as well as the need for inner actual graces in order to bring the human person to the state of justification and salvation. However, Semi-Pelagianism, by attributing an unjustifiable autonomy to the human natural will, comes to, at least, three heretical theological conclusions. It holds that "a) The primary desire for salvation proceeds from the natural powers of man (initium fidei, pius credulitatis affectus, pia studia). b) Man does not require supernatural help to persevere in virtue to the end. c) Man can merit de congruo the first grace by his own natural endeavours" (Ott, 223).

Conciliar Use of John 15:5:

Both the Council of Ephesus and the Second Council of Orange explicitly refer to John 15:5 twice. Although both Councils each refer to John 15:5 twice they each only directly quote it once. The second reference to this Johannine passage, in each Council, is not a direct citation but rather a, allusion to the text. It is interesting to note, though, that this significant verse is not always referred to in order to support the exact same point of doctrine. Rather, in different parts of the conciliar documents this verse is used to justify different but related points of doctrine. The following passages are the four contexts in which this verse is mentioned and utilized:

The Council of Ephesus:
That God thus operates in the hearts of men [i.e., in such a way that He moves the will infallibly and freely to determine itself to a particular good] and in the free will itself, so that a holy thought, a pious plan, and every motion of good will is from God, because we can do anything good through Him, "without whom we can do nothing." For to this profession the same teacher Zosimus trained us, who, when he spoke to the bishops of the whole world concerning the assistance of divine grace, said: "What time therefore occurs in which we do not need His help? Accordingly in all acts, situations, thoughts, and movements He ought to be implored as helper and protector. Indeed, it is arrogant for human nature to take anything to itself since the Apostle declares: ... "By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace in me has not been made void; but I have labored more than all those; yet not I, but the grace with me [I Cor. 15:10]." (Council of Ephesus, "The Catalogue or the Authoritative Statements of the Past Bishops of the Holy See Concerning the Grace of God";  DS, 135).

That whoever says, that for this reason the grace of justification is given to us, that what we are ordered to do through free will we may be able to accomplish more easily through grace, just as if, even were grace not given, we could nevertheless fulfill the divine commands without it, though not indeed easily, let him be anathema. For of the fruits of His commands the Lord did not speak when He said: "Without me you can accomplish them with more difficulty," but when He said: "Without me you can do nothing." (Ibid.;  DS, 138).

The Second Council of Orange:
If anyone affirms that without the illumination and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, - Who gives to all sweetness in consenting to and believing in the truth, - through the strength of nature he can think anything good which pertains to the salvation of eternal life, as he should, or choose, or consent to salvation, that is to the evangelical proclamation, he is deceived by the heretical spirit, not understanding the voice of God speaking in the Gospel: "Without me you can do nothing"; and that of the Apostle: "Not that we care fit to think everything by ourselves as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God" (II Cor. 3:5)  (Council of Orange II, Canon 7;  DS, 180).

The branches of the vine. Thus there are the branches in the vine, not that they may bestow anything upon the vine, but that they may receive from it the means by which they are to live; so truly the vine is in the branches, that it may furnish vital nourishment to these, not take it from them. And by this it is an advantage to the disciples, not to Christ, that each have Christ abiding in him, and that each abide in Christ. For if the branch is cut off, another can sprout forth from the living root; but that which has been cut off, cannot live without the root. (Ibid., Canon 24;  DS, 197).


From these four references to John 15:5 we can see that the Councils of Ephesus and Orange II used this passage in order to buttress at least three different but related points of doctrine. The first point of doctrine, which is most clearly taught in the first citation from Ephesus, is that actual grace is intrinsically efficacious. By holding that "every motion of the good will is from God," the Council of Ephesus is teaching that one's very will to cooperate with grace is itself an action which is caused by grace. Thus, grace does not become efficacious because of the consent of the human will, but rather the human will consents to grace because the grace which moves it to consent is in itself efficacious. By holding to a strictly literal interpretation of John 15:5 the Council of Ephesus is teaching that there is no single good act which is not the result and effect of God's intrinsically efficacious grace.

Secondly, John 15:5 is used by both Councils in order to support the doctrine that salutary acts are not merely very difficult to perform without grace, but rather ontologically impossible (absolutely impossible in such a way that without grace salutary acts cannot exist at all in the created order). The first three of the citations above make manifest this teaching. The second quote from the Council of Ephesus even explicitly excludes the possibility of salutary acts being merely morally impossible in its interpretation of John 15:5. Here again, we see that, by interpreting John 15:5 in a strict literal sense, the Council of Ephesus does not allow for the possibility of there existing any good acts which are not the result of God's grace.

A third and very general point of doctrine, which these conciliar uses of John 15:5 buttress is the teaching that all goodness in the human actions comes from God. In other words, there is not one iota of goodness, in a human action, which is not the result of God's causal power. This doctrine is, in fact, made known by all four of the citations quoted above and it is implied by the other two points of doctrine which we have just considered.. This doctrine is so stressed in the Second Council of Orange that Canon 22 (almost immediately preceding Canon 24 quoted above) teaches the following: "...No one has anything of his own except lying and sin. But if man has any truth and justice, it is from that Fountain for which we ought to thirst in this desert, that bedewed by some drops of water from It, we may not falter on the way" (DS, 195).

In addition to these three points of doctrine, which Ephesus and Orange II have supported textually with John 15:5, it is important to note the theological foundation which seems to be governing these conciliar interpretations of the Johannine text. It seems that ultimately it is the Council Fathers' view of the nature of God which is determining how they read and interpret John 15:5. In the second chapter of the doctrine on grace from the Council of Ephesus the Fathers teach, "For no one is good of himself, unless He gives him a participation of Himself, Who alone is good." This text appears to constitute the most general and universal principle from which all of the rest of the teachings on grace, from the Council of Ephesus, follow. Similarly, at the Second Council of Orange, in the second canon on grace, the Council Fathers quote Philippians 2:13: "It is God, Who works in us both to will and to accomplish according to His good will" (DS, 177) Again, this view of God as completely sovereign, and as the Ultimate Cause of all goodness, seems to constitute the principle which determines and regulates all of the following teachings on grace at Orange II. This view of God, then, also determines the Council Fathers' interpretation of John 15:5 at the Second Council of Orange as it seems to have at the Council of Ephesus.

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