The Council of Orange (529)

Orange is in Southern France, or ‘Gaul’ as it was called back in the day. At the Council of Orange, Caesarius of Arles and a dozen or so other bishops rejected the semi-Pelagian notion that belief in Christianity is a matter of the right use of freewill. The Council of Orange is not an ecumenical council, like Nicaea, Ephesus or Trent, but it was hugely influential, both on pre-Reformation Christians of all stamps and for post-Reformation Catholics and Protestants.

The second Canon of Orange rejects the Pelagian notion that Adam’s sin only corrupted Adam himself ‘and not his descendants also’; this canon affirms that Adam’s sin corrupts both the body and the soul of all humanity. Sin leads to the death of the body and to the death of the soul and spirit of each human being.

The Fifth Canon of Orange states that faith is ‘unnatural’: it does not come to us by our natural powers, by reasoning or by our own volition. It is a pure gift from God. The Fifth Canon runs:

If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith ... belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, ‘And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’

(Phil. 1.6)... ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God’. (Eph. 2.8)

The Fifth Canon states that those who do not receive the sacraments (the means of grace) must not be called believers: belief is empowered by grace, which comes through the sacraments. Orange effectively denies that Christianity is a philosophy, a way of life or a religion. No religion considers itself to be ‘a faith’ in the way that this Council says that Christianity is.

The Sixth Canon of Orange claims that, in and of themselves, learning, studying or even prayer cannot liberate us or lead us towards salvation. Once again invoking the authority of Paul (1 Cor. 4.7 and 1 Cor. 15.10), the Sixth Canon denies that ‘God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but d[o] not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do these things as we ought’.

The Council of Orange does not deny that we can have any knowledge of God without grace. It denies, as mediaeval Christianity and both Catholicism and Protestantism will later do, that we can have saving knowledge of God. We can know that God exists, but we cannot know what we must do in order to be saved without God’s gift of faith. We are entirely dependent on outside help, it claims, to escape from our own blindness, the power of death and the demonic powers. This makes it a core teaching of Christianity that one must call for help and receive help in order to reach God as one’s saviour. Christianity teaches that faith is divine help in seeing and knowing the truth about God as liberator. Canon Seven of the Council of Orange states,

If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life ... or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, ‘For apart from me you can do nothing’ (Jn. 15.5) and the word of the Apostle, ‘Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God’. (2 Cor. 3.5)

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