A Semipelagian in King Charles's Court: Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda on Nature, Grace, and the Conquest of the Americas

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In 1526, a Spaniard in the papal court of Clement VII addressed a treatise against Luther’s Bondage of the Will, calling it On Fate and Free Will and arguing good works are not only possible before one receives God’s grace but a necessary prerequisite to that grace. The position, which acknowledges a human need for grace but assigns the beginning of salvation to human effort, is one church historians conventionally refer to as semipelagianism. The Spaniard, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, went on to serve Charles V as royal historian, and to defend the latter’s conquest of the Americas and subjugation of those contintents’ indigenous populations at the Valladolid debates in 1550–1551. The logic by which he did so is generally attributed to a high view of plenary papal authority in the temporal world, combined with an Aristotelian hierarchy of being that conveniently labeled the indigenous peoples of the Americas “natural slaves.” This dissertation uses Sepúlveda’s published treatises in order to trace his treatment of themes such as natural reason, natural law, divine law, human free will, and divine grace, in order to demonstrate that Sepúlveda's logic in his defense of the conquest was actually rooted precisely in the semipelagian theology he deployed in his writings against Luther. He argued that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were barbarians and appropriately labeled according to Aristotle's natural slave category, but he began with the theological conviction that they had failed to embrace what natural reason alone could teach them about God, and failed moreover to “do what is in one” by turning to God and obeying the divine law as revealed in nature, all of which Sepúlveda took to be prerequisite for the receipt of grace. The indigenous peoples of the Americas were not barbarians in Sepúlveda’s mind because they belonged to Aristotle’s natural slave category, but “natural slave” was a useful term he deployed to further describe those who had failed to take the initiative for their salvation, as required by the semipelagian theology he deployed against Luther.


Doctor of Theology




Benjamin, Katie Marie (2018). A Semipelagian in King Charles's Court: Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda on Nature, Grace, and the Conquest of the Americas. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/20193.


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