Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Free Will and The West

St. Augustine, in On Admonition and Grace, wrote that God’s work alone converts man from death to life and that this doctrine was the “true, prophetic, apostolic, and Catholic faith." Augustine was accurate in that it was truly prophetic and apostolic since it was in accordance the Scriptures. However, this essay will seek to answer the question: Was there ever universal catholic consensus in the church that the human will was totally passive in conversion? I will examine this in the light of the writings of the chief Western Church Fathers and the Church Councils that dealt with doctrine of man. And for simplicity, I will call Augustine’s doctrine of conversion “divine monergism.”

Augustine wrote On Admonition and Grace in 426 or 427 AD to Valentine and the monks of Adrumetum who taught that the grace of God was given according to man’s merits. Man’s right conduct initiated conversion with God, and God completed man’s conversion by giving His Holy Spirit. This teaching of the monks of Adrumetum was later termed as Semi-Pelagianism since it was less extreme compared to Pelagius’ doctrine of man. The British monk Pelagius, who was condemned as a heretic in 416 AD, taught that man could turn to God by his own will without the assistance of the Holy Spirit at all. Augustine arose as the champion of orthodoxy against his heretical claim and asserted that man is not only in need of divine assistance in conversion, but is totally dependent upon it.

If by “Catholic” Augustine meant to include the Eastern Catholic position, he was inaccurate. When it came to the issues of Christian anthropology and soteriology there was always a difference between the Greek and Latin Fathers. Historian Peter Holmes writes: “The chief writers of the West, especially Tertullian and Cyprian in the third century, and Hilary of Poitiers and (notably) Ambrose in the fourth century, prominently state the doctrine of man’s corruption, and the consequent necessity of a change of his nature by divine grace; whilst the Alexandrian Fathers (especially Clement), and other Orientals (for instance, Chrysostom), laid great stress upon human freedom, and on the indispensable co-operation of this freedom with the grace of God” (Preface to Volume I of the Edinburgh Edition, NPNF). According to some Patristic scholars, the East remained in their un-advanced doctrine of man because they did not experience or have a desire to engage in the heresy of Pelagius. Even today there are some scholars who accuse the Eastern Orthodox of teaching Semi-Pelagianism.

So was Holmes’ assertion correct that Augustine’s teaching was consistent with the chief writers of the West? It is probable that Augustine had the Western Catholic position in mind when he used the term Catholic, since he often refers to Western Fathers like Cyprian and Ambrose (See for example Epistle 215, and On the Gift Of Perseverance, Ch. 7) to back up his position.

According to the Historian R. E. Holmes (In The Theology of Tertullian (1924), 149-165), there was an interest towards the doctrine of man in Tertullian that was not present in the Eastern Fathers of his day. This is significant considering Tertullian was a 2nd century Father and was not close in time to the heresy of Pelagius. According to Holmes, Tertullian does not go as far as Augustine in articulating total depravity, but does speak of man’s dependence on divine grace for reconciliation to God.

Historians and Augustine himself show that Cyprian believed the will was totally dependent upon divine grace in conversion and in all things. This can be seen in Cyprian’s writings such as De Bouo Patientiae, Ep. 2, Ad Donatom, and Testimonium ad Quirinum. Cyprian taught that every good thing comes from God, and constantly emphasized the disability and weakness of man’s will.

According to the preface to Hilary of Poitiers in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Hilary was another forerunner of St. Augustine. Hilary taught original sin without using the term, and also asserted that regeneration and faith were both unconditional gifts of God. The preface says: “His Augustinianism, if it may be called so, is but one of many instances of originality, a thought thrown out but not developed” Hilary is also considered a Doctor by the Roman Catholic Church even today.

According to the preface to Ambrose of Milan in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, “St. Ambrose ascribes the whole work [in justification] to the Holy Spirit.” For example, Ambrose writes: “The grace of the Lord is given not as a reward which has been earned [or merited], but simply according to the will of the giver” (Exhort. virginitatis 43). In another place Ambrose writes: “Call forth thy servant. Although I am bound with the chains of my sins, being now buried in dead thoughts and works, yet at thy call I shall go forth free and be found one of those sitting at thy feast” (De Poenitentia II:72). It is not a surprise that there is theological similarity between Ambrose and Augustine since Augustine was baptized and taught by Ambrose.

So if we understand Augustine using the term Catholic in reference to the consensus of the chief Western Fathers, which was probably his intention, his assertion was accurate. But does this mean divine monergism was therefore the official dogma of the Western Church at that time? Following, I will briefly examine some of the major ecclesiastical councils associated with doctrine of man and the heresy of Pelagius.

On May 1, 418 AD, with 200 bishops in attendance, the famous Council of Carthage again condemned Pelagianism as a heresy in eight canons. But nowhere do these canons affirm that the consensus of the Western Bishops was divine monergism. This was probably because the Bishops were focused on refuting some of Pelagius’ more extreme teachings. Pelagius taught that: 1) Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died. 2) Adam's sin harmed only himself, not the human race. 3) Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall. 4) The whole human race neither dies through Adam's sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of Christ. 5) The Mosaic Law is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel. 6) Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin. Therefore, this Western Council could reject and condemn these parts of his teaching without affirming Augustine’s doctrine of divine monergism.

At the 3rd Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 AD there was a renewal of the condemnation of Pelagianism, but since the council convened to settle a Christological dispute, the doctrine of man was not the focus. And even if it was, this council, like the first seven Ecumenical Councils, was conducted on Eastern territory, so it is likely Augustine’s doctrine of man would not have been affirmed. Nevertheless, Pelagiansim was condemned here as well as the Council of Carthage (418 AD). But what about Semi-Pelagiansim? What Western councils and ecclesiastical events dealt with it?

After nearly one hundred years of ecclesiastical dispute in the Western Church, a church council met in Orange on July 3, 529 AD, to finally reject and condemn Semi-Pelagianism. But unfortunately, only 14 Bishops attended this council. Perhaps this was because Pope Cœlestine (431 AD), Pope Gelasius (496 AD), and Pope Hormisdas (early 6th century) had already condemned Semi-Pelagianism and Western Bishops considered the issue settled? In that council the canons articulate Augustine’s doctrine of divine monergism, and in the following year, Pope Boniface II ratified the canons of this council. So according to ecclesiastical operation in the Western Church, divine monergism was her official doctrine. However, the historian B. B. Warfield writes: “But councils and popes can only decree…and [synergism] retained an influence among their countrymen which never died away” (Introductory Essay to the Augustine and Pelagian Controversy, NPNF, Xxi). And unfortunately, after the era of scholasticism we find that by the 16th century, the official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church was far from Augustine’s divine monergism. Nevertheless, Augustine’s claim that his doctrine was the true catholic faith was accurate in the light of the chief Western Fathers, and the decrees and canons associated with the Council of Orange.

So why is this a practical issue today? To begin with, it was the Lutherans and Calvinists who believed that they were returning to the true, apostolic, prophetic, and catholic faith concerning original sin and free will in the 16th century (although they came to different conclusions concerning predestination). The Lutherans boldly stated in the Conclusion of Part One of the Augsburg Confession that: “There is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman church, insofar as can be observed from the writings of the Fathers.” In other words, the Lutheran understanding of divine monergism, among other articles of faith, was not contrary to the chief writers of the early Western Catholic church, nor her ecclesiastical decrees. At the Council of Trent (16th century), and Vatican II (20th Century) Roman Catholics continue to insist that God predestines people to salvation according to the free response of faith foreseen, therefore rejecting Augustine’s doctrine of divine monergism. Therefore, conservative Lutherans, Calvinists, and Episcopalians have the responsibility in all current and future dialogues to show them from the writings of the chief Western Fathers and the decrees associated with the Council of Orange a reclaiming of their doctrine of divine monergism. In conclusion, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Episcopalians can rejoice that Augustine’s doctrine (actually Scripture’s doctrine), is the true, apostolic, prophetic, and Western Catholic faith.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Calling All Protestants to Embrace Infant Baptism

Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Does “water” here refer to baptism? For those of you who are dismayed by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Churches of Christ who deem baptism as absolutely necessary for salvation, your dismayal causes you to reject such an interpretation. Further, many of you do not believe God will use water to grant entrance into the kingdom of God. Water is a created element. Why would God use water to grant entrance into His kingdom? Additionally, many of you claim that baptism is simply an outward affirmation of an inward change. Therefore, the water in baptism does not do anything. But is this all true? Let us take a look at what the Scriptures say without imposing our own assumptions.

First, the Pharisees refused to be baptized (Luke 7:30). Jesus here does not simply tell Nicodemus that he must be born of a human being (some argue that “water” refers to natural birth). If I were to ask an academic advisor at a university what it would take to get into the school, would he respond by saying, “First you have to be born.” Such an interpretation of John 3:5 is untenable. Jesus here was telling Nicodemus to be baptized with water since that is what he rejected.

Secondly, “water” and “spirit” go hand in hand with baptism in the Scriptures.

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

Water and Spirit show themselves to be inseparable from each other according to the Scriptural references. In the Book of Acts, when people were baptized with water, they received the Holy Spirit as Peter declared in Acts 2:38.

Thirdly, the church has always interpreted John 3:5 to be referencing Christian baptism. Such examples are Irenaeus, Fragment 34 [A.D. 190]; Origen, Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248]; Ambrose, Abraham, 2, 11:79 [A.D. 387]. No one prior to the Mennonites (also known as the Ana-Baptists) interpreted John 3:5 as not referencing Christian baptism. Of course, you can take your Bible and interpret it how you want to, but you are being divisive and not respecting Christians who have gone before you.

Now that I have shown that it is not insensible to interpret John 3:5 as a reference to baptism, what does Jesus say about infants? In John 3:5, Jesus says that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is baptized with water and the spirit. In Luke 18:15-18 he declares that infants are eligible for such entrance. Luke writes,

“Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God’” (18:15-17).

Here we see that infants belong to the kingdom of God. And in John 3:5 we see that entrance into the kingdom requires baptism with water and the spirit. Some have said that infants are already of the kingdom of God when they are born. These people do not realize what they are saying. First, why would Jesus need to correct the disciples who were rebuking those bringing infants to Jesus? If infants are already of the kingdom of God, then why do the Psalms declare:

“The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear, so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter. O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD” (58:3-6).

If infants are born “innocent” why does God declare that they “speak lies,” have “venom of a serpent,” and call them “young lions.” If God does not hold infants accountable for their sin, then why does the Prophet David tell God to “break their teeth?”

Further, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley all interpreted Luke 18:15-18 as supporting the church’s doctrine of infant baptism. So for those of you who are rejecting this interpretation, you are not only rejecting the pre-Reformation church, but you are rejecting three of the most influential Reformers.

In conclusion, God does hold all who are born of the flesh of Adam accountable for their sin (John 3:6; Romans 5:12-21; Eph. 2:1; Romans 8:7). And God has appointed baptism as a means or instrument of grace (1 Peter 3:21; Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5). And Peter declared that the promise of baptism and the Holy Spirit was for “you and your children” (Acts 2:39). And whole households were baptized showing the familial nature of the New Covenant (I Corinthians 1:16; Acts 11:14, 16:15, 33, 18:8). And Paul parallels baptism with circumcision (Col. 2:11-13). Why would the Apostles declare that baptism was for children and baptize households if they rejected the baptism of infants? Why would the Apostle Paul parallel baptism with circumcision if he rejected the baptism of infants? If the Apostles rejected infant baptism, they sure have a curious way of showing it.

And finally, the Apostolic Fathers show that they believed in the idea of being a “Christian since infancy” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 9 [A.D. 156]; Justin Martyr, First Apology, 15:6 [A.D. 110-165]; Polycrates, Fragment in Eusibius’ Church History, V:24:7 [A.D. 190]. And the disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John, Irenaeus wrote:

"He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men” (Against Heresies 2:22:4 [A.D. 189]).

Irenaeus was a defender of the apostolic deposit against the Gnostics and the Docetists. He was in regular contact with churches which had been planted by the Apostles. In the next century, Origen would declare,

“For this also it was that the church had from the Apostles a tradition to give baptism even to infants. For they to whom the divine mysteries were committed knew that there is in all persons a natural pollution of sin which must be done away by water and the Spirit [John 3:5]” (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248]).

And the great Church Father, St. Augustine declares the same thing early in the 5th century:

“The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic" (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 10:23:39 [A.D. 408]).

Of course, you could do away with the church Fathers and the early church and interpret the Bible the way you want. But that is divisive and disrespectful towards the body of Christ who existed before you.