Thursday, July 27, 2006

Nathan James, 1 Year Old (give or take a few days)

Well, as interesting as my double imputation posts can be, I thought it appropriate to honor my second son's first birthday. As you can see, he is quite the looker (takes after his mother). We've got it all here: Nathan happy, Nathan looking at the sky, Nathan as a suave football lineman, Nathan as a fearless kung-fu fighter (of course he has a way to go before he can compete with this kid), and Nathan wishing Dad would leave him alone. I'll let you figure out which pictures are which.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Augustine on Grace and Freewill

Due to a link regarding my Augustine posts by the Pontificator, both Mike (Catholic) and Perry (Orthodox) have jumped into the discussion regarding the nature of freewill, turning the discussion away from Edwards and Luther and toward Augustine. Fine with me. The previous thread got a bit heavy, so I want to take up the discussion here in the form of a post. A couple of preliminary thoughts:

1) Coming from different traditions, it is important to define terms. I will continue to use the terms compatibilistic and libertarian as defined in a previous comment, which read,
What I mean by compatibilistic freedom is "any conception of human freedom that is compatible with unconditional election and infallible grace." Libertarian freedom conversely, is "any conception of human freedom that denies unconditional election and infallible grace." Not all compatiblists use the same means to arrive at a compatibilistic conclusion (same with libertarians).
My primary contention is that Augustine was a compatibilist (as was Edwards, Luther and Calvin). It is my understanding that Benard, Thomas and Scotus were all compatibilists as well, but I have not read them directly. And I tend to agree with Mike that many Catholic theologians (past and present) have not been compatibilistic in the sense defined above.

2) Mike writes, “As for Augustine, his corpus is so vast that he can be plausibly interpreted as either a “libertarian” or a "compatibilist." That is precisely why he is the "father of two traditions." I disagree with Mike at this point. Augustine’s writing is vast, but he wrote repeatedly and specifically on the issue of grace and free will, such that we do not have to cull through volumes of his writing or deduce his stance through inference. His works such as On the Predestination of the Saints and On Grace and Freewill, along with his entire corpus of anti-Pelagian writings (all of which I’ve read) are all products of his mature thought and make it clear (at least to me) that he maintained a compatibilistic notion of freedom. He is the father of two traditions because he is able to uphold both infallible grace (championed by the Reformers) and conditional merit (rightly maintained by Rome).

Below I will outline my understanding of Augustine’s notion of grace and freewill. For a full treatment, see the second chapter of my thesis.

Augustine does not dispute that the will has the capacity for both good and evil, or that a man has the free ability to choose between the two. But whereas the Pelagians seemed to suggest that the will simply chooses apart from any necessity, Augustine insists that the will always chooses what it chooses in accordance with what a man deems most pleasing. Augustine writes, “Before man is life and , and whichever pleaseth him shall be given to him.” And in regards to conversion he writes, “He therefore who follows Christ, when asked why he wished to be a Christian, can answer: ‘It seemed good to me.’” And again, “For we desire a thing more ardently in proportion to the certainty of our knowledge of its goodness, and warmth of our delight in it.” Similarly, the will never chooses against its own perceived best interest. It is very difficult for me to see how Augustine is wrong here.

Augustine’s notion of freewill and grace is inseparable from his understanding of original sin. For Augustine, original sin has so marred the nature, that the individual is no longer able to perceive God—apart from grace—as the greatest good. Thus, left to our freewill, we actually move away from God, for the corruption of original sin causes us to wrongly perceive him as a detriment to our wellbeing. It is only through the gracious, illuminating call of God that the sinner is turned from sin and comes to see submission to God as his greatest good.

Yet this calling is not merely the general proclamation of the gospel that falls upon the ears of both the elect and non elect. This calling of the elect is done in a manner congruous with each particular individual. God’s perfect knowledge of each individual’s inclinations enables him to exercise the divine calling in such a way that he is completely capable of converting any individual. Augustine writes,
If God wished to have mercy on them, He could call them in a manner apt to move them so as to understand and follow. It is true, therefore, that many are called but few are chosen; they are chosen who are called in a fitting manner. . . . Whomever He has mercy on He calls in such a way as He knows suitable for him that he not spurn the caller.
So for Augustine, the grace of God is greater than sin, and his ability to woo our hearts is greater than our ability to resist. God is able to manifest himself in a manner congruous with each individual, such that that individual infallibly comes to perceive God as the greatest good. Having become thus convinced, the will naturally and freely chooses submission to God.

At this point it may be helpful to distinguish between infallible and irresistible. (I am following Eugene Portalie in this distinction). Augustine does not use these terms directly, but the substance of his argument supports Portalie’s categories. Infallible grace is “grace that always accomplishes it purpose” –nothing more or less. Infallible grace can be resisted, but is not. Infallible grace can fail, but does not. There is no ontological/metaphysical necessity associated with infallible grace. Irresistible grace, on the other hand, is “grace that accomplishes it purpose through metaphysical necessity.” With irresistible grace, the will is overrun by the force of grace. It cannot be resisted. The difference between the two is that of necessity and certainty. Infallible grace is certain, but not necessary. Irresistible grace on the other hand, is certain because it is necessary.

By way of an analogy: I love my wife very much. It is therefore certain, that I will not freely choose to kill my wife; yet it is not necessary that I will not kill my wife. Every night we go to sleep I have the power—indeed the ability and freedom—to kill my wife. The fact that it is certain that I will not kill her does not render my freedom to do so any less free.

For Augustine, due to original sin, the trajectory of the free sinful will is always away from God, for lost in the corruption of original sin, the human mind is no longer able to perceive God as the soul’s greatest good. Yet through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the mind beholds the infinite majesty of the divine glory and becomes convinced of the truth. Thus convinced, the will freely—and infallibly—submits to God. Again, it is like a buyer and a seller. The buyer may be unwilling to buy at the beginning of the sale, but as the salesman “enlightens” the buyer to the wisdom of the purchase, the buyer becomes freely willing to engage in the transaction. The salesman does not negate the buyer’s freedom in order to close the deal—there is no hypnosis or necessity that “forces” the buyer to buy. The buyer freely chooses to buy because he has now become convinced that it is in his best interest to do so. Perhaps a profane analogy, but God is like the consummate salesman. There is no heart to which he cannot sell his grace.

For Augustine, there is no metaphysical necessity that the sinner respond favorably to grace. Yet it is certain that the sinner will respond to grace, for God’s ability to woo an individual is such that he can convince even the hardest heart to repent. For Augustine, God’s grace is infallible—it always accomplishes it purposes, but is not irresistible. It is this “certainty” of grace, I think, that separates Augustine from Trent. For Augustine, God always closes the deal. I may be wrong here, but as I understand Tridentine Catholicism, God’s grace does not always succeed in converting the sinner.

And in regards to predestination, it seems to me that either we say that election is dependant ultimately upon man (God’s foreknowledge of man’s free choice) or it is ultimately dependent upon God. I suppose we could claim mystery at this point, but Augustine (and I think rightly) goes with the latter. For Augustine, predestination is not some cosmic tractor beam that necessitates the conversion of the elect. Rather, predestination speaks of God’s decision in the past to do something in the future. The elect do not convert because they are predestined, as though predestination itself accomplishes anything, but rather the elect convert because God meets them in the present and works a work of grace in their hearts, illuminating their minds and compelling them to freely repent.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

More on Edwards and Luther

Following up from my last post . . . both Edwards and Luther reject libertarian freedom, and both Edwards and Luther affirm compatibilistic freedom. They just use different terms to say the same thing. But why?

Luther arrives at his conclusion in light of Catholic scholasticism, which is arguably semi-Pelagian. Consequently, he is very concerned to demolish the sense of self-sufficiency that came to life under this soteriological paradigm. Since freewill was understood in strictly libertarian terms (by both the populace and theologians) Luther feels he has little choice but to deny it. He acknowledges that some might redefine the notion of freewill in such a way at to harmonize it with his position (which is essentially compatibilistic) but he dislikes the term so much that he doesn't think it worth salvaging. For Luther, the term has for so long been understood to speak of man's autonomous, innate ability to turn toward God unassisted that he thinks it deceptive to use it with any other definition (even a compatibilistic one). Yet this is exactly what Edwards does.

Unlike Luther, Edwards is writing in light of an Old Calvinism that has become so entrenched that many congregational preachers are afraid to offer the Gospel indiscriminately. How can we say that God will save you if you repent when we don't know if you're elect? Rather than fighting against an over zealous optimism regarding the potential of the will, Edwards was fighting against Calvinism run wild. The eighteenth-century New England context had so abandoned the notion of freewill, that Edwards felt a need to resurrect it. Yet rather than resurrecting the libertarian freewill of Luther's day, Edwards argues for a compatibilistic notion of freewill that is substantively the same as Luther's (and Augustine's). The main difference between Luther and Edwards then, is that Edwards uses the term "free" where Luther won't, even though they are saying the same thing.

So in both cases, the theological/social context played a role in shaping Luther's and Edwards' notion of the will. Luther's greatest fear was Pelagianism, and so he denied freewill altogether. Edwards' greatest challenge was fatalism, and so he resurrected and redefined the notion of freewill. Yet both are in agreement on the essential mechanics of conversion.

The question remains then, which theological/social context do we find ourselves in? Who's articulation should we follow. Certainly contemporary protestant Christianity (both conservative and liberal) leans closer to Pelagianism than to fatalism. Yet in spite of this, I still am inclined to follow Edwards--for two reasons. More in the next post.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Luther and Edwards on the Freedom of the Will

I have been told that Luther and Edwards—though both finding continuity with the Augustinian tradition—differed slightly on the subject of freewill and grace. On the surface this seems true. Edwards maintains the existence of freewill in his treatise The Freedom of the Will (unsurpassed in my mind). Luther on the other hand, denies the existence of freewill altogether in his of the Will. After reading Luther, I’m fairly certain that the discontinuity between Luther and Edwards is largely semantic.

Both Luther and Edwards (as well as Augustine) describe the mechanics of the will in near identical terms. Luther writes, “A man without the Sprit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were dragged into it by the scruff of the next . . . he does it spontaneously and voluntarily” (102). I haven’t the desire to drag out my copy of Edwards, but his language is nearly identical (as is Augustine’s). For both Luther and Edwards, every choice that is made by an individual is made voluntarily and without compulsion. No one is forced to do anything against that which he or she desires. And for both Luther and Edwards, God's grace is infallible and unconditional in the slavation of the elect. After reading Luther, it seems to me that the difference between these two theologians arises only when we fail to consider their differing definitions of freewill. Utilizing the contemporary distinction between libertarian and compatibilistic freedom helps to harmonize these two theologians.

Libertarians (read “Arminians") insist that for the will to be truly free, nothing, not even a person’s own nature/mind, can have an infallibly determining impact on that person’s will. We simply choose or don't choose, and nothing within us can constrains us either way. But for compatibilists (read “Cavlinists”) such as Augustine and Edwards, though the will is free to choose whatever it ultimately desires, it is not free to choose that which it does not ultimately desire. We are constrained by our innate desires and our perceptions of reality (i.e., what we percieve to be in our best interest). Thus, though sinful man is free to choose God, he will never do so in as much as submission to God is not perceived to be in his best interest. So for compatibilists such as Augustine and Edwards, though we have freewill, it actually stands in the way of our conversion, for the trajectory of the fallen will is always away from God, not toward him. Only when God confronts the will of fallen man with infallible grace is man turned from his sin and toward God. Libertarians reject this logic, though in my estimation, struggle to provide an adequate alternative regarding the mechanics of the will’s choosing.

Herein lies the difference between Luther and Edwards: Luther does not recognize the distinction between libertarian and compatibilistic freedom. I am not enough of a medieval scholar to know, but I suspect that such a distinction was not part of the scholastic conversation. Luther defines freewill in libertarian terms, and therefore, denies its existence. Edwards on the other hand, recognizes (develops?) the distinction between libertarian and compatibilistic freedom; he rejects the former and affirms the latter. So when Luther denies the existence of freewill, he means to deny the existence of libertarian freewill—something that Edwards also denies. And when Edwards affirms the existence of freewill, he means to affirm only the existence of compatibilistic freedom—again, something that Luther also affirms (though not quite in those terms).

So in summary, both Edwards and Luther reject libertarian freedom, and both Edwards and Luther affirm compatibilistic freedom. They just use different terms to say the same thing.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Erasmus and Post-Conservatism

Having finished with Braaten, I am now reading Luther’s Bondage of the Will. For those that don’t know, Luther’s Bondage of the Will was written against Erasmus’ Freedom of the Will. In the historical/theological introduction, editors Packer and Johnston do a fine job of establishing the context for Luther’s work. Erasmus, arguably the finest scholar of his day, was a humanist who had his own grievances against the church. Early on, as the Reformation was just getting started, it was supposed that Erasmus and Luther would join forces. Such was not to be. Erasmus, though a Greek scholar of unquestionable renown, was not a theologian. In fact, he found the scholastic theology of his day to be distracting and largely irrelevant to the life of the average Christian. He was a pragmatist and a moralist and largely uninterested in questions of theology. Erasmus was after reform, but he had no ability to see the connection between ecclesial reform and theological reform. For Erasmus, one of the main problems with the church was that it gave too much attention to theology in the first place. Far better was the simple life of faith, of love and good deeds toward God and neighbor. And if he was annoyed with the theology of the scholastic theologians, he was horrified by Luther’s theology.

For Erasmus, Luther’s appropriation of Augustine’s doctrine of sin and grace seemed to render moral reform and good works an impossibility. Far better, Erasmus argues in his Freedom to simply not ask questions about such matters. Luther responds with a resounding chastisement, chiding Erasmus for being unwilling to deal with theological issues and for too quickly claiming “mystery!” about what God had clearly revealed in his word.

Without drawing too fine of a parallel, I have noticed that post-evangelicalism/conservatism has followed Erasmus’ distaste for theological reflection, chiefly in relation to soteriological matters such as the freedom of the will. Like Erasmus, it seems that much of the post-conservative world has lost patience for the traditional evangelical (Reformation/Augustinian) debates regarding the nature of grace, election, and the freedom of the will, focusing instead on pragmatic issues such as social justice, and ecclesial life. In fact, the primary place where post-conservative theologians have done a tremendous amount of work is in theological method, reaching conclusions that discourage further theological reflection. Without a doubt, the post-modern turn, embraced in many ways by post-conservatives—has called into question the viability of the task of theology all together. Doing what Luther does in Bondage of the Will (and what Augustine, Calvin, Edwards and evangelicals have historically done) is largely viewed as a modernistic and na├»ve. Far better to focus on pragmatic issues—on the life of good deeds toward God and neighbor—then to get distracted by soteriological issues. (Of course, this characterization is broad and sweeping and not a reflection of all who fall under the label “post-conservative.”)

Luther was right. The road to ecclesial reform lies through theological reform. Erasmus’ preoccupation with pragmatism and his refusal to sort through soteriological issues such as grace and the freedom of the will did little to help the Church. May we not repeat his mistake.