Monday, July 28, 2008

Faith and works, and Pelagianism

I think sometimes, especially in popular discussion, the debate over Pelagianism is seen as the "faith versus works" debate. But that is incorrect. These are two separate, and almost orthogonal debates. The question of Pelagianism is whether

  1. one can be saved by one's own efforts without grace
or whether
  1. grace is necessary for salvation.
Pelagius thought it would be really hard to be saved without grace, but it could in principle be done. The faith versus works question is whether the human state that salvation is somehow based around and that ensures salvation (at least should one die in that state) is
  1. faith
  1. love or morally good actions.

There are four polar views possible:

(3)salvation is based on faith, and one can get attain this faith by one's own efforts without gracesalvation is based on faith, and faith requires grace
(4)salvation is based on love or morally good actions, and one can attain this love or do these actions by one's own efforts without grace salvation is based on love or morally good actions, and one needs grace to have love or do the actions
The position stereotypically ascribed to Protestants is, of course, the upper right corner, and the position stereotypically ascribed to Catholics is, of course, the lower left corner.

But note that it is quite possible to be a Pelagian and believe in sola fide: this is the upper left corner in the table. For instance, one might think that faith is an intellectual assent, and believe that one can come to this assent on the basis of apologetic arguments. Likewise, someone can believe that salvation is solely by works, and yet be in no way Pelagian, if she believes that these works are of such a nature that they cannot be done save by grace: this is the lower right corner.

Why is there an idea that there is a link between the two questions? Well, one line of thought takes "works" in a very thin sense, as bodily movements (placing a sandwich before a homeless person, etc.), without considering intentions and motivations. If so, then it seems quite likely that we could, by our own efforts, do whatever "works" would be specified as needed for salvation. But that is a magical view of salvation, and not really held by any serious thinker. Even those Catholic and Orthodox theologians who lay a greater emphasis on works than on faith understand the works in the light of intentions and motivations. But once one understands that a part of doing the right works is having the right intentions and motivations, the inference from salvation by works to Pelagianism fails—for it may well require grace to do have the right intentions and motivations.

The relative independence of the two questions should, I think, help to clarify our thinking on the issues.

I think the really interesting theological and philosophical questions here is to figure out (a) how faith and love are interconnected so that (3) and (4) are both true, and (b) see how there is a deeper form of (2) that ties together grace and our own efforts.


Enigman said...

I'd guess that faith = love, or at least that one is faithful because one loves. But then there is one's faith in the authoritative statements of one's religion, which is where the complications arise, I'd guess.

Similarly, works are important since were they not, the love would not be love but a dream of love. But an emphasis on works done, soon, and ideally seen to be effective, could come from the socio-political side of one's religion.

...which is to say I know little of such things but agree that those are good questions...

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Nice work, Alex. Or should I say, "nice faith." :-)

Lydia McGrew said...

Because of the Cartesian coordinate appearance of the chart, I'm having trouble figuring out which of the propositions are 3 and 4. Could you clarify?

Another interesting question floating around in all of this is this: What sort of possibility are we talking about when we ask whether we _could_ do this or that without grace? It doesn't seem like it can be logical possibility. And I have to admit that I've never had a very clear notion of a metaphysical possibility that isn't just logical possibility. Are we imagining some sort of "spiritual laws" rather like physical laws in the spiritual realm and asking whether it is "spiritually possible"--that is, possible given the operation of the spiritual laws that God has set up for the way souls work? What would that be like? And what is the status of any such laws? Can God make exceptions to them or interrupt their course, as he can interrupt the ordinary course of nature?

Alexander R Pruss said...

(3) = Salvation is based on faith.
(4) = Salvation is based on love or morally good actions.

The modality question is a good one. I have a term for this kind of modality: oeconomic necessity (that post really doesn't say much about it, but it presents the concept).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here is an excellent comment I got by email, posted with permission of Heath White, its author.

Anyway, here’s my (more or less Protestant) reaction. Two points:

1. Consider (4), the position that salvation is based on love or good actions. Fold in as many intentions and motivations as you like. It seems an empirical fact that nobody, or practically nobody, is going to attain any sort of perfection in this realm, at least in this life. Thresholds for salvation short of perfection are arbitrary and theologically unmotivated. Many—at least, more than next to none—will be saved. So salvation cannot be based solely on love or good actions.

One might suggest that, while perfection is not attained in this life, it will be attained in purgatory. But (a) how is the cut made between those who go to purgatory, and those who go to hell? This is just the same problem over again. (b) It’s unlikely that the reason people aren’t morally perfect in this life is that they haven’t had enough time.

N.B. This is not an argument against purgatory per se, just against one role for it.

2. There’s an ambiguity in the notion of “based on” as in “salvation is based on [faith / love]”. In particular, there are two ways one could view salvation as “based on” faith. (a) You could view faith as some kind of psychological state for which God rewards you. Consequently, if you lack it, you need to try and gin it up somehow. In the theological world I come from, this is widely recognized as tempting but fallacious. A typical example: a woman’s child is sick, there has been prayer for healing but no results, and the poor mother is accused of lacking faith; the idea being, God rewards faith, or if you have faith you get what you ask for. This is wrong. It is approximately your upper-left corner. (b) Faith is trust, reliance. We are saved not as a reward for anything at all—it is pure mercy. But faith is the acceptance of the offer. Frequent analogies are cashing a check you’ve been given, or receiving a gift, or accepting a rescue effort in time of disaster. You do not receive the check / gift / rescue offer “based on” anything but need; however your acceptance of it means you get money / gift / rescued. And the theologically sophisticated, especially of the more Reformed persuasion, will recognize that your faith, construed as trust and reliance, is also a gift. This is approximately your upper-right corner. But you could believe, also, that we have a non-gifted power of acceptance/rejection; in this case salvation requires faith, faith does not require grace, but it doesn’t follow that salvation is based on faith, in the sense of faith meriting salvation. This would be a more Arminian view, I think.

In my view, the crux of the Protestant-Catholic disagreement here is over the relation between the relevant human trait and salvation. It’s very hard for a Protestant to see how (4) could be true without this relation being one of earning or deserving or meriting one’s salvation. (I have seen various attempts by Catholic apologists to argue that “merit”, both verb and noun, does not mean in Catholic theology what it means in contemporary English. I have never really been persuaded. Maybe you can do a post on that sometime.)

Now add that to the Protestant gloss on “grace”, which in this context is something like “unmerited favor” (rather than, say, “infused power”) and you have the connection, in the Protestant (and ordinary lay Catholic?) mind between (1) and (4).

Conversely, as I pointed out, there is a reading of (3) which is compatible with (1), but that is not what (good) Protestants think. Rather, if you think of “faith” as “trust in powers beyond your own” then “salvation through [not “by”] faith” is going to require (2), i.e. the favor of the exercise of those powers which are by definition not powers you can control, manipulate, or oblige.

My own thought on this topic is that we need to focus on the notion of “salvation.” If salvation is just not going to hell, or enjoying God’s presence, or having a good life for eternity, then it is hard to see anything but a contingent relationship of desert between good actions and salvation, and it is easy to think that faith-as-trust fits better with the gospel, that grace is unmerited favor, and that purgatory is an unnecessary epicycle. On the other hand, if “salvation” is participating in the divine nature, attaining the fullness of the stature of Christ, restoring the image of God in man, becoming like God, then there is a logical, constitutive connection between love or good action, and salvation. One can also see how grace must be something like infused power, and why purgatory might have a point. But it also is not a case of good deeds earning one’s salvation either, and faith still has a vital place.



Kevin Timpe said...

Very interesting post. One minor correction that, I should admit, is something of a pet-peeve. You write: "Pelagius thought it would be really hard to be saved without grace, but it could in principle be done."

Strictly speaking, this description is false. Pelagius consistently maintained that the giving of human nature is itself a grace; thus, even on his account, grace is required for an individual to will the good. This grace is sometimes referred to as ‘enabling grace’ or ‘the grace of creation’. Augustine understands Pelagius’ view of grace as simply the natural human capacity of free will and knowledge of the law. Pelagius thought that each individual was born as free as Adam was before the Fall, and thus is able to choose the good through his/her own will. Thus, on his view, humans are able to cause their coming to faith in virtue of the grace of creation. In contrast, Augustine argued that the grace of creation is not sufficient for an individual to will the good. What is at issue, then, is whether another grace—sometimes called ‘cooperative grace’ or what Augustine calls ‘a unique grace’—is also required for a fallen human to will the good. Augustine vehemently insists that it is, and resolutely defends the claim that apart from a unique grace no agent is able to will the good (including the good of salvation).

Lydia McGrew said...

I can see how to connect the notion of economic necessity as God's covenants or promises to _positive_ necessities, but I have more problems connecting it to impossibilities. It's hard to see what divine covenants have to do with saying that it's _impossible_ that a person should love God without grace. It can't be something silly like, "God promises to stop anyone from loving him who has not received grace."

It almost looks like we need an expanded notion of economic necessity according to which fallen humans have such-and-such capacities, and it is impossible for them to have saving faith in the same sense that it is impossible for a machine constructed in a certain way to lift more than X pounds. The trouble with that is the old freedom and responsibility one: How can God send someone to hell for something he can't help?

Perhaps I'm a Pelagian after all: It's impossible for anyone to be saved on his own in the same sense that it's impossible for all the molecules in a broken egg to come back together. Not logically impossible but only "impossible" (quote, unquote) according to some spiritual analogue of the second law of thermodynamics.

Enigman said...

I'd guess it all depends upon the specifics of what we'd be being saved from. If, from our own bad propensities, which we ourselves chose freely (whence it's not God's fault that we have them) then there must be some input from us. Grace could not do all the work (but grace must always do some work, as we are creatures). (Maybe not, of course.)

Rob Grano said...

"It’s very hard for a Protestant to see how (4) could be true without this relation being one of earning or deserving or meriting one’s salvation."

Some guidance here might be provided by the Orthodox. We believe that while good works are necessary for salvation, it is only grace that enables us to to them. And we can't claim any good in us in responding to God's grace, because the ability to respond to grace in fact comes from grace. Hence, there is no recourse to either boasting or discussion of "merit" in any sense. In fact, I've heard several Orthodox theologians, Bishop Kallistos Ware, Fr. Tom Hopko, and Fr. Patrick Reardon among them, say that the idea of merit is completely foreign to Orthodox soteriology.

For the Eastern point of view, the folks to read here are St. John Cassian and St. Vincent of Lerins. Both men vehemently rejected Pelagianism, but felt that St. Augustine went too far in the other direction, as to deny the value of human effort altogether. One of the best discussions of the whole Pelagian and semi-Pelagian controversy is in Jaroslav Pelikan's history of Christian doctrine. I can't remember if it's in vol. 1 or 2.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Instead of thinking of the human state as something to be rewarded for, one can think of it more generically as the human state that is a precondition for salvation. What sort of precondition? Well, there are multiple stories. It could be a matter of merit. It could be a state constitutive of acceptance of divine love. It could be a state positively responsive to divine love. Etc.

I think a version of the perfection problem occurs just as much on the faith side as on the love/works side. We are told some pretty impressive things about what we could do if we had faith the size of a mustard seed. This suggests that our faith falls far short of the appropriate standard. Or, at least, the point I want to make is that just as much as we have scriptural reason to think our love and works fall short, we have scriptural reason to think our faith falls short.

And so we get the same problem of a non-arbitrary cutoff for faith as for love/works. Trust and reliance seem to come in degrees (we could probably easily come up with several dimensions along which one can measure this). Acceptance of divine salvation, whether it be produced in us by grace or by our own effort, seems to come in degrees: "Maybe", "If it doesn't cost too much", "I guess so", "Yes", "Certainly", etc.

Presumably, one also has the problem of a cut-off for the doctrinal content of faith. Saving faith is, specifically, faith in Jesus. But under what description? If I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a great moral teacher whose example can help me overcome my selfishness, is that enough? Probably not (though note that the content of this belief is true).

Now, as soon as one admits that one of these cut-off problems can have a non-arbitrary solution, I think it is not implausible that the others do, as well.

For instance, on the love/works side, the question comes down to the venial/mortal sin distinction (perhaps scripturally grounded in the remark in 1 John that not all sin is unto death).

How to make that distinction? Well, one might make it a distinction based on the state of soul resulting from the sin: "Mortal sin is that which deprives the soul of spiritual life. What this life consists in may be gathered from two things, by comparing it with natural life. For the body lives naturally through being united to the soul which is the principle of its life: and the body, quickened by the soul, is moved of itself: whereas a dead body either remains without movement, or is moved only by an extrinsic cause. So too, the human will is not only alive when, by its right intention, it is united to its last end,--which union is its object and, as it were, its form,--but also is moved by an intrinsic principle to do what is right--when by love man adheres to God and his neighbour. But without the intention of the last end and without love, the soul is dead, as it were: since it is not moved of itself to do what is right, but either leaves off so doing altogether, or is only instigated to do so by some extrinsic principle, namely the fear of punishment. Therefore all sins that are opposed to the intention of the last end, and to love, are mortal. On the other hand, if a man, without detriment to these, fails in a particular right order of the reason, it will not be a mortal, but a venial sin." (Summa Contra Gentiles, 3b.139).

So Aquinas is making the claim here that the person in a state of mortal sin is no longer being moved by love of God. This is an operational definition of the state, and it is similar to an operational definition one could make of lack of faith. We can probably criticize it, but similarly we can probably criticize just about any definition we might make of faith or lack of faith.

I think the scriptural grounds for a requirement of perfection are weak. Yes, we have that remark of James (2:10) about how one who sins in one respect becomes guilty in respect of the law as a whole. But that falls short of a proof of the doctrine. James argues for this in terms of two clear cases of mortal sin: "if you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law" (2:11). I think it is reasonable to see the sin of 2:10 as "mortal sin", i.e., as a turning away from the principle the law is based on, namely God. If we read it this way, then it is clear why the passage is true. If the action is a turning away from the principle the law is based on, then it is a rejection of the whole law.

Moreover, it looks to me that James is actually using the scary warning in 2:10 in order to get his listeners to change their behavior. But that doesn't make much sense on a reading on which we are all guilty of sin in the sense of 2:10 all the time, but by faith we can be saved despite the sin. For, then, if we have faith, the scary warning is irrelevant to us, and if we don't have faith, we're going to be damned anyway.

Let me also add a note from Christian tradition. The view that a moment's freely chosen distraction during worship or the slightest selfish lie (I think all lies are sins, but I added "selfish" just in case you disagree) is sufficient for damnation was not, as far as I can tell, even within the range of views under discussion in the early Church.

Here is why. A major debate in the 2nd century Church was what was to be done with baptized Christians who have committed sins such as adultery or worshiping Caesar. There were two positions on this:

1. Those who have committed such serious sins after baptism are damned, with no more possibility of salvation.

2. Those who have committed such serious sins after baptism have hope if they repent and do the penance prescribed by the Church.

The second view won, and rightly so. But notice that if any significant segment of the Church believed that there was no distinction between sins, so that each sin was, in effect, a mortal sin, the debate would be a silly one. For then the adherents of the second view would simply say to the adherents of the first that by their standard just about all Christians are irretrievably damned. As far as I know, this argument was not made. And the fact that it was not made shows that the distinction between mortal and venial sin was well in place.

Jeremy Pierce said...

The first thing that occurred to me when looking at this scheme is that it doesn't include traditional Arminianism, which holds that salvation is determined by faith alone but that grace isn't the determiner of faith. Then I realized that that's just the top left quadrant (assuming we're taking grace to be a provision of something positive and not just an offer of something that can be taken without any special gift; Arminians call that offer grace, but it doesn't seem to be what you're calling grace).

To get the top right quadrant, you really do need Calvinism at least to the extent that God's grace is necessary first before faith occurs. Since Luther affirmed that, I do think it's fair to call it the traditional Protestant view. But I don't think it's the only Protestant view, and I do think it's exactly the view Augustine held (as well as Pascal, Malebranche, Arnauld, and other Jansenists). Of course, I think it's the Pauline view too, but I'm sure many here would disagree.

If you take the top right quadrant view the way Calvin and Edwards took it (and I'm on less sure ground to attribute this view to the others I named, so I won't claim as much) is that grace is sufficient for faith leading to salvation, not just necessary. (I believe this is the Augustinian, Lutherian, and Jansenist view, but I'm not 100% sure of that.) On this view, you get an easy response to the vagueness problem. If faith is only saving if God initiates it by grace in order to save, and if whenever God does so the person will be saved, then there is no vagueness about the determiner of salvation.

So I think the problem of vagueness of what counts as sufficient for salvation appears in the other three quadrants but not the top right one.

william said...

I think Jeremy's observation is correct. It seems clear that both Luther and Calvin understood themselves to be resolving what they took to be the existing vagueness of Catholic soteriology. Surely important in this context is both Luther's and Calvin's insistence that the believer can be certain of his or her own salvation, solely by his or her privileged access to his or her faith in the promise of Christ. This type of surety is denied by Aquinas--who admits it only as a case of special revelation. And it does seem as if, on the Catholic view, one can never really be sure--for just the reasons that Jeremy points out.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Catholicism is compatible with a limited assurance of salvation--one can know that were one to die now, one would (eventually) be saved. One knows this, fallibly, by knowing one has not committed any mortal sins since receiving baptism or receiving sacramental forgiveness. But we think that while life lasts it is always possible to reject Christ later, barring private revelation to the contrary.

Heath White said...


Here’s a different line of approach. The notion that love, or more generally a perfected will, is a necessary condition of (completed) salvation is okay, since it’s partly constitutive of (completed) salvation. Faith or lack of it, then, is something of a meta-attitude; it’s an attitude toward one’s presently imperfect attitudes and their consequences. The attitude is one of trusting that, since you are incapable of fixing these flaws yourself, God will ultimately fix them; that whatever your present flaws, you’ll be taken care of in the long run.

Now, regardless of whether one thinks the meta-attitude of faith requires grace, the content of this faith (=trust) is that the rest of one’s character will be the recipient of grace. Having this attitude provides a great deal of hope and confidence in the future, and removes a lot of anxiety and worry. Imagine, then, that Martin believes 3; he has hope and confidence without anxiety and worry.

Now for contrast, consider someone who subscribes to 1+4, call that person Pelagius. Pelagius is sweating it, always worried about whether his will is on the right track. Now consider someone who subscribes to 2+4, and call that person Cathy. What, at the level of practical attitudes, is the psychological difference between Pelagius and Cathy? How will they approach life differently? I know what Martin has over Pelagius; I’m much less sure about Cathy.

OK, second issue. When I suggested that only perfection in good deeds could justify salvation, I had in mind substitutionary atonement theology, i.e. that the death of Jesus was necessary to remove all sin. I realize that Catholic theology is not as committed to substitutionary views of atonement as Protestant theology—on some days I think this is a good thing—so maybe that is not a telling argument in this context. And maybe there are substitution views that don’t need the perfection clause.

Finally, I wonder what your reaction is to the following quote. It’s from Tim Keller’s recent The Reason for God, p. 19, in the context of arguing that Christianity doesn’t underwrite feelings of moral superiority for Christians:

“Christianity … leads [its members] to expect that many will live lives morally superior to their own. Most people in our culture believe that, if there is a God, we can relate to him and go to heaven through leading a good life… Christianity teaches the very opposite. In the Christian understanding, Jesus does not tell us how to live so we can merit salvation. Rather he comes to forgive and save us through his life and death in our place. God’s grace does not come to people who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failure to perform and who acknowledge their need for a Savior.”

A lot of Protestant emphasis on “faith” is in the context of saying things like this, as opposed to what “most people in our culture believe.” Is it basically accurate, or not?

Alexander R Pruss said...


A. In 3 and 4, I was not just thinking of the question whether faith or love are necessary conditions for salvation, but whether they are necessary conditions on which salvation, in some sense, is based. When someone talks of being saved by faith, she does not just mean that faith is a necessary condition of her salvation (theoretically, she need not even mean that at all), but she means that the faith plays some explanatory role in her salvation. That is surely the right way to understand the "by".

B. I think the question of anxiety is separate from the two questions I ask. Anxiety is compatible with each of the four options I give. You can think salvation is based on your works, and think the works are done by your effort, and worry if you're going to persevere. You can think salvation is based on your faith, and think the faith is solely a gift of grace, and worry whether what you have is really faith or a mental state that simply feels like faith (committing serious sins is likely to increase this anxiety, since faith is supposed to bear fruit, even if the fruit is not explanatory of salvation). It's easy to see how you can have anxiety on each of the other four corners.

Is lack of anxiety compatible with each of the four options? I think so. For one can avoid anxiety not by having certainty, but by having hope, and depending on God. In fact, I am a bit worried that by assimilating hope to assurance, you are in effect conflating hope with faith. Faith is certain. But hope need not be certain--it, rather, hopes.

Moreover, compatible with each of the four options is the idea that when a Christian who will be saved accepts the yoke of Jesus there is always or typically an introspectible mental state, put there by God, which gives one certain assurance that one will be saved. On the views that lay a greater emphasis on free will, this state will be a prophetic state--a divine voice, as it were, predicting one's own future actions. I reject this view, on the grounds of Trent and because it just does not seem very plausible, but the view is compatible with each of the four options.

So each of the four options in my table is comaptible with: (a) complete anxiety and worry, (b) a state of hope that is not assurance, as well as with (c) assurance of salvation.

C. Your comments indicate one significant difference between Catholics and some Protestants in respect of the question of Pelagianism. For us, what is at issue is ensuring that one can give a theological story on which all the credit is God's but that nonetheless human free will is not negated. This is challenging, of course. The issue, then is metaphysical (the causality of salvation) and devotional (how to praise God for his saving us even though we had a moment of freedom). On the other hand, for some Protestants, the issue is more existential--it is an issue of removing anxiety and worry. This is a new issue around the time of the Reformation, as far as I can tell. I don't think it had much at all to do with Augustine's motivations in opposing Pelagius, for instance, though I may need to take this back.

D. I think some worry and anxiety is an appropriate part of the Christian life. We need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Hope is compatible with this fear and trembling, just as courage is compatible with fear. But just as courage is not the certainty of success, so, too, hope is not the certainty of success.

But hope involves a certain tossing of the worry back onto God. I have found it comforting to reflect that when I am worried about some person I love, well, God cares about this person much more than I do. So in some sense, I don't need to worry--God is there, and I entrust the person to him. I can, I guess, do the same thing in regard to myself. God loves me much more than I love myself, and he cares about my salvation much more than I care about it. So why should I worry about my salvation all that much? I can entrust it to God. Yes, there is the possibility that at some point I will cease to trust, that I will worship Odin or write a pornographic novel, and that I reject the forgiveness that God would offer me. But in some sense, that is more God's worry than mine, for he loves me more than I love myself, so I can simply hope in the omnipotent one.

E. It seems quite possible to have substitutionary views on which not every sin requires an infinite penalty (this is my preference). It is also possible to have a view on which every sin requires an infinite penalty, but now that the infinite sacrifice has been offered by Christ, things are different. There are some sins committing which is tantamount to a full rejection of Christ's loving forgiveness, and committing these sins and not repenting of it ensures that one will go to hell. And there are some sins committing which is not tantamount to a full rejection of Christ's loving forgiveness.

F. In regard to the Keller quote, I want to say what Catholics like to say: "Both/and." Christ gives us a message of forgiveness, and the occurrence of this forgiveness is a real change in those who are forgiven (rather than a Cambridge change). This real change consists in something like the instilling of charity. In other words, the difference between Christ and other moral teachers is not that Christ did not tell us what to do to attain salvation. It seems very clear that much of his preaching was precisely on that topic--the beatitudes, for instance, or the discourse about the sheep and the goats. Rather, Christ not only told us what to do to attain salvation, but he actually made it possible for us to do it, taking our hearts of stone and replacing them with hearts of flesh.

Let me say something unecumenical. The reading of Jesus' public ministry as a series of sermons about the criteria for salvation that set a moral standard that nobody was going to meet and that his disciples were not in the end going to be held to seems one of the least exegetical moves I've ever heard. (I am not saying this is a move you make.)

Heath White said...


Re A. I’ll agree that we should talk about states which are explanatory of one’s salvation. The question, I guess, is whether these need be efficient causes, or if formal or final causes are worth talking about too. Maybe the way to put the difference is that Catholics want to say that charity is an efficient cause of salvation and Protestants do not. They are happy to say it is evidence of salvation.

Re B. Maybe here is a more succinct way to get at what I was trying to get at. “Martin” and “Pelagius” differ in whether they think grace is necessary for salvation. This difference of belief makes a difference in their lives. Now “Cathy” and “Pelagius” have this same difference of belief, but I do not know if this difference of belief makes a difference in their lives. (I really don’t know; I’m asking.) If it did not—if the belief that grace was necessary had no “cash value” for Cathy—then I think this would be disturbing.

Re C. I think all Protestants would agree, at a minimum, that the story about salvation should preserve (i) God’s credit for saving, and (ii) human responsibility for sin. So on that there is no real difference, I don’t think. You are right that many Protestants have an existential dimension to their views of salvation, and Luther is a prime example.* But I also think Augustine had something like this in mind.

As I understand the dispute (mostly from Peter Brown), Pelagius was a strict monk and also heir to the tradition of Hellenistic philosophy, which required study, contemplation, and spiritual discipline. His views of salvation would have made it possible only for an elite. Augustine wished to defend the possibility of salvation for Joe Sixpack in his cathedral—the idea that grace is necessary is, if you like, a democratic idea. So Augustine might not have been anxious for himself, but he was rightly concerned for the status of the ordinary people of Hippo Regius.

I also think that this democratic impulse can be found in Luther and in Paul, though in significantly different contexts. Each takes it that salvation is significantly freer and more available than it was being made out to be by their respective adversaries.

Re D. I like your second paragraph here very much.

Re E. “There are some sins committing which is tantamount to a full rejection of Christ's loving forgiveness”. I think most Protestants would disagree here; the only such sin is, literally, rejecting Christ’s forgiveness. At least, they would be very slow to think there was some other act-type which non-trivially entailed rejecting Christ.

Re F. I agree with your unecumenical point.

*A hypothesis of mine is that the battle against anxiety flourishes in a culture which emphasizes guilt; that late medieval Christendom was such a society; and that wrapped up in there was a view of God, and particularly Christ, as a rather stern judge. But people are always going to look for figures of mercy and tenderness in their images of the divine, and in late medieval Christendom Mary filled this bill. For Protestants, Jesus fills this role, and so the existential need for Marian devotion is absent. Also, I think we no longer live in a guilt-conscious culture, which means that many traditional Protestant presentations of the gospel, which emphasize freedom from now-non-existent anxiety over sin, now fall on deaf ears.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I am not sure the difference between doctrines here has to come through in action, at least not in overt way. I think the difference between the columns in the table is devotionally important. If the devotional life counts as action, then the difference counts. Moreover, there is a creaturely humility that is nourished by the second column--those who affirm the need for grace. (That does not mean that whose beliefs are in the first column are without humility. For they may well think that although in principle salvation is possible without grace, their own salvation comes from grace. This is a personal rather than creaturely humility.)

At the same time, I don't think there need to be large differences in action where there are important doctrinal differences. Need being a Chalcedonian rather than a monophysite make for any obvious difference in action? Yet the difference is of great importance.

At some level, Christians whose beliefs fit in all four cells will behave similarly. They will each avoid sin. Their reasons may, but need not, be different. Thus, all can coherently avoid sin out of love for God. But only those in the second row can coherently avoid sin out of fear of damnation.

Each is apt to have some anxiety over faith as well as over works, since each is apt to accept that faith is a necessary condition for salvation and that works are a necessary condition for salvation as well. The difference is that those in the first row take the works to be only evidential, while those in the second row may take the faith to be only evidential (or they may think that grace causes faith, faith causes works, and the works cause salvation). But each can worry.

I do think that an important part of preaching the Gospel is awakening guilt. I think we agree on this.