Sunday, January 28, 2007

David Wright on Augustine and the Remission of Sins

David Wright suggests that Augustine views the initial event of justification as consisting primarily in the forgiveness of sins, the pardoning of guilt ("Justification in Augustine" in Justification in Perspective, ed. Bruce McCormack, 60). While Wright is correct that Augustine links the remission of sins to justification so as to make them synonymous, Wright fails to consider that for Augustine, the remission of sins is an ontological affair, identical to regeneration. For Augustine, the remission of sins has to do with more than the mere pardoning of guilt (though he does occasionally use the expression in this limited sense). Most frequently—at least in his anti-Pelagian writings—Augustine uses the expression remission of sins as a way of speaking about the removal of the corruption of original sin. Discussing the necessity of infant baptism, Augustine uses the expressions, justification, regeneration, and remission of sins interchangeably. He writes
‘In God,’ however, he declares are the ‘works of him wrought, who cometh to the light,’ because he is quite aware that his justification results from no merits of his own, but from the grace of God. ‘For it is God,’ says the apostle, ‘who worketh in you both to will and to do of His own good pleasure.’ This then is the way in which spiritual regeneration is effected in all who come to Christ from their carnal generation. . . . He left it open to no man to settle such a question by human reasoning, lest infants should be deprived of the grace of the remission of sins (emphasis added) (On Forgiveness of Sins, and Baptism, I.62).
And again he writes,
A full and perfect remission of sins takes place only in baptism [i.e., justification], that the character of the actual man does not at once undergo a total change, but that the first-fruits of the Spirit in such as walk worthily change the old carnal nature into one of like character by a process of renewal, which increases day by day, until the entire old nature is so renovated that the very weakness of the natural body attains to the strength and incorruptibility of the spiritual body” (Ibid., II.44.62).
Here Augustine clearly speaks of the remission of sins in ontological terms. At the close of his article, Wright cautions against the Protestant tendency to read the Reformer's back into Augustine. I can't help but wonder however, if Wright's ability to see a distinctly forensic element in Augustine's doctrine of justification results from a failure to heed his own advice.

1 comment:

Pontificator said...

Thanks, Gerald, for this short piece. I just read the Wright piece a few weeks ago and was wondering what you might think about it.