I am just starting to work towards putting together a proposal for PhD research at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (The Free University of Amsterdam), where I hope to be accepted and work with a brilliant theologian there. At these early stages I have tentatively decided to research in the area of hamartiology, or in the area of the doctrine of sin. It will be from a decidedly Reformed perspective, including looking at this doctrine alongside of John Calvin, John Owen, Herman Bavinck, and Karl Barth; with a focus on Barth’s Christological angling of the whole doctrine. In light of that I thought I would put up a post on sin; this particular post will look at Bavinck’s description of Pelagius’s understanding of original sin, and how Bavinck sees that bleeding into Roman Catholic soteriology.
Bavinck writes of Pelagius and Roman Catholicism:
To this monk from Britain everything depended on the free will. He saw it as the characteristic feature of human nature, the image of God, the first principle and foundation of the dominion granted him. Human nature has been so created by God that, depending on its free choice, it is able to and able not to sin; and this equal possibility in either direction, as a natural good, as a constituent of human nature, cannot be lost. As a result Pelagius had to reject all notions of original sin. Adam only brought sin into the world as an example or form. There is indeed a power of evil custom, but this does not so completely control humans that, if they seriously wanted to avoid sin and lead a holy life, they would be prevented from doing so. In any case, sin is not innate; it is always—and cannot be anything but—a free act of the will. The fall, accordingly, did not just occur once, in Adam, and take the whole human race with it, but every human being is still born in the same state in which Adam was, granted that, as a result of the power of custom, conditions are less favorable now. And all humans therefore stand or fall by themselves. Sin originates anew in every person; in every human life there occurs a fall when the power of free will is neglected or applied in a wrong direction.36
These ideas of Pelagius were so obviously at odds with the teaching of Scripture and the faith of the church that they could not possibly be accepted by the church. They were, accordingly, modified and toned down in various ways. Specifically, to Adam’s transgression was ascribed a stronger influence on the state of human nature, and, correspondingly, grace was credited with more vigorous cooperation at the beginning and in the development of the new Christian life. But, fundamentally, the final decision at all these points was again reserved for the free will. In Roman Catholicism, Adam’s transgression did result for him and his descendants in the loss of the superadded gift; and insofar as God had granted this gift to Adam and he therefore should have enjoyed it, the loss of it can be called culpable. But original sin is no more than this privation; it does not consist in the concupiscence that by itself is not sin, nor in an innate evil of the will, for though the will may have been weakened, it is neither lost nor corrupted. Thus fallen nature is actually totally identical with uncorrupted nature; true, the supernatural gifts have been lost, but the natural gifts continue intact. In the abstract, therefore, a person could possibly abstain from all actual sins and, like unbaptized children dying in infancy, acquire a natural state of bliss.37 In this connection Rome could still maintain the absolute necessity of Christianity, however, inasmuch as humans, although in the most favorable scenario they could also acquire a natural state of bliss, could never by their free will receive supernatural righteousness and salvation. To that end the church with its sacraments is the only proper road. But when this Roman Catholic dualism was cast aside by the Reformation, the modalities that, within the circle of Protestantism, took over the Roman Catholic assumptions about original sin and free will 38 virtually automatically had to relapse into the ancient errors of Pelagius and Coelestis or in any case into those of Hilary of Arles and John Cassian.39 For if Adam’s fall did not, or did only in part, deprive the will of the freedom and power to do good, and original sin did not consist either in a culpable loss of an original supernatural gift, then in that same measure grace became dispensable and Christianity was robbed of its absolute character.40
If you’re unaware, Pelagius was a 5th century British monk, and a counterpart of Augustine; they famously dueled-off, theologically, resulting in some interesting reflection by Augustine on his own doctrine of sin (but we won’t get into that presently). As Bavinck reveals, Pelagius placed a heavy emphasis upon the neutrality of the human will towards sin or towards not sinning. Pelagius had influence upon the church, but as Bavinck notes, the church attempted to soften the hard teaching of Pelagius’s concept of an absolutely free-will (i.e. with no need of God’s grace). This softening by the church happened early on, and somewhat compromised allowing for an idea of free-will, but the need for a prevenient grace to provide enablement for a person to essentially cooperate with God in their salvation, and progressively find favor with God finally resulting in the reward of eternal life. The II Council of Orange (529 ad.) wrestled with this issue, rejecting what could be called ‘semi-pelagianism’ (similar to what I just described) in favor of what they called a ‘semi-Augustinianism’ which focused more on the need for Divine intervention and God’s grace than on ‘free-will’ in the framework of salvation.
As Bavinck highlights, later in Mediaeval Roman Catholicism this idea remained present; i.e. the need for an gratia infusia, an ‘infusion of grace’ remained in order for the potential Christian to have the capacity to move beyond the ‘natural’ (i.e. Pelagianism) state, and move into a super-natural mode wherein the person could cooperate with God in the appropriation of eternal life. It is, for Roman Catholics even today, the church’s role to dispense this grace through the sacraments and re-presentation of Christ’s body in the Holy Mass. All of this to cure the ailment that sin is for the human person.
What is interesting to me about Bavinck’s description of things is how he highlights the kind of Thomistic conception of sin that funds not just the theology of Roman Catholicism, but also large parts of what later developed in what is called Post Reformed orthodox theology; insofar as the latter imbibed the same type of Thomist intellectualist anthropology that funded the Tridentine theology of the Romish trajectory.
Interesting even as I dabble into this how interrelated many themes are going to become simply by focusing on a doctrine of sin. Issues of anthropology, predestination, salvation, ecclesiology, ontology/epistemology, Christology and a host of other things are all implicated and interrelated to how we understand sin and its function within the broader theological framework. I will obviously have to work at how I want to delimit particular aspects, and elevate others for the purposes of research. Writing blog posts like this, along the way, I think, will help me to do that.