Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A Jeff Dean insight:

I think a key distinction we are missing regards the Catholc and Protestant understanding of human nature.

Thomas Aquinas argued that death was part of human nature, such that Adam would have died had he not sinned.

Luther and Calvin, among others, argued the contrary point: death is not "natural," but rather the punishment (or "consequence," as I prefer to think) of sin. Such a distinction is closer to an Eastern Orthodox understanding than a Roman Catholic.

The results in the following distinction: Roman Catholic theology must insist that salvation *adds* something to the human situation, whereas classical Protestant theology claims instead that salvation *removes* something from the human condition situation.

Thus, a Roman Catholic theology would consider the term "sinner" to represent the lack of God's grace, because a "sinner" is one to whom saving grace has not been added. Grace in the Roman Catholic equation, then, is something added to expand the nature of a person, not necessarily to combat "sin."

A Protestant theology, however, would consider "sinner" to be the apt description of a person as such. Grace in the Protestant sense, then, is not something added, but rather the willingness of the Father to overlook our sins because of the sacrifice of the Son.

We might say, then, that "grace" is best understood as a noun for Roman Catholics: something that God gives. Protestants, however, are apt to understand "grace" more as an adverb: the manner in which God acts.


Eric Cadin said...

Since, Jeff's post is re-presented I figured I'd re-present my "doubt" of his interpretation

Eric Cadin said...
jeff, I must admit I have never heard your articulation of the distinction. That being said, I don't think you are incorrect, I'd have to look at it further, that is to say the Catholic perspective

I will say, however, that I have always heard and to some degree been taught that before the Fall death was NOT a reality. Though in a different context Jesus utters, "in the beginning it was not so." However, after the fall sin and its accompanyment death enters the world. (to this end, I believe that the Church maintains that had she not been assumed bodily into Heaven the Blessed Virgin Mary would have indeed died)

This reality I think you are drawing from when you remark that the RC Church holds that death is part of human nature. I do believe that its true meaning is different however from that which you elaborated. The Church, I know, does hold that somehow, again I am not certain of the details exactly, human nature is BETTER off for having a savior, i.e. Redeemed man is better than pre fall Adam. Such is her proclamation in the beautiful Exsultet (Which was composed by St. Thomas) of the Easter Vigil "O Felix Culpa" "Oh Happy Fault", "which merited to have so great a savior!"

Eric Cadin said...

jeff, may I ask where you see St. Thomas Aquinas stating "Adam would have died had he not sinned"


Tim Galebach said...

I think that Jeff's last sentence is extremely helpful, clear, and accurate.

Jeff Dean said...

Hey Eric,

This may have to wait a few days. I have the citation in my notes from courses taken with Julia Lamm and Sarah Coakley, but I'm writing a thesis chapter and can't divide my time.

P.S. Are there now wedding photos available? I want to see!

Jeff Dean said...


Just found a preliminary reference with which to begin. Summa I.97.iii, "Whether in the state of innocence man had need of food?"

This is a sidenote, a citation rather than an argument, but the fact remains that, to Aquinas, human beings could be perfect according to nature, yet still unable to merit heaven. Eternal life was a gift mediated by the sacraments.

Baptism cleared away Original Sin, thus clarifying the imagio Dei. Confession and penance provided for the forgiveness and amendment of personal sins.

The Mass ("viaticum") strengthened the imagio Dei such that the pilgrim ("viator") would find his journey increasing in ease.

When I was little, my mom would always buy my shoes a few sizes too big, such that I would have room to "grow into them". The Mass is, in effect, providing the means by which I "grow into" the righteousness that God expects from me.

Jeff Dean said...

Eric et al.,

Whoops. I need to do some major backpedaling. Here's what happens when you try to comment with half your brain occupied.

Your are correct, Eric, that Aquinas does not assert that man would have died even if he had not sinned. My link proves that point for you nicely.

We need to turn, instead, to II.113.ii. "Whether the infusion of grace is required for the remission of guilt, i.e. for the justification of the ungodly?"

Adam and Eve existed in the state of innocence, in which they would have lived forever. They would not, however, have acheived the Beatific Vision in heaven even had they not sinned, for the Beatific Vision is a result of divine grace alone.

So, to clarify: Death is not part of human nature, but natural humans cannot attain eternal life with the Father in Heaven.

The minor Calvinist figures are the only ones to delve into this question from a Protestant perspective, and I must confess that I've never even finished Calvin himself, so I have no idea whom I should reference.

Suffice it to say that the original point still stands: The principle point of Catholic theology is betterment of the individual unto acceptibility, whereas the principle point of Protestant theology is acceptance of the indivual unto betterment.

Anonymous said...

jeff, this is brilliant!


mattie said...

Hi Jeff!

You said: "Suffice it to say that the original point still stands: The principle point of Catholic theology is betterment of the individual unto acceptibility, whereas the principle point of Protestant theology is acceptance of the indivual unto betterment."


The Catholic tradition does not assert that "betterment" can preceed or happen apart from the "acceptance" that occurs through both the prevenient and subsequent grace of our Trinitarian God.

In "Catholic Christianity," Peter Kreeft explains that God became man for (at least) four reasons:

1. "in order to save us" (1 Jn 4)

2. "so that we might know God's love" (Jn 3:16)

3. "to be our model of holiness" (Eph 5:1)

4. "to make us partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pt 1:4)

The Protestant tradition firmly rejects #4 (for reasons I'm still not too clear about) and, Jeff, that changes the tone & content of the dialogue in a dramatic way, which is why I don't think your terminology (let alone your premise!) is accurate.

Kreeft writes: "By nature we are created in God's image, or resemblance, as a statue is sculpted in the image of its sculptor, but we do not have God's life any more than a statue has the human life of its sculptor. What Christ called being "born anew" (Jn 3:3) is like the statue coming to life, to share not only the image and likeness of the sculptor, but his very life - like Pinocchio, transformed from mere wooden puppet to real boy, miraculously sharing the life of a boy: thinking, choosing, talking, playing. In St. Paul's terms, our destiny is to be not merely "flesh" (human nature) but "spirit," living off the life of the Holy Spirit. In St. Augustine's formula, the Holy Spirit becomes the life of our soul as the soul is the life of our body."

So, to tweak your terminology (though, for the record, I find it lacking), I might say that the point of Catholic theology is the acceptance and transformation of humanity (Catholic thought tends to disdain individualism) into betterment and increasing acceptability.

I want to note though, that in that last part, acceptability isn't quite the right word... because God doesn't "accept us more," rather we become more in union with God, which, I think is different. I can "accept" a child of a friend that I am babysitting. Sure. But, to talk about "accepting" my own child would be odd, if not disturbing. People don't "accept" their children, they love & cherish them (despite bad behavior or rebellion) because they are a part of them. To those in my tradition that's how it is with God and humanity in Jesus. In other words, to speak of God "accepting" humanity after the Incarnation is to speak of a father "accepting" his own son or daughter, which is absurd.

By the way, this is not an extra-biblical perspective. Just take a look at Romans 8, baby!

With love,

Pontificator said...

From the little of St Thomas I've been able to comprehend and assimilate, Jeff's primary thesis doesn't sound right at all. For St Thomas, if Adam & Eve had never sinned, they would never have died. Death only becomes a necessity for man when the harmony of soul, mind, and body is broken by man.

It is true (I think) to say that even in his unfallen state man is still incapable of attaining to that glorious union with God through apprehension of him in his divine essence. This has nothing to do with Adam needing to become more "acceptable" to God. It simply means that by nature unfallen man is unequipped for the the vision of God. An additional act of divine self-communication to man yet is required.

It's all grace, unearned and gratuitous.

bonnie said...

I totally agree with the Pontificator that pre-fallen man is not the perfect type (i.e. capable of perfect union with God) as we assume!!

Also, someone asked me a really great question yesterday that made me think about the double-predestination thing: "Who put the serpant in the Garden, and why did Adam and Eve have the propensity to sin?" If they were created perfect, in union with God, they would not have chosen to sin. To me the logical conclusion is that free will is inherently flawed somehow. We can't say "They could've chosen to obey", because they _didn't_. There is no evidence for pre-fall man's ability to choose God, so how can we say they were able to, but that they didn't? (To me it's the same. It would be a stronger case if there was evidence that Adam and Eve rejected temptation a few times, but no such evidence is in the bible.)

Eric Cadin said...

Bonnie, just to give you a little more to think about. Many theologians would assert that the reason Adam and Eve's sin had such an impact, i.e. the stain of original sin, is that the very first free human act of the will was to turn away from. Such an act does not mean that free will was flawed prior, it does however argue that a substatially damaged will proceeded from the original act.

Pontificator said...

Trackback Pontifications

bonnie said...

" that the very first free human act of the will was to turn away from. Such an act does not mean that free will was flawed prior, it does however argue that a substatially damaged will proceeded from the original act."

I don't get it. If their first act was to "turn away from", we can't really say that they could've or would've done otherwise, since there is no evidence of it. For where there is no law, there is no transgression. In the Garden there was ONE law, and Adam and Eve messed that ONE law up. How can we say their wills were good and perfect when they were rebellious when presented with ONE law? (i.e. the law was _not_ perfect and good to them! They didn't like it! They wanted to choose for themselves! Isn't that inherent rebelliousness of the will?)

I get the bit about how the will was damaged _after_ the fall, but it still doesn't explain to me how the will would've chosen _against_ God prior to the fall, if the will was just fine (or good).

I've never read Aquinas so I'm eagerly waiting for some folks at Pontificator's blog to tell me more!

bonnie said...

Thinking about the pre/post-fall state (of man, and of the world, nature, etc.) also makes me think about these questions:

- Did mosquitoes exist and did they suck blood out of humans and make us have itchy mosquito bites?
- Did animals eat each other?
- Were Adam and Eve vegetarians?
- If they were called to "multiply" and if they didn't die (physically), does that mean the world just keeps expanding?
- Where did Cain's wife come from?

Needless to say, I'm not sure that it is really helpful or important to figure out whether Adam would have died or not if he didn't fall. Neither of the two conditions necessary for this speculation (immortality and total obedience) have never happened in the world so it is sort of silly to talk about it as if it might have, or it might happen in the future...

Ethanasius said...

Hi Mattie,

Cleary you know more than I. My only protestation has to do with one line that you wrote (though I admit that I may have misunderstood you).

YOU SAID: "In other words, to speak of God 'accepting' humanity after the Incarnation is to speak of a father 'accepting' his own son or daughter, which is absurd."

The problem as I see it is that God must do the "accepting" because we are not, by nature, children of God in any sense. Certainly we are, pre-conversion, creatures of God, but we are not sons or daughters of God. That only happens through the imputation of God's righteousness (I know, that's another discussion!) provided through Jesus' justifying grace. It is therefore not absurd for God to accept creatures as such and make out of them his children.

Maybe you'd agree with this; it's just a point of clarification.

Jeff Dean said...


Your point about Adam and Eve being unwilling to follow the ONE law they were given is very interesting, for it implies that Original Sin might not be the result of their disobedience, but rather the cause of it. If their bucking against the law is not qualitatively different from ours, then Original Sin might not describe a scar we bear, but rather a flaw we posess.

This could, by the way, provide an important point of reconciliation for the two theologies we are discussing: Through salvation, God is both removing a flaw and simultanouesly expanding the nature.

Precisely when and how this happens, though, will continue to cause dissent.

mattie said...

Ethanasius -

I don't disagree with you. It is purely and wholly God's act in the person of Jesus Christ that allows us to be children of God. However, our new status as children of God is not to be taken lightly.

I will reiterate the way in which Paul presents this in Romans 8 (v. 15-17): "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, "Abba, Father!" The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."

Paul is clear that we become children of God, rather than remaining alien bastards masquerading as children.


Tim Galebach said...

"alien bastards masquerading as children"

Mattie, come on.

bonnie said...

JEFF DEAN, YOU GOT IT!!! :) :) That's exactly what I think.

I've been limiting the whole pre-fall human nature discussion to our living room for fear of being called a heretic. But you got it - what you said is exactly what I've been speculating. Human history is linear, not cyclical. We are not trying to "return" to a pre-fall state, but rather are being ushered at every moment towards something better that God, out of His love for us, intended.

That said, I may go as far as saying that I *probably* buy the whole double-predestination argument, not because I think God is bad or a monster, but because it was _all_ a part of the Great Plan. Or something like that. I'm still trying to think it through.

bonnie said...

One more thought that adds to my pre-fall-man-not-perfect argument: Before the Fall, even ONE law was needed. Implying that there was a need for law - and therefore there was inevitably (you may disagree) going to be transgression (oh, how we just LOVE to buck at the Law, even if it's just one!)

When we are with God in heaven, do you think there will still be Law? Do you think we will still have commands to "do" and "don't do"? I don't think so. Christ is the end of the Law - so when He comes and resumes dominion over this earth, it also means it is the END of the Law. The Garden of Eden, and man's state at that point in time, still were under the Law. So yes, I do think Jesus is God's Grand Scheme to truly perfect us - by IMPUTATION on this side of Jordan - since it is apparent that we still bear the disobedience that Adam and Eve did.

The will could *not* be free when given Law, not one law ("Thou shall not eat..."), and not ten. I

Eric Cadin said...

Ok, so I have done some investigating and have discovered, at least in the beginnings of elaboration, why the Church proclaims O Happy fault.

I have more to investigate into Pre-Fall Adam. But I can say that man existed in a state of Original Justice, wherein his relationship with God was immediate (i.e. no need of mediation). All, including his nature, was Good (Let us not be too hasty by declaring man’s nature as deficient thereby ignoring what scripture tells us. Hey its your Sola and not mine.) This relationship, of our natural, created human nature, to God was SUPERNATURAL.

So man choose to turn away (After all the nature of FREE will, is a freedom to choose the other). This is where it gets wonderful. The word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. The Second person of the Triune God took upon our nature, thereby elevating our nature to the divine. This point is so important, for to deny it, as some in the past have, is to deny the hypostatic union, and consequently to make our understanding of the beatific vision, i.e. heaven, very, very difficult. For we are better off in that our redeemed, saved, glorified nature, in our Savior Jesus, can now be in relationship with God NATURALLY. (See the move from supernatural to natural. Guess what, this makes a very compelling case for infusion rather than imputation. Now Jeff, before you respond, your statement “Through salvation, God is both removing a flaw and simultanouesly expanding the nature,” implicitly affirms Chalcedon and the hypostatic union which your man so utterly rejected, for how can Jesus, absent his divine nature, “expand” , another way of saying elevate, human nature without the metaphysics of the Incarnation?)

Ethanasius said...

Mattie writes: "Paul is clear that we become children of God, rather than remaining alien bastards masquerading as children."

A bit of a straw-man of the Lutheran view. OK Lutherans, what have you to say about it?

bonnie said...

Eric: I may be justifying my own train of thought, so you don't have to agree, but what do we know as "good"? How many of us think things that are "good" and of God end up benig disappointing or hard? Does that make it not good? And how often do we think things suck when it really ends up being good? What I am trying to say is that yes, scripture said creation was "good", but we also don't have a full picture of what that means or looks like. Maybe God said it was "good" because it was part of his Grand Scheme! (I don't claim to know, either, but that's just a thought.)

Also, God made MAN. He didn't make another God or replicate Himself. Imago Dei is definitely scriptural, but is true not the way we think it is. A poster print of the Mona Lisa is NOT the Mona Lisa, as much as it looked like one! (I always think of the Mr. Bean movie when he ruins the painting of Churchill's mother, and then has to cover up by painting a strange mixture of lacquer, egg whites, etc. over it to replicate the oil-painting effect.)

Jeff Dean said...


Luther does not reject Chalcedon any more than anyone before or after him. Read Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology for an account of the Church's dealings with this council.

The declarations made proved utterly untenable to both Eastern and Western theologians. That Christ possessed two natures that never mingled in any way became utterly infuriating for all theologians. Who wept, Jesus or the Christ? Who suffered on the cross, the Christ or Jesus? To divide Jesus Christ into two natures made him ultimately unable to relate to the human experience or the divine reality. Some sort of bizarre, glorified schizophrenia is the logical conclusion of a literal reading of Chalcedon. Utterly non-Christian Greek metaphysics is the only victor.

As a result--and even before the end of the conference--the bishops appended an authorized interpretation to the pronouncement. This "interpretation" declared the literal reading anathema and demanded that the document be read to mean precisely what it condemned: that in Jesus Christ, the divine and human natures not only co-existed, but also commingled.

The result of that amendment? A theory called the Communicatio Idiomatum--the communication of the idioms. Namely, God could suffer, and man could be drawn into the life of the Godhead. Almost every Western theologian held to this position after Chalcedon. Von Balthasar, the most recent Catholic theologian of note, does so without reservation.

Luther rejected Chalcedon insofar as not doing so was a question of following the letter of the law rather than the spirit. Luther believed firmly that, at the cross, God suffered. Furthermore, because God suffered, one day we will be delivered from suffering. That is to say, God--the only radical subject--became passive such that we--passive objects--might become active.

Read Moltmann. No Protestant worth his salt is saying that transformation doesn't happen. The only question is *when* does it happen, and Protestants believe that Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles all offer a resounding "NOT YET!"

Protestant faith, then, is believing the prouncement to be true "already" even though the fulfillment has "not yet" happened.

Tim Galebach said...

"I have more to investigate into Pre-Fall Adam"

Eric, that is the funniest thing that I have read all day, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

bonnie said...

"This relationship, of our natural, created human nature, to God was SUPERNATURAL."

If a natural being is in a relationship to a super natural being, does that mean the supernatural being imputes "supernaturality" to the other party in relationship and considers the natural being in some way equal, so that the relationship is not a condescending or lop-sided one?

It's sort of like how I impute Asian-ness to Simeon in our marriage. No matter how much Chinese food he eats, he's not ever going to become Chinese. But I can treat him like one, and impute Asian-ness to him, and maybe some day he may really be fluent in the language and have a firm grasp on the culture.

(p.s. I am speaking with my tongue in cheek!)

Eric Cadin said...

I do believe that it is important to stress not "'considers' the natural being in some way equal" but the natural being 'is' sin some way equal.

Also, Jeff, thank you for the clarification regarding protestant position.

As for my instistence on the Hypostatic Union, I think we are not understanding it in the same way. As I am writing about it, it does necessarily communicate in that the human nature susbsists in the Divine person. So of course Jesus Christ, the 2nd person of the Trinity suffered, etc. What I was alluding to which you have begun to clarify was my belief that, for the most part, Protestant Theologians tend to ignore if not completely disregard the metaphysics of the Incarnation, which for St. Thomas, and the Roman Catholic Church, for that matter, is essential.

Thus my belief that Luther rejected Chalcedon was not in exactly the way you articualted, rather was divergence from Rome in the most fundamental metaphysical truths. So, I thank you for your continued patience with my ignorance and hasty generalizations.

mattie said...


What did you mean when you wrote: "Protestant faith, then, is believing the prouncement to be true "already" even though the fulfillment has "not yet" happened." ?

Do you mean that "Protestants" believe that we will 1. stop suffering 2. partake in the divine nature and/or 3. become children of God? And are you saying that this will happen only after we die? Is there ANY earthly component?

Thanks in advance for clarifying...


Tim Galebach said...

Mattie, I'm not JDD, but I'll answer with what I believe. Although I can't say it's the Protestant view (does such a creature exist?)

I'm going to address these only in terms of the pre-death component.

1. Stop suffering.
No. I thing that every (auto)biography ever written by/about anyone bears me out on that one. Every epistle in the Bible strongly suggests this as well.

2. Partake in the divine nature
This is semantics.

3. Become children of God.
I am one.

John Zahl said...

I think people have gotten a little side-tracked on the less interesting part of Jeff's post. I meant to edit Jeff's statement to rid it of its paragraph regarding Adam/death and St. Thomas, but decided to quote the entire excerpt. Jeff gave me permission to adjust it along those lines, by omitting the second paragraph of the post, but, by then, it was too late, as the discussion was already well under way.

...But, did anyone pick up on the prominant final four paragraphs, and Jeff's succinct distillation of two very different Christian diagnoses of the human condition?

I quote: " Roman Catholic theology must insist that salvation *adds* something to the human situation, whereas classical Protestant theology claims instead that salvation *removes* something from the human condition situation.

"Thus, a Roman Catholic theology would consider the term "sinner" to represent the lack of God's grace, because a "sinner" is one to whom saving grace has not been added. Grace in the Roman Catholic equation, then, is something added to expand the nature of a person, not necessarily to combat "sin."

"A Protestant theology, however, would consider "sinner" to be the apt description of a person as such. Grace in the Protestant sense, then, is not something added, but rather the willingness of the Father to overlook our sins because of the sacrifice of the Son.

"We might say, then, that "grace" is best understood as a noun for Roman Catholics: something that God gives. Protestants, however, are apt to understand "grace" more as an adverb: the manner in which God acts."

Is this true? It strikes me that the ministerial implications of these ideas are huge!

best, JZ

John Zahl said...

Mattie, my most recent post (on Prolpsis) deals specifically with your question, a very "Protestant" notion indeed. BTW, you mentioned in one of your posts a while ago that you were ex-communicated by the LCMS (or something like that). What happened? Are you willing to tell us more? JZ

bonnie said...

Jeff's point about grace as given vs. grace as manner would imply that:

In the first condition, assuming God always give grace _and_ assuming we could control when/how we receive it (eucharist, mass, etc.), it would mean we are carriers of some sort. The next question would be whether such grace leaks out (i.e. "There's a hole in my bucket, dear Eliza...") and if we ever reach a state when it doesn't (or hardly) leaks. In other words the focus is on us, the bucket, and whether the bucket is broken, leaking, has a hole, etc. (ontology). I guess the Catholic view would be that grace also _mends_ us so that we don't leak the grace that God freely gives, and so it becomes our responsibility to not spill the grace.

From the second condition, grace as a manner in which God acts, comes the question - on what is this manner contingent? If it is an action of God, is it contingent on anything? Is it a sustained attitude towards us? Does it matter if we are buckets with holes? (i.e. does it matter if we are ontologically flawed in some way?)

mattie said...

JZ & others -

I have to go to a conference all day, so I will post something more substantive later. For now, let me say three things with respect to what JZ's last post.

1. It has become a bit of a cliche, but Catholics tend to view their theology not in terms of either/or but in terms of both/and. I think this is relevant to this discussion because, for Catholics, grace is both something given by God and the manner in which God acts, and, in fact, the core of the very character of God. Catholic baptismal theology is very clear that the rite REMOVES original sin, as well as GIVES new life (see the both/and ?) so I don't think that it is accurate to describe the Roman position as one in which "something" is only being added.

I suppose the most succinct "official" explication of the Catholic view on grace can be found in the most recent catechism. See A couple of valuable ideas:

"Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life." (para. 1996)

"The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification." (para. 1999)

As you can see, the magisterium is quite comfortable seeing grace as both noun and adverb. In fact, I think that many Protestants are too, so I think it's a false dichotomy. I will grant that only in Catholic terminology do we hear of God's "graces" so perhaps it is the plural-izing that we need to speak of :)

2. It is valuable to note here that there is not one specific Roman Catholic anthropology or soteriology. That's hard to believe, but when you read the Catechism you will realize how broad it is. The Church tends to set boundaries and allow her theologians and ministers to fill in the gaps. That's why councils (up until Vatican II) always declared their canons in terms of "let them be anathema" - not because of some desire to demonize dissenters, but because the church has always been more interested (beautifully so, I might add) with elaborating heresy rather than limiting orthodoxy. It is helpful to keep this in mind in our discussion.

3. JZ - I withdrew my membership from the LCMS late in 2004 when I was threatened with excommunication by my local pastor for attending classes at a local catholic parish. I was not communing nor had I made a decision as to whether I would seek confirmation in the Catholic church - I was just seeking answers. To be fair, I hadn't really been a confessing LCMS Lutheran since about 1997, but I also had been doing all I could to reconcile myself to my church home. I had been very open with my LCMS pastor about my questions (meeting with him several times to talk) and I submitted to his will when he expressed an unwillingness to provide me with communion in his church. There are a great many problems I have doctrinally with the LCMS, so it wasn't much of a loss in that respect. However, I believe that the church is meant to be more than a voluntary society (it is meant to be the body of Christ!) and I think that's why I found his actions frustrating. I am grateful, however, that his action served to release me and I am thrilled that I have been embraced by the Roman Catholic church. I also trust that God will use my journey to minister to myself and others.

4. Bonnie - I think your bucket analogy is intriguing and fairly close to the Catholic understanding. I would add a third thing; for Catholics, grace:
1. fills our buckets
2. repairs our buckets
3. is the character of God who forgives us when we poke holes back in our buckets or refuse to let him fill them.

I would caution you against thinking of this in such negative terms (ie. "responsibility not to spill") but encourage you to think of this in a hopeful way. God has created us in his image to be "carriers" of his love & grace! This is an amazing gift and God is so gracious that he doesn't get mad when we aren't receptive or spill a bit. He loves us so much he just longs for us to have abundant life, and he realizes that we can be a bit obstinate...

With love,

simeon said...


It seems to me that the quotes you put up from the Catechism actually bear out Jeff's general point pretty well... There is a great deal of language in there about what is added, what is improved, what is expanded ("sanctifying", "deifying"; "help" so we can "respond" and "partake"; "infused"; etc.), and very little about a sin to be removed or dealt with ("heal it of sin" is the only part that remotely corresponds to what Jeff characterizes as the Protestant ethos, and even that verb implies a much less drastic view of the problem than I for one would affirm).

Just because Catholic teaching affirms that Grace is gratuitous and that God is the initiating agent in spiritual matters does not make it equivalent to the Protestant view of the matter. That Grace is a gift and that it starts with God is the absolute minimum baseline of what Grace must be for Christians-- of what Grace means by definition.

But Protestants like me cannot be satisfied with this minimum acknowledgement of Grace, followed by the maximum conceivable emphasis on human choice and action ("response") within the basic framework of Grace. No one is accusing Catholicism of being Pelagian-- it is firmly semi-Pelagian. For me, that is not enough-- not nearly enough. But you already knew that :)

It seems to me that semi-Pelagian accounts of the situation always devolve into a much greater emphasis on the "our response" side than on the "God's free initiating Grace" side. It always turns into Pelagianism-until-I-need-help. I guess what I mean is that I think a "participatory" understanding of one's relationship with God is very difficult (well, impossible) to sustain in practice. There are a few days here and there when it feels like participation, but the axe always falls eventually, and the grind begins, and never lets up. We can sometimes outwrestle a baby monkey, but one day it's going to be King Kong, and he's going to flatten us.

Semi-Pelagianism inevitably ends up feeling like Pelagianism. That is my thesis. Actually, that is my strong conviction. That is why it will not do. Though I do not hope to convince you :)

"I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law... A little leaven leavens the whole lump" (Gal. 5:3, 9).

Tim Galebach said...

I'll give you a lump Zahl!

Eric Cadin said...

Simeon said: "I guess what I mean is that I think a "participatory" understanding of one's relationship with God is very difficult (well, impossible) to sustain in practice.

Simeon, I wonder if it would be helpful to extend, perhaps in a different post, this conversation to Baptism, i.e. what exactly is going on there. As a Catholic I can quite easily talk about it sacramentally, with many references to grace, infusion, new life, ontological change, etc. I do not, however, have any idea what an alternative understanding would contend.

My reason for such a suggestion follows from both your difficulty in interpreting the Catechism as well as Tim's remark: "Partake in the divine nature
This is semantics." Because semantics it is NOT. Without this, I, we, Catholics for sure, and dare I say Christians, will be running in circles trying to figure anything out. All of that is to say that missing, I think, from your criticism, which indeed is valid and provokative, is an understanding of, in Christ, an elevation of the human nature to the divine. Without that, RC wouold most likely be full blown Pelagians.

Jeff Dean said...

Mattie and Simeon et al.,

I'm going to take off my "attempting to be objective" hat (which I hope that Mattie and Eric will concede I've been trying to wear) and offer my own personal, non-academic opinion about Simeon's post.

It seems to me that semi-Pelagianism is the cruelest yoke of all.

A Pelagian knows he is resposible for all his good works and can take pride in his accomplishments.

An Augustinian knows he is responsible for none of what he receives and can therefore rest in the awareness that his future is out of his own hands.

A Semi-Pelagian, on the other hand, must strive constantly toward perfection. Any advancements he does make, however, are not credited to him but to God's grace.

The first two positions seem at least tenable. The final position seems impossibly stressful and disappointing.

Tim Galebach said...

Eric, you said:
"As a Catholic I can quite easily talk about it [baptism] sacramentally, with many references to grace, infusion, new life, ontological change, etc."

I think that's become pretty clear to most of us.

Semantic accusations to be dealt with later.

Sean Doherty said...

Similar to Aquinas, in the Genesis commentary Luther also teaches that if Adam had not sinned, there would have been another stage before achieving full union with God. That is, there would have been more for Adam and Eve than the garden - they would have been taken up into heaven. This would have been an act of God's grace, sheer unmerited favour - the point being that everything is grace, including creation (humans don't deserve even to be created - even before we sin).

This rightly avoids the horrific idea that sin was necessary for God to show his grace.

On deification:

Luther certainly believed that we are made partakers in God. But again it all comes down to a question of how: for him it is utterly antecedent and by faith. It is the basis for and not the result of sanctification. It is not a progressive becoming more like God but rather complete union with Christ by faith (later Galatians commentary).

Jordan Hylden said...

I thought of something today, while watching the Excellent Cup. Or whatever that game is called.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands that we be perfect. Of course He doesn't expect us to be; that's the whole point of His sermon. He raises the ethical bar so high, that we can't possibly jump across it. So although Jesus commands us to do good works, He doesn't "expect" them of us.

What, then, does He expect us to do? Simple: Repent and be baptized.

Jeff, you said: "A Semi-Pelagian, on the other hand, must strive constantly toward perfection. Any advancements he does make, however, are not credited to him but to God's grace."

If that's what a Semi-Pelagian has to do, then count me out. Although it's not quite what I had in mind.

We are asked to repent. And that is a falling into, a trusting, a pleading, and a crying out for mercy. I have to repent every day. I do not expect ever coming to a point in this world where I do not have to. That will only come when Christ has made all things new, on the resurrection at the last day. Until then I must repent daily.

Anyone who reads the Sermon on the Mount knows that all his so-called good works are like ash. All I can bring before the Cross that is of worth is my own kneeling. One can only repent when confronted with the transcendent love that is the Cross of Christ. All good works are like ash in front of it.

So what if that is it? All we can "do" is repent?

Call it Mini-Pelagian if you want. :)

bonnie said...

Great point, Jordan. However, I think that repentance--the Godly sorrow-- comes at the end of our rope. I believe it is a position that the Spirit brings us to. We repent because there is no other way to go, not because we've reached a fork on the road. It is the experience of being so paralyzed by our sin that there is nothing else to do but repent. When driven to such a point, I wouldn't say it's "doing" a person who is drowning can't "do" anything but cry out for help. The self (and self-doing) has been reduced to nothing in this circumstance.

simeon said...

I learned recently the that proper historical definition of semi-Pelagianism is the belief in prevenient Grace at every level, but the denial that that Grace is irresistible. One of the five propositions of the Jansenists (condemned as heretics by the RC in 1653) was the following:

"The Semi-Pelagians taught the necessity of interior prevenient grace for every action even for the beginning of faith; they were heretics forasmuch as they considered grace to be such that the human will can either cooperate with it or refuse to do so."

Traditionally, as I understand it, here as much as anywhere else is the fundamental theological parting of ways between the Catholic and Protestant churches. Both churches affirm prevenient Grace-- a fact that it is important for Protestants to remember!-- but only the Protestants (and the crypto-Protestant Jansenists) affirm additionally that that Grace is irresistible.

What is especially interesting to me is that so few evangelical Protestants these days would in fact affirm irresistible Grace. Most evangelicals actually have a more Catholic than Protestant doctrine of Grace! Apparently this has a lot to do with John Wesley and the success of the Methodists in early America and elsewhere, and I would add that C.S. Lewis is partly to blame as well.

Although I think a case can be made that Lewis changed his mind on this (or in any case his emphasis) later on, in the "Til We Have Faces"/ "A Gried Observed"/ Narnia era, there is no denying that "Mere Christianity" as well a "The Problem of Pain" go the Catholic/ Methodist route on this one, rather than the Reformation route.

simeon said...

I'm pretty sure I agree completely Jordan, especially re: Sermon on the Mount, etc.. The only question is what Bonnie brings up: whether we have any meaningful control over the repentance, or whether the desire to repent itself is the product of an irresistible grace. I freely admit that what _I_ understand to be the result of irresistible Grace sometimes _feels_ more like a decision to accept the grace-- like I am "agreeing" to repent, or something like that.

But I'm with Bonnie, that that feeling of "agreeing" is actually just the natural and inevitable outcome of God's prevenient, graceful, and in fact irresistible action. But just because it is technically irresistible, it does not necessarily follow that the irresistible force of the grace always _feels_ like a tractor beam or something (though perhaps sometimes it does).

In any case, I do think that it always feels like _deliverance_. Whenever I truly repent, it always feels like a great burden has been taken away, rather than like I have successfully borne the burden of choice for a split second.

Jeff is right, I think, that semi-Pelagianism does end up feeling like a continual striving, even if it takes place within the parameters of prevenient grace, because at every moment one has the option of resisting the grace, and therefore the burden of that choice. Grace for the semi-Pelagian may have made the choice _easier_, but it has not taken away the fact of the choice.

To be fair, I wonder if some of the more semi-Pelagian stripe in practice feel more like they sometimes have that burden of choice and sometimes do not, because sometimes it is in fact so easy? So that it feels more like a sort of occasional striving? For me though, it would be hard to maintain that-- the grace in the end is either resistible or it is not, and therefore my failure to comply with the prevenient grace is either my failure or, in some sense, it is not.

Anyway just some thoughts. Loved what you wrote.

PS- Go Steelers! I was able to watch half of the Ultra Match last night, but it didn't end until 3:30am UK time, which is past my bedtime. Also, the Rolling Stones all have really skinny legs. But I guess everyone already noticed that.

mattie said...

Simeon -

I think you're right that the true difference between us is the question of whether or not grace is irresistable. In your mind is the Protestant position based on the frequent use of "predestination" and its variants in scripture? Or something else that I'm unaware of? I guess it probably is also related to the idea of free v. bonded will. I'd love if you could define for me what you mean when you say "irresistible" (or point me to an authoritative Protestant source). Can grace ever be rejected? Is there a particular means by which grace must be accessed (I'm guessing "faith" but I'm not sure precisely what that looks like) or is it universally bestowed? I know that is a lot of questions, but perhaps you know of a (short!) work that would be useful for me to read. Eric and I tried to read Luther's "Bondage of the Will" a few years back, but we gave up pretty quickly :)

Moreover, it seems in my studies I have yet to come across any one in the first four centuries to assert a sort of bonded will. Also, my (admittedly shallow) reading of Augustine is that he still affirms free will, but I need to read more of him. Can someone point me to the birthplace of the rejection of free will?

Since I am now more than willing to admit my "semi-Pelagianism" but only under the definition that Simeon offers (I wonder if this is something like consubstantiation - everyone else uses it to describe what Lutherans believe about communion, but they themselves reject it?), I want to make a quick point. In my experience, accepting a "semi-Pelagianist" perspective has not made me *feel* more burdened. Rather, it has liberated me. I'm ruminating on a few ideas as to why this might be:

1. I am increasingly convinced that there is a fundamental difference in theological anthropology between men & women. I need to do more reading and thinking on this subject, but I am reminded of how St. Augustine believed that pride is at the core of all human sinfulness. I think that is definately the case for men! For women, however, I think that we tend to suffer more from the sin of self-loathing, which is just as much a rejection of God's creation and plan than pride. In this respect, from my perspective, being called into cooperation with God in grace has been more affirming than burdensome because it has validated my beauty, strength, and worthiness. Again, let me say that this is a very tentative hypothesis, but it seems to resonate with many women I have talked to.

2. I unquestionably, unequivocally feel that God has pursued me in a unique and persistent way. It seems, however, that some people are not "haunted by God" (a phrase I first came across in use by Dorothy Day) in the deep way that I am. That should lead me to affirm a sort of irresistible and selective grace. However, I can see so many times in my life when I rejected God's love and I believe that it was God's persistence coupled with a loving community, a response on my part, and a struggle for understanding that have me where I am today. Jeff is right in that God deserves all the credit for anything that's right and I deserve all the credit for anything that's failed. The beautiful thing about that is that it admits the appropriate role between God and humanity as unequal yet covenental partners.

3. As for how "striving" feels, I think it feels great! The image that comes to mind is like a track coach who is teaching somone to high jump. The goal is to jump 15' - but the pupil is twelve years old and could never possibly do that - not even Olympians can do that. So the coach sets the bar really low and the student learns proper form, gradually adding an inch here and an inch there to how high they can jump. Will the student ever be able to jump 15'? Nope, at least not this side of heaven. But, through both grace and discipline, the student gradually learns how to do it better. The difference between this sort of analogy and THE DREADED LAW is that the law constantly condemns us for not being able to jump 15', but grace teaches us gradually and lovingly how to become children of God (ie. really fabulous high jumpers). Grace does not excuse our responsibility to "strive," it gives us the freedom and ability to strive without fear or anxiety.

4. Finally, Simeon, I think your example of imputation as "loving the sinner" is perfect and speaks to infusion as well. In an e-mail to me you wrote, "For me, loving a sinner is the perfect example. It is really enacted, the person is really treated as if they were perfect and worthy of love, but they are not worthy in and of themselves." That, to me, is prevenient grace. Saving grace is the grace of love that desires the person to become worthy of love, to be "saved" as it were, completely and wholly from their enslavement to sin and death. You and Bonnie (and others) "imputed" me, time and again during college. That imputation is crucial. But, I think that the love that you and Bonnie gave me was such that you loved me as I was and yet hoped that I would "become worthy of love" in the sense that you called me out when I did awful things and you helped me become a more loveable person through your example. I think that's what infusion is in my mind. God loves us unconditionally so much that he liberates us to actually become worthy of love.

Just a few ideas. Ugh, I told myself this was going to be short and then look! Darn.


Tim Galebach said...

Mattie, great post, let me hit your numbered points, as others will take care of the Luther/Augustine shit.

1. I do think that men and women are different in their tendencies here, but I'm not sure if this is a good thing, and it does seem to make it very hard for women to have anything useful to say to men (yay Tim's misogynistic tendencies!)

3. Sports analogies are deadly, and sports are the enemy of the gospel. I would say that you cannot possibly understand the true problems of Pelagianism/Semi-Pelagianism unless you have put significant time and effort into competitive athletic endeavors. Actually, I could tie this back into point 1, since there are differences in the way that (generally speaking) men and women seem to approach athletics.

Sean Doherty said...


I really really don't buy the idea that Jesus solely or even primarily meant the Sermon on the Mount to cause us to despair of our own righteousness. (Interestingly, Luther didn't think so either.) Jesus did indeed expect the instructions to be obeyed - because he points out that no-one will be part of God's kingdom without such obedience.

Squaring Matthew/Jesus and Paul on this is very difficult, but I don't think it helps to read Jesus with hyper-Lutheran spectacles. It distorts Luther as well as Jesus!!

simeon said...


The question, then, is what we are to make of 5:48, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect".

If the Sermon on the Mount is to be understood other than as Jordan has described, i.e. as a strengthening of the Law as preparation for Grace, then there is no way to read this verse other than to attach all kinds of qualifications to it.

We would have to say, "Well, what he MEANT was that we should TRY to be perfect, and do our best, and that Christianity is harder than people want to believe." Oder? It seems to me that there can be no "part-way" in perfection!

That is my view; what is yours? What do you make of Matthew 5:48?

Sean Doherty said...

That is the single biggest question I still have about understanding the NT after years of studying! I guess my ultimate answer is that I find Matthew and Paul hard to square but the best way I can do is by understanding Matthew as describing the Christian life from the point of view of human action and Paul describing it from the point of view of divine action - but they are both talking about the same thing - e.g. God is transforming us but at the same time we must strive to live holy lives - work out your salvation (sounds a bit Pelagian), for it is God who works in you. (This is not semi-Pelagian because it does not make it definitive for one's eschatological destiny)

1) It is presumably connected to the higher righteousness of vv17-20. Putting things into practice is necessary for Paul as well as Matthew/Jesus. Dikaiosune here just doesn't mean imputed. It means lived out, moral action. This is the human side - but we do also need to acknowledge the divine side, i.e. this moral transformation only comes through union with Christ by faith - what Paul and Luther mean when they say the Christian fulfills the law.

2) The OT background: this picks up a much-repeated injunction from God to his people: "Be holy as I am holy." In such a context it means set apart, different to the other nations, constantly striving to be holier - rather than saying that one must have total actual (as opposed to imputed) righteousness to get into heaven.

3) "teleios" is a difficult word to translate! It is variously translated complete, mature, whole-hearted etc. It does not seem to mean "completely morally flawless".

That is the best I can do - I am not any more satisfied by it than you will be but reading it as pure theological use of the law does not work either. Jesus clearly expects us to do as he says - as Luther saw too (in his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount).

Jeff Dean said...


Sean's comments are what makes me nervous about the *idea* of the second use of the Law.

I think Sean is correct to insist that Jesus is not simply attempting to lead us to despair. If that were true, then the *content* of the law would be meaningless. (I'm toying with believing this idea, to be frank, but that's another discussion) and the importance of his teaching would somehow be devalued.

I think you and I are given to accepting this uncritically because we, existentially, have a predisposition toward believing that human beings, at their core, despair of themselves. "Sins," in my mind at least, are merely failed often attempts to justify oneself by various systems of the law.

The power of the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus *really does* expect us to fulfill it, in the same way that we are *truly* expected not to commit adultery.

Grace is only radical and profound if it is TRULY unmerited. Any praise of the second use of the law that becomes even slightly more prescriptive than descriptive (i.e., the law is only given to condemn, rather than the given law only condemns) endangers the graciousness of grace.

Do you concur?

Colton said...


I can't speak for Simeon, but I concur wholeheartedly! Wonderful post. The only question I have is how would one speak of the second use of the law prescriptively? That confuses me.

Tim Galebach said...

Colton, Jeff is just saying that the descriptive 2nd use of the Law is to say:

"The Law always condemns." i.e., I'm describing what happens when someone hears the Law.

Making the 2nd use of the Law prescriptive is to say:
"This is how the Law always condemns", basically restricting the ways in which someone can hear the law.

So if you tell someone that Jesus just intends the "be perfect" command to mean "you will never be perfect", you're limiting the ways in which someone can feel condemned by the Law by telling them that the Law can only condemn them in a certain way.

colton said...

In other words, give them the Law and let it do its thing (condemn), but don't give them the Law AND tell them they are condemned by it, because then you restrict the power of the Law to break them down by not allowing them to think about all that the Law demands and all the ways in which they fall short? Or am I still missing the point?

Do we ever think presenting someone with the Law will NOT eventually lead to death and brokeness?

Tim Galebach said...

Yeah, that's the idea Colton. At least as I understand it from this line of Jeff's:

"the law is only given to condemn, rather than the given law only condemns".

Jeff Dean said...


Romans chapter 6 and following would be infinitely more simply had Paul access to post-modern thought.

Shall we sin that grace may about? Certainly not!

Imagine Paul is using only first-order discourse here. Shall I commit adultery in order that I may receive forgiveness for having committed adultery? (Especially if the grace one receives after sin is much better than the innocence enjoyed before sin?)

Paul must say only "Certainly not!" Why? Because of the sentiment expressed in Derek Webb's single "A New Law". If Paul is only speaking in first order discourse, then the logical conclusion of the Gospel is that we should do precisely that which God has forbidden us to do. Thus, he can give us the grace of forgiveness, and everyone will be better off.

The problem is that such intentions are predicated upon our desire for "a new law".

"Wait. So...before, I got grace by not committing adultery?"
"But now I get grace if I have committed adultery?"
"So I should go commit adultery?"

As you are ***always so correct to point out***, the grace of God must hit us in our *blindspot*. If I am sinning because I think sin is the new virtue (black is the new white? gay is the new black?) then I am merely trying to keep a new law.

Paul is saying that any law we attempt to keep, even if it represents a TOTAL superversion of the law we have previously lived under, is still trying to keep *a* law. That's why Luther tends to write about "the Law" as a category of existence, rather than a set of ethical standards.

(This, incidentally, is why we fight against new interpretations of "the Law" in the Episcopal Church--not because defining any particular action as sinful or not sinful will ultimately make a difference in whether someone commits a sin, but rather because we must maintain that the experience of failing to keep the Law does not absolve one from the responsibility. Kant wrote, "You can because you should," encapsulating the beliefs of millions of evangelicals. Kant did not understand the Second Use of the Law).

The reason we must maintain that the Second Use of the Law is descriptive rather than prescriptive is because the guilt of failing to fulfill the Law is real and true and worthy of a death sentance.

Experientially, if we maintain that the Law only exists to drive you to despair, then despair will be the focus, and not guilt. The cross is proof that the guilt is the cause of the despair, not vice-versa.

I say this because I am often very prone to maintaining that "guilt" is not really interesting except insofar as I have to connect "guilt" with "despair" when preaching. That is, I'm always trying to get people to believe that fear of abandonment is not only a type of despair, but principally a type of guilt. In truth, I often miss that point that we are morally implicated FIRST and we despair of that only SECOND.

The Law exists because God demands perfection of us. Any other discourse on the Law must first acknowledge this fact. The Second Use of the Law can only be described *after* one has come to grace.

(This was hotly contested among the second generations of Lutherans, but I follow the English Reformers on the point: Recite the Ten Commandments at the beginning of every service! Grace is only gracious when its underservedness is known!)

Jeff Dean said...

Damn the lack of spell-check, etc.

Tim Galebach said...

Don't worry chief, you'll get it right next time.

simeon said...


Thank you so much for this explanation. A few things: first, I suppose I am not really very troubled by the point that Jesus very likely meant the prescriptions of the SotM to be followed, lived out, etc. “in reality” rather than just in the supposedly abstract and theoretical mechanics of imputation.

It seems to me that, no matter how concerned he was during his teaching ministry to make sure that people understood that they needed to be holier than the Scribes and the Pharisees-- and in reality, not just in theory—his expectations about what would happen must at the least have been a bit lower than you imply. The reason is that he felt that he needed to die. The situation of his followers, of the Jews, and in fact of “all nations” was such that a new covenant was needed in his blood, “which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Maybe his view of the direness of the human predicament darkened over the course of his ministry, leading him to the conclusion that the Cross, not just the Incarnation, was needed in order that his followers would not “go away into eternal punishment” but “into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46). Or maybe John saw more clearly than Matthew that Jesus had the whole story in mind from the beginning—but that is a different question. The point is that for some reason, even in the Matthew account, he felt his death was necessary, and the SotM must be read at the very least with this in mind, if not solely through that lens.

A second point: I am nervous—as you guessed I would be!—by the blurriness and vageness of your account of how Paul and Matthew might be squared. That one espouses the human perspective, and the other the divine, seems like a scholarly distinction that neither Paul nor Matthew would have admitted to. I say this also because it seems to me that nervous and insecure human beings, faced with the eschatological reality of a final judgment to come, a judgment that will send some to eternal punishment and some to eternal life, will find little solace in this awkward juggling of perspectives.

When you talk about “God transforming us, but at the same time we must strive to live holy lives”, what does “must” mean? Is it a non-eschatological “must”? Is it the striving that is key, not the achieving of the holy life? If so, is it the striving then that has eschatological significance? Eschatologically and soteriologically speaking, is the striving prescriptive, or merely descriptive?

You may say that I am reading Matthew with Pauline spectacles, or that I am reading a 1st century text with the problems of 16th-21st century theology in mind. But I do not think so. If, as the New Testament seems to testify, there is a final judgment of utmost importance, if soteriology has the overwhelming ultimate significance that such a final judgment would seem to be giving it, then these questions are of utmost importance. In fact, they are of more importance than figuring out precisely what Matthew seemed to mean Jesus to have meant in chapter 5!

This does not make the historical question irrelevant, but it does, in a sense, make it secondary, at least insofar as this historical datum would seem to undercut or qualify the other, eschatological data in the New Testament, and in fact in Matthew itself (For instance, another “dikaio-” word is used in an unambiguously eschatological sense in 25:46, for it is the “righteous” (oi dikaioi) who will go to “eternal life”. Therefore the righteousness of Matt. 5 has soteriological consequences, does it not?). We cannot step back and say “on the one hand, moral striving and even achievement is genuinely significant to Jesus, and on the other, eschatology and salvation from damnation is another, equally significant theme for Jesus in Matthew.” We cannot do this because if the latter is true, then it must be more important than everything else.

Thoughts, Sean? Anyone else?

simeon said...

One more point: the overwhelming significance of the soteriological/ eschatological question does not therefore empty the Law, or Jesus’ moral teaching, of meaning, as Jeff fears it would. We cannot read Matthew 5:17-20, etc., and not think there is real content to the Law. There are two reasons why the Law is not emptied of meaning:

1) Jesus really had to die. The Law really had to be fulfilled in our place; it was not just a rhetorical device God used to bring us to our knees, though it is also that. It required the real, historical, death of God himself. It didn’t just have to be fulfilled “in theory” but not in practice. It had to be fulfilled in practice, but not by us.

2) The fruit of the Spirit, the descriptive transformation and holy behavior and moral life and so on of the believer, conforms precisely with the prescription of the Law. And where it is not taking place, that person is not saved (though I think God’s idea of sanctification and our own expectation is not always exactly the same. Hence planks/ specks). We really will act more and more as Jesus commands us to in the SotM. Precisely so. The difference is merely whether or not the human will is the Archimedean point on which that sanctification/ transformation turns. But to take the moral prescriptions of Matt. 5, etc., solely on face value, is to ignore the overwhelming and all-significant fact of the severe and eternal Judgment to come, to which Matthew also testifies.

Ok those are just my thoughts. The historical issue is an extremely important one—thank you for bringing up the importance of understanding the texts as they were meant to be understood. My problem I suppose is that so often these days the historicism is used as a trojan horse for a semi-Pelagianism that has vast soteriological and eschatological—not to mention pastoral!—implications. I believe that Bible cannot be made sense of without understanding the “more important” bits in light of the “less important” bits, awkward as I know that sounds. But it is undeniable that our relationship to the final Judgment is more important than, well, anything. Insofar as they are opposed, soteriology must always trump ethics (though we hope and believe that they will not in practice be opposed!).

What do you think, Sean? Is my reading too skewed?

colton said...

Jeff, all you had to say was "blindspot!" I get it now. That is one concept that I do understand! (All the other stuff you said was good too. I've never thought about antinomianism as a from of _keeping_ a new law, but you are clearly right to point this out. In fact, now that I think about it, that is pretty brilliant.)

Simeon, those were very helpful posts as well, especially the second. I get eschatology; one of these days I will know what "soteriological" means.


mattie said...

Simeon -

I don't have the time right now to reply to your entire post (and I am still planning to reply to your e-mail when I find time - crazy week!), but I need to quickly disagree on one thing. I would contend that the "fruit of the spirit" and/or the ethical Christian life DOES NOT "conform precisely with the prescription of the law." In fact, there are several times when Jesus says, "you have heard it said...but I say to you." I don't have time to find the precise cites, but I think of stopping the stoning of the adulterous woman, desacralizing the temple, and encouraging his disciples to break the sabbath off the top of my head. I read this explained by the fact that parts of the law are ethical (ie. 10 commandments) and parts are ceremonial (ie. levitical instructions) and Jesus only undermines the latter. I would disagree with this interpretation for a couple of reasons, such as the fact that keeping the sabbath is in the Mosaic law and also that the Hebrew people themselves did not make such a distinction.

I think the reason this is an important point for me is that Jesus did come to fulfill the law; the Roman Catholic Church (and myself personally) doesn't dispute that. "The law" as Jesus spoke of it was a specific battery of Hebrew behavior designed to bring about righteousness (which was often quite retributive), not moral action generally. The Sermon on the Mount does not follow the law; it is dramatically different! I think what Jesus invites his followers into is the freedom to live a life of ethical action based on love, in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, rather than rule, hence the restatement of the most important commandment as love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor.

More later (if I get this damn paper on Hauerwas done...),


bonnie said...

Hi Mattie!
If Jesus only came to fulfill the ceremonial law (i.e. "the battery of Hebrew behaviour"), doesn't that make his fulfilment relevant only to the Jewish law?

Sean Doherty said...

Thanks Simeon for taking the time and trouble to respond to me. I'm afraid I don't have time at the moment to respond in as much depth as I want and as your thoughts deserve but I am really interested and excited by this discussion so I hope we can continue it!

I think your theology is right but your exegesis is wrong! I am not criticising the theology itself. I don't object to reading Matthew through Paul's spectacles - I think it's necessary. But I also think we need to read Paul through Matthean spectacles - i.e. take each on their own terms, and then try and understand them together.

Jesus and Luther saw the correspondence of legalism and antinomianism - they are two sides of the same coin. So they both fiercely attack the lowering of standards which they saw. They both restate God's will, and demand that it is done. The distinction between expectation and will is meaningless - yes of course Jesus knew damn well that people wouldn't meet the standards he set out but that doesn't mean he is setting them out as a theological use of the law. He is setting them out because he wants them to be obeyed. Matthew 25 is a perfect case in point. How on earth do you derive eschatological assurance from that? ISTM we can't avoid the fact that Jesus wants to shake us up from our complacency, as well as providing us with assurance of forgiveness. I haven't so far made any more sense out of that paradox than I have out of human responsibility and divine sovereignty, so I believe them both, not knowing how to square them. Assurance is important, but so is stirring us up from complacency.

mattie said...

Bonnie -

That's not what I'm saying at all. I'm saying Jesus did come to fulfil "the law" - all of it - as it was given to the Hebrew people through the Mosaic covenant. In my understanding whenever Paul talks about law he talks about "the law" not "a law" or "law generally" and since he was a Pharisee, it seems that it was pretty clear what he was referencing.

I believe we have been given a new and everlasting covenant, one with consequent blessings and responsibilities. The "command" of the new covenant is not a legalistic one; it is the invitation to love as God has loved us. The "command" of the prior covenant was "the law."


colton said...


I think you are right to point out, "the 'fruit of the spirit' and/or the ethical Christian life DOES NOT 'conform precisely with the prescription of the law.'" For example, we as Christians do not have to restrain from eating certain foods, nor must we be circumcised (the classic example.) Clearly, we as Christains are not beholden to the same specific manifestations of the law that the Jewish people were before Christ's arrival.

However, I would contend that "the fruit of the spirit and/or ethical life" DOES conform to the SPIRIT of the law. Hence, Jesus corrects misinterpretations of the law in those cases in which the letter of the law has blinded us to the more important spirit of the law. To use your own examples, I think this is what is going on with regards to the Sabbath laws and Temple laws. Jesus was not _encouraging_ his disciples to _break_ the Sabbath laws, as you say. Rather, he was showing them what the laws regarding the Sabbath were really all about.

Now the question arises, how do we know what the spirit of the law is? Well, as you yourself pointed out, Jesus made it very clear that the spirit of all laws is love: love God, and love your neighbor. These are the two most important commands, because from these two all others flow. Are we capable of keeping these two laws on our own? Clearly not.

I also want to address the "you have heard it said... but I say to you" instances. The only time I recall Jesus uttering these words is during the Sermon on the Mount. In these cases, he is not contradicting a law, but rather he is clarifying a law. Example: "You have heard it said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I say to you, one who even looks upon a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." In this case, and in the other cases found in the SotM, Jesus is not contradicting the earlier law. Adultery is _still_ wrong for Christians, just as it was for Jews. But what he is doing is making the law tougher (this has been discussed on here before) and bringing things back to the spirit of the law (love of God and love of neighbor) rather than the letter of the law.

In closing, I must take issue with one of your closing statements:
"I think what Jesus invites his followers into is the freedom to live a life of ethical action based on love, in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, rather than rule, hence the restatement of the most important commandment as love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor."

We both agree that a life of ethical action based on _rule_ is one that does not provide freedom. Trying to keep the law/rule always humbles, breaks, and kills us, because we cannot do it. However, you assert that "a life of ethical action based on love, in the guidance of the Holy Spirit" is a life of "freedom", "hence the restatement of the most important commandment as love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor." I disagree. First, and on a side note, I am not aware that we are commanded to love our selves. Secondly, though, and more importantly, I do not believe that the simple commands to love others and to love God provide freedom. They are still law. Even if the Holy Spirit is the one to remind us of them, they are still law. By breaking down the law into those two commandments, Christ does not make the law easier for us to keep, therefore freeing us. I am just as unable to "Always Love" (cf Nada Surf) as I am to keep all the laws of the Old Testament.

What I am getting at is that freedom is never found in a law, and it certainly is not found in the law as Jesus gives it to us. Freedom comes from knowing that Christ has fulfilled and kept the law perfectly, while we have utterly failed in our every attempt to gain righteousness. But Christ, perfect as he was, died in our place so that we might live in his. Yes, God expects us to completely keep his law. Every last part. And when he looks at us, he sees Jesus, and Christ's righteousness is credited to us, so that, for God's purposes, we have kept the law perfectly. That is where I think freedom comes from.

colton said...

p.s. Mattie,

I did not read what you wrote to Bonnie before I posted. I think I see what you are getting at in that comment. As Christians, there are times (I would posit that these times are completely under God's control and completely out out ours) when I am told to do something, and instead of feeling paralyzed or defeated by the command, I feel a freedom, an ability, and a desire to do what I have been encrouraged by the Spirit to do. This is a great feeling. I think this is what you are talking about when you say, "The 'command' of the new covenant is not a legalistic one; it is the invitation to love as God has loved us." Sometimes, as Christians, we hear what could be in other situations called a "law", but instead of serving to break us down, we feel strong in the Lord and willing to follow that which he has called us to do. I know I have felt this way before.

However, I would say that these times of freedom in the Spirit tend to be the exception for me, not the rule. And it is so easy to fall into the trap of belieivng that when I hear the voice of the Spirit and do not want to follow (i.e. love others), which is usually the case, my righteousness has somehow diminished from where it was before. However, this cannot be true, because our rigtheousness is never based upon we do; it is based upon what Christ has already done.

More often than not, the "invitation" to love _is_ a legalistic one. In fact, calling it an "invitation" is misleading, because it is still a command, is it not? As has been said by others on here recently, God truly expects that we obey his commands; he does not "invite" us to obey if we feel like it. There is no punishment for turning down an invitation. Perhaps in those rare instances when we _do_ feel like it, it feels like an invitation to us, because we are both willing and able to do as we should.

The fundamental difference in our views may lie in the fact that I do not believe our anthrolpology is altered when we are saved, whereas I think that perhaps you do.

Thanks for the incredibly stimulating discussion!

mattie said...

Colton -

I think I hit the major points of your post, but if I missed anything you wanted answered, let me know.

1. We are commanded to love ourselves: "Love your neighbor as yourself." If you hate yourself that's not a very life-giving dictum!

2. I don't think the spirit/letter debate really gets to the core of the issue here. That is because I don't think the spirit of the law is/was love. The spirit of the law is/was righteousness, which is not identical.

There are a couple influences that make me feel this way. First, right now I'm reading Stanley Hauerwas (who is Methodist and/or Anglican depending on whose account you read) and his assertion is that Christian ethics are inherently different from Jewish or secular ethics because of 1. Christ's nature and our formation in that nature 2. our acknowledgement of our sinful character and a subsequent acceptance on God's behalf that gives us moral freedom 3. the narrative and communal nature of Christianity. In sum, our ethical understanding as Christians is not identical to some "spirit" of the law.

As an aside, Hauerwas has a great quotation that I think cuts to the core of the "semi-pelagian" debate earlier in this thread: "Our sin consists in our allowing our character to be formed by the story that we must do everything (pride) or nothing (sloth)." I would add that our sin is also in thinking that we have complete freedom or in thinking we have no freedom. But I digress.

Second, a British Catholic named James Alison has applied Rene Girard's mimetic theory to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus with profound results. His basic contention is that the Hebrew system is contingent on sacrifice (ritual sacrifice, self-sacrifice, priestly sacrifice, etc.) and what Jesus does is "an exact inversion of the sacrificial system: him going backwards and occupying the space so as to make it clear that this is simply murder." His theology is way too complicated to go into in this short post, but I think it has promise. The relevance of Alison to this discussion is that what he is saying is that the spirit of Hebrew law is sacrifice out of requirement; the spirit of the Christian narrative is self-gift out of love. These are inherently different.

3. It strikes me again how interrelated anthropology and our definitions of grace are. I think it is an invitation because I think it can be rejected. You think it is a command because "grace is irresistable." This is likely irreconcilable. What I know (and I think you'll agree), experientially and theologically, is that sin enslaves. There, then, is a "punishment" that comes from rejecting God's invitation to freedom through graceful holiness. That punishment is self-hatred, broken relationships, lack of meaning and purpose, despair, confusion, etc. Perhaps our different perspectives come because you've just never been "sinful" enough, Colton!

4. I speculate that this core difference between us comes from which part of salvation we emphasize (btw, soteriology is simply the study of salvation! isn't it a great word?!). I think that Jesus came to set us free from SIN and death. You think that Jesus came to set us free from sin and DEATH. Would you agree?

5. As far as the ontological difference, yes, I believe that my nature is changed because of my being put to death and rising again with Christ through baptism. But that's the beinning of the story and not the end. I believe that conversion (metanoia) is a continual experience. Don't get me wrong! I still sin. Lots. That doesn't mean I think God doesn't love me or have grace for me. I just think it breaks God's heart that I reject the love lavished on me in favor of the hatefulness of sin. That's all I'm trying to say.

So many other things to say, yet, I really really must get back to work.


Jeff Dean said...


Your point is very, very important and well taken. As you will have read above, I agree with you and defend your charge that formulating the Second Use of the Law may invalidate the urgency found in Jesus' teaching. In other word, if Jesus is trying to light a fire under our collective ass, who is Luther to put it out?

I would ask, however, whether you are maintaining Christ's concept of forgiveness as strongly as you are defending his formulation of the law. His lavishing of grace is as radical and liberal as his teachings are conservative and overwhelming.

As a mere man, I am apt to emphasize one over the other based on the psychological pressures I am feeling at the moment. But Christ was able to hold each dramatically and perfectly.

As a final question, I'm curious about your theological anthropology.

At first I was going to ask, "Do you believe the problem in our world is too much forgiveness and not enough condemnation?" But, I stopped. That very well might be the problem! Theological anthropology becomes the issue, then.

If sin is taken too lightly, how might we maintain to stricture of the law, while still maintaining the liberality of grace?

That is, to borrow from Bonhoeffer, how do you suggest we maintain BOTH that grace was purchased at a very high cost, but is nevertheless given out absolutely freely?

mattie said...

Jeff -

You wrote: "How do you suggest we maintain BOTH that grace was purchased at a very high cost, but is nevertheless given out absolutely freely?"

Not to speak for Sean or anything, but I know how you do it! Two words: free will :)

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:36)


Jeff Dean said...


Your citation is a true description: Whoever loves Christ will be saved, and whoever does not, will not.

So, go and love Christ.

John Zahl said...


one other query from my end. It's sound like maybe you are suggesting that this Usus Theologicus read on the Law (that it convicts rather than prescribes) doesn't "stir us up from complacency". I thought that to be exactly what it does, and, for that reason, I am very reluctant to do away with the Law. I think we need it, though it be confined to its strange back-handed 2nd Use nature only, for exactly that reason. Otherwise, I see anti-nomianism. What do you think, Sensei? (please be gentle)

like a very smooth stone in the thin, thin rain, JAZ

simeon said...

Sean, thank you so much for another very helpful response. I have much to learn from you!

My question, in light of what you have said, is the same as JZ's: could you explain more precisely what the difference is between Jesus preaching that which he expected to be obeyed but did not believe we could obey, and Luther's second use of the Law? As in, why is this formulation of Luther's so problematic to use as a helpful interpretive framework for understanding the Sermon on the Mount? I guess I don't see the fundamental difference between using the Law to "kill" and using the Law to "shake us up from our complacency".

So please explain, when you have a minute. This is very helpful.

Thanks Sean!

bonnie said...

Hey y'all, if you add a "y" to "free will" you get "free willy".


John Zahl said...

Folks, it may be a brief while until we hear from Sean again as he is currently in the midst of running the Oxford University Christian Mission Week (which is worth praying for!). Sean, who is a full-time student, working on his D. Phil in Systematic Theology, in my estimation (and other than Alister McGrath), is the man with the firmest grasp on the Gospel, the Bible, and Ministry (and the relationship between the three), of anyone here at Wycliffe. I wish that one day I could become a member of his church! He has much to teach! JZ

bpzahl said...

I re-read Sean's and Jeff's points about readings of Matthew and Paul and the instructions/law that Jesus gave.

Experientially, we all go through periods of "cooperation" and "rebellion". Sometimes it is so easy, and so joyful and wonderful to do those things that Jesus asks us to do. It's effortless, it feels like partnership with God, and it does _not_ feel like our efforts. For me, my first few mission trips and leading Alpha was one such experience. That's when it feels good to obey, when those instructions edify and make you feel really close to God.

Then there are times when you just can't bring yourself to obey. You can't catch those insensitive words before they go out of your mouth. You say you forgive someone, but you remain passive aggressive. You want badly to be skinny, or to be loved by a woman (even one on a computer screen.) That's when it feels terrible to obey the law, beause every effort you put in seems to simply fail. That's when the instructions make you despair.

The two do, and must, coexist, because there is great danger in prolonged obedience to/ feeling of onenness with the law (in the Spirit-filled way as I described above)--it eventually makes you feel like you are God, or at least somewhat of an equal partner in the relationship. That is because you have experienced, for a period of time, a positive action-consequence relationship. You have (by God's grace) obeyed, been edified, and as a result felt closer to God. The closer you feel, you feel more grace given to help you cooperate even more. Feels like spiritual growth!

But sooner or later (usually later) it turns into a conditional relationship. Not so much on God's part, but on yours. YOUR love for God, your delight in Him, your positive feelings towards God, etc. become contingent upon how much grace and attention He is giving you, how much He is enabling you to obey, and how much He is rewarding you (with a feeling of closeness, with actual good things happening, etc.) When He withdraws after a long period of closeness, you are left with anger and resentment. "You're not supposed to treat me like this - I thought it was a relationship!" you say. Still He does not return or answer to your desperate cries, and you get even more angry or disappointed or lonely.

Jesus' instructions _can_ edify, descriptively. But they also have an effect of elevating us in a bad way. Once we're 2 floors up, we want to get up to the 100th. My point, with regards to the law, is that GOD WON'T LET YOU find sustained edification/ encouragement/ growth in it (even "with the help of His grace"), because we want to get to the top of it ("with His grace"). That's why I think the sturdiest approach to the law is that it ultimately judges and brings us to despair.

Sean Doherty said...

Cheers all. I really think this discussion is helping me to clarify my own ideas and lead us to greater clarity together so thanks. I appreciate it lots!

Jeff - I don't think the 2nd use is wrong!!! I think it is essential. I think it is used and taught by Jesus (the Rich Young Man is probably the most text-book example?) and Paul as well as Luther!

You hit the nail on the head in your question about theo. anthropology. This is really helpful to disclose our deep agreement - I think that in the church but even more in the world the problem is not antinomianism but legalism - everywhere people are weighed in the balance and found wanting - in work, in relationships, in family, in the gym, by our kids, in the supermarket, in church, etc. etc. Last week at church a woman told me that the reason why she comes to church is because it is the only place she doesn't feel people are weighing her up all the time, evaluating her and judging her. Wow! That is what Christ and therefore Christians really have to offer. I also really believe that transformation and sanctification only come through the gospel.

Simeon - the difference between Jesus and the 2nd use is that although he knew we wouldn't perfectly obey the S on the M, he preached it to show us how to live, rather than to cause us to despair of our ability to keep it. That at least is the only way I can understand Matthew's gospel.

How do you understand Matthew 25, Luke 16 etc.? I would love to know how to make sense of these passages that seemingly teach salvation by works!!!

Jeff Dean said...


I think the key to Matthew 25, at least, is that both the "goats" and the "sheep" (as it were) say to Christ, "Lord, when did we see you and...".

That is, those who are vindicated had no idea their lives were to be vindicated, and neither did the damned forsee their failure to act on Christ's behalf.

It would seem, then, that something else is at work--something that credits those who are not seeking their own salvation, and something that discredits those who are.

Cranmer certainly maintains that the Lord has prepared good works for us to walk in, but, in keeping with this above interpretation, the prayer book directly contradicts the notion that walking in those works is in any way salvific.

Will good works justify? Never. Will the justified do good works? Always.

Sean Doherty said...

Quoth Jeff:

"That is, those who are vindicated had no idea their lives were to be vindicated"

Doesn't that spell a far more conclusive end to all assurance of salvation than my interpretation?!

Tim Galebach said...

Sean, it's too bad that this thread is buried in the blog now, but to answer your question:

Regarding the salvific assurance that your good works have brought you, yes, Matthew 25 is the end of that assurance. You have correctly recognized the radical and earth-shattering implications of this passage.

Sean Doherty said...

You're half right - it spells the end of salvific assurance by good works... but it still seems to make salvation dependent on them!!

Let's be clear: I don't *want* to believe that this is what Scripture teaches anywhere. But I just can't get around what seems to be the obvious meaning of the passage (and nobody else seems to get around it either). Even Luther seems to understand this as the simple meaning of this and similar passages.

Tim Galebach said... if salvation is dependent on good works that the righteous do not know they are performing, how in the world can we trust that we will end up performing the works necessary?

F word anyone? (5 letter variety)

This is where I think that Romans 4 (and to some extent James 2) are crucial to understanding the Gospel.

sean doherty said...

Hi Tim

Obviously they are crucial!! Please make an effort to read what I am actually saying. I am not saying that these passages represent the essence of the gospel - just that I struggle to understand them in the light of the gospel since on the surface at least they seem quite antithetical to it.

Tim Galebach said...

Sean, I'm so glad we have this thread to ourselves. I'll go brush up on Luke tonight (I think I know what you're talking about), but I actually do think that Matthew 25 is CRUCIAL to the Gospel. I would probably make it a top 5 passage.

When I mentioned Romans 4, I did NOT NOT NOT mean to suggest that Romans 4 is more "relevant", and that I wanted to brush Matthew 25 to the side by focusing on the "more relevant" passage. Let me come back to this in one sec...

You seem to be saying:
1. A priori, we are not saved by works
2. Matthew 25 says that we are.
3. So what's the deal?

Then, to rephrase you:
If I accept Jeff Dean's interpretation/observation, that the righteous had no idea that they were doing the works, I seem to be in a worse place than ever! I live my life believing in God, and at the end I go in front of him with my knees knocking together, and find out if I drew a winning lottery number.

Is that a fair summary?

Given all this, I would accept Matthew 25, but add that if the situation it describes is true, our only hope is to have faith that God will carry out those works in us, since we cannot know if we are performing them (or at least the useful ones). This is why I referenced Romans 4.

Anyway, let me know what you think.

Tim Galebach said...

Also, I don't mean to take away any of the "fear and trembling" contained in Matthew 25. I feel sort of scared when I read it, and if I've discussed it flippantly at all, that was not my intent. But I still stand by my reading of it.