Thursday, March 18, 2004

Soteriology and Creation (Peter J. Leithart) + Reply

Peter J. Leithart is a Reformed pastor. I link to his blog on my sidebar. This is his blog entry, "Soteriology and Creation," reproduced in its entirety, with my responses. Pastor Leithart's words will be italicized.


Any idea of cooperation with grace rests on a nature/grace dualism.

This is untrue, and is the old unfair and inaccurate charge (if I understand it correctly) that all Arminian and Catholic and Orthodox soteriologies are somehow Pelagian (or at least semi-Pelagian) and rest on the assumption that man does things with regard to God and grace that originate from his own power.

To say that I cooperate with grace implies that I have some sort of independent power of action that is not always already the product of grace.

How does it imply that? You have provided the answer to your own objection yourself: to the extent that I legitimately cooperate with the grace, that is indeed the product of grace itself (and this is good Catholic theology).

The Council of Trent stated in its canons on justification:

CANON I.-If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

CANON II.-If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty; let him be anathema.

CANON III.-If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, so as that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him; let him be anathema.

And in its chapter 5:

On the necessity, in adults, of preparation for Justification, and whence it proceeds.

The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God.

That is, it depends on the assumption that there is some independent realm of "nature."

Tridentine Catholic soteriology does not teach this, as just shown. Perhaps some liberal Protestant Arminians do but we do not. I haven't seen that traditional "orthodox" Arminian holds to such a thing, either, but I could be wrong. What I read of their original theology showed me that it was no more Pelagian than Catholic or Calvinist soteriology is.

If, on the other hand, my very existence depends on God's gift, IS God's gift, and if God is always concurrently active in my every action, then I have no independence at all. My acts of "cooperation" will be as completely the product of God's gracious operation as the "grace" that is offered to me.

If you are defining your first sentence by your second sentence, Catholics completely agree (insofar as cooperation with grace goes). But God is not active in "every" action because that would mean that He is concurring with sin. When we sin, that is not God acting but us. When we are righteous, that is God working in us, "to will and to do," and causing our good action.

But this cooperation is really just another kind of operation of grace, and not at all my "independent" cooperation, or a cooperation in which I act on my natural reserves, or do my best with what has been given me.

That's right. We agree.

At every point, we work because "God works in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure." This has been obscured by the fact that both Catholics who affirm cooperation with grace, and Protestants who deny it have tended to operate with an implicit nature-grace scheme.

Catholics define "cooperation" (inasmuch as it occurs at all) precisely as you have above. There is no difference here. You are incorrectly assuming that when we speak of "cooperation" somehow we are presupposing some "independent" power of man apart from God's grace. We do not. That is Pelagianism, which was heartily condemned by the Second Council of Orange in 529 and by the Council of Trent. The former makes this very clear:

Canon 3: If anyone says that the grace of God can be conferred in answer to man's petition, but that the petition itself is not due to the action of grace, he contradicts the prophet Isaiah and the Apostle, who both say: "I was found by them that did not seek me, I appeared openly to them that ask not after me" (Rom 10:20; Isa 15:1).' . . .

Canon 6: If anyone says that God has mercy on us when, without his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, work, watch, study, ask, seek, knock, and does not confess that we believe, will, and are enabled to do all this in the way we ought, by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us; or makes the help of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man, rather than ascribing such humility and obedience to the free gift of grace; he goes counter to the Apostle, who says, "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" and "By the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor 4:7 and 15:10)' . . .

Canon 7: If anyone asserts that we can, by our natural powers, think as we ought, or choose any good pertaining to the salvation of eternal life, that is, consent to salvation or to the message of the Gospel, without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit . . . he is misled by a heretical spirit, not understanding what the voice of God says in the Gospel, "Without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5), nor the words of the Apostle, "Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God" (2 Cor 3:5)' . . .

Canon 25: In a word, to love God is a gift of God. He, yet unloved, loves us and gave us the power to love . . . Through the sin of the first man, the free will is so weakened and warped, that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought, or believe in God, or do good for the sake of God, unless moved, previously, by the grace of the divine mercy . . . In every good work that we do, it is not we who have the initiative, aided, subsequently, by the mercy of God, but that he begins by inspiring faith and love towards him, without any prior merit of ours.

If the scheme is rejected at the outset, the issue of "cooperation" simply cannot arise.

That's right. "Cooperation" in this negative sense is Pelagianism, which we totally reject. Louis Bouyer explains the teaching of Trent in this matter:

The Council of Trent's insistence on the fact that man is not saved passively . . . but through his free acceptance, certainly is not to be held as implying any modification of the decrees of Orange. Its whole aim is to show that grace does not dispense us from acting ourselves, but restores to us the power to act well . . .

Catholic doctrine itself, as defined at Trent, does not admit salvation by faith and works, if by that is meant works which are not themselves the product of saving grace received by faith. On the contrary, the profound assertion of the total causality of grace in salvation requires that both the good works following on grace, and the faith which receives it, are its product.

(The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, translated by A.V. Littledale, London: Harvill Press, 1956, 51-52)

Another related issue, that of the nature of freedom and love. I heard from a Roman Catholic theologian recently that man must have the capacity to say No to God, else his love is not free. But does not the Father love the Son in freedom?

Yes. But the Father and the Son are both God and cannot sin by nature. That is not true of men. If we could not sin by nature then there never would have been a Fall. The angels also had a choice to obey or disobey. Some did. One of them is called Satan.

And is there any possibility of the Son every saying No to the Father or the Father to say No to the Son's love?

No, but this is God, so it is not a proper analogy to man's situation. We are free to cooperate with God's grace or reject it. We're not "free" if we are elect to do no otherwise and "not free" to do otherwise than reject God if we are predestined to damnation by His eternal decree. This is where Catholicism and Calvinism truly do differ, of course.

When this point was brought up, it was suggested (by an Orthodox theologian) that the difference between divine love and human love was "time" or "creaturehood."

I would agree.

That is, because we are created, the possibility of a No is of the essence of love, while for God this is not so.

I don't know if I would say that, but I would say that being a creature and not omniscient makes the possibility of "no" inevitable.

The question then becomes whether man can ever reach a state of impeccability, a state of non posse peccare, and remain human.

Again, if it were intrinsically impossible for man or angel to sin and rebel, then that would have never happened. It's as simple as that. But it did; therefore we are able to do so. I don't see the problem. As for a person being able to be actually sinless, that has occurred: in Adam and Eve before the Fall and in Mary, the Mother of God. But note that in Catholicism, we believe that she had to be freed from original sin in the Immaculate Conception in order to be actually sinless.

The answer of the Orthodox theologian: In glory, we are elevated out of time, and participate in the sempiternity of God, and therefore can love without the possibility of betrayal. But this of course causes more problems than it solves, raising serious questions about the goodness of temporality and creaturehood, suggesting that there is some "bias" toward sin in creaturehood.

Of course there is, since the Fall. It is called "concupiscence." It's not a matter of whether time is good or whether creation is good. They both are, because God made them. It's not creaturehood per se which is flawed, but fallen creatures.

This again suggests that notions of creation are in the background of soteriological considerations. If we can affirm that the creation is good all the way to the ground, and affirm that creation is utterly gift and utterly dependent upon God's working and operation, many of our soteriological dilemmas would be clarified if they did not simply evaporate.

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Sunday, March 14, 2004 at 08:50 PM

I don't see how. You seem to be overlooking the place of the Fall in your soteriology (at least in this essay). But it is a short statement, and I would look forward to clarifications and elaborations, should we have the pleasure of discussing this further.

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