Thursday, June 18, 2009

Augustinian Soteriology

St. Augustine, God rest his soul, can’t be happy about how Western Christians have been fighting over the rights to his theological legacy for the last five hundred years. This in-fighting notwithstanding, a few issues make Augustine stand out as decidedly Catholic. Recently we discussed the issue of the canon, and Augustine clearly supports the books now called ‘Deutero-Canonical’ as Scripture, but it’s also important to point out his views, which stand in such sharp contrast to the Protestant worship, on the sacrifice of the mass. I won’t be dealing with those here but I’m sure, at some point, we will. This is merely a brief and inadequate survey of Augustinian soteriology.


Growing up Reformed, I took it for granted that Augustine belonged to us. In a sea of obscure Christian history, possibly clouded with pagan influence, Augustine stood towering as a great beacon of the true gospel. Everyone else may have missed it, but daggonit - Augustine got it right. If he were alive today, he just might be another R.C. Sproul writing books which would find warm reception amongst the PCA faithful.

In our featured articles on Soli Deo Gloria and Sola Gratia, Sean Patrick and I argued for the Catholic (and Augustinian) understanding of our cooperation with God’s salvific grace. I brought out this point forcefully here:

And so it does no good to quote the Catholic Catechism saying, “Our justification comes from the grace of God,” or “Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us,” if Christians in the Reformed tradition object on the ground that the Catholic Catechism also says, “Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us.” But this is not a quotation from the council of Trent or Vatican I or even Aquinas; this is St. Augustine! At this fateful point where Reformed theology and Catholic doctrine collide with uncompromising force, the Catholic Church unambiguously preserves the ancient and precisely Augustinian doctrine, and this should not be lightly dismissed by anyone who claims that the Bishop of Hippo was a forebearer of Reformed soteriology.

I also supported it by a quote from Protestant scholar, Alister McGrath:

“it will be clear that the medieval period was astonishingly faithful to the teaching of Augustine on the question of the nature of justification, where the Reformers departed from it,” and later, “The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification – as opposed to its mode – must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum.”1

McGrath also says: “Luther erected a specific understanding of justification that departs significantly from Augustine at two points of major importance-the notion of justifying righteousness as alien (rather than inherent) to the believer, and a tendency to treat justification as involving two notionally distinct elements. This late trend eventually led to the development of forensic notions of justification in the writing of Melanchthon and others.”2

Now Calvin is a bit trickier. Calvinism certainly shows some strong points of congruency with Augustine’s predestination and this sometimes leads Calvinists to believe that Augustine would be ok with their soteriology. Not so. The Calvinist would insist, I think, just as strongly as the Lutheran on the forensic/alien nature of salvific grace and Augustine would reject that as shown above.

The point I want to draw out is that the Reformation’s favorite early saint sharply disagrees with the Reformers on what they called the central issue. The other points where Reformed thought diverges from Augustine are important too; but let’s start here.

If it is true, and Augustine, the supposed proto-Reformer, holds the Catholic view of cooperation, then what does that mean for the case of the Protestant community? After all, notice above that the Catholic Church doesn’t quote Augustine in support of the Catholic view, she simply quotes Augustine as the Catholic view itself.

Originally posted at Called to Communion.

  1. Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 1.185-187 (1986) (emphasis in original) []
  2. []

1 comment:

George Weis said...

This was a great post Tim old boy!