Augustine vs. Cassian: On the Tension Between the Sovereignty of God and the Responsibility of Man

Augustine’s view of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man is more biblical than Cassian’s because he honors the paradox of compatibilism presented in the biblical text while Cassian charges ahead too far into the mystery of God’s character and ends up diverting from other biblical doctrines, like original sin and the free will of man, in order to make this paradox more comprehensible. The implications of Cassian’s error in this study of the providence of God is not isolated but reaches far into profound doctrines like soteriology, theology proper, anthropology, and more. So while Augustine stays faithful to the paradox within biblical doctrine, Cassian does not, and his error unfolds into even greater errors.

Where the two men disagree is on the doctrine of God’s providence—or, more precisely, on the inherent tension between the biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty and His unwavering appeal to man’s will and responsibility. The question has always been: “If God is sovereign, how can man be responsible for his actions?” And out of this question comes the two great Evangelical systems of theology: Calvinism and Arminianism (or, in early church history, Augustinianism and Pelagianism). When asking this question, we must ask “How sovereign is God really, and how free is man really?” We will look at John Cassian’s essay On the Protection of God and Augustine’s essay A Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints for the answer. This doctrine is philosophically dissonant, and Augustine sits with that dissonance in obedience to the Scripture, while Cassian does not.

The Sovereignty of God

The debate begins with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. While Cassian never uses the word “sovereign”, he does use the word “providence” to describe the sovereign rule of God. However, he finds a limit to God’s sovereignty: “He is invited by us when we say to Him: ‘All the day long I have stretched forth my hands unto Thee.’1 He waits for us, when it is said by the prophet: ‘Wherefore the Lord waiteth to have compassion upon us’2” (emphasis mine).3 This limitation he states explicitly here: “And so the grace of God always co-operates with our will for its advantage…in such a way as sometimes even to require and look for some efforts of good will from it that it may not appear to confer its gifts on one who is asleep or replaced in sluggish ease…”4 Here we see that God’s choice is limited by our choice, and in that way, His will is not ultimately sovereign, but is limited by the wills of men. God’s providence (His sovereign rule of the world) is dictated in some way by those whom He rules.

Augustine does not use the word “sovereign” in his essay either, but he does use “providence” and other words Cassian does not, like “predestination,” “election,” and “foreknowledge”—words which describe the sovereignty of God in practice, particularly with respect to soteriology. Cassian uses the word “grace” to denote God’s sovereign gift, while Augustine takes that a step further: “Predestination is the preparation for grace, while grace is the donation itself.”5 There is a deeper layer to God’s sovereignty behind God’s grace that Augustine addresses with this word “predestination”, a word which reveals the greatest difference between the two thinkers.

Biblically, we know that God is absolutely sovereign, and that His sovereignty plays out in His providential rule of the world so that nothing happens that is outside His will of decree. In our study of soteriology, we know that God has elected those whom He foreknew to salvation by predestinating them to come to Him in faith (Eph 1:4-5). This is His sovereignty at work, but it is only half of the story. Man’s involvement in this process is yet to be determined. To the doctrine of anthropology and the concept of the freedom of man’s will we now must turn.

The Freedom of the Will and Original Sin

The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is simple enough to grasp, but what is more difficult is this idea of human freedom. Instead of assuming one state of the will of man across time, Augustine distinguishes the state of the will chronologically, holding it in tension therefore with the fall. In his book Enchirdion, he begins with Adam, describing the state of his will as posse peccare, posse non peccare (able to sin, able not sin); he then moves to describe sinful people after The Fall as non posse non peccare (not able not to sin); then the Christian position of posse non peccare (able to sin and not sin); and finally, the glorified Christian in heaven as non posse peccare (not able to sin).6 In this chronology, Augustine focuses his understanding of the human will now as that of a post-fall sinner, a state of complete spiritual deadness and slavery to sin.

Augustine therefore argues for a low view of man (East of Eden and outside the cross). Left to ourselves, we can do nothing but choose evil. He writes, “The human race is born obnoxious to the sin of the first man, and that none can be delivered from that evil save by the righteousness of the Second Man.”7 We are incapable of choosing good, and completely dependent upon God, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:5, “Not that we are sufficient to think anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God.” Augustine adds his commentary: “Therefore, in what pertains to religion and piety (of which the apostle was speaking), if we are not capable of thinking anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God, we are certainly not capable of believing anything as of ourselves, since we cannot do this without thinking; but our sufficiency, by which we begin to believe, is of God.”8 And while sometimes God takes the evil we do and turns it to good, He does so because of His grace, not our wills: “It is, therefore, in the power of the wicked to sin; but that in sinning they should do this or that by that wickedness is not in their power, but in God’s, who divides the darkness and regulates it; so that hence even what they do contrary to God’s will is not fulfilled except it be God’s will.”9 Therefore, whatever good comes from man’s choices outside of God’s will happens because God is superintendent, not because man is efficacious.

In light of Augustine’s chronology we can see one of Cassian’s errors: he elevates the human will beyond its condition after the fall. According to Augustine, the human will is incapable of choosing good, but Cassian disagrees. He says, “For we should hold that God made man such that he can never will or be capable of what is good: or else He has not granted him a free will.”10 For Cassian, the inability to choose goodness nullifies the freedom of the will, and since he is betrothed to the idea of man’s being free, he cannot admit that man is unable to choose goodness. He cannot admit to original sin.

Therefore, upon closer inspection, Cassian did more than create an odd third-way between sovereignty and man’s freedom, he also jettisoned many orthodox teachings, including the core doctrine of original sin. Biblically, we know that we are born completely dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1), totally unable to choose God on our own. Our wills are not free but are in bondage to sin (Rom 6:6), and yet Cassian said that man is not truly fallen but is still good and able to choose goodness. This is not the language of death that Paul uses. In the final analysis, if man is dead in sin, he cannot be free, and if God is truly sovereign, whatever freedom man does have is not as free as God’s freedom.

Compatibilism: The Tension Between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

If God is sovereign, man cannot be. The role man plays in a world run by a sovereign God has been debated by philosophers ever since the beginning of philosophy. Philosophers seek to explore this paradox, while (some) theologians are content to have faith in the mystery. Between these two theologians, Cassian leans more philosophically because he tries to find answers we are not given, which gets him into trouble.

Cassian presents the three options we have that bring resolution to the paradox in the form of a dialogue between two Abbots and an unnamed old man, each presenting one of three positions. We can see the difference in each position by following the agricultural metaphor Cassian uses to present these positions. The old man says that God alone gets credit for the farmer’s crops. Abbot Germanus says that the farmer gets the credit, while Abbot Chaeremon says that both are right: God and the farmer both get credit, but not equally.

The old man overemphasizes God’s sovereignty in a determinist view of causality (similar to a hyper-calvinist), while Abbot Germanus overemphasizes man’s freedom in an existentialist view of reality. Cassian’s argument is obviously present in the character and voice of Abbot Chaeremon who seeks to find peace between these two extremes in a weird proprietary mixture that comprises the vast majority of the essay.

Cassian seems to be biblical in that he recognizes both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, but he falls short of Orthodoxy when he makes a distinction between the two, limiting God’s sovereignty by the response of man’s free will. He correctly sees man as dependent on God (“The worker can do nothing without God’s aid”), and he also correctly sees man’s responsibility to work the land for himself (“The Divine goodness does not grant these rich crops to idle husbandmen who do not till their fields by frequent ploughing.”)11 But he goes wrong when he sees how the two work together, as he does here when writing about salvation: “And when He sees in us some beginnings of a good will, He at once enlightens it and strengthens it and urges it on towards salvation.”12 Here he makes justification synergistic, not monergistic, and that is not a gospel of salvation by faith alone.

Augustine, on the other hand, leaves no room for man’s will to impinge upon God’s sovereignty. He places the full burden of the Scripture’s demand upon man, while also attributing every single action as a result of God’s absolute sovereignty. And he doesn’t see those as contradictory in any way. He writes, “For it is ours to believe and to will, but it is His to give to those who believe and will…it is true indeed; but by the same rule both are also God’s, because God prepares the will; and both are ours too, because they are only brought about with our good wills.”13 In this way, Augustine’s view is representative of compatibilism in that he recognizes both aspects (God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility) as valid, without diminishing either. Augustine sees Cassian’s view as common of semi-Pelagians and cautions them against arrogant pride: “Let them give attention to this, and well weigh these words, who think that the beginning of faith is of ourselves, and the supplement of faith is of God…but our sufficiency is of God…we are not sufficient to think anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God.”14

Practically Understanding the Paradox

While Cassian would argue that it is our responsibility to begin to work and God’s to complete our work, Augustine would argue that it is all of God (and all of us); and when we’ve done it, He is the one to receive the credit—for He is primary. God is sovereign, and yet man is completely on the line, responsible for his actions (or lack of action). To pry further into that paradox is to oversimplify and lean too far in one direction or another. Those two truths are compatible, and we must accept them by faith. Anything less than that is pure arrogance.

Augustine, indirectly, shows Cassian’s error and condemns his line of thinking, and even gives it a diagnosis. “Man, therefore, unwilling to resist such clear testimonies as these, and yet desiring himself to have the merit of believing, compounds as it were with God to claim a portion of faith for himself, and to leave a portion for Him; and, what is still more arrogant, he takes the first portion for himself and gives the subsequent to Him; and so in that which he says belongs to both, he makes himself the first, and God the second!”15 Augustine sees those of the semi-Pelagian viewpoint as arrogant, because they are trying to share in God’s glory.

Where I think Cassian derailed is in trying to understand man’s free will outside the context of the fall and man’s createdness. He overreacts from the false doctrines presented in the character of the old man and Abbot Germanus with a nuanced argument that he thinks pries deeper into the Truth—but actually falls short of Orthodoxy. He is committed to man’s independence (that he is not an automaton), and He is committed to God’s sovereignty, and so he comes away with a give-and-take relationship between that two that diminishes God’s sovereignty and undermines man’s true identity and nature.

Both of these men present the classic opposing viewpoints on this difficult theology of God’s providence: Cassian presenting the typical Pelagian/Arminian perspective and Augustine the Calvinistic. But in the end, the way they finish their essays is proof enough of the way their theologies work out in real life. Cassian ends his essay with an appeal to faith beyond reason, because the doctrine he put forward was so difficult to understand. He finishes with this positive statement: “[This truth] prevent[s] us from feeling the toil of so difficult a journey”, highlighting the difficulty of the life that lay ahead.16 Augustine finishes his essay positively emphasizing the profound goodness of God in giving us such a divine “gift” in His sovereign rule of our lives, and accepting the paradox on faith, closing with a parting statement signifying his contentment to stop writing. Cassian, the philosopher, ended with an emphasis on difficulty while Augustine, the theologian, ended with a firm statement of restful thanksgiving. When posed with the same question of “If God is sovereign, how can man be responsible for his actions?”, we readers are left with a choice between the way of difficulty and the way of rest. It all comes down to what we do with this paradox—what we do with the character of the sovereignty of God.


Augustine, Aurelius. A Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints. Found in Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, V. 5., pps., 1350-1407.

Cassion, John. On the Protection of God. Found in Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, V. 11., pps., 1067-1100.

You can access this academic paper on

  1. Psa 83:10 ↩︎
  2. Isa 30:18 ↩︎
  3. Cassian, pg. 1087 ↩︎
  4. Cassion, pg. 1089 ↩︎
  5. Augustine, pg. 1377 ↩︎
  6. Human Nature in its Four-Fold State” accessed on Monergism. ↩︎
  7. Augustine, pg. 1352 ↩︎
  8. Augustine, pg. 1355 ↩︎
  9. Augustine, pg. 1394 ↩︎
  10. Cassian, pg. 1085 ↩︎
  11. Cassian, pg. 1070 ↩︎
  12. Cassian, pg. 1078 ↩︎
  13. Augustine, pg. 1358 ↩︎
  14. Augustine, pg. 1355 ↩︎
  15. Augustine, pg 1356 ↩︎
  16. Cassian, pg. 1100 ↩︎