Front Page Titles (by Subject) FIVE: PELAGIUS AND HIS CRITICS - The Perfectibility of Man
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FIVE: PELAGIUS AND HIS CRITICS - John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man 
The Perfectibility of Man (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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PELAGIUS AND HIS CRITICS
Not all Christians were satisfied with Augustine’s conclusion that, in this life, perfection lies beyond men’s reach. The most direct, the most far-reaching, attack on Augustine was initiated in the fifth century by that sturdy British lay-monk Pelagius and his younger, more outspoken disciple—also a layman—Coelestius. Like many another religiously-minded Englishman after him, Pelagius made his way to Rome; like many other religiously-minded Englishmen after him, he was appalled by the moral laxity, to his northern eyes, he there encountered. And a large part of the blame, so Pelagius thought, attached to Augustine. If men were told that they could not conform their lives to the teaching of the Gospels, try as they might, this was bound to weaken their moral fibre.
The Christian’s duty, according to Pelagius, is clear and unambiguous. God has commanded men to be perfect; God would not have commanded them to do what lies beyond their powers. It is, he wrote in his Letter to Demetrias, “blind folly and presumptuous blasphemy” for men to tell God that they cannot do what he has commanded them to do, “as if, forgetting the weakness of men, his own creation, he had laid upon men commands which they were unable to bear.”1 To suppose that God would punish men for not doing what they cannot do, furthermore, is to ascribe to him “unrighteousness and cruelty.” Pelagius sums up thus: “He has not willed to command anything impossible, for he is righteous; and he will not condemn a man for what he could not help, for he is holy.”*
In developing his anti-Augustinian thesis, Pelagius was led entirely to reject the concept of original sin. “Everything good, and everything evil,” he argued, “on account of which we are either laudable or blameworthy, is not born with us but done by us: for we are born not fully developed, but with a capacity for either conduct; and we are procreated as without virtue, so also without vice.”2 At birth, that is, men are neither perfect nor corrupt. They are born, however, with a capacity for perfecting themselves or corrupting themselves, by the exercise of their free-will. It is up to them to employ that capacity aright—although once God sees that they are intent upon perfecting themselves he will no doubt lend them a hand. Sin is not inherent in man’s nature; it is nothing more, Pelagius assures us, than a bad habit. “There is no other cause of the difficulty we find in doing well, but the long-continued customs of sin, which begin to grow upon us in childhood, and little by little corrupt us.”3 And bad habits can always be broken by a deliberate act of will, although a long-standing habit, Pelagius is prepared to admit, can be difficult to eradicate.
Not a few modern readers will sympathize with Pelagius in this debate, seeing in him the blunt Englishman cutting through the tortuosities of North African sensuality and sensibility. It is worth noting, however, that Pelagianism carried with it a Stoic-like severity of judgement. Since sin can always be avoided by the exercise of will, a man deserves eternal damnation, Pelagius concluded, should he fall into the slightest sin. On his view, the Church was, and only ought to be, a community of saints, of men intent on perfecting themselves. It was not a school for sinners; it ought to cast sinners from out of its body, as God would most assuredly cast them into Hell. Such severity is only too characteristic of “universal” perfectibilists. If all men can be perfect, given only that they seriously try, it is a short step to the conclusion that they deserve damnation—or execution—for not being perfect.
The immediate effect of Pelagianism was to provoke Augustine to write a long series of anti-Pelagian tracts, in which he developed the typical Augustinian themes of human corruption and the free bounty of divine grace. The problem which faced Augustine, as it has faced so many Christian thinkers after him, is neatly expressed in a letter he wrote, about 426, to Valentinus, the abbot of a Tunisian monastery. The monks, disturbed by Augustine’s anti-Pelagian teachings, had divided into two factions, one faction “extolling grace to such an extent that they deny the freedom of the human will,” the other faction maintaining that our free will “is aided by the grace of God so that we may think and do what is right.” The second faction, Augustine tells Valentinus, is correct: God co-operates with man’s free will. He goes on to formulate the Christian dilemma thus: “If then there is no grace of God, how does He save the world? And if there is no free will, how does He judge the world?” Free will must be granted, to justify God’s condemnation of man; man is condemned by God because he has wrongly used his freedom. But without grace, Augustine is emphatic, the world could not be saved. For it is “a thing . . . utterly impossible” that “without it we could by any means think or do anything well-pleasing to God.”4
Plato thought that men could be perfected by intellectual activity; Augustine was convinced from his own experience that neither education nor any other form of human effort could save men from sin. Had he not been well-educated? And had he not tried desperately, and failed, to overcome by his own efforts the power of sexual desire? Paul, for rather different reasons, had been equally certain that human efforts are powerless. No one could have been a better Jew than he was; no one could have adhered more strictly to the precepts of the Law. And where had his righteousness led him? To persecute Christians, to deny the one true faith. “It is by this grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” so Augustine expressed the faith he shared with Paul, “that all those who are delivered, are delivered, since no one can be delivered in any other way than through it.”5
Whereas, then, Pelagius called upon men to reform themselves by their own efforts, Augustine, convinced that this was impossible, sought in God’s grace the solution to the problem how men could be saved. They could love God and love their neighbours, only because God chose to love them. “When God crowns our merits, He crowns nothing but His own gifts.” To suppose otherwise is “perverted and sacrilegious.” Augustine is not, of course, inventing these views. “Herein is love,” he quotes from John, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us.” And again, “We love him, because he first loved us.”6
To Plato, love is a lack, a yearning, a desire to possess an object. The object itself is indifferent to this yearning. If a Platonist “loves beauty,” he yearns to possess it, but he does not expect Beauty to reach out and try to possess him. The idea of a God who creates love in his worshippers, the idea that it is only through God’s efforts that man can love him—these are what give Christianity its peculiar flavour, when it is contrasted with Greek philosophy.* That is why Christianity is sometimes described as “a religion of love, not of Law.” Christ’s “commandments,” many Christians would say, are better described as promises, indicating the nature of the gifts God freely bestows upon men rather than the demands he makes upon them. Not that this has been by any means the sole, or the consistent, teaching of Christianity. The lawyers and the moralists, of whom Pelagius was certainly one, have seen to that.
The Augustinian theory of grace had two immediate consequences for perfectibility: the first, that men cannot achieve perfection by their own efforts; the second that in so far as in this life they can progress towards perfection, it is only with the help of God’s grace. These conclusions still leave it an open question how far that progress can be carried, to what degree a man can, before death, be perfected by God’s grace. At first, as a good Platonist, Augustine seems to have supposed that Christianity would perfect him. In a sermon delivered in ad 394 he was quite confident that men can live “the life of the consummate and perfect man of wisdom.” Six years later, however, he was no less confident that anyone who thinks that “in this mortal life a man may so disperse the mists of bodily and carnal imaginings as to possess the unclouded light of changeless truth” only too clearly demonstrates that “he understands neither what he seeks, nor who he is who seeks it.”7
Not only his own personal experience but his experience, as bishop, of his fellow Christians led Augustine to change his mind on this point. Men, he admitted, might perhaps, like Paul, be “blameless, as touching the righteousness which is of the law.” They can perhaps achieve, that is, “external” righteousness. This, however, is but “dung” in comparison with that “perfect state of righteousness,” that absolute perfection, that immaculate love of God, which men hunger after.8 And God has not chosen, in his wisdom, so to love men that they can, in this life, love him with their whole heart.
A third consequence is less direct. Grace is God’s gift to men. Some men have been granted this gift, and others not: the number of the elect is, indeed, predetermined.9 God knows beforehand who will reject the grace he offers them, even although it is by their own free will, Augustine usually suggests, that they do so.10 Not only, then, are men unable to achieve perfection in this life; only in certain cases, predetermined, does God give them the degree of grace necessary for salvation. There is, for Augustine, nothing unjust in this: men should thank God for his mercy, that he has chosen to save the few. It would have been entirely just had he left all men to endure, unredeemed, the effects of Adam’s, and their, sinfulness.
These doctrines, thus given shape by Augustine, were in the future history of Christianity to constitute the orthodoxy of the main streams of Christian thought, Roman Catholic and Protestant. The Council of Carthage, meeting in the year 418, accepted, in their essentials, the Augustinian teachings. It anathematized the proposition that men could, without special grace from God, fulfil the commands of God by the exercise of their own free will. It rejected the view that when the saints pray “forgive us our trespasses” they are praying for others, not for themselves, or that they utter these words “out of humility and not because they are true.” Not even the saints, the Council agreed with Augustine, are, or can be, immaculately perfect. “Causa finita est,” Augustine announced triumphantly to his Carthage congregation.
There were, however, dissentients. Many bishops subscribed unwillingly to the decisions of the Council of Carthage; no less than eighteen were deposed, amongst them Julian of Eclanum. Julian’s teachings will serve to illustrate what, until 418, a Roman Catholic bishop had been free to teach. Everything God creates, Julian argues, must be good; since each man is created by God no man can be intrinsically corrupt. Although Adam sinned he did not, in so doing, modify the moral character of his descendants. Julian entirely rejected, that is, the idea of a transmitted original sin. In virtue of their possessing free will, Julian went on to maintain, men are “independent of God, free to make their own decisions.” God’s grace, for Julian, is chiefly manifested in the “grace of creation,” in the fact that God created men so that they are capable of goodness. Some pagans, in virtue of this grace, have, Julian says, “lived lives as perfect as any Christian.”* For the rest, God’s grace is made apparent, according to Julian, in the “grace of revelation,” offered to men in the Holy Scriptures, and in the sacrifice of his own son—a grace made, if not strictly necessary, at least highly desirable by the fact that men had fallen into a “bad habit” of sinning, out of which the Scriptures and Christ’s sacrifice helped to shock them.11
Other theologians sought to compromise between the Pelagians and the Augustinians. John Cassian was a warm admirer of Augustine, fully prepared to accept his doctrine of original sin. But he has come to be regarded as the founder of “semi-Pelagianism”—or, as some scholars prefer to call it, on account of its remoteness from the teachings of Pelagius, “semi-Augustinianism”—because he diverged from Augustine’s teachings on certain crucial points. Man, he maintained, makes the first movement towards God. When he seeks God’s grace, this is from his own natural resources and not because God has given him the “prevenient” grace to do so. Cassian knew his monks; he feared that they might be tempted by Augustinianism into spiritual laziness, sitting back to await God’s call, or else might lapse into spiritual despair, if the call did not come. Nor is it true, Cassian argued, that God has chosen his elect in advance. No doubt, since God is omniscient, he must know who will be saved. It is none the less his will that all men should be saved—not merely, as Augustine had glossed “Christ came to save all men,” all sorts of men, but each and every man.
For a time it looked as if Cassian, or Cassian’s spirit, might triumph. Some sixty years after the Council of Carthage, about the year 473, the Synod of Arles promulgated, as against the more ardent proponents of predestination, the principle that “man’s freedom of will is not extinct but attenuated and weakened.” It declared anathema the view that “Christ has not undergone death for the salvation of all men.”12 It asserted that “man’s effort and endeavour is to be united with God’s grace” and that “he that is saved is in danger, and he that has perished could have been saved.” The wording of the synod’s resolution can often be matched in Augustine’s writings, but the emphasis, the spirit, is Cassian’s. For the suggestion, certainly, is that God’s grace is granted to those who with “effort and endeavour” seek it out. In more technical language, grace is co-operative rather than prevenient.
But Augustine was finally to be the victor. In the year 529, without reservation and in Augustine’s own words, the Council of Orange reasserted that original sin corrupted the whole human race. It rejected Cassian’s view that God’s grace can be bestowed on men in response to their prayers—that, in the formula characteristic of the asceticism of the Eastern Church, “grace springs from the desire for it”—except where the power to invoke it has already, by God’s prevenient grace, been granted to them. It anathematized the Pelagian teaching that “by the force of nature we can rightly think or choose anything that is good.” At one point only did the Council deviate from what may have been Augustine’s teachings—his interpreters disagree on this point. It rejected outright the doctrine of “dual predestination,” the doctrine, that is, that some men are predestined to be saved and others to be damned.13 “Not only do we not believe,” the Council affirmed with conviction, “that some have been predestinated to evil by the divine power, but also, if there be any who will believe so evil a thing, we say to them with all detestation, anathema.” It has remained the orthodox Roman Catholic view that although the number of the elect is predetermined, no man is predestined to be damned.* As the Council of Quierzy-sur-Oise expressed the official view in 853: “To those who are saved salvation is a gift of God; but those who perish are lost through their own fault.”14
The fluctuations of the century which passed between the Council of Carthage and the Council of Orange were to be repeated again and again in the history of Christianity. The history of Christianity—at least on the intellectual side—could be told as a long controversy in which Christians have swung between the extremes of Pelagianism and the extremes of dual predestination. Some Christians have been prepared to rest at the extremes, but most have tried to find a via media between them. They have sought to preserve the freedom of the will while still affirming that men are initially corrupt, to maintain predestination—on the face of it, one of the fixed boundaries of “Biblical space”—while reserving the right to exhort men to moral action.
The reason is obvious. On the one side, Christianity must insist that man is wholly dependent on God. Once accept Julian’s view that in exercising his free will man achieves “independence of God” and the path to secularism lies wide open. Yet, on the other side, Pelagius’s initial objection to Augustinianism could not be entirely passed over. There is a serious risk, many Christians have felt, that if it be too strongly emphasized that men are wholly dependent on God’s grace for their power to act morally, that they cannot, of their own unaided free will, “choose anything whatever that is good,” this may lead to a weakening of their moral effort. In his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius Loyola laid it down that Jesuit preachers should not “make a habit of talking about predestination” and that “if we have to talk about it to some extent on occasion, our language should be such as not to lead ordinary people astray, as can happen if a man says: “It is already settled whether I am to be saved or damned; my good or bad conduct cannot make any difference.” So they lose heart and cease to bother about the activities which make for their souls’ health and spiritual profit.”15 Many Protestants, however, reject this policy of silence as something not far short of an insult to God, “as if,” in Calvin’s words, “he had unadvisedly let slip something hurtful to the Church.”16
In the modern Christian Church, so it is often said, the hymns may assume predestination, but the sermons are Pelagian. The Pelagian (or Benjamin Franklin) view that God helps those who help themselves has nowadays a wider appeal to the Christian in the street—especially in those societies in which, however mistakenly, it is generally believed that careers lie “open to the talents”—than any doctrine which emphasizes man’s powerlessness to improve his own conditions by his own efforts. In a slave society, or even in a feudal society, it is very easy to believe that if a man is to rise in the world spiritually this can only be because he is extended some special grace; that is an accurate enough description of what happens at the level of civil society. It is only by his master’s grace, not as an inevitable consequence of merit, that a slave secures his liberty. But once success is related, or is thought to be related, to merit, Pelagianism acquires a greater degree of plausibility.* Yet on the other side, the doctrine that anyone may be saved—whatever his merits—has been one of the great attractions of Christianity. That Christian thinking has fluctuated, therefore, in its views about moral effort and its relationship to divine grace need occasion no astonishment.
Let us look briefly at some of the episodes in the Pelagian-Augustinian controversy. To turn first to Aquinas. Aquinas was greatly influenced by Augustine. But he was also an Aristotelian, and a close student of Dionysius; he found it impossible to believe that man is wholly corrupt. In his characteristic way, Aquinas sought to solve his problems by “distinguishing,” in this case between human nature as it was “in its integrity,” i.e. before the Fall, and human nature as it now is, after the Fall.17 Before the Fall, according to Aquinas, men could so far perfect themselves as to be able, without special grace, to perform works of justice, fortitude and other virtues. In that sense they could fulfil all the commandments of the law. But, as Augustine had also explained, there is a deeper sense of “fulfilling the law,” peculiarly Christian, in which it is required of men not only that they do what the law commands, but that they obey the law from the motive of “charity”—the spiritual love of God—in contrast with a merely natural gratitude for God’s blessings. Even before the Fall, so Aquinas teaches, men needed special supernatural grace (“elevating grace”) to fulfil the commandments of the law in this spirit of charity.
Since the Fall, Aquinas continued, men are unable, without the aid of yet another kind of grace, “healing grace,” to fulfil the commands of the law even in an external sense. But how far, so much granted, can grace carry them? At this point, Aquinas appeals to the authority of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Speaking as one already healed by grace, according to Aquinas, Paul there writes: “With the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”18 This means, Aquinas argues, that grace can so repair the mind of those to whom it is granted that they will commit none of the sins which arise out of the reason. And reason is the source, according to Aquinas, of all mortal sins, all sins which, if not forgiven by God, will bring upon the sinner eternal damnation. For it is the essence of such sins that they involve a deliberate turning away from God. But “because of the corruption of the lower appetite of sensuality” men cannot, even with the aid of divine grace, avoid all venial sin. So they can never, Aquinas concludes, live a wholly sinless life, even with divine aid; the Fall has made that impossible.
So far, then, as perfection is taken to be equivalent to sinlessness, to “freedom from blemish,” men cannot, if Aquinas is right, achieve perfection. But human perfection, for Aquinas, means much more than sinlessness. It involves being “like God” in that special way in which man can be “like God,” i.e. by contemplating him. Aquinas quotes with approval from the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle’s view that man’s ultimate perfection lies in contemplating the highest object of contemplation, and conflates it with Matthew’s “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.”19 Since the principal commandment of Christianity is to love God, and since God is often described as being love, it might have been expected that human perfection, for Aquinas, would consist in the absolute love of God. But it is extraordinary how many Christian theologians have accepted the other, the typically Greek, view that perfection consists in the contemplation, rather than the love, of God. It is “through this vision,” Aquinas specifically argues, “that we become most like God.”20
It would be very easy, he admits, to conclude from the fact that men attain to God by loving him that their “last end and happiness,” too, consists “not in knowing God, but in loving him, or in some other act of the Will towards him.”21 But this, he says, is clearly wrong. Reason is the highest part of man’s nature. Therefore human perfection must lie in an act of intellect, not of the will, in contemplation, not in love. Then, too—again the argument is Aristotelian—to find is better than to seek: the vision of God is the possession of God, whereas the love of him does not imply possession. Aquinas goes on to give a great many other reasons, of the same Aristotelian kind; the fact that he gives so many, indeed, may suggest that he feels the strength of the opposing case.*
The vision of God, according to Aquinas, comes only in eternity; the kind of knowledge of God men have in this life, whether by faith or by demonstration, does not amount to seeing God22 —or at least not to seeing God except imperfectly, “through a glass darkly.” Scripture presents some difficulty for Aquinas on this point. In the Summa theologica he finds himself obliged to admit that Moses and Paul had a direct vision of God, in an “ecstasy” which took them out of their body.23 But in every other case in which someone is said to have “seen God,” what he must actually have experienced, Aquinas tells us, is not a vision of God as he is but only an image of a sensory kind, which somehow stood for or represented God.* Forgetting Moses and Paul, indeed, this is all that in his Summa contra gentiles24 he allows to be possible. The consequence is that since absolute perfection lies in the vision of God, no man can achieve perfection in this life, however hard he tries and however much God helps him. The most he can do is to achieve that lower, “evangelical” perfection, which consists in loving God before all else and being free of all mortal sin. So much, but only so much, Aquinas allows to man—if he be granted God’s grace.
The immediate effect of Aquinas’s teaching was to increase the Christian emphasis on free will and diminish the emphasis on grace. Aquinas, we may well feel, has not departed far from Augustine on this point. But Augustine can be interpreted—and often has been interpreted—in a manner which concedes much less than Aquinas reads him as conceding to free will. And Aquinas certainly rejected the view that man is morally helpless except when God chooses to grant him the grace to act well. Even without special grace, he says, man can do “some particular good” even although he “cannot do all the good natural to [him]”—nor, of course, display the “supernatural good” of caritas.25 Not a great concession, perhaps, but enough to alarm more ardent anti-Pelagians.
Some of Aquinas’s successors carried his emphasis on freedom and merit a little further. In the fourteenth century that devoted Augustinian, Thomas Bradwardine, thought he could detect a Pelagian beneath every academic gown. “I rarely heard anything said of grace in the lectures of the philosophers . . . ,” he writes in the preface to his De causa dei contra Pelagium, “But every day I heard them teach that we are the masters of our own free acts, and that it stands in our power to do either good or evil, to be either virtuous or vicious, and such like.”26 In the manner of his time, Bradwardine does not name his “new Pelagians” and he is almost certainly exaggerating the extent of their Pelagianism. That his “new Pelagians” were fourteenth-century Julians, or even fourteenth-century Cassians, is highly improbable. But differences of emphasis that now look minor to us, the slightest concessions to the power of the human will, were to Bradwardine fraught with disastrous consequences.
Whatever the situation in Roman Catholic theology, Renaissance neo-Platonists certainly extolled the powers of the human will to a degree unprecedented since Pelagius’s condemnation. Pico della Mirandola’s fifteenth-century Oration will serve as an example of Renaissance Pelagianism.* God, he says, had created the whole universe before he created man—everything with its own nature and in its own place. Then God decided to produce a being capable of contemplating the beauty of the universe he had created. But he faced a difficulty: he had already exhausted every possible “nature.” “There was not among His archetypes that from which He could fashion a new offspring, nor was there in His treasure-houses anything which He might bestow on his new son as an inheritance.” So God created man, uniquely in the universe, as “a creature of indeterminate nature.” Man, and man alone, according to Pico, has the power to choose what place in the universe he shall occupy, whether to “degenerate into the lower forms of life” or “to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.” Man is born, that is, without a nature, but with the capacity to choose what nature he will adopt—as Sartre was also to argue in the twentieth century.27 The French humanist Charles Bovillé (Carolus Bovillus) carried matters even further.28 At birth, he agrees with Pico, man is neither innately corrupt nor innately good, nor has he, indeed, any nature whatsoever. But in virtue of this fact—because he is himself of no fixed essence—he can perfect himself by appropriating the whole of nature to himself.
In comparison, such innovations as the sixteenth-century Jesuit Molina introduced into the traditional teachings were modest in the extreme, for all that the Dominicans, faithful to the memory of Aquinas, tried to secure their condemnation. Molina sought only to establish that divine grace is not what immediately acts in man; that it operates in man not in virtue of its own power but because (as God foreknows) those to whom he grants it will choose freely to accept it.29 To Pelagian eyes, certainly, this was no more than a tiny crack in the Augustinian façade, if so much as that, but the Reformers were to think very differently.
A reaction was only to be expected; when it came, at the hands of Luther and Calvin, it was with unprecedented violence. Luther, as we have already seen, wholly rejected not only the Pelagian view that man could perfect himself by his own efforts but the more modest doctrine that he could be perfected by God. Man’s corruption lies too deep for that. So Augustine had argued, too, but Luther went much further than even Augustine had gone; he entirely rejected the psychological mechanism which had so far been presumed by Pelagians and anti-Pelagians alike. He denied that men possess a free will which, with or without the aid of God’s grace, can choose the good. He did so, not reluctantly, not as an unintended consequence of taking Revelation seriously, but with an enormous sense of relief. “I frankly confess,” he wrote in his Bondage of the Will, “that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want ‘free will’ to be given me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavour after salvation.” And that is because no matter how desperate his efforts, he would still be left with no certainty that he had done all that he might have done. “If I lived and worked to all eternity, my conscience would never reach comfortable certainty as to how much it must do to satisfy God.”30 The only final way of overthrowing the belief that one ought to be perfect was to reject that mechanism which alone, it had generally been agreed, could make it possible for men to perfect themselves.
Free will, Luther argued, is a term properly applicable only to God—Luther, it must be remembered, had been taught by disciples of William of Ockham, that redoubtable defender of divine omnipotence. Only God can do whatever he chooses to do. “If ‘free will’ is ascribed to men,” Luther significantly remarks, “it is ascribed with no more propriety than divinity itself would be—and no blasphemy could exceed that!”31 Man’s attempt to think of himself as “free,” that is, is just another manifestation of his attempt to think of himself as godlike. The truth of the matter is that he is absolutely impotent, at least in all matters relating to his spiritual welfare.
In his Freedom of the Will Erasmus had displayed some alarm about the consequences of men’s believing that when they act well, it is because God acts in them. “Let us assume,” he writes, “that it is true, as Augustine has written somewhere, that God causes both good and evil in us, and that he rewards us for his good works wrought in us and punishes us for the evil deeds done in us. What a loophole the publication of this opinion would open to godlessness among innumerable people. . . . How many weak ones would continue in their perpetual and laborious battle against their own flesh? What wicked fellow would henceforth try to better his conduct?”32 In reply, Luther thunders against “that prudence of yours . . . by which you are resolved to hold to neither side.” You admit, he says to Erasmus, that the power of free will is small, and that it is quite ineffective, in its pursuit of the good, without the aid of God’s grace. But to say that the will is “free” although it is none the less devoid of power is, Luther argues, a contradiction in terms. The most that can properly be said is that there is something about human beings which makes them fit to be granted God’s grace—“God did not make heaven for geese.” To describe this quality in men which makes them attractive to God as their “free will” is hopelessly to confuse the issue.33
Turning from Luther to Calvin, the perfectibilist is unlikely to find fresh grounds for hope.34 “Whatever is in man,” Calvin tells us, “from the understanding to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, has been defiled and crammed with concupiscence. Or, to put it more briefly, the whole man is of himself nothing but concupiscence.”35 Just as for the Stoics the Sage is good through-and-through; so for Calvin man is corrupted through-and-through; he is incapable of performing any action which is not in some degree corrupted. He is not bad merely because he commits particular bad acts, any more than the Stoic Sage is good because he commits particular good acts. Such specific acts, Calvin writes, as “adulteries, fornications, thefts, hatreds, murders, carousings”—in this mélange, with its extraordinary anticlimax,36 the Calvinist sense of values is very obvious—are more properly to be called “the fruits of sin” than “sins.” The sin lies in the corruption, the perversity, from which these “works of the flesh” flow, a perversity which “never ceases in us, but continually bears fresh fruits.” It is not simply that we now lack what Adam had—complete innocence. Our corruption is a positive corruption: “our will is not only destitute and idle of good, but so fruitful and fertile of sin that it cannot be idle.” To suppose otherwise, according to Calvin, is at once to deprive God of his rights and to encourage man to hubris. “Nothing, however slight, can be credited to man without depriving God of his honor, and without man himself falling into ruin through brazen confidence.”37
Yet if only in order to counter the “complacency” of the unrighteous, Calvin finds himself compelled to grant that there is still in man, in however perverted a form, something of the image of God. After his Fall man retains “some sparks of understanding,” however “choked with dense ignorance” they may be; he has “some desire for truth,” even if that desire, “such as it is,” is soon destroyed by vanity or carelessly turned to idle and unimportant topics; he still has some capacity in regard to “earthly things”—government, household management, mechanical skills and the liberal arts; he is not entirely without “universal impressions of a certain civic fair dealing and order.” So whereas Calvin will write at one time that “there is more worth in all the vermin of the world than there is in man, for he is a creature in whom the image of God has been effaced,”38 he will at another time insist that although “miserably deformed” the image of God still persists in man. No doubt “righteousness and rectitude, and the freedom of choosing what is good, have been lost”; nevertheless “many excellent endowments, by which we excel the brutes, still remain.”39 In Luther’s terminology, man is a member of the Earthly as well as of the Heavenly Kingdom, and in the first capacity can properly deploy his reason and his will. It is only when it comes to spiritual questions that reason, according to Calvin, is “as blind as a mole”—or, in Luther’s words, is “the devil’s whore.”
No doubt, even in spiritual matters, reason retains certain powers. It is quite capable of deducing God’s goodness, providence and justice, so Calvin argues, from a consideration of the nature of the world and of human history. Men are blameworthy if they do not recognize God’s supremacy; they cannot excuse themselves on the ground that they have not been granted a special revelation. As the Westminster Confession puts it: “the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable.” Reason is capable, too, of distinguishing between good and evil. So pagans are blameworthy for not behaving morally. But the fact remains that man’s corruption is such that without the aid of the Holy Spirit he is “stupid and senseless” in all spiritual matters. The most Reason can attain to, in fact, is a very general recognition of God’s existence and goodness—of the sort one finds, let us say, in Plato—and a power of acting in a way which, judged externally, is righteous.*
At this point, however, Calvin still finds himself troubled. He cannot forbear regarding as morally excellent, at a more than “external” level of morality, the Roman patriot Camillus, and as morally despicable, at a more than ordinary level of corruption, the Roman conspirator Catiline. But they were both “natural men,” ignorant of the true God, and therefore, on the face of it, equally and utterly corrupt. So Calvin finds himself forced to suppose that God sometimes bestows special grace even on men who do not belong to the elect—a grace which enables them to perform noble and heroic deeds.
From his point of view, of course, what are ordinarily called “natural gifts” are all of them God-granted endowments, part of that “general grace” which is God’s gift, at their creation, to all men. Calvin cannot allow, however, that this “general grace” is ever sufficient to save a man. For if it were, then men, once created, could seek their own salvation from their own resources; to that degree, they would be independent of God. Such a Pelagianism is inherent, as Calvin sees the situation, in the theology of Aquinas, which allows, from Calvin’s point of view, altogether too much power to such “natural gifts” as reason. Yet, on the other side, men are blameworthy for not having fully used the grace God has granted them at their creation; they can rightly be blamed for not becoming what they still, corrupt though they are, “have it in themselves to be.” When he wants to emphasize how blameworthy men are, Calvin emphasizes what they are capable, even without special grace, of becoming; when he wants to emphasize how dependent on God they are, he stresses their utter corruption.
Calvin cannot bring himself to say that science, art, extraordinary heroism, are all of them, as infected by the corruption of self-love, entirely valueless. They are corrupted, certainly, but not wholly corrupted. If, on the one side, to allow any “natural gifts” to man is to cut across that conviction of man’s utter dependence at every moment of his life on God which lies, so Calvin thought, at the heart of all religion, yet on the other side to allow him no such “natural gifts” is to turn all “natural” men, equally, into villains. And Calvin, a cultivated man, a scholar, cannot bring himself to say this either. So we find him writing: “I do not so dissent from the common judgement as to contend that there is no difference between the justice, moderation, and equity of Titus and Trajan and the madness, intemperance, and savagery of Caligula or Nero or Domitian . . . and—not to tarry over individual virtues and vices—between observances and contempt of right and of laws.” Yet at the same time, he goes on, “what Augustine writes is none the less true: that all who are estranged from the religion of the one God, however admirable they may be regarded on account of their reputation for virtue, not only deserve no reward but rather punishment, because by the pollution of their hearts they defile God’s good works.”40 Not all his successors were to be convinced that, if Titus and Trajan are really better men than Caligula and Nero, it can at the same time be true that “they deserve no rewards but rather punishment.” But to Calvin this is essential; man himself has no merits; in the eyes of God he is worthless. Calvin was not even prepared to admit, as Aquinas did, that man can, with God’s help, be wholly free of “mortal” as distinct from “venial” sins. The whole distinction between mortal and venial sins, indeed, he rejected as untenable.
The Council of Trent had accepted Aquinas’s teaching on this point. It anathematized “whoever shall say that the commandments of God are impossible of observance even to a justified man.” “They admit,” Calvin writes in reply, “that even the most holy sometimes fall into light and daily sins. First I ask, whether there be any sin, however light, that is not inconsistent with the observance of the law? For what vicious thought will creep into the mind of man if it be wholly occupied with the love of God?”41 On this question, then, Calvin’s position is quite straightforward. We are commanded to love God with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. If we do, then we shall not commit any sin whatsoever; our mind will be wholly free of any “vicious thought.” And if—as is in fact always the case—we do not, then we cannot pretend that we are keeping God’s commandments.
Perfection in however limited a degree, it must therefore be concluded, lies quite beyond the reach of man: “He who has come nearest to perfection has not yet advanced half-way.”42 For “no man ever lived who satisfied the law of God, and . . . none ever can be found.”43 So it is not only that men cannot be perfect in some special metaphysical or theological sense, involving, let us say, the direct vision of God. They cannot even succeed in obeying God’s commands; they cannot be free from sin, in the most obvious, straightforward sense of that word. The human will is so corrupted that not even God can wholly release it, in this life, from its bondage to sin. “God commences so to reform his elect in the present life, that he proceeds with this work little by little and does not fully achieve it until death, so that they are still guilty before his judgement.”44 The elect are justified once and for all, and wholly, but they do no more than make progress towards sanctification.
It would be an extremely complex task to trace the history of Pelagianism and anti-Pelagianism through the centuries that followed the Reformation.45 Let us look rather to our own century, to 1912, when there appeared a book which will serve to sum up what Pelagianism, in the period preceding that great turning-point in human history, the First World War, had finally become. This is F. R. Tennant’s The Concept of Sin, which Reinhold Niebuhr, a hostile critic, once described as “the most elaborate of modern Pelagian treatises.”*
The main objections to Pelagianism—apart from the supposition that the Christian has to believe that men are born corrupt because this is the Biblical teaching, a view Tennant contests at length—have arisen, according to Tennant, because immaculate, sinless, perfection has been confused with what Tennant calls “absolute” perfection. The two ideas, he says, are wholly distinct. A young child may be sinless but he cannot be absolutely perfect. To be absolutely perfect, according to Tennant, a man needs a type of disposition, a degree of knowledge, a kind of temperament, the absence of which in a child or in a man is in no sense a sin. For Tennant defines absolute perfection in aesthetic terms, as involving the possession of a harmonious, easily-flowing goodness, not within the reach of the will. Sin, in contrast—for Tennant as for Schleiermacher—is by its very nature a deliberate act of will, a conscious rejection of moral principles.
Man’s animal condition carries with it, Tennant freely admits, elements of discord, which are incompatible with absolute perfection. To be good, men have to struggle—to struggle with their animal impulses, to struggle against temptations. But it is quite improper, according to Tennant, to call man sinful or “imperfect” (in the relative sense), merely because he has certain “propensities” which an aesthetically perfect man would lack. The “elemental blind impulses of our nature” are in themselves not “sinful.” To regard them as such, according to Tennant, is “to perpetuate the Manichaean heresy and to encourage sanctimonious prudery.” They are “the material of sin” only because in the course of human evolution it is particularly these impulses which have to be “restrained, modified, or stifled, by the morally enlightened will.”46 They persist in man as temptations, but to be tempted is not to sin. Their existence explains why, however, man cannot be perfect either as Jesus is perfect or as “our Father in heaven is perfect”; to achieve such perfection men would have to become “like gods,” a condition to which it is impossible for them to attain. “The content of perfection for man,” Tennant therefore writes, “is necessarily circumscribed by man’s nature, by what he is and what he is capable of becoming.”47 So “perfection for man” does not consist in living in accordance with the example set by Jesus, let alone the example set by God; the only ideal which has any relevance to men is a human ideal, within reach of human beings.
But is not such an ideal by its very nature, as Spinoza had argued, merely relative? Tennant accepts the consequence. It is and must be relative, relative to the state of human development, relative to society, relative to the knowledge and capacity of the individual. To demonstrate that a man is “imperfect,” then, in the only sense of imperfection which is relevant to moral judgement, it is not enough to argue that he is imperfect as compared with God or, even, that he is imperfect as compared with some ideal which future generations may set up; the only question is whether he is imperfect in relation to the ideal which is accessible to him. In spite of his indebtedness to Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone Tennant breaks with Kant completely on this, a crucial, point. On Kant’s view the moral law is, and must be, absolute; for Tennant, influenced by evolutionary biology and comparative anthropology, the question “Whose moral law?” is a proper and relevant one.
It will be obvious what has happened. Tennant has lowered his sights for man. He has remained a Pelagian, in his emphasis on what a human being can achieve by the exercise of his will, while abandoning the absolute perfectionism of the Pelagians. To the Augustinian-Lutheran answer to Pelagius: “Man cannot be perfect, as God is perfect, by the exercise of his will,” Tennant replies: “That is so, but he can be perfect as he can be perfect, judged by the criteria which are applicable to him.” He can be adjudged perfect, that is, as a being who at that time and in that place is, in regard to some action, “in a position to recognize within himself the moral imperative ‘I ought’ with regard to it” and to conform his will wholly to that “ought.”48
The question still remains whether men can attain to complete “perfection” in this sense, sinless perfection, the avoidance of any breaches of the moral law they recognize. This, for Tennant, is an empirical question. There is no reason in the nature of the case, certainly, why men should not be sinless and “the ideal has been approached perhaps more often and more nearly than we think.”49 But since man’s tendency, as Kant had also pointed out, is to make greater and greater demands upon himself as he develops morally, it is not surprising that even the saints should feel themselves to be sinners.
One could scarcely expect Tennant’s views to win universal acceptance. From the point of view of more orthodox Christians, he at once demands too little of men and expects too much from them. On the one side, he allows men to lower their standards, not to feel guilty, as Augustine did, because they cannot reach absolute perfection, because they cannot love God with their whole heart and whole soul and whole mind. On the other side, he expects men to reach that moral standard which lies within their capacity merely by the exercise of their own wills. His concept of sin, Tennant elsewhere assures us, is not incompatible with Christian teachings about Grace and Redemption. But how astonishing it is, from an Augustinian standpoint, to encounter a whole book on the nature of sin which does not so much as mention grace!
Not surprisingly the counter-reaction to nineteenth-century Pelagianism was as violent as the Augustinianism and the Calvinism which it substantially reinstated. The counter-reaction was no doubt precipitated by the First World War. Karl Barth, for one, tells us that this was the decisive event in his intellectual history—not so much the war as such, perhaps, as the failure of liberal theologians to remain Christian in the face of it, their ready surrender to nationalistic patriotism.50 But Barth himself suggests that, important though the First World War was to him, it was only one of a series of factors contributing to the same outcome: a complete dissatisfaction with what had happened to moral theology, the sort of theology we have exemplified by the admittedly extreme instance of Tennant’s Concept of Sin.
Barth is certainly the most important, and the most systematic, of modern Augustinians. But let us look first at a slightly more moderate, considerably more “accessible,” theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. For Reinhold Niebuhr, as for Bradwardine, there are Pelagians everywhere. Aquinas, according to Niebuhr, carried semi-Pelagianism to a point at which it is indistinguishable from Pelagianism. Even Calvin is suspect. He allowed too much sanctity to the righteous; he encouraged self-righteousness, so Niebuhr suggests, by over-emphasizing sensuality—which men can learn to control—rather than the much more fundamental sin of pride.
The essence of sin, for Niebuhr, is pride; it lies in the fact that “the self lacks the faith and trust to subject itself to God.” And this is a consequence of the human condition, a condition which Niebuhr describes in terms which owe a great deal to Kierkegaard. Man is made anxious, Niebuhr argues, by his ontological position. He is a being who is at once involved in Nature and stands outside it, foreseeing, unlike the brute beasts, its caprices and perils. Almost inevitably, in the attempt to overcome this anxiety, he seeks to strengthen himself, to convert his dependence, by the exercise of reason, into independence.51 And in so doing he sins.* “Original sin,” then, lies not in the inheritance of a trait, not in concupiscence, but in man’s refusal to accept his ontological status; sin is “man’s unwillingness to acknowledge his finiteness.”52 It at once follows that man cannot hope to conquer his sinfulness by independent action, by the exercise of freedom; independence and freedom are the very source of his sinfulness. Only by complete trust in God’s grace, only by surrender to God’s love, has the soul any prospect of escaping finitude and, with it, sin. As for the belief that man can perfect himself by his own efforts, this is of the very essence of sinfulness, of man’s refusal to “acknowledge his finiteness.”
Niebuhr is, all the same, relatively optimistic about human beings and their destiny. Man has still left to him, he thinks, a relic of his original righteousness, and that relic constitutes his point of contact with God. Karl Barth, at least in his earlier writings, goes much further than Niebuhr in his condemnation of humanity, in denying to man any sort of natural goodness. “We are sinful creatures,” he writes, “we are unfit for its [the Word of God’s] service. We cannot in our own strength become either believers or witnesses. In the light that falls upon us when we are taken into its service we have to discover and confess that we are not only useless, but inexcusably recalcitrant.”53 Nor is it only the human being who is thus condemned; it is life as a whole. No Manichaean could be more insistent on this point. “God has come into our life in its utter unloveliness and frightfulness”—he has come into “this frightful world.”54
There is no question, for Barth, of the human being’s having any value in himself; Scripture speaks of man, he says, only as sinful. “Man as such has no dignity of his own, nor has the fellowship of man with man.”55 The belief, so often supposed to be peculiarly Christian, in “the infinite value of the individual soul” is in fact, according to Barth, pagan. There is nothing in man to attract God’s attention to him; the doctrine of an arbitrary election reaches in Barth its supreme point. It in no way, he says, lies “in the nature of man or in some capacity of his own that he among all creatures may belong to God.” That heaven is made for men rather than for geese is purely and simply “an inconceivable gift.” Man’s sin consists, on Barth’s view, in the fact that he “despised grace”; he “wanted to be as God”—to become, as the Book of Genesis puts it, “one of us”—and “in wanting that he sinned . . . he broke the relationship which bound him to God and his fellow-man.” So what was for the Greek philosophers and for Greek-inspired Christians the noblest of human aspirations, to become like God, is, for Barth, the root of all evil.56 We are back where we started, in archaic Greece; hubris, for Barth as for Niebuhr, is the sin of sins.
The great mistake of traditional Christian theology, as Barth sees it, is that it was persuaded to substitute the God of the philosophers, a “simple absolute being,” for Jahweh. The Bible, according to Barth, speaks of the sovereignty “of a quite different God.” No doubt the “simple absolute Being” was presumed by theologians, and by the Greek philosophers themselves, to be in some sense sovereign. But its sovereignty was merely a logical or ontological supremacy, not the sovereignty of a God that “can do wonders.” It is only in its relationship to the sovereignty of that wonder-working God and his free elective grace—a sovereignty and a grace exhibited above all else in Jesus Christ—that a man, according to Barth, can discover what sort of being he himself is. That kind of biologico-anthropological “understanding” of the self which Tennant attempts is useless. And what man comes to discover through Revelation is his own valuelessness, his own helplessness, before God.
When Emil Brunner dared to suggest that, although corrupted by sin, men could at least answer when God calls to them, Barth replied in a bitter pamphlet Nein! Antwort an Emil Brunner (1934).57 In no possible way, he argued, can man progress towards God unless God enables him to do so. There is only one thing which “comforts” and “sets up” the Christian and that is the forgiveness of sins. Everything men do, everything they achieve is, in Barth’s eyes, “subject to the judgement that it is sin.” Men have no merits with which to plead before God; they are saved only by being “Jesus Christ’s property,” and belonging for that reason to the kingdom of God’s “inconceivable mercy.”
Even Barth, however, did not remain wholly faithful to his original severity. In 1956, he delivered a lecture on “The Humanity of God” which represents, he freely admits, a change in the direction of his “evangelical theology.” Forty years ago, he says, what he was emphasizing “was not so much the humanity of God as His deity—a God absolutely unique in His relation to man and the world, overpoweringly lofty and distant, strange, yes, even wholly other.”58 This was essential, he suggests, in order to make a sharp break with the theology of the preceding three centuries, which had become anthropocentric, laying its principal stress, as Schleiermacher did, on human piety rather than on divine command. In such a theology, so Barth sums it up, “man was made great at the cost of God.” But his critics were perhaps right, Barth now admits, in complaining that what he had done was to stand Schleiermacher on his head, to make God great at the cost of men. “What,” Barth asks, “if the result of the new hymn to the majesty of God should be a new confirmation of the hopelessness of all human activity?”
To remove that risk it is now necessary, Barth thinks, to emphasize not God’s “otherness” but his “humanity,” as revealed in the Incarnation, where God reveals his humanity in his “concern” for man. And from the fact that God has this “concern” for man, it follows, after all, that man has a peculiar distinction, “as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father.” Man, Barth still argues, is not “elected to intercourse with God” merely in virtue of being human. But he is elected as “the being especially endowed by God.” This is evident, Barth feels ready to affirm, even in man’s culture. Admittedly, he at once hastens to add, “culture testifies clearly in history and in the present to the fact that man is not good but rather a downright monster.” But still . . . “one could not . . . say that culture speaks only of the evil in man.” In culture man attempts, even if he so often “runs aground,” to put to good use “the good gift of his humanity.” And it is this man, the man who participates in culture, who “interests God.” Barth allows himself, indeed, to speak with approval of the slogan, “You men are gods.” Even more startlingly, he is not prepared to rule out a priori Origen’s hypothesis that God’s mercy is such that in the end all men will be saved, that God will reconcile all things to himself. There could scarcely be a better illustration than Barth’s essay of the permanent tension in Christianity, between a depreciation and an exaltation of man. It is interesting to observe that Niebuhr, too, has come to feel that he was too severe in his “rather violent, and sometimes extravagant, reaction to what I defined as the ‘utopianism’ . . . of a Protestant and bourgeois culture.”59 In general terms, indeed, the tide of twentieth-century Augustinianism seems to have passed its peak.
What are we to conclude from this brief sketch—it is no more than that—of Pelagianism within Christianity? This much, I think, that any movement towards Pelagianism is bound in the end, so long as Christianity survives, to be resisted. For to allow that man can do anything to perfect himself is to diminish his utter dependence on God; to allow that even for one moment he does not need God is to make of God at that moment a supernumerary. And if at that moment, why not at other, or at all, moments?
Yet on the other side to assert that man is helpless, without God’s grace, to take even the first step towards perfection is, on the face of it, to discourage men from moral action. It involves the risk that should men once feel themselves alienated from God, there will be nothing to restrain them. It is true that there are various ways of meeting this contingency—by insisting on the endless resources of divine forgiveness, by arguing that “civic” goodness, although not supernatural goodness, is still, in some measure, attainable even by the corrupted man, by setting up, as Calvin tried to do at Geneva, a state so rigorously governed by “the saints” that men did not dare to lapse into crime. But even these methods do not in the end suffice.
Perry Miller has described in detail what happened in one small New England community, the way in which Pelagianism gradually developed out of the internal difficulties of the community—its incapacity to find any way of disciplining those who sat back and waited for God’s grace to fall, or not to fall, upon them. If God can, if he chooses, lift a saint from a dunghill, why not be warm and cosy in the dunghill, awaiting his grace? It had to be argued, in opposition to such practical antinomianism, that a Christian could do something to prepare himself for salvation, as distinct from simply standing still and waiting “for Christ to do all for him.” That Cassian-like concession to Pelagius gradually led, at the hands of Cotton Mather, to the even more Pelagian doctrine that if men would only do whatever it lies within their own power to do “there would be a greater likelihood (I say not a certainty, but a likelihood) that God would grant them that higher power” [his grace]. How Augustine and Calvin must have shuddered in their graves! Thus it was that the United States gradually made its way, from being the most Calvinist, to being the most Pelagian of Christian nations.
More generally, there is within Christianity, just as there was within Stoicism, an internal conflict between Christianity the religion and Christianity the system of moral precepts. As a religion, Christianity emphasizes above all else the omnipotence of God and his spiritual monopoly as the sole source of all goodness and righteousness. Man is, in contrast, wholly ineffective, spiritually null and void. In this mood, Luther can write that: “So man’s will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills. . . . If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills. Nor may it choose to which rider it will run or which it will seek; but the riders themselves fight to decide who shall have and hold it.”60 But as a set of moral precepts, Christianity tells man to what rider it should run and which it should seek. The philosophical difficulties which arise within both Christianity and Stoicism—the impossibility of reconciling divine omnipotence with human freedom—flow out of and reflect this deep conflict between the religious and the moralistic impulse.
[1. ]Quoted from H. Bettenson, ed.: Documents of the Christian Church (London, 1943; repr. 1946), p. 74. See also the article by R. G. Parsons on “Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism” in James Hastings, ed.: Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 9, and the works on Augustine by E. Portalié, trans. R. J. Bastian (London, 1960); Peter Brown (London, 1967); and especially Gerald Bonner (London, 1963), along with John Ferguson: Pelagius (Cambridge, 1956). There is a slightly more technical, very thorough, discussion of the Augustine-Pelagius controversy in Nigel Abercrombie: The Origins of Jansenism (Oxford, 1936). See also, for a critical view of Pelagius, G. de Plinval: Pélage, ses écrits, sa vie et sa reforme (Lausanne, 1943).
[* ]The story runs—it has been disputed—that Pelagius first made his way to Rome in order to study law. Coelestius was certainly a lawyer. Pelagius’s approach is in any case a lawyer’s: what kind of legislator would he be who set up laws nobody could obey and then punished his subjects for not obeying them? Compare J. N. L. Myres: “Pelagius and the end of Roman rule in Britain,” Jnl. Rom. Studies, Vol. 50 (1960), pp. 21–36.
[2. ]As quoted in Augustine: On the Grace of Christ and on Original Sin, II. xiv, trans. P. Holmes in The Works of Aurelius Augustinus, Vol. XII (Edinburgh, 1874), repr. in modernized version in Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, ed. W. J. Oates, 2 vols (New York, 1948), Vol. 1, p. 628.
[3. ]Ad Demetrias, 8, quoted in N. Abercrombie: The Origins of Jansenism, p. 22.
[4. ]Epistle 214, to Valentinus, in Augustine: Select Letters, trans. J. H. Baxter, pp. 405–7.
[5. ]Epistle 179, as trans. J. H. Baxter in Select Letters, p. 313.
[6. ]I John 4:10, 19, quoted by Augustine in On the Grace of Christ and on Original Sin, I. xxvii. See Basic Writings, Vol. 1, p. 602. See also Epistle 194. 19, as quoted in J. Burnaby: Amor Dei, p. 238.
[* ]Similar theories of grace, however, are to be found in the Hindu religion and in certain varieties of Buddhism. Within the history of Buddhism, indeed, one can distinguish something very like the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy. On the comparison between Christianity and Hindu teachings see Sabapathy Kulandran: Grace: A Comparative Study of the Doctrine in Christianity and Hinduism (London, 1964). On the situation in Buddhism, and for the suggestion that this kind of antithesis between an “optimistic” and a “pessimistic” view of human effort breaks out quite generally within religion, see H. D. Lewis and R. L. Slater: World Religions (London, 1966), reprinted as The Study of Religions (Harmondsworth, 1969), especially ch. III. Some commentators maintain that the older Platonic view of love persists even in Augustine. See especially A. Nygren: Agape and Eros.
[7. ]Trans. in Peter Brown: Augustine of Hippo, p. 147. The first quotation is from De sermone Domini in monte, I. ii. 9, the second from De consensu evangelistarum, IV. x. 20. There is a useful discussion of this issue in the French ed. and trans. of Augustine’s Retractiones (Oeuvres de Saint Augustin, vol. 12: Les Révisions, ed. Gustave Bardy, Paris, 1950, pp. 200–16).
[8. ]On the Grace of Christ, I. liii, in Basic Writings, Vol. 1, p. 617. The Biblical refs. are to Philippians 3:6, 8.
[9. ]Romans 8:29–30.
[10. ]Augustine-scholars disagree on this point. Augustine sometimes seems to suggest, like the Jansenists after him, that grace can be irresistible. Compare J. Burnaby: Amor Dei, pp. 226–34.
[* ]Augustine complained that Julian seems to take a positive delight in “praising these pagans,” praise which, Augustine said, would be “more bearable” if Julian were prepared to recognize that pagan virtue, in so far as it has ever existed, is the fruit of a special grace from God.
[11. ]Julian’s views, like Pelagius’s, are known only through the quotations of his adversaries. I have followed the summary in R. G. Parsons’ article on “Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism” (see note 1 above). On Augustine’s relation to Julian, see E. Portalié: Guide to the Thought of Augustine, passim, and P. Brown: Augustine of Hippo, ch. 32.
[12. ]See H. Bettenson, ed.: Documents of the Christian Church, p. 85.
[13. ]Ibid., pp. 86–87.
[* ]The examiner, as we might paraphrase this in the language of John Barth’s novel Giles Goat-boy, not only knows how many are to pass but has already determined who is to pass. All the same, if people fail it is entirely their own fault. Not everybody finds this reasoning satisfactory.
[14. ]Quoted in H. Daniel-Rops: The Church in the Seventeenth Century, trans. J. J. Buckingham (London, 1963), p. 341.
[15. ]Spiritual Exercises, §367, rule 15, as trans. Thomas Corbishley (London, 1963), p. 123.
[16. ]Institutes of the Christian Religion, III. xxi. 4, trans. Battles, Vol. 2, p. 926.
[* ]Calvinism is in this respect a strangely intermediate doctrine; it is not surprising that there has been so much controversy, ever since Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1920; trans. T. Parsons, 1930), about the exact relationship between Calvinism and capitalism. On the one side, no one could more rigidly insist than Calvin that no man has merits in the eyes of God. On the other side, Calvin—or at least the Calvinists after him—also suggest that worldly success can serve as a sign that a man has been “elected” by God. The elect ought, in the words of 2 Peter 1:10 to “give diligence to make [their] calling and election sure.” Although, then, success is not a consequence of merit, it is a sign of election, which ought to be confirmed by diligent effort. Thus it is that Calvinism opens the way to a secular version of Pelagianism. Take away the idea of election, and it is easy to reinterpret Calvin thus: “Show your merit by diligent application to your vocation, and success will follow.”
[17. ]Summa theologica, Pt. II, i, q. 109, a. 2.
[18. ]Romans 7:25.
[19. ]Matthew 5:8. For a detailed treatment of this theme, see K. E. Kirk: The Vision of God. There is a special problem for Aquinas: the vision of God comes to man only through God’s grace. How then can it be man’s natural end? For the complexities of scholastic argument on this point, see, for example, Nigel Abercrombie: The Origins of Jansenism, pp. 63–65. See also p. 11 below.
[20. ]Summa contra gentiles, III. 51.
[21. ]Ibid., III. 26.
[* ]Contrast Duns Scotus for whom “thinking of God matters little if he be not loved in contemplation.” Aquinas, it is worth noting, did not even consider the view that the ultimate perfection for man might lie in his being able to love in heaven, as never before, his fellow human beings. But a nineteenth-century Roman Catholic theologian, Baron von Hügel, does discuss this possibility. He tells the story of the soul who is informed on entering heaven that now it will be able “throughout eternity . . . [to] serve its fellow-souls, those down there still on earth, as well as these here in heaven.” The soul, says von Hügel, is deeply disappointed. Let it rather, the soul pleads, be absorbed in God. See “The Difficulties and Dangers of Nationality” in F. von Hügel: Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion, Second Series (London, 1926; repr. 1951), p. 275. Von Hügel takes this story over from a German theologian, Paul de Lagarde.
[22. ]Ibid., III. 38–47.
[23. ]Summa theologica, Pt. I, q. 12, a. 11.
[* ]At the very end of his life, perhaps under the influence of his neo-Platonic friend and assistant William of Moerbeke, Aquinas may have changed his views on this point. He is reported as saying of his theology that it was “worthless,” in the light of spiritual experiences which had, late in life, come his way. But, whatever the truth of this story, the lesson of his purely philosophical writings is that man should not, in his present life, attempt to pass beyond the limitations imposed by the fact that all his knowledge has its origins in sensory experience. In this case, too, the peculiar relationship between Jesus and God causes difficulties. John reports Jesus as saying: “he who sees me sees him who sent me” (12:45) and again, “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). Nevertheless, Aquinas does not count seeing Jesus as “seeing God”; it is not seeing God’s essence. Jesus, as the Scholastic formula has it, is God but not the whole of God.
[24. ]Summa contra gentiles, III. 47. The reader should be warned that some interpreters of Aquinas would read him as allowing more to the mystical perfectibilist than I represent him as doing.
[25. ]Summa theologica, Pt. II, i, q. 109, a. 2. See also Pt. II, i, q. 85, a. 2 and Pt. II, ii, q. 23, a. 2.
[26. ]Trans. in H. B. Workman: John Wyclif, 2 vols (Oxford, 1926), Vol. 1, p. 121. On Bradwardine see especially G. Leff: Bradwardine and the Pelagians (Cambridge, 1957).
[* ]Pico’s Oration is generally, but not quite accurately, referred to as “Oration on the Dignity of Man”; properly speaking, this is the title only of the first section. There has been a good deal of controversy about this oration. Pico was in many respects—for example, in his attitude to scholastic philosophy—one of the more conservative of the humanists. Many commentators have found it hard to believe that he “really meant” his Oration, with its complete ignoring of divine grace, to be taken seriously. But whatever Pico “really meant” to say, the Oration as it stands can only be read as, for its century, a startling defence of human dignity, human powers, human possibilities. Compare P. O. Kristeller’s article: “Pico della Mirandola, Count Giovanni” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 6, esp. pp. 309–10 and, of the works there referred to, especially the report of the 1963 conference on Pico: L’opera e il pensiero di Giovanni Pico della Mirandola nella storia dell’umanesimo, 2 vols (Florence, 1965).
[27. ]For Pico’s oration see The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, sel. and ed. Ernst Cassirer, P. O. Kristeller, J. H. Randall, Jr. (Chicago, 1948; paperback ed. 1956, repr. 1965), pp. 224–25. On Sartre see John Passmore: A Hundred Years of Philosophy, 2nd rev. ed. (London, 1966), ch. XIX.
[28. ]See the account of Bovillus in E. F. Rice: The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), pp. 106–23.
[29. ]For a fuller account of Molina, see N. Abercrombie: The Origins of Jansenism, pp. 93–114. His principal work was Concordia liberi arbitrii cum gratiae donis, publ. 1588.
[30. ]Martin Luther: On the Bondage of the Will, VII, xviii (Weimarer Ausgabe, XVIII, 783) as trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (London, 1957), p. 313.
[31. ]On the Bondage of the Will, II. ix (Weimarer Ausgabe, XVIII, 635–38); ed. cited, p. 105.
[32. ]Erasmus-Luther: Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. E. F. Winter, Milestones of Thought (New York, 1961), pp. 11–12.
[33. ]On the Bondage of the Will, II. ix; ed. cited, pp. 104–5.
[34. ]But compare the last note on pp. 148–49 above.
[35. ]Institutes, II. i. 8, trans. Battles, Vol. 1, p. 252.
[36. ]No more extraordinary, of course, than Augustine’s Epistle to Alypius (Ep. 29, in Select Letters, trans. Baxter, pp. 69–91) and Paul (I Corinthians 5:11 and, more especially, Galatians 5:19–21). The Calvin passage is Institutes II. i. 8, Vol. 1, p. 251, in Battles’ trans.
[37. ]Institutes, II. ii. 1, as trans. Battles, Vol. 1, p. 255.
[38. ]Sermon on Job, 2:1f, as trans. in T. F. Torrance: Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (London, 1949; repr. 1952), p. 88. The earlier argument may be found in Institutes, II. ii. 12–13: the trans. is adapted from Battles, Vol. 1, pp. 270–72.
[39. ]Commentary on James, 3:9, as trans. Torrance, loc. cit.
[* ]The problem which here confronts Calvin, and not Calvin uniquely, is a particularly acute one. He can scarcely deny that Plato, without benefit of Revelation, taught moral lessons which Christianity also wishes to teach; he admits, as we saw, that “natural reason” is capable of distinguishing between good and evil. Yet on the other side, such doctrines as that salvation and damnation are unrelated to moral effort, that some men are predestined to be saved and others to be damned, that a Revelation which is necessary for salvation has been granted to some people and not to others—so that Australian Aborigines, let us say, had for almost two millennia no possible access to it—are, from the standpoint of “natural reason,” nothing short of morally abominable. In the theological sphere, too, “reason” has to be allowed a certain power, if only reason in the form of historical investigation—for Roman Catholic doctrines have to be rejected and Revelation harmonized—yet it must not be allowed to question Revelation itself. So Reason has to be kept, like a savage dog, on a leash; praised so long as it acts as a watch-dog, but feared lest it bite the wrong people or turn on its master. The very large number of passages in Calvin which bear on the powers of Reason have been brought together, under various heads, by Leroy Nixon in John Calvin’s Teachings upon Human Reason (New York, 1963).
[40. ]Institutes, III. xiv. 2–3, trans. Battles, Vol. 1, pp. 769–70.
[41. ]John Calvin: Tracts and Treatises, trans. H. Beveridge, 3 vols (Edinburgh, 1958, repr. from ed. of 1851), Vol. 3: In Defence of the Reformed Faith, p. 132. The Canon of the Council of Trent is on p. 105 of the same vol.
[42. ]Ibid., p. 145.
[43. ]Ibid., p. 130.
[44. ]Institutes, III. xi. 11. On this complicated question see F. Wendel: Calvin, trans. P. Mairet, pp. 255–61, whose version of this passage I have followed.
[45. ]We shall meet other varieties of Pelagianism in subsequent chapters. See also Benjamin B. Warfield: Perfectionism, 2 vols (New York, 1931). The 1-vol. ed. (Philadelphia, 1967) restricts itself to Oberlin perfectionism and its German successors. The original ed. includes a good deal of material on nineteenth-century perfectionists.
[* ]It is not a particularly original book. Its indebtedness to Kant, to Ritschl, to Schleiermacher, is obvious; many of its teachings can be matched in nineteenth-century America, in the writings of the “Oberlin perfectionists.” More remotely, its roots lie in the third century, in Irenaeus, who argued that what was wrong with Adam and Eve was immaturity, and that mankind is still growing to moral maturity, as opposed to the view that the history of humanity is the history of a Fall from an ideal moral condition. But it is precisely its representative character which makes The Concept of Sin so important for our present purposes.
[46. ]The Concept of Sin (Cambridge, 1912), pp. 144, 149.
[47. ]Ibid., p. 79.
[48. ]Ibid., p. 96. Compare Charles G. Finney: Lectures on Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. (London, 1851), pp. 748–49, quoted in B. B. Warfield: Perfectionism (1967), p. 146, n. 306.
[49. ]The Concept of Sin, p. 270.
[50. ]For the effect of the War as a whole on the belief that human beings could moralize themselves by their own efforts, compare Otto Piper: Recent Developments in German Protestantism (London, 1934).
[51. ]The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2 vols (London, 1941; repr. 1945), pp. 266–70.
[* ]This is not, it should be observed, a peculiarly Protestant view. Compare the Roman Catholic theologian Baron von Hügel’s essay on “The Facts and Truths concerning God and the Soul which are of most importance in the Life of Prayer” included in Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion, Second Series. Von Hügel rejects the taint theory of original sin, argues that “the central sin, for the Christian, is Pride and Self-sufficiency” and derives pride from “the delicate poise of our imperfect freedom” (p. 236). Nor does von Hügel stand alone among Roman Catholics in holding these doctrines.
[52. ]Faith and History (London, 1949), p. 133.
[53. ]Church Dogmatics, Vol. I: The Doctrine of the Word of God, 2, trans. G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight (Edinburgh, 1956), p. 702.
[54. ]Dogmatics in Outline, trans. G. T. Thomson (London, 1949; repr. New York, 1959), ch. 16, p. 109.
[55. ]Church Dogmatics, Vol. I, 2, p. 404.
[56. ]See Karl Barth: God Here and Now, trans. P. M. van Buren, pp. 4–7.
[57. ]See the English trans. in E. Brunner: Natural Theology, comprising “Nature and Grace” by E. Brunner and the reply “No!” by Karl Barth, trans. P. Fraenkel (London, 1946). Barth’s Nein! was originally publ. in Munich.
[58. ]Included in Karl Barth: The Humanity of God, trans. J. N. Thomas and T. Wieser (London, 1961), pp. 37–65.
[59. ]Man’s Nature and His Communities (New York, 1965), p. 21.
[60. ]On the Bondage of the Will, II. viii (Weimarer Ausgabe, XVIII, 635–38), trans. Johnston and Packer, pp. 103–4.