St. Augustine’s View of Justification

St. Augustine is claimed by protestants as a sort of proto-reformer to add a degree of legitimacy in their claim against the Roman magisterium and the council of Trent about justification and whether it comes sola fide.

But is that view really accurate?


Retractationes 2.38: “In the meantime I received from certain laymen who, however, were learned in the Scriptures, certain writings which so distinguished good works from Christian faith as to say that it was possible to obtain eternal life without the former but not without the latter. In answer to them I wrote a book which is entitled On Faith and Works . . .”

This group of laymen were advancing a sort of antinomianism and advocating that unrepentant sinners be admitted to baptism without changing their way of life. St. Augustine absolutely disagrees: conversion of life is required before the person is admitted to baptism. Here are some quotes from his On Faith and Works (tr. Gregory Lombardo, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 47(?), Paulist Press: 1988) which speak most directly to the Lutheran problem. (This text comes from 413, relatively late in Augustine’s life).

“Let us now consider the question of faith. In the first place, we feel that we should advise the faithful that they would endanger the salvation of their souls if they acted on the false assurance that faith alone is sufficient for salvation or that they need not perform good works in order to be saved.” (Chapter 14, p. 28)

“When St. Paul says, therefore, that man is justified by faith and not by observance of the Law, he does not mean that good works are not necessary or that it is enough to receive and to profess the faith and no more. What he means rather and what he wants us to understand is that man can be justified by faith even though he has not previously performed any works of the law.” (Ibid, pp. 28-29).

It seems to me that St. Augustine’s position is shockingly Catholic! In fact, one can see how the Tridentine anathemas of the protestant position find a lot of support in St. Augustine, for instance:

Canon 19: “If anyone shall say that nothing besides faith is commanded in the Gospel; that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, but free; or that the Ten Commandments in no wise appertain to Christians; let him be anathema.”

One might object that St. Augustine is not an infallible authority and that the value of his theory must be judged against its adequacy as an exposition of holy Scripture. But of course, the same situation obtains about Luther’s disastrous dichotomy between Law and Grace. So, I’ll put this as a challenge to my readers: who’s theology is better supported by exegesis of St. Paul, Luther’s or St. Augustine’s?

The history of recent Pauline scholarship should make any overeager protestants wary of asserting that Luther must be. The case remains to be proved that St. Augustine is right, of course. But his position looks promising to me because it doesn’t postulate this big gap between James and Paul that made Luther want to cut James right out of the canon for being too popish.


35 Responses to St. Augustine’s View of Justification

  1. wtm1 says:


    I’m pleased to see you reading Augustine. As I have told you before in many contexts, I think that you would benefit greatly from a careful study of Augustine. Of course, I am being a little selfish in saying that because I want to benefit from your knowledge of him. 🙂

    In any case, I want to start by noting that your quote from the council of Trent doesn’t really land with any significant force against the magisterial reformers. The sort of questions that it is concerned with would be more in keeping with the radical reformation which, in terms of protestant / catholic discussion, muddied the theological waters of the day. Luther and Calvin, for instance, both held the Decalogue in high esteem.

    The heart of the question is how works are related to salvation. Another way we can parse things is in terms of the uses of the Law. Calvin and Luther shared the first two uses (as a foundation for civil law and as a means to shows us our inability to save ourselves). But, it is something like the third use that we are after here (NB: Calvin makes the third use the proper, Christian use). Luther can get here in a roundabout way on a good day, but he didn’t have the clarity of vision on this question to get as clear on it as did Calvin (for whatever reason).

    Again, How are works related to salvation? Are they necessary? Yes. I think that all Christians would agree with this (Should we keep sinning so that grace may about? Hell no!) But, saying that obedience is necessary for salvation is not the same as saying that it is a necessary condition. What protestants want to maintain is that there are no conditions for salvation. This does not mean that true faith will necessarily work itself out in true obedience (it should and will), but that this obedience is not a prerequisite for reconciliation with God.

    The key here is to ensure that we are saved not based on anything we find in ourselves (even if it is grace that has first been infused on the basis of which we are then saved in some respect) but on the basis of Christ. This is the whole point of the distinction between infusion and imputation.

  2. scholasticus says:

    For the gallery:

    Here’s the statement of Luther’s that incited (in a roundabout way) my interest in Augustine’s position on the matter:

    “So, too, no good work can profit an unbeliever to justification and salvation; and, on the other hand, no evil work makes him an evil and condemned person, but that unbelief, which makes the person and the tree bad, makes his works evil and condemned. Therefore, when any man is made good or bad, this does not arise from his works, but from his faith or unbelief . . .” Luther, “Freedom of a Christian”

    Luther’s assertion is that “no evil work makes [the one justified by faith] an evil and condemned person.” It is not such a far step from that position to the radical antinomianism of the the other reformers. And St. Augustine is quite right in seeing it as incompatible with essence of Christian faith, which brings in its train a real ontological (not merely existential, forensic or extrinsic) change in the believer.

    The challenge for the protestant who wants to hold on to an imputation theory of justification is to show how and why good works necessarily follows on the imputation of a righteousness which can never be more than extrinsic.

    However, the weight of the fathers is on Augustine’s side. As I understand the matter, they understand justification and sanctification to be aspects of the same process.

  3. scholasticus says:

    there is a short discussion of the exegetical issues over at Pontifications.

  4. bobbygrow says:

    The following is a response I did to scholasticus’ article, at my blog, at the prompt of someone else’s curiosity on what I thought of the thesis of this article (so please forgive the 3rd person that it is written in).:

    I did read that article, and found it intriguing, but not as problematic as the author’s thesis makes it appear for the Protestant. Scholasticus’ thesis is that we Prot. float Augustine’s name as if he was an proto-reformer, thus giving apparent legitimacy to the Prot. Reformers. Furthermore, he anticipates the Prot. response by acknowledging the Prot. adherence to the authority of scripture over church tradition–thus mitigating anything Augustine might have over-stepped in his soteriology relative to the relationship of good works and salvation. He believes that Augustine is indeed on the Roman Catholic side, contra the Protestant’s and more pointedly, Luther’s side. But I think Scholasticus oversimplifies this issue, since Augustine, indeed is in line with Roman Catholics when it comes to Ecclisiology, Sacramentology, and Tradition (or the magesterium interpretum); but when it comes to ontology, and epistemolgy, Augustine is not in line with contemporary, or even medieval Roman Catholic theology.

    >Augustine was by and large, Platonic, on his views relative to nature and grace. I.e. he thought of nature as something to be changed, and grace as the person and work of the Holy Spirit (i.e. relational donum superadditum).

    >Augustine held to a strict supralapsarian double predestinarian model relative to election.

    >Augustine’s views of election and predestinarianism were jettisoned by the council of Orange, while maintaining his definition on original sin.

    **Roman Catholic theology is, by and large, shaped by an Thomistic metaphysic, on nature and grace. I.e. nature is something that has been disordered, but not something that needs to be changed (just “perfected”), and grace is seen as an quality (i.e. created grace) which is infused into man as the Aristotelian habitus through which man cooperates with God, in an “operative” way ultimately being “crowned with merit”, and salvation.

    **Roman Catholic soteriology is semi-Pelagian, following the steps of John Cassian. This finds referent in my last point on nature and grace.

    In other words, everyone wants to claim Augustine, as scholasticus’ reflects–but unfortunately it would be anachronism to assume that Augustine would fit into either the contemporary or medieval mold of Roman Catholicism, and or Lutheranism. I.e. both traditions reflect Augustinianisms that emphasize certain aspects of his theology while rejecting other parts. I think that Luther indeed reflects, soteriologically, more of Augustine, than does the Roman Catholic church (i.e. view on election and nature and grace). While it appears that Augustine, in the quotes provided, affirm the Roman Catholic view–again I think we should be careful to understand that Augustine’s view looks more like Luther’s in the sense that Augustine believed that given the fallen nature of man, God must, by His mercy, pull some out (election) out of the “mass” of sin, via His “changing” grace (i.e. change in nature). This would reflect Luther’s trajectory as reflected both in Melanchthon’s 1521 Loci Communes, and the Bondage of the Will. Did Augustine see the “sacraments” and the “Church” differently than Luther–indeed, but I don’t think Augustine looks, necessarily more Catholic than Protestant. If Augustine believed “works” were integral in the salvation “event”, justification, then according to Paul, he was wrong in this regard (Eph. 2). But I would venture to say that Scholasticus is engaging in a bit of special pleading, or at least mis-informing his readers, by not drawing distinctions between contemporary or medieval Catholic views on salvation (i.e. nature and grace), and Augustines’.

    There is much more to be said, but I think this should suffice. I actually wrote a paper on Thomas Aquinas’ view of Nature and Grace for Patristic Theology in seminary. I contrasted Aquinas’ view and Augustine’s view on Nature and Grace–and the conclusion was that they were starkley different in this regard.

    Also real quickly, to the charge that Luther was Antinomian, indeed, but his view should be qualified. He was not against the “Law”, just that the Law, as an “extrinsic” or existential tutor cannot bring righteousness (contra the scholastic thomistic Roman Catholic concept of habitus). In fact Scholasticus’ quote of Luther from the “Freedom of the Christian” illustrates this point. I.e. Luther spoke of the good tree bad tree analogy. Luther, as Augustine, was concerned with the “change of nature” or “change of heart”, a heart motivated by the love of Christ–this is what “good works” flow from, if not, they are deceptive works (see Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, and Loci Communes for substantiation of this). In fact there are multitudinous passages from Luther’s “Freedom of the Christian” that I could quote, but I’ll let you look this up, that demonstrate that Luther was not an “Anne Hutchinson” antinomian–although he did see discontinuity between Law and Gospel. Geoffrey Bromiley provides a helpful summary on Luther’s view here:

    “Luther obviously does not mean that no good works can be done in fulfillment of the law. His point is that such good works can be done only as works of faith “done out of the spirit of liberty and solely for the love of God”. . . . It is through faith in Christ that we are “made righteous for the performance of works of righteousness.” As Luther puts it, God does not accept the person because of the works but the work because of the person. . . . We have to be righteous in order to do righteousness. When we are righteous, however, we will do righteousness. In this sense faith does not justify without its own works. Justification demands, not the works of the law, “but a living faith which produces its own works. . . .” (Geoffrey Bromiley, “Introduction to Historical Theology, 231)

    There indeed is tension for Luther between Law and Gospel, but this is softened by his discussion on the internal change of the person, who then “does” works, because of their changed nature–not to merit anything.

    Anyway, I’m sure more could be said, but I’m afraid scholasticus has under-stated his case by not providing more features of Augustine’s theology that actually framed, and motivated, even the quotes that this author choose to use for his brief article.

  5. bobbygrow says:

    Oh yeah, I have an article, done totally independent of this article that I just posted at my blog, it can be found at:

    Not trying to advertise, scholasticus, just thought my article pertains to the topic of your article.

    iustitia dei and iustitia christi–at once!

  6. scholasticus says:

    hi Bobbygrowss, glad to have you here.

    To put things into perspective here I will straightforwardly admit that I am no Augustine scholar, so take this all with a pinch of salt. Also, I’m not a catholic, I just happen like scholasticism and dislike people arbitrarily usurping historical figures to buttress their own claims. I accept your suggestion that I have understated Augustine’s position, but hey, i’m writing a Master’s thesis these days and don’t have as much time to dig in as I would like. At any rate, to really make the point about where Augustine differs from Luther, I think you would really have to look at the Sacramentology. It looks to me that Augustine’s view is that baptism is justification, but I would need to do a lot more reading before I’m ready to really assert that dogmatically.

    I’m a little curious as to what you mean by Augustine being a Platonist about grace. Plato, being a greesk pagan from the 4th century BC, didn’t have a notion of grace. You are right to say that Augustine thought about justification in terms of an ontological change of our natures, but I don’t see anything particularly Platonic or neo-platonic about that. It seems to be in line with the NT (“if any man is in christ he is a new creation. . . “) and the eastern fathers. (Athanasius, for instance, speaks about Christ coming to heal our natures in De Incarnatione).

    Now it is disingenuous in the extreme to claim that the catholic church teaches semi-pelagianism as if Augustine kept them from turning pelagians, but after he died, they compromised their position. In fact, the semi-pelagianism of John Cassian was condemned in the canons of the council of Orange, though not by name. I would take umbrage with the idea that Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of grace is semi-pelagian, but perhaps that should be the subject of another post another time.

    Nor am I persuaded that there is that big of a difference between Augustine and Thomas with respect to ontology and epistemology. Like Augustine, Thomas maintains that all human knowledge comes by means of divine grace. (Thomas’s understanding of divine illumination is a bit weaker than that of Augustine, because he is attempting to reconcile Augustine and Aristotle on this point. For more, cf. my paper on Henry of Ghent’s doctrine of divine illumination.) I’m not sure exactly what you have in mind in speaking of a difference between Thomas and Augustine on ontology, so I’ll wait for you to explain that more clearly. I will say though that if we look at Augustine and Thomas on what baptism is and what it does ontologically, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that Thomas is much closer to Augustine than you might think.

    just some thoughts, take care.


  7. wtm1 says:

    Just to be clear, Augustine was a Neo-platonist (not a Platonist), and he was certainly not a double-predestinarian nor a proponent of supralapsarianism. Why? Because it is not only historically impossible, it is not in keeping with Augustine’s own affirmations (although, I would be open to someone arguing that the logic of Augustine’s position terminates in these positions). Augustine is very clear about being committed to a single-predestination and his treatment of the Fall leaves no doubt that he saw creation as existing independently of the covenant.

  8. bobbygrow says:

    Scholasticuss, thank you ;).

    I’ll admit, some of my statements, were “overstatements”, i.e. the council of orange and Cassian. But, my point would still stand, viz. Roman Catholicism took a different trajectory relative to Augustine on election and predestination and salvation. And Cassian, contra, Orange’s view prevailed in some respects (I’ll just have to assert that at the moment, don’t have the time other than to assert). Btw, it drives me crazy when people usurp historical figures for their own ends as well.

    I’m no Augustine scholar, either, and I understand the time constraints doing a Masters thesis places upon someone. I’ll give you, I think I did in my original comment, that Luther and Augustine would differ on sacramentology–in fact I know they did.

    What I did not overstate was what you take umbrage with, i.e. that Thomas’ view, in particular, and scholastic views in general lead to semi-Pelagianism. It’s no secret that Thomas was Aristotelian, and indeed engaged in the synthesis of Augustine and Aristotle–but I think we end up with more of Aristotle than Augustine within the thomistic framework. My point on ontology relative to grace and nature is demonstrable. I’ll just have to assert right now, and substantiate later (I’ll post a paper I wrote on this, and let you know when I do). I already hinted at it. Thomas spoke of grace as an created quality and mediated through the sacraments, and worked out “cooperatively” as habitus in the individual. Augustine, as you note, more scripturally, thought of grace more relationally, and framed it in trinitarian terms–seeing a more “immediate” impact upon the recipient. I said he was Platonic in this regard, in general, i.e. he didn’t necessarily think in terms of “substance” and “quality” they way an Aristotelian or Thomist or “scholastic” might. The cooperative nature and subsequent implication of the thomist view of grace forwards an bilateral framework of salvation, that indeed is semi-Pelagian.


    hi. You’re right neo-platonist, I should’ve been more careful there. And you’re right I anachronized the supra language by attributing it to Augustine. Nevertheless he was predestinarian and saw humanity as a mass of perdition, from which God mercifully saves “some”–council of Orange repudiated Augustine’s view on predestination.

    Here’s an article from my prof in seminary, that will help substantiate my claim on Thomas’ and the scholastic’s semi-Pelagianism:

    when you have a chance, scholasticus, give it a read . . . I’d be curious to get your feedback.

    Where are you doing your Masters at?

    In Christ,

    Bobby Grow

  9. scholasticus says:

    Hi bob,

    I will take a look at the article, but it might take me a couple days. I think i will dig a bit deeper into Thomas on grace once I get my current chapter done.

    p.s. I’m doing an MA on the doctrine of analogy in Henry of Ghent, and I’m currently working at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium.

  10. akimel says:

    I am not an expert on Trent, and I find Aquinas very difficult to to understand; but I am confident that neither Trent nor Aquinas are accurately described as Semi-Pelagian. Semi-Pelagianism is a well-defined heresy, and neither Trent nor Aquinas (at least not the older Aquinas, the Aquinas of the ST) quite qualify. A book I have found quite helpful here is Stephen Duffy’s The Dynamics of Grace. Duffy states view of the older Aquinas this way:

    “A semi-Pelagan tendency marks the young Aquinas. If the charge appears too strong, one must admit at least an ambiguity in this matter. But when we turn to the Summa, clarity prevails. There preparation for the reception of grace demands a special divine gift internally moving and inspiring the recipient. One cannot at all properly dispose oneself for, let alone merit justification by the powers of one’s own natural resources alone. One’s coming to believe is the work of the internal movement of grace. Between the Scriptum and the Summa Thomas discovered semi-Pelagianism and Aristotle’s Ethics; a course correction followed and is first evidenced in the Contra Gentiles III, 89 and 149, 1 and 8. The crucial axiom for Thomas is this: matter does not move itself to itw own perfection; it must be moved by something else. One cannot move oneself to receive grace; one must be moved by God to receive it.”

  11. scholasticus says:

    thanks al. I’m considering doing a series on why Aquinas isn’t a semi-pelagian this summer, once I have the time to actually dig into these bits of the Summa. Thanks for the book recommendation.

    I have found a nice article on Thomas’s moral theory that you might like to peruse here.

  12. bobbygrow says:


    here’s what Dr. Ron Frost says on Aquinas’ “Semi-Pelagianism”:

    “The notion of habitus, as drawn from Aristotle’s anthropology, was crucial to Aquinas and, though widely noticed in scholarly literature, should be reviewed in passing. Habitus is the principal nexus of nature and grace in Aquinas’s spirituality, the gift of grace which supernaturally enhances nature to be able to bear the responsibilities of faith (aliquid inditum homini quasi naturae superadditum per gratix donum).11 Thus Aquinas’s view of grace combined human responsibility with divine enablement-the cooperative model of faith. Love, in this arrangement, is seen to be part of the will in order to be crowned with merit, rather than an affection which, as a response, is non-meritorious. It is this conception of love as part of the enabled will, that supported Aquinas’s crucial paradigm, of faith formed by love (fides caritate formata) in progressive justification.12

    Aquinas’s cooperative model was semi-Pelagian.13 He believed, with Pelagius, that human culpability requires that moral decisions be made freely. But, like Augustine, and against Pelagius, he held that original sin destroys any human ability to choose well. Restoration comes only by God’s grace. This led to the conundrum that morality requires free will, but original sin precludes it. In Aquinas’s solution God provides an assisting grace that enables, but does not compel, the will to choose the good. Culpability is then based on the failure to apply God’s gracious enablement. How, then, did this model compare to the Augustinian model? . . .” (see the link I left above to read the rest of this article, in the Trinity Journal).

    It’s hard to deny, in my view, given Aquinas’ view of nature and grace (i.e. Aristotelian conception), that Aquinas (young or old) was not semi-Pelagian. If the Aristotelian mechanism of habitus is tied to “grace” in the thomist conception, which it is, then I’m not sure how one can avoid the idea that the “Angelic Doctor” was semi-Pelagian.

    Iustitia Dei/Iustitia Christi

  13. scholasticus says:


    a few points.

    1st. ‘synergism’ does not = ‘semi-pelagianism’ I think this is the nub of misunderstanding here.

    Aquinas’ account is clearly synergistic in the sense that there is a cooperation of the divine and the human, but it isn’t semi-pelagian because God initiates the process by grace. As I understand the matter, the regenerating grace which allows the human will to cooperate is the “naturae superadditum per gratix donum,” i.e. the Gift superadded to nature by grace.

    2nd. ‘habitus’ in Latin means state, condition, character. Grace isn’t a habit in the english sense. If grace is a habitus, this simply means that it is a state of being. You might not like that if you think justification is merely forensic rather than ontological, but on this point I think Thomas is in step with the long tradition as seeing grace as something that affect our way of being, or that heals our fallen natures.

  14. scholasticus says:

    oops, spelling error in my post above, “gratix” should be “gratia”

  15. scholasticus says:

    oh, I’ve found a very nice presentation of the canons of the council of orange here.


  16. Pontificator says:

    I have to second scholasticus’s point that synergism is not synonymous with semi-Pelagianism.
    All the Church Fathers, including Augustine, in his own way, were synergists; all posited an authentic cooperation between God and man in the work of salvation. If being synergistic is heretical, then the entire early and medieval Church was heretical.

    But in fact, Semi-Pelagianism is a narrowly defined heresy that asserts that unregenerate man may take steps toward God unassisted by grace. In rejecting this heresy, the Church did not deny the freedom of regenerate man to cooperate, or not cooperate, with grace. It should also be noted, that the Church did not follow Augustine on all points, and we should be careful about exalting some of his idiosyncratic positions over the Church catholic. He is not the standard by which all theologies of grace and nature are to be judged.

    I commend a new book on this subject: Richard B. Bulzacchelli, Judged by the Law of Freedom: A History of the Faith-Works Controversy and a Resolution in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas (UPA, 2006).

  17. bobbygrow, et al,

    I agree with scholasticus–synergism does not equal semi-pelagianism. As I understand it, semi-Pelagianism insists that the human will can make the first movement toward God without enabling grace, not merely that there is mutual cooperation between God’s grace and man’s will. Your understanding of semi-pelagianism would impugn all non-reformed theologians (and even some Reformed theologians–perhaps even Edwards).

    But regarding Aquinas’s doctrine of grace, he is far more Augustinian/Calvinistic than you portray. Aquinas (like Augustine) held to unconditional election, and viewed God’s grace in the life of the elect as infallible. God’s electing grace does not merely make salvation possible for the elect, it infallibly secures it. While it is true that the elect co-operates with God’s grace, even such cooperation is graciously and infallibly granted by God. Thomas’ mechanics of the will in conversion gets pretty involved (not sure I even agree with all of it–I prefer Augustine and Edwards), but when it comes to infallible grace and unconditional election, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, and Edwards are all on the same page. For a good treatment of Aquinas’ understanding of grace, try Garrigou-Lagrange’s Predestination.



  18. bobbygrow says:

    Scholasticus, et al,

    thank you for the responses, I disagree. I don’t have time to address each, point by point, but in general there seems to be consensus amongst all of you on the distinction between “synergism” and “semi-Pelagianism”. The notion amongst all interlocuters seems to be that semi-Pelagianism should formally be understood as movement by the “acting” agent towards God prior to reception of “enabling grace”–correct? This is where I disagree, this is full-fledged Pelagianism, not “SEMI”. Before I respond further, I would like to know how you all differentiate Pelagianism from Semi-Pelagianism [?].

  19. scholasticus says:

    Let’s talk about the methodology here. Let’s agree to allow the church councils to define the heresies they condemn. This way we avoid the interpretive problems as to whether John Cassian is really a semi-pelagian, and so forth.

    We can summarize Pelagianism into the following six propositions (condemned by the Synod of Carthage 418)

    1. Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died.*
    2. Adam’s sin harmed only himself, not the human race.
    3. Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall.
    4. The whole human race neither dies through Adam’s sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of Christ.
    5. The (Mosaic Law) is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel.
    6. Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin.

    Likewise, let’s define Semipelagianism as that heresy defined by the Council of Orange in 529.

    Here are some of the propositions condemned at Orange:
    1. Original sin affects only the body, but leaves the freedom of the will unimpaired. Canon 1
    2. The initium fidei comes by nature, not by grace. Canon 5**

    Canon 18 also says, “That grace is not preceded by merit. Recompense is due to good works if they are performed; but grace, to which we have no claim, precedes them, to enable them to be done.”

    It seems to me that there is a strong degree of overlap between Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, but I think the difference between them is that the Semi-Pelagians accept that original sin is really a problem and that it causes the death of the body and so forth. But they still want to hold on to the freedom of the will. (Let’s speculate and say that maybe they were concerned with how God can justly damn people without free will.) Unlike the Pelagians, the Semi-Pelagians did seem to believe that everyone was born with the guilt of original sin and was incapable of being saved by their own moral action. (At least, let’s be generous and say that the semi-pelagians didn’t think of themselves as advocating their own salvation, just the necessity of making the free choice to initiate the process that leads to salvation.

    Now, the point that the council of orange makes against the semi-pelagians is that this free choice to be baptized is to save oneself in some sense. The affirmation of the council is that God’s grace, not the free choice of the creature is what initiates salvation.

    *This canon worries me. If one of our catholic pals wants to try to convince me that there was a real guy named adam who really would have been immortal if he hadn’t eaten that damn apple, let him feel free to try. But he’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

    **This canon distinguished between the initium fidei and augmentum fidei, the former comes by grace alone, but this does not rule out a synergism in the latter.

  20. Here’s how I understand the difference between semi-Pelagianism and Pelagianism.

    Pelagius and company taught that grace is natural (intellect, free will, the Law), and that it is equally present in all men at birth. There is no such thing as inherent ontological corruption. For Pelagius, the will can simply choose the good from first to last. There is no need for conversion as such.

    Augustine on the other hand, insisted that all men are ontologically corrupted in Adam and therefore supernatural enabling grace is necessary for salvation. Without God drawing us to himself, we will not come.

    When the teachings of Pelagius were condemned, those with Pelagian leanings attempted to salvage the ship by agreeing with Augustine that grace was necessary and even ontological, but that the first movement toward God was our own. Once we had moved toward God on our own accord, then God moved toward us with ontological, enabling grace. This mediating position was known as semi-Pelagianism.

    The difference between the two can be illustrated like this: Pelagianism teaches that a man can heal himself without receiving aid from the doctor (indeed, Pelagianism teaches that man is not really sick at all). Semi-Pelagianism concedes that man is sick and that he will not get better without the aid of the doctor, but insists that the choice to go to the doctor–and that actual going–is his own. Both positions were condemned at Orange and Augustine’s insistence that even the will’s first movement toward God must be enabled by grace was maintained. Orange did not condemn the notion that the will cooperates with God–only that such cooperation is self-wrought.

  21. bobbygrow says:

    Thank you guys. I agree with your distinction between Pelagianism and Semi. That’s why I continue to hold that Aquinas conception of grace and nature is semi-Pelagian. Like the semi, Aquinas did not believe, like Augustine, that man was totally depraved (or spiritually dead), only “wounded” (i.e. thus the donum superadditum). Aquinas says:

    Now his nature is disordered, however, man falls short even of the
    goodness natural to him, and cannot wholly achieve it by his own natural abilities. Particular good actions he can still perform in virtue of his nature (building houses, planting vineyards and the like); but he falls short of the total goodness suited to his nature. He is like a sick man able to make certain movements by himself, but unable to move like a man in perfect health until he has had medicine to heal him. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae A Concise Translation, 1.

    Thus man’s nature does not need to ontologically be changed, in order to move towards God, “only perfected by grace”. Aquinas held that grace (using Aristotelian categories) was a “created grace” or quality, and that God placed this “created enabling grace” within the “accidents” of man–thus “nature” (man) remains “unchanged”, and he is able to cooperate with God in his salvation as “he” (man) habituates in grace. Ozment says:

    Aquinas found a solution in Aristotelian philosophy. Grace, he argued, is in the soul not as a substantial form, but as an accidental form (forma accidentalis). In Aristotelian philosophy a substantial form denotes the essence of a thing, that which makes it what it is or in terms of which it is defined. Man’s substantial form, for example, is his reason; reason makes man a unique creature and defines his nature. An accidental form, by contrast, while very much a part of an individual, remains nonessential to its definition as the particular thing that it is. Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550, 32.

    Aquinas’ view of nature and Augustine’s are quite different, consequently their view of grace, symmetrically, is also different. Aquinas, like the semi-Pelagian, maintains, through Aristotle, the “self” initiation of man in salvation (i.e. grace as habitus in the accidents); while Augustine sees grace as something that changes the ontological nature of man, which indeed causes man to “respond” (not cooperate) to God’s salvation. There is a huge difference between the two. I wrote a paper on this topic, contrasting Augustine and Aquinas–I’ll post that soon at my blog, and let you guys read it, if you want. Thanks for the discussion! Btw, I think “response” and “cooperation” in salvation are distinct things which distinguish Augustine from Aquinas.

  22. scholasticus says:

    Well I can’t speak to Augustine’s concept of nature (perhaps Gerald could say something). But I think Aquinas is quite right to deny that sin and grace are substantial predicates. But I’m fairly sure this is a confusion caused by the terminology, so I’ll try to explicate what I presume Tommy A is getting at. I apologize if the answer is a bit lengthy, but Thomas is working in an intellectual framework somewhat foreign to our own and it is necessary to present a bit of it to get at the heart of what you are objecting to.

    A substance is an answer to the question: “What is this?” Suppose I point to Socrates and ask “What is this?” You respond, “Socrates is a human”. By giving this answer you have predicated the substance ‘humanity’ of Socrates.

    But what makes Socrates a human being? According to Aristotle there should be some feature (or set of features, perhaps) which uniquely divide things into a hierarchy of classes and subclasses. Some things are bodies, some things are not bodies. Some bodies are living, some bodies are not. Some living bodies have the power of sensation, some do not. Some sensitive living bodies are rational and some are not. Now, if this collection of properties (rational, sensitive, living, corporeal) uniquely identifies this species of human beings as opposed to all other things in the world and is universally present in each and every human being, then you have found the “essence” of what it means to be a human being. Being a human being just means being a living, sensitive, rational body. Cease to be living and you cease to be a human being.

    Now, the difference between ‘substantial’ and ‘accidental’ predicates is that substantial predicates predicate the essence, but accidental predicates predicate something else. “Socrates is black” does not tell us about he essence of Socrates which is necessarily true of him. No, Socrates’s color is purely contingent because it has nothing to do with the kind of thing he is. If I point to Socrates and ask “What is this?” it is clear that “Black” is an insufficient answer.

    Now, there are all different kinds of accidental predicates. Some accidents are qualities like color, shape, etc. One particular kind of accidents are called “states”. Examples, “Socrates is asleep,” “Socrates is wounded.” What Thomas is asserting is that Grace is a state (Habitus in Latin means “state”). If God gives you grace, then you are in grace. If he doesn’t, then you aren’t. If you think there is something like “being in a state of grace”, then you are already agreeing with what Thomas is articulating here.

    But why should the state of grace be an accidental rather than essential property?

    Suppose Socrates is a pagan and no pagans are in a state of Grace. I point at Socrates and ask “What is this?” The right answer is “A human being.” Now suppose that God moves Socrates’s will, and Socrates repents and is baptized. Now I point at Socrates and ask “What is this?” Again, the right answer is “A Human being.” If Grace is the essence of a human being, then nobody who lacks grace is really a human being. If, on the other hand, you can recognize that “sinful human beings” and “redeemed human beings” are still both human beings, then Thomas’s position poses no problem. Now, I’ve pushed some Protestants far enough that they would actually say that the unregenerate aren’t really people, but this result strikes me as so ludicrous that they can’t possibly mean it. (And it raises all sorts of troubling ethical and political problems.)

    But if “sinful human beings” and “redeemed human beings” are both human beings, then it is clear that being in a state of grace or not is an accidental rather than an essential feature of human being.

  23. scholasticus says:

    And thanks to Gerald for a very succint summary of what is at stake here!


  24. bobbygrow says:

    Spoken like a good scholastic, scholasticus :). But to me you’re arguement seems circular, since you continue to affirm grace as a quality or substance, which is what I am disputing (but not very explicitly thus far ;). Your definition of habitus might fit a semantic range, but the reading I’ve done on it relative to Aquinas and Aristotle’s usage is not simply “state” but actus. Defining habitus is key to my point, but it will require more discussion than I can engage in at the moment. I’m trying to reframe anthropology contra scholastic categories, and I think Augustine would object to Aristotliean anthropology as well–just assertion for now. I seriously do wish I had more time to interact, I’m not running away from it, just have to go to work, and take care of the fam. Maybe I’ll have more time later tonight or tommorrow to interact. I do thank you for the interaction scholasticus and gerald. But thus far all we’ve done is exchange assertions for the most part.


  25. scholasticus says:


    Never apologize on the internet for having a real life, i.e. job and family.

    I don’t think my argument is circular, but it does proceed on the basis of some basic terminological definitions (“an essence expresses a set of properties which hold universally of the species”) and some moral intuitions (“people without grace are still people”).

    You are welcome to formulate your own categories and try to articulate this a different way, but . . . I am skeptical of the success of most of what has been brought in to replace this way of thinking. (Which is not to say, NB, that I am convinced Aristotle’s ontology is true, quite the contrary, but it still seems more thorough and adequate than any of its purported replacements.)

  26. dwcongdon says:

    This has been a great discussion, and I’ve enjoyed being a bystander. As a student of Dr. Hunsinger, I feel compelled to offer his four basic categories for the relation between divine grace and human action. He distills the issues into four categories:

    1. Pelagianism – freedom alone
    2. Semi-Pelagianism – freedom followed by grace
    3. Augustinian-Thomistic – grace followed by freedom
    4. Classical Protestant – grace alone

    Now he says a lot more than just that, but those are the basic descriptions. I find it especially interesting that he places Augustine and Thomas together. This whole discussion has been an attempt to decide whether that is right or wrong. Hunsinger quote Augustine from “On Grace and Free Will”: “God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as his own gifts.” Then he goes on to quote Thomas: “Only Christ can earn the first grace for others. But once one has grace—to begin good works—one can earn further grace as a result of those works”; “No preparation is required in anticipation of divine help, but every preparation in us occurs by the help of God moving the soul to God.”

    Based on their respective theologies of grace and salvation, I think Augustine and Thomas are probably closer together than further apart. That said, I think it’s rather clear that Thomas is far more synergistic than Augustine. Augustine could rightly be identified as the forerunner of double predestination, while nothing like that could be said of Thomas.

    Now I was under the opinion that the Council of Orange’s rejection of Cassian’s semi-pelagianism was accepted today. But in the past several months, I have encountered a few people who have told me that, basically since Vat II (I think), the official Roman Catholic position is indeed semi-pelagian. I have a hard time seeing how this could be, given Orange, but these people have insisted that this is indeed the case. Can anyone clear this up for me? I don’t have the time to do the research, but if someone knows the answer, I would be very interested to hear whether these people are right or not. Whatever the case, the fact that Thomas is seen as the central theologian of the Catholic church definitely locates Catholic theologian much more within synergism than without.

    Also, one quick note: While I agree that synergism does not simply = semi-pelagianism, I think we need to be much more precise here. First, are we all speaking of synergism in terms of meriting salvation; i.e., God and humanity “working together” to bring about salvation? If so, then I fail to see how synergism does not = semi-pelagianism. Semi-pelagianism essentially states that humans have to meet God half-way: God actually saves humanity, but as Gerald stated above, humans have to go to the doctor on their own (hence the need for a kind of libertarian free will). If bringing out salvation requires some free human action—such that the human person is a co-saving agent—then we have full-blown synergism.

    However, second, we might define synergism in terms of maintaining or preserving salvation. This falls into the third of Hunsinger’s four categories, the Augustinian-Thomistic one. Here grace preceeds human action, but human action is necessary to preserve this state of grace. Hence, in Catholic soteriology, we are able to lose our salvation. There is a kind of synergism here as well, but it is a synergism that follows grace, rather than a synergism which merits grace. There is still a sense in which the human person’s actions “save” the person, but it is framed differently.

    In other words, synergism can be applied to categories 2 and 3 above. The first and fourth categories are both monergistic: in the first, humans save themselves, and in the fourth, God alone saves humanity. In the former, God does not participate in any active way (because God does not need to), and in the latter, humans do not participate in any saving way (because humans simply cannot). NB: I did not say that humans do not act, only that their actions are not salvific.

    My personal opinion is that synergism is heretical whenever it leads us to affirm that humans participate in any way in their own salvation. I find that nowhere in Scripture (it makes no sense at all of Romans), and it threatens the foundation of our faith in Jesus Christ. But I’m a radical Protestant, and proudly so.

  27. dwcongdon says:

    I’m posting another comment so that if readers of this blog are interested in checking out my own, they can. Apparently, my profile was not up to date.

  28. scholasticus says:

    Thank you for your comments David, did I understand you right that you consider anyone who isn’t an absolute (divine) monergist to be a heretic? (And the implication being that therefore both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are heretics?) You know, I’m not a patristics guy, but I’m pretty sure I can make a case for Athanasius holding some sort of synergism, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I couldn’t do the same for most of the important church fathers.

    I want to offer one clarification and then one response to an implicit objection in your post
    “I find that nowhere in Scripture”

    The clarification is this:
    I think Thomas would say that grace works monergistically in the initium fidei, but synergistically (or cooperatively) in the augement fidei, which is why you can’t save yourself, but also why your will is required to continue in salvation.

    Now to answer the implicit objection you make about synergism being unbiblical, I cannot disagree more strongly. (Synergo is a verb used at a very important place in the NT, as we shall see). So here is a little bit of biblical evidence to quell your uneasy radically protestant mind (and some of it is Pauline even):

    Phil 2.12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” meta phobou kai tromou ten heaton soterion katergazesthe. The BDAG gives as meanings of katergazomai: “1. to bring about a result by doing someth., achieve, accomplish, do”; “2. to cause a state or condition, bring about, produce, create”; “3. to cause to be well prepared, prepare someone”; “4. to be successful in the face of obstacles, overpower, subdue, conquer”. Any of those meanings should contradict your position.

    “Thus faith, if it does not have works, is dead. . . . Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works (he pistis sunergei tois ergois), and by works was faith made perfect? Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”

    Once again the BDAG defines Synergeo as “to engage in cooperative endeavor, work together with, assist, help.”

    Now as I said above earlier, it seems to me that the augustinian position on this matter is superior to the Lutheran position in that it seems to bring Paul and James closer together. I think the New Perspective on Paul research might support this too. (It’s been a couple years since I read any Wright or Bauckham, etc. And I didn’t know anything about Augustine at that point, so again, caveat lector.)

    So Synergism . . . it’s in the Bible.

  29. bobbygrow says:

    I’m back, and I’m going to close my comments on this thread with a quote from Fiering that captures my approach to articulating an “biblical” anthropology (and it’s Augustinian which gets me back to the topic of this post ;). Fiering labels this anthropology as, Augustinian Voluntarist, and he says that the Augustinian Voluntarists were:

    explicitly determinist with respect to the doctrine of predestination and God’s direct influence on human destinies, but antideterminist, in a sense, with respect to the intellectualist thesis that the will follows the last dictate of the understanding. In other words, the Augustinians denied the dependence of will on understanding-the will is free in its relations with the other faculties of the higher soul-but insisted instead on the will’s utter submissiveness to innate or infused propensities, such as the habitude of concupiscence or the influence of divine grace. Fiering, Edwards’s Moral Thought, 269.

    I took my quote from: , this is a good article by Jeff Waddington that addresses much of what we have been discussing.

    Btw, like David I am an “radical Protestant”, and hold to his position on synergism. Scholasticus you forgot to highlight Phil. 2:13, “for it is God who works in you. . . .” There indeed is “cooperation”, but that is after “justification”, and is the “sanctification” process–to subsume justification with sanctification is an category mistake.

    Scholasticus, I’m still trying to figure you out, you said you were an Protestant previously–what “tradition” do you align yourself with, if any?

    I’ll pop up to your most recent article on Thomas and habitus, and give it a read.

  30. Pontificator says:

    David, I am happy to answer your question about Catholicism and Semi-Pelaganism. The Council of Trent is absolutely clear on the question of the necessity of prevenient grace, and this teaching is reaffirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I am surprised that any informed Catholic would tell you otherwise. A couple of examples:

    “The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.'” (1989)

    “The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, ‘since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it:'” (2001)

    “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion.” (2010)

    From the Lutheran/Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification:

    “We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation. The freedom they possess in relation to persons and the things of this world is no freedom in relation to salvation, for as sinners they stand under God’s judgment and are incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities. Justification takes place solely by God’s grace. Because Catholics and Lutherans confess this together, it is true to say:

    “When Catholics say that persons ‘cooperate’ in preparing for and accepting justification by consenting to God’s justifying action, they see such personal consent as itself an effect of grace, not as an action arising from innate human abilities.” (4.1)

    I do not know of a serious Catholic theologian who dissents from the above. I would love to see the evidence for the claim that the Catholic Church has embraced Semi-Pelagianism since Vatican II. David, were the people who told you this Catholics?

  31. Pontificator says:

    A word about the heresy of “Semi-Pelagianism.” I have found in my reading and discussion that Reformed Christians often conflate “Semi-Pelagianism” with synergism. The two are not identical and the difference needs to be insisted upon. When we talk about “Semi-Pelagianism” we are talking about specific heresy. And heresy, like dogma, is defined by the Church, not by individual theologians.

    As important, interesting, and stimulating St Augustine’s personal reflections on grace, nature, and original sin may have been, his writings are not the doctrinal standard by which all subsequent beliefs are judged. The Church is bigger than the Bishop of Hippo. The Church did not receive all of Augustine’s teaching.

    If we wish to know what the formal heresy of “Semi-Pelagianism” was and is, we ultimately must go, not to Augustine, but to the doctrinal decrees of the Church—and that means the canons of II Orange. If a given theologian’s views are declared to be Semi-Pelagian, and therefore heretical, it must be demonstrated that his views fall under the synodical anathemas. So, Bobby, if you wish to argue that Aquinas is Semi-Pelagian (and I’m quite confident you are wrong about that), then you need to make your case by appeal to II Orange.

    (I ignore, for the moment, the fact that Orange has never been received by the East as enjoying ecumenical authority. This is not a problem for Catholics, but it is a problem for Protestants. Why should a local council be accorded universal authority in the absence of universal reception?)

    That Augustine and Aquinas understood nature, grace, and original sin differently does not mean that Aquinas falls under the censure of II Orange. Aquinas is clear that no individual sinner can come into the divine life by his own efforts and power. God must first act. Prevenient grace is absolutely necessary. Man cannot merit justification. There’s great debate among students of Aquinas as to his understanding of predestination. But everyone agrees that Aquinas taught that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. I’m glad to see that George Hunsinger has accurately put Augustine and Aquinas together in his typology of grace and freedom.

  32. scholasticus says:

    Hi guys, I’m sorry but I must be brief . . . thesis work calls.

    To respond to Bobby, I’m an ex-Pentecostal preacher turned Barthian turned Episcopalian turned medieval philosopher, which means that I both love and disagree with Pentecostals, Barth, Episcopalians and the scholastic masters. To break out my Evangelical cred: I studied exegesis at Wheaton College with Scott Hafemann (with whom my theological disagreements are manifest, but from whom I have benefited immensely).

    To respond to your point, I don’t think there is anything like a rigorous biblical distinction between justification and sanctification. If you want a biblical anthropology, be careful not to import this Calvinist notion back into the text without some serious exegetical work. I’d be very interested to read what you come up with on the exegesis side here.

    Now as to the fact that it is God working in us . . . sure, I don’t see how that causes my position any problems. Because by talking about synergy we aren’t invoking a competitive account where if God is working, then I am not working or vice versa. God is working in me and I am working with his work in me (but probably not in the same way). So the cooperation is simultaneous when we are speaking about the augmentum fidei. As I made clear above, and as Pontificator points out from the Catechism, the initium fidei is NOT a cooperation. So there is a monergistic moment in the process of salvation, but it is not the only moment.

    Now, you are right, of course, to bring predestination into this mix, but alas I have neither the knowledge nor the time to venture to explain the mind of St. Thomas on this issue. Perhaps in the future!

    Thanks again to everyone participating in this stimulating discussion.


  33. Pontificator says:

    I’m not sure if causality is the best way to speak of the mysterious interaction of grace and faith, but if we choose to think of the matter in these terms, then it’s crucial, as scholasticus says, not to think of it as a competition between God and man, as if divine causality and human causality works on the same plane. That would be a failure to properly distinguish the infinite, transcendent Deity from the world he has made and reduce him to an object within the world.

    In his book Judged by the Law of Freedom, Richard Bulzacchelli argues that the resolution of the paradox, or at least the proper statement of the paradox, had to await the contribution of Aquinas, with his notion of co-proximate causality. He also asserts that Lutherans and Calvinists both ran aground precisely on this point:

    “The difficulty on the part of the Lutheran formulators, of course, arises from an inability, shared with both Augustine and Cassian, to understand the notion of co-proximity with respect to causality. For the Lutherans, causality was understood in purely sequential terms, whereas within the Catholic tradition, especially as it is expressed in the work of Aquinas, causality can be both simultaneous and co-proximate, because God, who is always metaphysically prior, is an extra-temporal and extra-spacial agent, who can thus act outside a linear framework.”

  34. A few final thoughts . . . In as much as Augustine did not labor under the scholastic yoke, his doctrine of grace is not nearly as sophisticated as Thomas’. But the differences between them–from a pastoral perspective–seem inconsequential. Trying to parse out their respective understanding of the mechanics of conversion and the relationship between grace and free will can be interesting, but I’m of the opinion that the real issue for both is their congruous understanding of predestination. For me, this is the fulcrum upon which competing notions of grace turn. Both Augustine and Aquinas believe in unconditional election, the need for ontological grace (as opposed to the natural grace of Pelagianism) in conversion and perseverance, that initial grace always precedes merits, and that perseverance is a gift from God infallibly granted to the elect. For me, that’s enough to lay to rest the charge of semi-pelagiansim against Thomas.

    Also, I agree with Husinger’s grouping together of Augustine and Aquinas, but think that it is a false alternative to pit “grace followed by freedom” against “grace alone.” The impression one is left with is that grace and freedom are somehow opposed to each other–as though it has to be one or the other (a false dichotomy noted by scholasticus above). Such a bifurcation would not be accepted by either Augustine or Thomas. Further, this distinction leaves one with the impression that Augustine and Thomas–though magnifying God’s role in conversion– placed the primary emphasis on perseverance back upon human free will independent of grace. Not so. The grace of perseverance–though working through and with our freedom–is no less grace. Again, their strong predestinarianism must be considered here. God infallibly enables the elect to persevere.

    To discuss whether or not Thomas’ understanding of grace is semi-pelagian, without noting his predestinarianism, leaves out an essential element of the discussion.

    Thanks all, for a great conversation.

  35. […] We’ve discussed this topic here before. To recapitulate briefly the debate is about the relation of grace and original sin to the freedom of the will. […]

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