From Augustine to the Reformation
It would be a rare thing indeed for a man as prolific with his pen as Augustine was to live a long and eventful life without ever modifying his theology. Inasmuch as he had written down his thoughts in both the earlier and later stages of development, it was inevitable that there should be some divergence of opinion in what he wrote. The intensity of his experience was reflected in the depth of his conviction at each stage of his spiritual progression, so that he warned at one time to recognize nothing but the crucial importance of the Church as an institution for the mediation of God's grace to man and for the preservation of truth. Later, the same intensity underlies all that he writes about the appalling depravity of human nature. Augustine was a man of deep feeling.
It thus came about that two diametrically opposed streams of theology stemmed from one man's thoughts, the Roman Catholic and the Reformed theologians both drawing the inspiration for their particular theologies very largely from the writings of this one profound Christian scholar and philosopher: the Roman Catholics from his earlier writings, the Reformers from his later ones. In the confrontation which finally occurred between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church and which came to a head in the Council of Trent (1545-1563), both parties appealed for their authority to the same great "Father" of the Church, Augustine.
Augustine had owed his conversion to the church in Rome and as a consequence, not unnaturally, came very early to believe that the Church of Rome was the sole vehicle of God's grace. But as his Christian understanding matured, his interest was turned from the vehicle of God's grace to the object of it and he became increasingly convinced that spiritually man was utterly impotent. In his own struggle to rise above the rebellious nature that was part and parcel of his greatness as an original thinker, Augustine discovered the Total Depravity of his own heart, and his writing was occupied increasingly with the exploration of this fact. Thus his earlier writings placed more emphasis upon the Church as God's vehicle of blessing and his later ones upon sinful man as the object of God's grace. These two emphases were later to lead on the one hand to the claim of the Church of Rome that it is the sole vehicle of man's salvation on earth, and on the other hand to the commitment by the Reformers to the position that man is totally depraved. The first led to the arrogant claims of exclusiveness as God's agent of salvation which were to characterize the Roman Catholic Church, and the second led to the tremendous emphasis upon the sovereignty of God which was to characterize the great Confessions of the Reformers.
But it was to be centuries before this confrontation would come to such a head as to split Christendom into two opposing camps on a scale which was to become worldwide. Meanwhile from Augustine to the Reformation one has the impression that true faith was virtually eclipsed, and that centuries of almost complete spiritual darkness intervened. Here and there a few kept the faith in almost total isolation but no substantial body of believers existed in Europe with sufficient status to seriously challenge the Church of Rome. At least this is the impression one is apt to gain. Of course, it was not entirely so. It was rather that giants stood at each end of this bleak corridor of time who shone so brightly that they seemed by their very brilliance to darken the road between, even as a searchlight casts deeper shadows by its power to concentrate its beam. William Cunningham in his Historical Theology remarked in this connection:
The substance of the matter is this: the apostolic fathers (prior to Augustine) generally use the language of Scripture upon these subjects, but they scarcely make any statements which afford us materials for deciding in what precise sense they understood them. They leave the matter very much where Scripture leaves it, and where, but for the rise of errors needing to be contradicted and opposed, it might still have been left. He who sees Augustinian or Calvinistic doctrines clearly and explicitly taught in the Bible, will have no difficulty in seeing also plain traces of them at least in the works of the apostolic fathers; and he who can pervert the statements of Scripture into an anti-Calvinistic sense, may, by the same process, and with equal ease, distort the apostolic fathers. (1)And Cunningham said with keen insight, apropos of the conflict which was to come at the time of the Reformation:
Calvinists and anti-Calvinists have both appealed to the early Church in support of their respective opinions, although we believe it cannot be made out that the fathers of the first three centuries gave any very distinct deliverance concerning them. The important topics did not become subjects of controversial discussion during that period; and it holds almost universally in the history of the Church. that until a doctrine has been fully discussed in a controversial way by men of talent and learning taking opposite sides, men's opinions regarding it are generally obscure and indefinite, and their language vague and confused, if not contradictory. (2)These long years of apparent barrenness were not without their flashes of light and many great figures emerged to keep alive a testimony to the truth. What was lacking was not persecution but open controversy between contestants who had power enough to force their opponent to meet them on a more or less equal footing. The persecuted "minorities" of these intervening centuries were not silent or ineffective, but they were never in a position to force the issues into the open as Luther did, and Calvin, and the Reformers generally.
It was this open confrontation along a wide front with the backing of powerful men with strong convictions, and wealth and independence, that seems to have made the difference. For it allowed the contestants to hone their terminology and crystallize the issues in an entirely new way, and it gave men "handles" with which to wield the weapons of truth they had now seized so firmly and begun to use with such effectiveness. As a consequence, the Council of Trent was virtually forced upon the Roman Catholic Church and it marked the end of the reformation of that Church for several centuries, even as it marked the beginning of the revolution among Protestants.
And so the lines of divergence between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism really have their roots in this one man, Augustine, * although the process of divergence was not to be made manifest fully until the convergence of two circumstances which were largely responsible for the Reformation. The first was an almost total breakdown of Christian morality in the Roman Catholic Church, and the second was the appearance of a new spirit of free inquiry and independence in every area of human endeavor, including the exploration of the true meaning of the Gospel.
* It was Pope Gregory (I) the Great (540 604) who took certain aspects of Augustine's theology and made them explicit as a foundation for the exclusiveness of the Church of Rome. Augustine's theology thus became the religion of the Middle Ages and underwent but little further development. (See "Gregory I", in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, ed. S. M. Jackson (Grand Rapids: Baker. 19691).Pelagius had come to Rome at a crucial moment, for there stood to oppose him one man, Augustine, who could best profit by the challenge to the true Gospel which was presented by his humanism. There thus were opposed what are really the only two wholly consistent positions with respect to man's salvation. Either man is his own savior, or God is his savior. There is really no middle ground that is logically defensible. If man plays any crucial part whatever, he must in the end have the final say. If this is the case, every man in heaven will have reason to boast, since it will have been by his own will that he has gained admission. But it was pride that caused Satan's fall (Isa. 14:12, 13) and Satan who caused man's; so pride is probably at the root of all man's sin. And a heavenly community assembled on such a basis as to justify pride could scarcely be a heaven. The issue is clear. The salvation of man must be all of God, or heaven is worthless and we have hope only in this world--a bleak prospect indeed!
It might be thought that there could be many alternatives, each tending more or less to one or the other extreme and all of them offering equally reasonable paths to salvation. But logical analysis shows that these alternatives do not form a succession of options approaching more and more nearly to the truth until they effectively merge in a continuous series from salvation achieved by man alone to salvation achieved by God alone. They do not have this character at all. Every alternative which attributes to man any part whatever in securing his own salvation ultimately falls within a single category which must be titled under the general heading, "Man is his own savior." And the other alternative, that which makes God the sole and absolute savior of man's soul, stands entirely by itself as the only representative of the other category. There are but two categories.
Inevitably, when man plays any role whatever he plays the crucial role, for fulfillment ultimately hinges entirely upon himself. There can never be an equal partnership, for in such a cooperative process man, and not God, must always have the last say. Man either does or does not perform his part: if he does, he is saved; if he does not, he is lost. That is the end of the matter. The part which God plays is secondary in this scheme of things.
The truth is that every theological system that allots to man some responsibility in the saving of his own soul inevitably ends up by making man his own savior. And hereby we see an illustration of the principle that error can assume a thousand forms but the truth has only one, even as a line can be crooked in a million ways but straight in only one. So salvation as a cooperative exercise can be presented in many different forms, but there is only one way that is the true way and it is not cooperative at all.
Now, it would be natural, were there various degrees of self-help genuinely open to man, to conclude that some men stand a better chance of helping themselves than do others. And were this true, there would be every reason to suppose that God, whose foresight is perfect, would take note of such differences in potential and would elect to salvation those whom He knows would be most likely to respond to his offer of help--if that kind of help is really the true nature of saving grace. But saving grace is not an offer of help. Saving grace is unmerited favour--favour (not rewarded), and unmerited because it is not contingent in any way on foreseen human response.
While it is clear, accordingly, from many intimations in Scripture that Election to salvation is not based on foreseen worthiness or any kind of merit resident in the individual but is based solely on God's good pleasure, it is also clear that there is another kind of election which is not to salvation but to the performance of specific tasks which require special gifts, special endowments. And such endowments are themselves the result of God's providential oversight of the distribution of genetic materials, and the ordering of circumstance. And both of these factors, being of his arranging, are assuredly foreknown to Him who thus obtains them. Such a form of election to service clearly applies to the saved and unsaved alike. Thus we have Judas among the elect (John 6:70, 71), but clearly not to salvation; and certain angels (1 Tim. 5:21) who also were not elected to salvation for we know that they never fell. In both instances election must be to a role to be played in the working out of God's purposes. Moreover, the Lord Jesus Himself was elect (1 Peter 2:6), but certainly not to salvation.
But the Election which is unto salvation and is related to the destiny of fallen man is a biblical principle which has been admitted by the great theologians of the Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. In the latter case it is admitted equally by the Calvinist and Arminian branches of the Protestant community. But the problem is, On what is this Election based? On divine foreknowledge of the response of the individual?
It does not seem that the Bible as a whole supports any such view. Only one passage of Scripture can be appealed to in this regard--Romans 8:29: "For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son." But a closer examination of this passage indicates that the word rendered "foreknow" in this instance does not have the simple meaning of foreknowing that we commonly ascribe to it in English (see pp. 134ff.).
The problem is that an Election to salvation based on nothing that can be to the credit of the individual seems wholly arbitrary and the non-elect appear to be appointed to reprobation by a process that is equally arbitrary--and therefore inherently unjust. For if God has predestinated some to be saved for no apparent reason, has He not automatically condemned the rest to be lost for no apparent reason? But the proposition is a non sequitur. If all men are sinners to begin with (an assumption few will dispute), then all men are already under judgment. Men are not placed under judgment simply because they are not elected to salvation. Predestination to judgment is conditioned by the fact that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23) and all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). We live in a universe that is governed not only by natural law but by spiritual law also. These spiritual laws are as absolute in their operation, barring miracle, as the material laws are--barring miracle. The stone is destined to fall to the earth if it is not held up; the soul that sins is destined to judgment if it is not redeemed.
Election to salvation is a reflection of the will of the Creator who determined to perform a miracle in order to reverse the spiritual law which operates everywhere in the universe. But the performance of the miracle of redemption is not the cause of the fate of the unredeemed. It is a sovereign act which God has every right to perform when and where He will. He does not need to act to bring the rest to judgment--they are already under condemnation by their own choice.
But it has never appealed to the natural man to be warned that he is under judgment and cannot redeem himself, nor improve his standing in the sight of God by his own good behaviour. Pelagius was realistic enough to admit that the improvement of human nature was not likely, but he did see it as possible, as a goal to strive for by education, cultural conditioning, and good breeding. The virtue of Jesus Christ, as he saw it, was not in some penal aspect of his sacrifice but in the example He set by it and in the principles of living which were part and parcel of his teaching. To teach men that no amount of effort on their part would avail to improve their standing was, he felt, a counsel of despair. Unlike Luther he did not view such despair as being "near to grace." Besides, such a proposition clearly undermined any incentive to holiness even in the Christian. Man cannot be blamed for failure if his constitution is such that failure is inevitable. Why then should he strive to be good? And Pelagius had many followers. As we have seen, not a few of the Church Fathers were already teaching that man must do his best to merit the grace of God.
Pelagius regarded it as a fatal mistake to suppose that the nature of man could be so corrupt that his will is powerless to obey God's commands. For it seemed to him essential to the very notion of morality that in all sin there is a personal assent, and that without this assent there could be no guilt. He was therefore driven to conclude that in a newborn child there could not possibly be either guilt or sin, since there is no power of assent. What makes the innocent child to become guilty is actual sin, inspired by example. (3) If such a child could be brought up to follow the supreme moral example of Christ, he could inherit eternal life. And Pelagius was convinced that such a thing would happen if the circumstances were favourable enough. We should therefore seek to create those favourable circumstances.
Granted that there is no root of corruption inherited from Adam, the newborn child could be viewed indeed as a clean sheet, with all the potential of maintaining that purity provided that the circumstances are such as to eliminate bad example. If, on the other hand, the newborn begins life already corrupted by sinful nature, the situation is very different. The heart of the problem was then, as it is now, to know precisely what it is that has been inherited. Is it some sort of disease that inevitably and fatally corrupts the spirit in due course, or is it a spiritual corruption to which is added imputed guilt? And can infant baptism wash away either the corruption, or the guilt?
Pelagius was convinced that the spirit of the child is uncorrupted to begin with, and even after committing actual sins and thereby becoming guilty the individual still retains some of the goodness with which God had endowed man in Eden. When Pelagius spoke of grace this is what he meant, this remnant capacity for goodness. (4) His use of this term, to which he applied his own personal meaning, at first confused his contemporaries who assumed his orthodoxy. They apparently supposed he meant by grace what they meant, but gradually it became clear that he was far from orthodox.
In time, due to Augustine's relentless pursuit, Pelagius was declared a heretic and his Christianized humanism was temporarily nipped in the bud. Though his followers in England (whence he had originally come) carried on his teaching, Pelagius himself seems to have withdrawn from the fray and disappeared from history, probably dying in Egypt.
Almost immediately after Augustine's death in 430 A.D., a reaction set in against his teaching regarding the spiritual depravity of man. If grace alone makes man acceptable in the sight of God, the call to a life of holiness by way of preparation to receive this grace has little practical importance. If Augustine was correct and man has no power to prepare himself, he therefore has no responsibility for doing so either. This seemed a clear invitation to spiritual indifference if not outright lawlessness.
One of Augustine's contemporaries was a man named John Cassian, an introvert with a great love for the contemplative life of the monastery and a yearning for holiness and purity. He was probably of Scythian stock, coming from somewhere near the Black Sea and uprooted by the turmoil of the period that witnessed the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 A.D.
Settling in southern France near Marseilles, he established a monastery. Many people in those turbulent days were attracted to the life of retreat. Here, convinced in his own soul of the fundamental truth of Augustine's assessment of human nature, and having supported him in his attacks against Pelagius, Cassian now devoted himself to the working out of Augustine's theology as a way of life. But as he observed the effects of the doctrine of free grace upon those who joined his community, he came to the conclusion that Augustine had gone too far.
Men (and women) came to him, desiring to live a life of holiness that they might make themselves worthy recipients of the grace of God and receive the free gift of his salvation. Cassian found it necessary to encourage them to persevere when the flesh and the world proved too much for them. But he soon faced a dilemma--if such a striving after holiness contributed nothing towards ensuring the grace of God unto salvation, then on what basis could he persuade them to continue the struggle? If Augustine was right, the incentive towards godliness was undermined. If such preparation of the soul was not at all necessary, then would not God extend his salvation equally to those who took advantage of their freedom and lived immoral lives and to those who struggled earnestly to prepare themselves?
Cassian did not at first suppose that good behaviour formed the basis of man's salvation, but reason suggested to him that it must surely predispose God to look with favour upon the earnest endeavor of the suppliant and, though it was still an act of pure grace, to be more ready in granting salvation to the prepared soul. But Augustine had insisted that the grace of God preceded any such personal fitness. Man was not called upon to seek to be holy in order that he might be the recipient of grace; he became the recipient of grace in order that he might be holy.
Cassian's theology was, of course, not the theology of revelation but of common sense. The kind of preparatory holiness which he was promoting came to be known as precedent grace. and in a very real sense it was a reflection of the natural grace which Pelagius believed remained to man even in his fallen state. In Cassian's view it did not contribute directly to the salvation of the suppliant but it predisposed God to look upon him with more favour. Cassian did not suppose that man could ever achieve that measure of holiness which would merit eternal life but he did believe that man contributed something by proving himself worthy of God's favour and grace. And he was convinced that unless this was true, the whole concept of monastic life and man's endeavor to seek after holiness would be without purpose. He was not Pelagian in his theology, but in a sense he became the founder of semi-Pelagianism. He was by nature strongly drawn to cloistered life at a time when cloistered life had a tremendous appeal to those who saw the impending collapse of Western civilization. And he saw this kind of life in jeopardy. As a result he made his fears widely known, even though he still considered himself a true disciple of Augustine in every respect.
One individual who learned of these new doubts about Augustinianism was a man named Prosper Tyro of Aquitaine (c. 390-463), about whom comparatively little is known save that he had been an ardent disciple of Augustine though he had never actually met him face to face. Prosper attempted to answer Cassian's criticisms but without apparent success. Accordingly, he wrote to Augustine and asked him to intervene. As a consequence Augustine wrote two treatises: the first was entitled On the Predestination of the Saints, and the second On the Gift of Perseverance. In the first, Augustine reaffirmed that Predestination is in no way based upon foreseen merit in the elect. All a man's strivings in his own strength to achieve holiness of life apart from the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit are in vain, and Augustine explained why this is so. In the second treatise Augustine showed that the Perseverance of the Saints, by which he meant (in modern terminology) the eternal security of the believer, is not dependent upon the good works of the individual believer which would result from his conversion, but entirely upon the constancy and unchangeableness of God's elective choice. Both these replies clearly downgraded the importance of good works or holiness of life in so far as these were regarded as contributing to a man's salvation. Good works were not relevant to salvation. They were, however, relevant to man's fellowship with God and his enjoyment of his Christian life. The reason for "being good" was not to the end of being saved but to the end of living a holy life pleasing to the heavenly Father. These two treatises were sent to Prosper and a coworker named Hilary, and although neither appears to have made any great contribution of their own, Prosper himself did become a leading representative of Augustinian theology after Augustine's death. Yet he departed from one facet of his master's teaching, which others have also found difficult: namely, that Christ died only for the elect. This doctrine was to be termed Limited Atonement by the Reformers who, like Augustine and Calvin, saw it not merely as a view logically consistent in the light of the sovereignty of grace but as the plain teaching of the New Testament.
Gradually Augustinian theology was emasculated by Roman Catholic theologians as a whole, who retained only his emphasis upon the Church of Rome as the sole vehicle of God's dealings with man and the sole channel of salvation. Through the succeeding centuries, semi-Pelagianism became the basic theology of Catholicism; less and less attention was paid to the spiritual impotence of fallen man while more and more was paid to the remnant grace and inherent goodness of man's religious impulses. Man could not be saved apart from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ but that sacrifice alone was not sufficient in itself. It was necessary that man not only accept the Lord's sacrifice but that he strive sincerely after holiness in order to balance the debit account of his own sinful ways. Neither man alone nor Christ alone could save him. Human grace and divine grace must be wedded. Penitence and penance made up for what was lacking in human grace, and God for Christ's sake would then forgive what remained of offense after man had done his best. Baptism, as a rite with magic that worked whether performed by believer or unbeliever, restored the capacity of a person for salvation; good works and faith in Christ's redemption did the rest.
Here and there individuals appeared on the scene who recaptured something of the theology of Augustine in its wholeness, but some of these overemphasized one aspect of this theology and some another, and the wholeness was distorted into a new error. One of these was Gottschalk of Orbais (c. 805-869), who argued that if God had predestinated some men to salvation, He must necessarily have predestinated the remainder to reprobation. "There is a twofold predestination," he said, "of the elect to blessedness, and of the reprobate to death." Augustine had come to this conclusion also, as Calvin was later to do.
But like Calvin, Gottschalk was not altogether convinced that this was a logical corollary. It is not essential that the non-elect be driven to reprobation. They may merely be allowed to have their own way, being passed by and permitted to remain in the way they had freely chosen for themselves. But Gottschalk was so insistent that he came very near to making God the author of sin.
This unhappy man whose life was so plagued by misfortune and injustice that he was attracted by the works of Augustine, who had also experienced much misery in life, had been placed as a child in a Franciscan monastery at Orbais against his will. Subsequently in 829 at the age of twenty-four he was officially released from his vows on the ground that he had been coerced as a minor. Unfortunately his abbot Rabanus Maurus refused to let him go, arguing that all such vows were irrevocable. As a means of escape from his wretched predicament, Gottschalk immersed himself in the study of the works of Augustine.
Looking deeply into his own soul he saw in himself what Augustine had seen. And he came to realize that both he and the Church were carrying semi-Pelagian hearts under a cloak of pretended Augustinian orthodoxy. But the issue which really captured his imagination above all was the fact of Election, and in due time he became trapped in the logic of Double Predestination. Whether he wholly believed it or was merely writing in the hope of resolving the problem for himself, is uncertain. At any rate his superiors assumed that this was his opinion and that he was in fact guilty of making God the author of sin. Neither he nor his superiors considered the alternative possibility that God did not need to predestinate men to be lost in the sense that He predestinated the elect to be saved. He had only to leave the non-elect to suffer the consequences of their own free choice.
What was very clear to Gottschalk was that little or no importance could be attached to the natural goodness of man or to any supposed works of merit performed before conversion. God's elective choice was in no way influenced by precedent grace, whether witnessed at the time or foreseen. As he wrote and preached about his convictions, especially during a lecture tour of northern Italy, he aroused much consternation in many quarters, and the authorities decided it was time to act.
Gottschalk was accused of heresy, tried, and condemned. He was allowed no opportunity to defend himself or present his own case in a reasoned form. He was flogged mercilessly and imprisoned under cruel conditions until his death. Even some of his foes protested at the unchristian character of his treatment. Yet he died without recanting and apparently with great peace of mind, holding firmly to his Augustinian theology. He is one in a long line of martyrs for the Gospel, and in a manner of speaking his was the last personal protest against the corrupted theology of the Roman Catholic Church until Luther awakened to the truth some six hundred years later. Some of the great figures in church history who came later protested against the morality of the Roman Catholic Church but they did not, like Gottschalk, have a clear vision of the Church's theological error. As J. L. Neve observed, semi-Pelagianism retained its great hold upon the Church's theology throughout the entire Middle Ages. But one of the ironies of this circumstance is that because of the breadth of Augustine's theological sweep, even this fundamental departure from his position was justified as orthodox by appeal to certain of his earlier writings (which he had later retracted) and came to be known as "the preaching of Augustine" (Sermo Augustini) (5)
The result was inevitable. Precisely because man's will is utterly corrupt, his strongest exertions to build a credit balance in the sight of God only carried him further and further in the corruption of all that was holy, until the religious communities which had started out to make themselves the guardians of truth and purity of life became the most appalling dens of iniquity. The corruption of the good always produces the greatest potential for evil.
The kind of holiness that self-effort thus produces is not sanctity but sanctimoniousness, and there is something pitifully powerless about it. It is a "form of godliness but denying the power thereof" (2 Tim. 3:5). It is powerless because it springs out of the activity of the corrupted will of natural man. Just because it is an expression of man's sinful will, it only confirms that will, making it stronger even while appearing to suppress it. If circumstances later encourage the enjoyment of sensual things, it is all too easy to slip from one kind of exercise that seems to have the appearance of purity, into the opposite kind which has all the earmarks of debasement. The man who has so strengthened his will that he can resist great temptations may later reach a position where he can exercise the same will power to get what he wants even when it is evil. And this happened all too frequently when "holiness" achieved by self-control was afterwards rewarded with authority and power over others. What transpired in monastic life may well have inspired the Reformers to declare that good works done out of Christ, precisely because they are expressions of human willfulness, no doubt "partake of the nature of sin," as the Church of England in Article XIII has aptly expressed it.
Approximately two hundred years after Gottschalk, Anselm was born in Aosta in Piedmont in 1033 of a pious mother, Ermenberga, and an indifferent though well-to-do father. From a very early childhood his mother's influence played a strong part in his development and he occupied himself in meditation on the things of God as he grew. His relations with his father were much less happy, and when he was a young man he left home to travel in France. In due time under Lanfranc he became a monk in the monastery of Bec. In 1063 he became its prior, and finally in 1078 its abbot. In 1093 he was called to be Archbishop of Canterbury. (6)
In a remarkable number of ways Anselm was like Augustine: in his gentleness, in his love for man and for God, in his contemplative nature, in his desire for holiness of life, and in his zeal to suppress his baser nature. Augustus Neander in his General History of the Christian Religion and Church says, "He was the Augustine of his age." What gave him his great importance was the unity of spirit in which he thought and did everything, a harmony between life and knowledge which in his case nothing disturbed. And love seems to have been the inspiring soul of his thought.
He was constantly occupied with public duties appropriate to each station of his life as he rose to become Archbishop. Rather like Augustine he felt himself throughout to be a wretched sinner unworthy of his office and privately longing to be free to return to a life of contemplation. When he died in 1109, in spite of the many conflicts in which he unwillingly became involved, he seems to have had no enemies but was completely at peace with God and everywhere revered by man.
There was one important difference, however, between the two men, Augustine and Anselm, namely, in the turmoil of the former's life as he grew up as contrasted with the comparative tranquillity of the latter's.
Both men agreed absolutely upon this fact, that faith precedes understanding. Interestingly, both seemed to have based their conviction in this not upon Hebrews 11:3 ("through faith we understand....") but upon the Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:9 which reads: "If ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand." Anselm's principle of handling Scripture was to sit down as a little child before the Word of God and accept its statements. Then, believing, to seek for understanding. Augustine's guiding principle had been that obedience to the Word in faith was the key to understanding it: "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God" (John 7:17). Similarly Anselm wrote: "Self-confident human wisdom will sooner break its own horn than succeed in overturning this rock." Faith, he held, precedes intellect. (7) In Anselm we find heart and mind beautifully balanced. Yet he made singularly little$use of Scripture itself... (8)
In his De Libero Arbitrio ("Of Freedom of Will") Anselm controverts any idea of free will in man as being the power to choose between good and evil. (9) Man has only the power to choose between evils and since he sometimes chooses the lesser evil, he appears to be choosing the good. Pelagius had argued that the effect of Adam's Fall was not inherited by his descendants, that every man is born as Adam was created, with complete freedom to choose between good and evil. This freedom is partially but not wholly lost as the individual matures, and this loss can be corrected by following the example of Jesus Christ. Anselm, with Augustine and Paul, denied this possibility. Since salvation was an absolute good, man could not choose it. The realization of this truth seems to have sprung out of Anselm's own experience with himself, as it had with Augustine. Augustine appears to have tried always to bring his thought captive to Scripture, combining the Word of God with every means at his disposal in order to base his theology on something more secure than experience. This policy transformed Augustine's thinking and theology and gave it a more secure foundation, besides vastly illuminating it. Anselm agreed with this principle entirely but did not exploit the Word of God as Augustine had done. Consequently their agreement is more implicit than explicit.
Increasingly as time went by, the emphasis in so-called Christian life had been shifted towards making man responsible for the preparation of his own heart to merit the infusion of the grace of God. This had not improved the spiritual life as a whole: it had tended only to increase the severity of the penalties imposed upon those who were manifestly failing. But this, too, had little effect in correcting the steady decline in Christian morality. Men remained selfish and inhumane and carnal as they had always been. And the question began to be asked, Why do Christian principles generate so little genuine goodness? Why if some men so earnestly desire to be holy, and if the reward for holiness of life is so great and the penalty for failure so terrible, do not men of good intent achieve their goal? Was there, after all, something really wrong with man's will to good?
Such was the lasting influence of Augustine's thought upon the centuries following that a number of Church councils still paid lip service by denying man's free will in the matter of salvation. Anselm in this spirit wrote not only his Dialogue on Free Will but also a treatise on the harmony between foreknowledge, Predestination, grace and free will. But while the theologians in their councils admitted that the will of fallen man was in bondage, the authorities in their religious houses in whose hands were the lives of the Church's flock continued to operate on the principle that man's will is free and therefore responsible to do something about achieving holiness. (10)
Anselm struggled to reconcile the apparent contradiction. He used an analogy: the will of man has a capacity for good as the eye has a capacity for light. But so long as the eye is in the dark its capacity is ineffective and undiscovered. The capacity of man's will for good is like this, latent only until the sunlight of God's grace shines upon it. (11) By Luther's time this "capacity" had become a "passive aptitude." It was an aptitude because it was already present waiting to respond, but it was passive because the light that effects this response must be supplied from outside. It was a light receptor, not a lamp. The eye of the soul is blind until God shines into it. It is God, not the eye, who gives the light of the knowledge of his glory (2 Cor. 4:6). Until God moves in the will, according to Anselm, the will is impotent towards spiritual good. Yet God does not bend the will by force. The will is drawn in such a way that it follows without resistance as if impelled by an inner necessity.
There is a deeply rooted feeling in the heart of man that he ought to contribute something of his own to his salvation. This contribution has taken a number of different forms. The most obvious contribution he can make is good works, but good works can operate in several different ways. They may secure his salvation directly by some kind of overbalance against his hurts, or they may predispose God to favour him and grant him salvation as a gift otherwise unattainable, or they may be added to the weight of merit in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which by itself is not sufficient. In most cases, the salvation is viewed as a cooperative effort. Yet it has always been felt by theologians that the idea of cooperation is not a worthy one. And so the effort is made to introduce cooperation without letting it appear as such.
Many Roman Catholic theologians took the position that man must prepare himself to merit the grace of God without which he cannot be saved. Arminian theologians have modified this somewhat and now take the position that while man cannot by good works merit the grace of God, he can prepare himself to receive it by declaring his willingness to do so. The end result is much the same; the one is as much a cooperative process as the other, and Roman Catholics have as easily adopted the non-resistance alternative as they adopt the preparatory works alternative. In either case, man plays a vital role is his own salvation. Thus while Lutherans today teach that man's vital role is non-resistance of the Holy Spirit, the older Roman Catholic theologians like Cardinal Robert Pullein held virtually the same position. Pullein, who died in 1146, wrote:
As often as grace offers itself to anyone, the individual either acts in cooperation with that grace or, rejecting it, still goes on in sin. The first cause of all goodness is grace. But the free will also has a part to perform, though a subordinate one. Free will also has some merit; namely this, that it ceases to resist the divine will (emphasis mine). (12)The contrary will that resists the grace of God is not constrained to yield against its own inclination but is inclined to a willingness by the same grace. This was the logical maneuver by which some token acknowledgment was made to the autonomy of man's will. It was in effect the same device by which Lutheranism (though not Luther himself, I think) was to skate around the problem of the sovereignty of grace.
Luther was to struggle with this same problem and arrived at much the same conclusion, speaking of how the Spirit of God "sweetly breathes" upon the will to cause it to act "not from compulsion but responsively" (his emphasis).
Like Luther, Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) had also postulated a "certain susceptibility" in man which was required for the operation of grace. But Aquinas traces even this susceptibility to the "preparation of God." He was nearer to Augustine in this than Anselm had been.
In his Summa Theologica written between 1265 and 1273, Aquinas adopted a technique for the expounding of his theology which others before him had employed, including Anselm in his famous little work Cur Deus Homo. This involved a kind of question-and-answer approach which in Aquinas took the following form: first, the stating of the question; second, the presentation of opinions contrary to his own; third, his own view of the matter; and fourth, his reply to each of the contrary opinions treated seriatim. In dealing with the matter of free will he begins by posing the question: "Can man merit eternal life without grace?" (Q. 109, art. 5). This is one of ten questions appearing in the section of his work under the general subject of the "Grace of God."
The first contrary opinion, which Aquinas terms Objection 1, is stated as follows: "It would seem that man can merit eternal life without grace. For our Lord says (Matt. 19:17), 'If thou wilt enter into eternal life, keep the commandments,' from which it would seem that to enter into eternal life rests with man's will. Hence it seems that man can inherit eternal life of himself."
A second contrary opinion, Objection 2, is given as follows: "Further, eternal life is the wage or reward bestowed by God on men according to Matthew 5:12, 'your reward is very great in heaven.' But wage or reward is meted by God to everyone according to his works, according to Psalm 62:12: 'Thou wilt render to every man according to his works.' Hence, since man is master of his works it seems that it is within his power to reach eternal life."
It is interesting to note how subtly error can creep in through the back door and color all that follows. The very form of Aquinas' question ("Can man merit eternal life without grace?") starts the process of reasoning on the wrong foundation. Grace by definition is unmerited favour and eternal life is a gift. If we ask whether man can merit eternal life, we start with an impossibility, and it is no wonder that we end up with a falsehood. And as the error in the question is subtle, so the error in the final answer is subtle.
Aquinas then presents his own view as follows:
Man, by his own natural powers, cannot produce meritorious works proportional to eternal life, but for this a higher power is needed, namely, the power of grace. And thus, without grace man cannot merit eternal life; yet he can perform works leading to a good which is connatural to man such as to man in the fields, to drink [convivially?], to eat, or to have friends, and the like, as Augustine says in his third Reply to Pelagians.Aquinas' reply to Objection 1 takes the following form: "Man, by his will, does works meritorious of eternal life, but as Augustine says in the same book, for this it is necessary that the will of man be prepared with the grace of God."
In reply to Objection 2: As the Gloss [i.e., comment] upon Romans 6 23 ("the grace of God is life everlasting") says: it is certain that everlasting life is meted to good works, but the works to which it is meted belong to God's grace, What is more, it has been said that to fulfill the commandments of the law, whereby their fulfillment may be meritorious, requires grace.
So here we have Aquinas on the old question of the relation between good works, grace, and eternal life. Grace is necessary to enable man to perform meritorious works of which the reward is eternal life. So has the Gospel been eroded. These good works are within man's reach if he is assisted by the grace of God. Man is saved with grace, not by grace. Man and God thus cooperate, God enabling man to merit life.
Aquinas' next question is, "Can a man by himself and without the external aid of grace prepare himself for grace?" His hypothetical opponent suggests that "man prepares himself to grace by doing what he has ability to do. And if he does God will not deny him grace." In support of this proposition, his opponent quotes Matthew 7:11: "God giveth the spirit to them that ask Him." His own view is that "man cannot prepare himself to receive the light of grace except by the gratuitous help of God moving him inwardly." And in support of this, Aquinas quotes John 15:5: "Without Me ye can do nothing."
So we conclude that even though man must work to merit eternal life, he will not even initiate such work without the enabling of God's grace. And thus in the final analysis we seem to be back with Augustine. However, a complication has been introduced. For even though the grace of God lies at the very heart of man's salvation, it is nevertheless a salvation merited by good works. It might seem that Aquinas was not in essential disagreement with Reformed theology as to the receiving of grace, but in truth this grace serves a different purpose in each. For the Reformers, it was the beginning and the end of man's eternal life, and the good works which he performed were an expression of something he already possessed. In Aquinas, grace was to enable man to achieve eternal life by his own efforts.
In his exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, E. Harold Browne said succinctly, "In philosophy Aquinas was a realist; in theology, a disciple of Augustine; and therefore opposed to the belief too prevalent among the Schoolmen, that the gift of grace was dependent on the manner in which men exercised their purely natural endowment." (13) The Church of Rome produced many great minds that harboured strange combinations of profound truth and profound error. One often wonders how it could come about that the conflict between the two did not become more apparent to the individual.
Thomas Aquinas, who thus presumed a grace that conditioned the will, also presumed a predestination which involved such a conditioning. But he held that it is possible to distinguish what proceeds from a genuine free will so conditioned and what from predestination. He wrote, "All leads back to the goodness of God. To this must be traced the reason why some are predestinated and others reprobated." (14) He might have noted Romans 2:4 in which Paul asserts that it is the goodness of God, not the goodness of man himself, that leads men to repentance.
Again Aquinas wrote: "It was God's will to manifest his goodness to a part of mankind--those whom He had foreordained to this end, in the form of mercy sparing them; to others, the reprobate, in the form of punitive justice. And this is the reason why He elected some and rejected others; and the ground of this difference lies only in the divine will." (15) Here we have a clear enundation of the principle of Unconditional Election, and yet Aquinas still struggled to find some way of so presenting the case as to allow man freedom of will. While his doctrine seemed to annihilate the concept of man's free will, he still argued that this is not really what he meant but rather that by divine intervention God constrains the will of man in another direction. (16) But if this is an imposed change, a change that God effects in man willy-nilly, is this not an overriding of man's will? Aquinas answered: "God brings it about that man should freely will the change he experiences and thus all constraint is removed. For to suppose otherwise, namely, that the man did not will the change which is a change in his will, would involve a contradiction." Such was the subtlety of reasoning of the Schoolmen.
These endless chains of "therefores," without constant reference to Scripture, inevitably left men no wiser and no clearer than they were before.
If the individual can by his disobedience lose his salvation, then it follows that he can in this "lost" position gain back his salvation by appropriate acts of obedience. And so there is once more restored to man a crucial role in his own salvation. The pull towards Arminianism is to man what gravity is to the material world. It is a subtle ever-acting downward pull that is never absent and that, once yielded to, causes an increasingly rapid debasement of the truth of the Gospel. The believer's intelligence has constantly to be brought into subjection to the revealed Word of God as a monitor of his thoughts. Like Abelard we try first to understand in order that we might believe. But understanding is not the basis of faith. Understanding is only the basis of knowledge. Faith requires a positive exercise of will, and demonstration of any theorem removes the necessity for exercising will. We merely assent. Unfortunately many people assent to the Gospel, supposing that they are thereby believing it.
The determination to restore the place of free will in the exercise of saving faith, on the ground that by this means alone could the incentive to holiness be maintained, was logical enough if there was any merit in such holiness as exhibited in the unredeemed life. But there is no such merit. Indeed, the notion that there is such merit in man is in fact offensive to God for it reflects unfavorably upon the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ for man's salvation if man himself must also make his little contribution. As for holiness afterwards this is a different matter entirely, for then such holiness is meritorious because it is now an outgrowth of the life of God in the individual.
But Aquinas, not recognizing the significance of the new birth and its attendant inward revitalizing moral power, championed the benefits of uncertainty, of insecurity, of lack of assurance, and of the practical necessity of not believing in the eternal security of the believer, in order to provide the incentive otherwise lacking. Better, then, to retreat from the world with its temptation whereby one might easily lose one's salvation and to take refuge from its conflicts in the monastic life of sheltered contemplation.
But here men gradually surrendered the witness of the Holy Spirit in the inner life and increasingly substituted the man-made and humanly enforced disciplines of the monastery. These disciplines were interpreted and exercised by strong men who often became ambitious and unscrupulous when they found themselves invested with absolute authority over their fellow men. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (17) Religious corruption is extremely dangerous because it tends by its nature not to be tempered by conscience. Here and there a few notable souls served God with great zeal and effectiveness, but the great majority became "princes" in the community or in the world. Theological error has many unforeseen consequences.
It has sometimes been asked, Where was Protestantism before Luther? This question in effect supposes that what we now see as a recovery of the true Gospel, which for fifteen hundred years had been almost lost sight of, was in reality a novel invention. Opponents of true evangelicalism could not believe that God would really permit the total eclipse of the truth and leave men in darkness for so many centuries. Had not the Church of Rome during those previous years leavened the whole of European society and created a Christian civilization, as well as evangelized the heathen world in Africa and America? Admittedly, the Catholic Church had its faults and needed cleansing and restoring in its faith from time to time, but surely the truth was never so completely lost that a total revolution of theology was needed! The Western world had been kept Christian, or so men like Chesterton assured us, more Christian in fact than it had been since Luther and Calvin and the Reformers shattered that monumental unity which was Catholic Christendom.
But is this really so? Was this monumental unity an organic unity of the Spirit or merely a religio-political unity preserved essentially by a civil and hierarchical aristocracy working hand in hand for each other's mutual worldly benefit?
The need for reform was increasingly evident as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries rolled by. In England John Wycliffe (1320-1384) thundered against the Church of Rome and the abuses of religious orders even in his own country where they were less powerfully entrenched than in continental Europe. It is true that in some ways he had comparatively small influence upon England herself until considerably later, but by means of his teaching and preaching in Oxford (where many Bohemian students from Prague were studying) he had a more profound theological influence on the continent through the followers of John Huss.
His theology was clearly Augustinian, though like Gottschalk he went beyond Augustine in the matter of Predestination and virtually made God responsible for man's Fall and therefore for all his subsequent sin. He categorically rejected the idea that man before his conversion can contribute anything by his moral behaviour towards influencing God's sovereign decision to grant him the grace of the Holy Spirit needful to conversion. Dyson Hague considered that five of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (Articles X-XIV) could almost be taken word for word from Wycliffe's writing. (18)
Article X is most explicit:
The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself by his own natural strength and good works to faith and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God without the grace of God by Christ preventing us that we may have a good will...Article XIII is equally explicit in this regard:
Works done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of the Spirit, are not pleasant to God for as much as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace or [as the School authors say] deserve grace of congruity [i.e., as a consequence]: yea rather, because they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not that they partake of the nature of sin.These ideas are directly contrary to the teaching of Thomas Aquinas but fully in harmony with that of Augustine, who summed up his position on the matter of works done out of Christ by using the words of Scripture: "What is not of faith is of sin" (Rom. 14:23).
Julianus of Eclanum (380-c. 455), a Pelagian theologian, postulated the case of a heathen who covered the naked and did works of mercy, and asked, "Is this act of his therefore sinful because it is not of faith?" Augustine replied unequivocally, "It is sinful." And with this Wycliffe concurred because, while the act itself was good towards man, it was not pleasing to God since it was prompted by a corrupt will as an expression of a sinful self. (19) We only need to reflect upon the reaction of a man who has done a good deed (let us say, he has sent an anonymous gift to a person in need) when someone else is given the credit for it! The true motive is quickly made apparent. And a good deed may thus prove to be a work of iniquity even when done in the name of the Lord (Matt. 7:22, 23).
God often turns such works to truly good ends, yet in themselves they may be works of iniquity when performed out of Christ because they are expressions of a fallen nature. Indeed it was argued in Wycliffe's day that "a man sinneth the more by how much the more he laboureth to dispose himself to grace." Or to put it in plainer language, a man's good works are all the more sinful when they are undertaken with the express hope and purpose of predisposing God to favour the doer by granting him salvation upon the strength of them.
When performed by the unbelieving in aid of the Lord's children, works are rewarded in this world, the reward being a form of kudos. But when they are judged in the moral light of eternity, they can be seen only as works of iniquity. Wycliffe saw clearly the unreality of man's supposed natural goodness, and he recognized piety in the unredeemed for what it was. He spoke against it fearlessly as a snare and a deception, for unredeemed men were being easily persuaded to emulate the saints of the past in the belief that they would thereby make themselves more worthy of receiving God's grace and a passage into heaven. The Gospel had become superfluous except as an assist to men's natural goodness. The grace of God served only to crown the grace of man. There was a need to return to the biblical position which states in no uncertain terms that "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6).
It is an extraordinary thing that while Wycliffe continued to thunder away against the heresy of salvation by good works he remained essentially at liberty and unharmed by the religious authorities of his day, and he died peacefully in his bed at the good age (in those days) of sixty-four years. He has rightly been called the "Morning Star of the Reformation," not merely because he cried out against unrighteousness in high places but because he called for a return to the Gospel.
Various reformation movements within the Church of Rome had been witnessed before Wycliffe and were to be witnessed after him, as for example in Florence under Savonarola from 1490 until his death eight years later. These were genuine outcries against the gross wickedness and immorality of the Church. But they were doomed to failure because, while the righteousness of God was exalted and the sinfulness of man was exposed, there was no attendant proclamation of the Gospel of personal salvation by regeneration which is the only basis for any true reformation of the Church or of society. Reformation must always start with regeneration, and regeneration is a personal matter. It is such individuals who then become the salt not for the building of a perfect society but for the preservation of a society from total corruption. A return to the teaching of Paul and of Augustine was what was required, and it was not very far in the future.
Meanwhile the Church's denunciation of the evils of the world were nothing compared with the world's denunciation of the evils of the Church. The famous troubadours or popular singers of the day took as a major theme of their songs the avarice and heartless greed, the cruelty and arrogant use of power, and the craftiness and treachery of all kinds which compacted together blatantly and without shame in the courts of the Church of Rome. (20) Something had to change or be changed.
The change was to come not by a more persuasive call to holiness but by a rediscovery of the fundamental fact that man is spiritually so completely dead that he is without the power to win the approval of God by good works unless God has first of all granted him new life and a saving faith to believe in the total sufficiency of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ to make him once more acceptable in the sight of God. Man is lost and cannot by any means save himself by his works or even prepare himself to be saved. Salvation is entirely an act of grace dependent upon the sovereign will of God and made effective in the life of the individual only in God's time. Luther rediscovered this truth and proclaimed it; Calvin worked it out and made explicit its implications.
Augustine's influence and teachings had never been entirely lost, but neither had they been preserved entire by any one individual, after the passing of Prosper. Gottschalk was clear on the fact of Predestination and Limited Atonement, and he was probably reasonably clear on the Total Depravity of man and on Irresistible Grace. His position on the Perseverance of the Saints was perhaps sound, but it was implicit rather than explicit. The wholeness of Augustine's soteriology was gradually being eroded and the logical cohesion of his theology was not again to be worked out as a total system for centuries. The implications of the Gospel were not exploited in strictly biblical terms as Augustine had exploited them, until Calvin published his Institutes. Thomas Aquinas, the great master of the Medieval Schoolmen, caught some of Augustine's vision of the whole, but Aquinas' view was muddied by erroneous embellishments and fanciful extensions dependent entirely upon human reason that introduced all kinds of error which Augustine would have repudiated. These embellishments were soon made the basis of a whole new set of propositions which were far from the pure Gospel, and the Gospel itself was virtually submerged in a sea of error.
John Wycliffe seems to stand out from the mainstream as a lone figure and yet there is no doubt that he stood firmly in the tradition of Augustine. As the harbinger of the Reformation formed a further link in a continuous chain which reaches from Paul in the New Testament through Augustine, Prosper, Gottschalk, and Anselm, to Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers.
1. Vol. 1, p. 180.
2. Ibid., p. 179.
3. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 228.
4. Ibid., p. 230.
5. J. L. Neve. A History of Christian Thought, Vol. I, p. 178.
6. Augustus Neander, Church History, Vol. VIII, pp. 93f.
7. Ibid., p. 104.
8. A. C. McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought, p. 187.
9. Neander, Church History, Vol. VIII, p. 261
10. Ibid., p. 301.
11. Ibid., pp. 301f.
12. Quoted in Neander, Church History, Vol. VIII, p. 302.
13. E. Harold Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, p. 258.
14. Quoted in Neander, Church History, Vol. VIII, p. 251.
15. Ibid., p. 252.
16. Ibid., p. 255.
17. Lord John Acton in a letter to Bishop Creighton (1887).
18. Dyson Hague. The Life and Work of John Wycliffe, p. 149.
19. Browne, Thirty-Nine Articles. p. 324.
20. Neander, Church History, Vol. VIII, p. 422.