Monday, September 24, 2012

Augustine, Pelagius, and lost councils

Following up with my previous post, “How the early church lost its understanding of grace”, I’m picking up with Bavinck’s discussion of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, from Chapter 9, “The Order of Salvation”, of Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ.

Pelagius (ca. AD 354 – ca. AD 420/440) strayed much farther from the doctrine of grace than any of his predecessors; he abandoned the Christian foundation on which all of them still based themselves and renewed the self-sufficient principle of pagan philosophy, specifically that of the Stoics. Not only did he sever all connections between Adam’s sin and ours, so that neither guilt nor pollution nor even death was a consequence of the first transgression, but Christianity itself lost its absolute significance. Salvation was not bound to Christ but could also be obtained by following the natural law (lex naturae) and positive law (lex positiva). Hence, in Pelagius’s theology there could be no internal grace, no regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit which not only illumined the mind but also bent the will (508).

Here is where we begin to see some resemblance between Pelagianism and Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism holds that human nature “is wounded in the natural powers proper to it”, compared with the Reformed doctrine of “total depravity”. Not that this resemblance with Pelagianism is causation. There is some more history here, and Bavinck captures it well.

[Pelagius] admittedly did speak of grace but meant by it only: (a) natural ability, the gift of being able to will, which God grants to every person—creating grace; (b) the objective grace of the proclamation of the law or the gospel and of the example of Christ, which was directed to the human intellect and instructed people in the way of salvation—illuminating grace; and (c) the forgiveness of sins and future salvation, which would be granted to the person who believed and did good works. Grace of the first kind, therefore, was proper to all humans. Grace of the second kind was not strictly necessary but served only to make it easier for people to acquire salvation. It was not efficacious grace (gratia operans) but only a form of assistance to people. Nor was it granted to all, but only to those who had made themselves worthy of it by the proper use of their natural powers. It was not a preparatory (or arousing) grace, nor was it irresistible grace, which is more truly “fate under the name of grace.” Finally, it was not necessary and was not granted by God or by the performance of every good deed (individual acts) but only of some. Many good works were performed by humans without any grace (508-509).

Thus Pelagianism is about a mutant form of grace, and the ascendancy of the human free will to be able to choose to do things that ingratiate oneself with God.

Semi-Pelagianism moderated this system. It taught that though humanity was not spiritually dead as a result of Adam’s sin, it was ill; that its freedom of the will had not been lost but was weakened; and that humans therefore—to do the good and to obtain salvation—needed the assistance of divine grace. However, the grace that illumines the mind and supports the will may never be detached from but must always be viewed in connection with the freedom of will still remaining in humans. Grace and will work together and do so in such a way that in God’s intent grace is universal and meant for all but in fact only profits those who make the proper use of their freedom of will. It is ours to will [the good], God’s to carry it to its conclusion (Nostrum est velle, Dei perficere). Sometimes, as in Paul, grace may be antecedent; yet, as a rule, the will is first. The beginning of faith and persevering in it is a matter of the will; grace is needed only for the increase of faith. God helps those who help themselves. An efficacious or irresistible grace does not exist, and even prevenient grace is usually denied (509).

So you can see how even the moderating of the Pelagian system still allows room for human free will to choose and to do things that please God. The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” was actually a staple of Medieval thought. In his Iustitia Dei, “A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification” (Third Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) Alister McGrath discusses “facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam” [“God does not deny grace to whoever does what is in him”]:

The essential principle encapsulated in [this] axiom is that humans and God have their respective roles to play in justification; when humans have fulfilled theirs in penitence, God will subsequently fulfil his part. The theological principle underlying the axiom may be shown to have been current in the early patristic period – for example, it is clearly stated by Irenaeus: ‘If you offer to [God] what is yours, that is faith in God and subjection, you shall receive grace, and become a perfect work of God.’ [Against Heresies, 4.39.2.] The medieval period saw this axiom become a dogma, part of the received tradition concerning justification…

And yet, McGrath is careful to note, such a thing is always “understood as an expression and a consequence of divine grace” (141). He cites the Medieval theologian Alan of Lille, for example, who notes that:

Penitence is indeed a necessary cause [of grace], in that unless someone is penitent, God will not forgive that person’s sins. It is like the sun, which illuminates a house when a shutter (fenestra) is opened. The opening of that shutter is not the efficient cause of that illumination, in that the sun itself is the efficient cause of that illumination. However, it is nevertheless its occasion.” (from PL 210.666A-C, cited by McGrath pg 109).

This is getting a bit ahead of the story, though. Bavinck discusses Augustine’s response to Pelagius:

Proceeding, as he did, from humanity’s total moral corruption as a result of Adam’s sin and of its total inability to do any spiritual good, Augustine arrived at a completely different doctrine of grace. Frequently he also described the objective benefits—the gospel, baptism, the forgiveness of sins, and so on—with the word “grace.” But this grace is not enough. Still another grace is needed, an internal and spiritual kind that illumines the intellect and bends the will. First, Augustine had taught another doctrine, namely, that though God called us, believing was something we had to do [citing his work On Different Questions in the year 386 and in On Free Will from 388 to 395]. But later, around AD 396, especially as a result of reflections on 1 Corinthians 4:7 [To Simplicianus 397], he arrived at a different insight. Now he writes that grace not only consists in the external preaching of the law and the gospel, which instructs and admonishes us and in that sense offers help, but above all “a hidden inspiration of God, and inspiration of faith and the fear of God, and aid in doing well, joined to nature and to doctrine by the inspiration of a burning and most dazzling love, a supply of virtue, an inspiration of love through the Holy Spirit.” A fruit of election, “the effect of predestination itself,” grace is distributed according to the divine mercy, not according to merit.

For that reason it is of course gratuitous. It would not be grace were it not wholly free. The Holy Spirit blows where he wills, “not following merits but producing them.” Grace is anterior to all merits; it is prevenient, preparatory, antecedent, and efficacious. It “is prevenient to the unwilling to make him will.” It inwardly illumines the intellect and frees it from blindness. It produces faith, which is a gift of God, and creates a good will, for the love of the good, and the capacity to do good and removes the weakness from it. … This grace, furthermore, is irresistible; it inexorably and insuperably has its way with the human will. It is not rejected by any heart, however hard, for God by grace takes away the heart of stone and puts a heart of flesh in its place. The elect, who receive this grace, are not only enabled to come to Christ by it but actually also come to him.

This does not mean, however, that God by his grace suppresses or destroys the free will of humans, for, to the contrary, grace rather liberates the will from the slavery of sin. “Do we then by grace make void free will? God forbid! No, rather we establish free will. For even as the law is established by faith, so free will is not made void by grace but established, for grace restores the health of the will.” For that reason, Augustine could also say: “To yield our consent to God’s summons or to withhold it is the proper function of our own will,” for both those who believe and those who do not believe do this voluntarily: “No one believes except by the consent of the will.” So far was he removed from again putting the decision back into human hands by this statement, however, that he immediately continues by saying: “This word does not invalidate but rather confirms the word of the apostle: ‘What have you that you did not receive?’ For the soul cannot receive and possess these gifts, which are here referred to, except by yielding its consent. And thus whatever it possesses, and whatever it receives, is from God; and yet the act of receiving and having belongs, of course, to the receiver and possessor….” (from Augustine, “On the Spirit and the Letter”, cited in Bavinck, Vol 3, pg 511).

Bavinck continues: “Pelagianism was condemned at the [regional] Synod of Carthage (418), and again at the [ostensibly ecumenical] Council of Ephesus (431), and the [regional] Synod of Orange [in France] in 529”. Orange also rejected “semi-Pelagianism”. Bavinck notes, “Consequently, it became official church doctrine that as a result of Adam’s sin, the whole person is corrupted, and that both the beginning and the increase of faith is owing, not to ourselves or our natural powers, but to the grace of God. That grace of God not only teaches us what we must do and not do but also enables us “to know what ought to be done, even to love and to be able to do it”.

Of course, while all of these councils, Carthage, Ephesus, and Orange, all had the benefit of Augustine’s writings on grace, McGrath tells us that “It is a curious and unexplained feature of the history of doctrine that the canons of Orange II appear to have been unknown from the tenth century to the middle of the sixteenth. The theologians of the Medieval period thus did not have access to this definitive statement of an Augustinian doctrine of justification, and appear to have been unaware of its existence” (McGrath pgs 97-98).

More to follow, Lord willing.

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