Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Does the Roman Catholic Church teach either Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism? - When facts and objectivity take a 'backseat' to polemics

As I mentioned in my last post, "I have been in one of my intense reading modes", but I am a big fan of tennis, as such, I have been 'multi-tasking' during this 2011 Wimbledon season. Today was the men's quarterfinals and of the four gents I had hoped would advance into the semis, only one did so (Andy Murray). I was a bit 'bummed' by the other outcomes, and not in much of a mood to continue today's studies, so I thought I would check in on some of the apologetics sites that have been of interest to me. Those familiar with my blog are aware of my past interest in the Beggars All blog, especially those threads that reflect on Catholicism. With the departure of John Bugay, the number of anti-Catholic threads at BA seemed to have dropped off the high level of intensity that persisted during John's presence as a "contributor", but the month of June has seen a significant upturn in polemical threads directed at Catholicism (many, but certainly not all, revolve around the Vulgate version of the Bible). I went back through the new threads posted at BA over the last three weeks and counted no less than 19 threads devoted to one aspect or another of BA's negative stance on Catholicism; of those 19 threads 2 in particular caught my attention: Orange and Trent and In Catholic theological anthropology, human nature is not selfish or sinful; human nature is good.

These two threads touch on an issue that I have spent of good deal of time researching: whether or not the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church (i.e. doctrine delineated in the accepted Catholic councils) is either Pelagian or semi-Pelagian.

In the Orange and Trent thread penned by Ken Temple, we read:

“Semi-Pelagianism condemned at Orange in 529 AD, but reaffirmed at Trent” (1545-1563) (Basically, the essence of statements by Bavinck, Berkouwer, and Sproul; see below)

Ken then links to two "articles that focus on the beneficial canons of the Council of Orange that Protestant Reformers also emphasized in their battles against the false doctrines of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism and how the Council of Trent is contradictory to much of the council of Orange."

It seems that Ken has pretty much relied on the conclusions drawn by the above two articles, along with those of R. C. Sproul; unfortunately, many of those conclusions are fundamentally flawed. I am going to focus on Sproul in this thread, for I have read a good deal of Sproul's treatments on this subject, and have already touched on some of his skewed assessments here at AF. Once again from Orange and Trent we read:

Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, by R. C. Sproul. Baker, 1995.

In chapter 7, entitled “Merit and Grace”, R. C. Sproul discusses the issues of merit and grace, Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, the Council of Orange in 529 AD and the council of Trent (1545-1463), which seems to affirm semi-Pelagianism.

“Rome has repeatedly been accused of condemning semi-Pelagianism at Orange [in 529 AD] but embracing it anew at Trent. Herman Bavinck held that “although semi-Pelagianism had been condemned by Rome, it reappeared in a ‘roundabout way’”. G. C. Berkouwer observed:

“Between Orange and Trent lies a long process of development, namely, scholasticism, with its elaboration of the doctrine of the meritoriousness of good works, and the Roman system of penitence . . .”

Bavinck and Berkouwer are cited by Sproul in Faith Alone, pages 140-141.

I touched on Sproul's Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification in my thread, An Evangelical Critique of R. C. Sproul's "Faith alone", but address the issue of semi-Pelagianism more directly the thread, Why terminology is important, which interacts with Sroul's subsequent book, Willing to Believe (1997). [BTW, Sproul has certainly misread Berkouwer concerning his reflections on Trent and its relationship to Orange and semi-Pelagianism; hope to post a thread on this in the near future.]

I do not wish to duplicate the entire thread here, so I shall focus on but one of Sproul's faulty assessments; Sproul penned (provided in the above thread):

The classic issue between Augustinian theology and all forms of semi-Pelagianism focuses on one aspect of the order of salvation (ordo salutis): What is the relationship between regeneration and faith? Is regeneration a monergistic or synergistic work? Must a person first exercise faith in order to be born again? Or must rebirth occur before a person is able to exercise faith? Another way to state the question is this: Is the grace of regeneration operative or cooperative?

Dr. Sproul is just plain wrong here, and I clearly pointed this out in the same thread:

...a careful reading of the historical context of the birth of semi-Pelagianism reveals a much different landscape. And what is disconcerting to me, is that Sproul, in his Willing To Believe, has obviously read the history behind the emergence of semi-Pelgaianism, as well as the early Church’s reaction to it. Sproul in pages 69-76 gives a brief, but for the most part, accurate portrayal of the rise of semi-Pelagianism, citing three esteemed authorities, whose primary discipline is that of Christian history: Philip Schaff, Adolf von Harnack and Reinhold Seeberg. Yet amazingly, Sproul, in spite of the very quotes he provides from these scholars, misses THE KEY INGREDIENT which distinguishes semi-Pelagianism from all forms of Augustinianism! That KEY INGREDIENT is this:

Semi-Pelaganianism teaches that an individual apart from grace can accept the offer of salvation, and that once accepted one then cooperates with the grace that God gives. In other words, semi-Pelagianism denies the necessity of grace for one to believe/accept the gospel.

While Pelagianism denies that ANY grace is necessary for salvation (both before and after the acceptance of the Gospel), semi-Pelagainism only denies that grace is necessary for one to accept the gospel.

Note the following:

SEMI-PELAGIANISM. The doctrines on human nature upheld in the 4th and 5th cents. by a group of theologians who, while not denying the necessity of *Grace for salvation, maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and Grace supervened only later. (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. 1974 - 1985 reprint, p. 1258.)

SEMI-PELAGIANISM. Doctrines, upheld during the period from 427 to 529, that rejected the extreme views of Pelagius and of Augustine in regards to the priority of divine grace and human will in the initial work of salvation...

Cassian [one of the early leaders of semi-Pelagianism] taught that though a sickness is inherited through Adam's sin, human free will has not been entirely obliterated. Divine grace is indispensable for salvation, but does not necessarily need to precede a free human choice, because, despite the weakness of human volition, the will takes the initiative toward God [apart from supernatural grace]. (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1984, p. 1000.)

Sproul in Willing to Believe even quotes the following from Dr. Philip Schaff (History of the Christian Church) which affirms the above:

In opposition to both systems he taught that the divine image and human freedom were not annihilated, but only weakened, by the fall; in other words, that man is sick, but not dead, that he cannot indeed help himself, but that he can desire the help of a physician, and either accept or refuse it when offered, and that he must cooperate with the grace of God in his salvation. The question, which of the two factors has the initiative, he answers, altogether empirically, to this effect: that sometimes, and indeed usually, the human will, as in the cases of the Prodigal Son, Zacchaeus, the Penitent Thief, and Cornelius, determines itself to conversion; sometimes grace anticipates it, and, as with Matthew and Paul, draws the resisting will—yet, even in this case, without constraint—to God. Here, therefore, the gratia praeveniens is manifestly overlooked. (Sproul, Willing, p. 74; Schaff, History, 3.861)

How Dr. Sproul could miss THE key distinguishing feature after citing the above is quite baffling to me. That Ken and so many others mistakenly attribute the charge of semi-Pelagianism to the Roman Catholic Church, seemingly relying on such flawed assessments, comes as no surprise to me.

Grace and peace,