Saturday, March 1, 2008

Catholicism is not Semi-Pelagian - Response to Turretinfan

Notes in Response to Turretinfan's "Misconceptions about Roman Catholicism: Works Salvation"

Turretinfan says this in a post about Catholic views on salvation:
We criticize the Roman Catholic position as teaching works-salvation, because of a semi-Pelagian error: the ascription of a role for human cooperation in salvation.
By this he obviously means that in some sense, or in some way, or to some extent, the Catholic Church is Pelagian. But this is absurd on the face of it.

[Update 2008-03-04: It seems that there may be some room for misunderstanding the intent of this post, for which I apologize. The intent here is not to suggest that Turretinfan has called the Catholic Church Pelagian, which he of course does not do (as anyone reading his post linked above - including me, at the time I wrote this post - can see). However, since we cannot fairly be described as being semi-Pelagian without having something or other in common with Pelagianism, I write below in such a way as to deny that the Church is Pelagian with respect to her views on grace and cooperation with grace. Of course, if we are not Pelagian in this regard, and if we are not Pelagian with regard to original sin (which is not at issue), then it is unreasonable to describe us as semi-Pelagian. - RdP]

In the first place, it was the Catholic Church that condemned Pelagianism. To say that she condemns what she endorses herself would be as silly as to say that Nicea denied the Trinity, or that Calvinists deny predestination. In fact the Church denies none of the canons of the Council of Carthage with respect to the Pelagian heresy:
  1. Death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin.
  2. New-born children must be baptized on account of original sin.
  3. Justifying grace not only avails for the forgiveness of past sins, but also gives assistance for the avoidance of future sins.
  4. The grace of Christ not only discloses the knowledge of God's commandments, but also imparts strength to will and execute them.
  5. Without God's grace it is not merely more difficult, but absolutely impossible to perform good works.
  6. Not out of humility, but in truth must we confess ourselves to be sinners.
  7. The saints refer the petition of the Our Father, "Forgive us our trespasses", not only to others, but also to themselves.
  8. The saints pronounce the same supplication not from mere humility, but from truthfulness.

Where in these canons can one find a condemnation of "human cooperation in salvation"?

I submit that one looks in vain for it. It is not there. Consequently it seems absurd to describe "human cooperation in salvation" as "semi-Pelagian". The heart of Pelagianism was twofold: a denial of original sin, and a denial that grace was essential for salvation. But there were some interesting consequences.

Let's consider a couple quotations.
God "proposed to save by faith alone those about whom he foreknew that they would believe" (Quoted in Pelikan, The Emergence of the Christian Tradition, p. 314).
Now who might have said that? (Hint: it was not St. Augustine).

It was Pelagius, in his Exposition of Romans. This report by Pelikan is confirmed here:

Pelagius denied the primitive state in paradise and original sin (cf. P. L., XXX, 678, "Insaniunt, qui de Adam per traducem asserunt ad nos venire peccatum"), insisted on the naturalness of concupiscence and the death of the body, and ascribed the actual existence and universality of sin to the bad example which Adam set by his first sin. As all his ideas were chiefly rooted in the old, pagan philosophy, especially in the popular system of the Stoics, rather than in Christianity, he regarded the moral strength of man's will (liberum arbitrium), when steeled by asceticism, as sufficient in itself to desire and to attain the loftiest ideal of virtue. The value of Christ's redemption was, in his opinion, limited mainly to instruction (doctrina) and example (exemplum), which the Saviour threw into the balance as a counterweight against Adam's wicked example, so that nature retains the ability to conquer sin and to gain eternal life even without the aid of grace. By justification we are indeed cleansed of our personal sins through faith alone...(source: Catholic Encyclopedia; emphasis added).

The Encyclopedia also says of Pelagius, "this pardon (gratia remissionis) implies no interior renovation of sanctification of the soul." It seems unlikely that Pelagius meant "faith alone" within the same framework as Luther and the Reformers, but at the very least it seems plenty obvious that it would be absurd to suggest that Pelagius believed in salvation by works (and Pelikan indicates in the same place noted above that Pelagius denied that we must be make ourselves holy in order to be saved). Pelagianism was a denial of the necessity of grace for salvation, as the canons of Carthage indicate.

It is a regrettable fact that modern Protestants would describe as "Pelagian" or "semi-Pelagian" some views of St. Augustine himself. That St. Augustine unambiguously affirmed that we must cooperate with the grace give to us in Christ is clear from this:
And yet this is not a question about prayers alone, as if the energy of our will also should not be strenuously added. God is said to be "our Helper;" but nobody can be helped who does not make some effort of his own accord. For God does not work our salvation in us as if he were working in insensate stones, or in creatures in whom nature has placed neither reason nor will. Why, however, He helps one man, but not another; or why one man so much, and another so much; or why one man in one way, and another in another, - He reserves to Himself according to the method of His own most secret justice, and to the excellency of His power (On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, Book II, Chapter 6; emphasis added).
Let no Christian then stray from this faith, which alone is the Christian one; nor let any one, when he has been made to feel ashamed to say that we become righteous through our own selves, without the grace of God working this in us,—because he sees, when such an allegation is made, how unable pious believers are to endure it,—resort to any subterfuge on this point, by affirming that the reason why we cannot become righteous without the operation of God's grace is this, that He gave the law, He instituted its teaching, He commanded its precepts of good. For there is no doubt that, without His assisting grace, the law is "the letter which kills;" but when the life-giving spirit is present, the law causes that to be loved as written within, which it once caused to be feared as written without (On the Spirit and the Letter, Chapter 32).
God's grace assists us in becoming righteous.

In this next quotation, St. Augustine speaks of the Christian as having good works by grace and by them being redeemed from death and crowned with eternal blessings:
But whosoever shall put his trust in Him, and yield himself up to Him, for the forgiveness of all his sins, for the cure of all his corruption, and for the kindling and illumination of his soul by His warmth and light, shall have good works by his grace; and by them he shall be even in his body redeemed from the corruption of death, crowned, satisfied with blessings, - not temporal, but eternal, - above what we can ask or understand (ibid., Chapter 58; emphasis added).
Now of course St. Augustine is no legalist, but he also is no Pelagian. That would be ridiculous, since he was their most prominent adversary. But there is no way that statements like these, found in works written by him specifically against the Pelagians, can reasonably be described as "semi-Pelagian".

Now, since we find this very language of cooperation with grace in the writings of St. Augustine himself in his writings against the Pelagians, I think we can lay to rest the ridiculous claim that Catholics are "semi-Pelagian". The Canons of Carthage don't come close to condemning cooperation with grace, and St. Augustine, a Catholic and the greatest opponent of the Pelagians, affirms it.

That's enough for this lengthy post. More, perhaps, to come.

Update: Turretinfan has posted more. It doesn't seem to particularly require more of a response than the above. However, I get the sense after reading it, and particularly after reviewing Pelikan on the same subject (starting on p. 318 of the book referenced above) that the particular usefulness of the term is primarily pejorative. There's flatly no denying that St. Augustine endorsed human cooperation with grace (see above), and it seems clear in consequence to say, in the light of his statements and of what Carthage actually condemned (as we may infer from the canons, listed above), that cooperation with grace was not condemned as part of the Pelagian heresy. Rather, denial of original sin and of the necessity of grace were condemned.


Turretinfan said...

More later.

This for now: "By this he obviously means that in some sense, or in some way, or to some extent, the Catholic Church is Pelagian. But this is absurd on the face of it."

I refer you to item 3 of "what we do not mean" and item 4 of "we admit."

I'm having trouble seeing this as a bona fide response, with that kind of comment.


Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello Turretinfan,

One cannot be semi-[something] without having some characteristics of the [something]. Otherwise, it seems to me that to call him semi-[something] is just irrational. Would you not agree?

If I call Joe-Bob "semi-Calvinist" for example, it's reasonable for my listeners to conclude that I mean Joe-Bob has some characteristics of a Calvinist [but not all of them].

You statement 3 of "what we do not mean" says that you don't think we're "fully Pelagian" - but the statement in my post with which you are taking issue does not claim that you do. It says, "in some sense, or in some way, or to some extent."

"Some sense" does not imply "the full sense." "Some way" does not imply "in every way." "To some extent" does not imply "To the full extent."

Hence I see no contradiction between what I said and your point 3.

Your point 4 says that you admit we condemn Pelagianism. I'm pleased that you do so, but for you to then charge us with semi-Pelagianism is precisely what I am challenging in this post.



Mike Burgess said...

Reginald, I think your work on this post is magnificent. My guess is TF, in accusing the RCC of Semi-Pelagianism, has not considered the ramifications of Second Orange, which Calvinists love to quote. Pay particular attention to the final phrase of Canon 20. Here's a link:

Sorry I don't know how to do that without posting the whole hyperlink.


Mike Burgess said...

Well. It didn't work. You can find it on website in their confessions section of the Historical Documents page.

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello Mike,

Thank you very much!

Is this the page you meant?

If so...I certainly should have added stuff from there to my post. Like:

CANON 18. That grace is not preceded by merit. Recompense is due to good works if they are performed; but grace, to which we have no claim, precedes them, to enable them to be done.


CANON 20. That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.

Thanks for the pointer!



Reginald de Piperno said...

Out of fairness to Turretinfan I have added an update clarifying my intent in the post.

I hope that this satisfies. :-)



Mike Burgess said...

Yes, that's it exactly. I chose to route to that site so there would be no cries of Catholic bias. Keep up the fine work. And, since we're in March now and St. Patrick's Day will be eclipsed this year, let me say "Dia's Mhuire dhuit!"

Reginald de Piperno said...

Thank you, sir :-) I will, to quote from a certain great movie, "endeavor to persevere" in my feeble efforts here. But hopefully I won't have to declare war on the Union. :-)



SwissWiss said...

Although this thread is dormant, for sake of completeness, you should known the charge of Catholics being semi-Plegian comes from the popular evangelical Protestant author, R.C.Sproul at

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hi SwissWiss,

Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your comments. I wasn't aware of that specific link, but it's not surprising that Sproul says that, unfortunately. He was tossing around fairly vitriolic language at his denomination's general assembly a few years ago in relation to a group of his fellows who hold to what he thinks is something "contrary to the gospel," when really the "crime" was that they hold to views that smell too Catholic for his tastes. :-(