A Reply To R.C. Sproul Regarding the Catholic Doctrines of Original Sin and Free WillJul 12th, 2012 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
Ligonier recently posted a lecture by R.C. Sproul titled “A Divided Will?” in which Sproul sets out to present and criticize the Catholic doctrine of original sin and free will.
At the beginning of the video Sproul claims that there is a certain ambiguity built into the Catholic system of understanding the relationship of the will of man to original sin. To show that ambiguity, he looks back into Church history, and reviews the Catholic Church’s condemnation of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism in the fifth and sixth centuries, and then considers briefly what the Church taught at the Council of Trent.
He claims that the Council of Trent appears to repudiate Augustinianism, and that the Catholic Church does so clearly in the Jansenist controversy. So Sproul claims (around 3:30) that all the options of understanding the relationship of the will of man to original sin have been condemned by the Catholic Church. He also claims (around 3:50) that most Protestants view modern Catholicism as having reverted back to a form of semi-Pelagianism, and therefore being inconsistent with its prior rejection of semi-Pelagianism.
So first (around 5:00) he focuses on Canon 4 of the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, which reads:
If anyone says that man’s free will moved and aroused by God, by assenting to God’s call and action, in no way cooperates toward disposing and preparing itself to obtain the grace of justification, that it cannot refuse its assent if it wishes, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive, let him be anathema.
He claims (around 8′ – 9′) that for the Catholic Church, the person must cooperate with infused grace. Then (around 9:40) he explains the nature of the ambiguity he mentioned earlier. The ambiguity, according to Sproul, is this: “They talk about the grace of justification. Are they talking about the grace of regeneration, which is necessary to awaken somebody from spiritual death, or are they talking about a cooperation that takes place after regeneration?” According to Sproul, for both Augustine and the Reformers, regeneration is monergistic, by irresistible grace, and the will is utterly passive in regeneration.
Then around 19′, he discusses the Church’s condemnations of the theses of Michael Baius. The Catholic Church condemned a number of theses put forward by Baius, among which were the following two: That the will without grace can only sin, and that the sinner is moved and animated by God alone. Sproul claims that in these theses, Baius was relying directly on Augustine, that apart from regenerating grace, the sinner is free only to sin.
Around 20:30, Sproul discusses the Jansenist controversy, and claims that the Jansenists were trying to maintain an Augustinian position. The Church condemned five Jansenist theses, of which Sproul mentions the following three:
1. Some of God’s precepts are impossible to the just, who wish and strive to keep them, according to the present powers which they have; the grace, by which they are made possible, is also wanting.
2. In the state of fallen nature one never resists interior grace.
3. In order to merit or demerit in the state of fallen nature, freedom from necessity is not required in man, but freedom from external compulsion is sufficient.
Then in 22’45” Sproul discusses a quotation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He quotes the following two paragraph from the Catechism:
Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.
As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach. (CCC 1731-1732)
Sproul then says:
“Here’s the critical point: that according to the Catechism, man still has the power of choosing evil or good. The power to choose between those two remains intact after the Fall. That declaration is 180 degrees opposed to the teaching of Augustine, and to the Protestant reformers who said that man still has the freedom to choose what he wants, but that freedom is only in one direction, the freedom to choose between alternate evils, but does not have the equal power to choose between good or bad. In fact this statement [from the Catechism] sounds not only semi-Pelagian, but actually Pelagian, giving rise to some theologians saying that Rome really never ever got beyond Pelagianism.”
A Catholic Response
Regarding Sproul’s claim that there is an ambiguity in Catholic doctrine, particularly in Canon 4 of the sixth session of the Council of Trent, there is no ambiguity. Sproul asks:
“They talk about the grace of justification. Are they talking about the grace of regeneration, which is necessary to awaken somebody from spiritual death, or are they talking about a cooperation that takes place after regeneration?”
In Catholic theology there is a distinction between actual grace and sanctifying grace (see “Lawrence Feingold on Sanctifying Grace and Actual Grace“). Canon 4 of Session Six is referring to both types of grace. When it says “moved and aroused by God,” it is talking about actual grace. When it says “the grace of justification,” it is talking about sanctifying grace. So, yes, the grace of justification is the grace of regeneration, but that in no way eliminates or negates the operation of actual grace preceding justification, and our ability and obligation to cooperate with actual grace, in order to obtain the grace of justification in baptism. That actual grace is itself two-fold, consisting in both operating grace (in which God alone acts initially), and co-operating grace (in which we cooperate with God, in response to His operating grace). This is what St. Augustine taught:
And who was it that had begun to give him his love, however small, but He who prepares the will, and perfects by His co-operation what He initiates by His operation? Forasmuch as in beginning He works in us that we may have the will, and in perfecting works with us when we have the will. On which account the apostle says, I am confident of this very thing, that He which has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. He operates, therefore, without us, in order that we may will; but when we will, and so will that we may act, He co-operates with us. (On Grace and Free Will, 17)
The monergistic grace to which St. Augustine refers is not the grace of regeneration, but actual grace (i.e. operating grace), which precedes regeneration, and with which we freely cooperate to prepare ourselves for justification. For St. Augustine the will is passive when God acts with operating grace, but the will is not passive in justification, except in the case of infants, for whom their parents will in their stead.
Regarding the condemnations of two theses made by Baius, Sproul seems to imply here that in these condemnations, the Church was backing itself into a Pelagian position. But that’s because Sproul is overlooking the distinction between nature and grace. The notion that “the will without grace can only sin” is false because some actions performed by unregenerate people are good at the level of nature (e.g. courageous, sacrificial, generous, etc.), but because they are performed without the supernatural virtue of agape they are not directed to our supernatural end, and therefore are not meritorious toward heaven. (See “Nature, Grace, and Man’s Supernatural End: Feingold, Kline, and Clark.”)
Similarly, Sproul implies that the Church’s condemnation of Baius’s claim that “the sinner is moved and animated by God alone” is a concession to Pelagianism. But actually the Church is defending the Augustinian teaching that justification is not monergistic, but depends on our cooperation with actual grace. Again, Sproul’s mistake here is based on his conflation of actual grace and sanctifying grace.
Sproul does not specify how or in what way he thinks the Church’s condemnation of the three Jansenist principles he mentions was a concession to Pelagianism. He seems to think that the condemnation of the claim that “In the state of fallen nature one never resists interior grace” is a concession to semi-Pelagiansim. But if so, that is again because he is not distinguishing between actual grace and sanctifying grace, and therefore presuming that the only grace given is the grace of regeneration; therefore if we cooperate by our own fallen nature, with the grace of regeneration, that obviously would be a kind of Pelagianism. But if by operative actual grace we are first moved from our fallen condition, to a condition in which we can freely cooperate with actual grace, then acknowledging our cooperation with actual grace is neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian. In that case likewise acknowledging our resistance to actual grace is neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian.
The condemnation of the third Jansensist principle does not entail Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism because the merit referred to there is not that of heaven (i.e. the supernatural end of man), but the good of the natural end of man.
Finally, regarding the quotation from the Catechism regarding man’s free will, Sproul’s claim that the Catechism’s statement amounts to Pelagianism is based on Sproul’s not grasping the Catechism’s distinction of nature and grace. The will of fallen man retains the ability to choose between good and evil, but it does not, on its own, have the power to choose man’s supernatural good.1 Neither actual nor sanctifying grace are necessary to choose between courage and cowardice, between generosity and stinginess, between responsible parenting and neglect of one’s children. We see non-Christians freely choose between these, sometimes rightly sometimes wrongly, on a daily basis. Grace is necessary for choosing and attaining man’s supernatural end. That’s what Pelagianism denies. St. Augustine never denied that pagans have free will to choose between good and evil. Nor did he hold that every action by an unregenerate person was a sin. Rather, he held that persons without actual grace could not choose our supernatural end, and that persons without sanctifying grace could not merit our supernatural end, namely, heaven. Failing to distinguish between nature and grace, and between our natural end and our supernatural end, leads to concluding falsely that affirming fallen man’s ability to choose freely between good and evil is some sort of Pelagianism.
Sproul claims in this video, but in no place shows here, that the Catholic Church has reverted back to a form of semi-Pelagianism. He also claims, but does not show, that all the options regarding the relation of free will and original sin have been condemned by the Catholic Church. But in no place does he actually show that the Church has ever condemned what she has ever taught or presently teaches concerning the relation of original sin and free will.