Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Did John Calvin Accuse the Catholic Church of Pelagianism or Only Semi-Pelagianism?

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An old (16th century?) manuscript of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion

One "O.S. Luke" (a United Methodist pastor) over at the Catholic Answers forum (Pelagian Heresy; saved by works [not taught by the Catholic Church] ) opined that he had a "hunch" that I was citing Calvin out of context in my book The Catholic Verses, to the effect that Calvin accused the Catholic Church of Pelagianism. It would be nice for a change if folks who want to cynically speculate on some argument or other in my writings, would trouble themselves to actually document it. It's an elementary thing. That would be a most refreshing development indeed. But alas, it rarely happens. Pastor Luke's words will be in blue, and John Calvin's in green.

John Calvin couldn't possibly have lodged Pelagianism against the Catholic Church - Calvin was basically Augustinian in his soteriology!! Plus, Calvin quotes Augustine extensively in both his Institutes and his Commentaries, more than any other Church Father. Both of them believed in Original Sin, total depravity, the slavery of the human will, and the sovereignty of saving grace.

"Mannyfit75" (Catholic) first brought my name into it:
I read Catholic Verses by David Armstrong and John Calvin accused "papists of the heresy of Pelagianism.
I would like to see the footnotes of his research. Always consult primary sources, Manny; anybody can say anything about anyone. Calvin lodged such protests against the Charismatics, of that I am sure. My hunch is that Armstrong took some license with the accusation and may have taken Calvin out of context. There is also the variance between Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. Have you read any of Calvin's writings yourself? Just curious.

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[T]he charge of Pelagianism from John Calvin to the Catholic Church seems very strange, since he was basically Augustinian in this regard. Calvin is probably misquoted and misread more than any Reformer or theologian; even John Calvin wasn't a strict 5-point Calvinist.

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Secondary and tertiary sources are not as good as the primary source... no matter who is quoting it. That's how rumor mills, gossip, and mistruths are birthed. I think you may be thinking of the charge of Semi-Pelagianism that Calvin lodged more toward Jesuit thought than Catholicism as a whole (I might add that some Catholics have said the same thing about Jesuit schools of thought).

Now, the really funny (and equally curious) thing here is that this question is so easily researched from the primary sources involved. Calvin's Institutes and even his Commentaries and Letters (vol. I / vol. II) are now online. I have links to them on my own sidebar, for heaven's sake. Word searches are very easy to do. I'll be using them myself to make this reply. It's easy, fast, and oftentimes quite educational and fun. Rather than sit and speculate and play armchair theologian and Church historian, why can't Pastor Luke (if that is his real name) do the simple searches that I am about to do, so that he can speak factually, not speculatively?

*** CLICK ON "Tolle, lege!" immediately below to finish this article ***

Even my book can be searched online. It's called the "Search Inside" feature of amazon. Anyone can search for words, whether they have the book or not (it was even convenient for me to use tonight, to get to the bottom of this). One simply has to go to the amazon page for my book, The Catholic Verses, click on the feature above the cover image, and do a word search. Using this procedure in searching for the word Pelagian, a single reference turns up, on page 73:
"... Calvin again falls prey to the temptation to war against straw men, in his Commentaries, for this verse: As Pelagians of old, so Papists at this day make a proud boast of this passage, ..."
By the way, a search for "Pelagianism" on the amazon page yielded one hit also, on page 64, but with no relation to Calvin. Granted, one can't see the whole context, but I am citing Calvin's Commentaries with regard to a particular passage: Philippians 2:12-13:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
It will be most illuminating to cite my entire commentary on this passage and Calvin's use of it (pp. 73-74), especially (and ironically, as it were) since I go on to cite John Wesley (Pastor Luke being a Methodist and hence a Wesleyan):

Catholics assert that passages such as this one teach that God’s free grace can be made “both to will and to work” in us. It is not self-generated by us; it is a gift of God. On the popular level, many Protestants accuse Catholics of falsely using this verse to assert a salvation by works. They wrongly think that Catholicism teaches a salvation by self-generated works, rather than merely acknowledging the necessary place of works, which are themselves entirely the cause [typo] and result of God’s grace (as indicated in the above verse by the clause: “God is at work in you”). Calvin again falls prey to the temptation to war against straw men, in his Commentaries, for this verse:

As Pelagians of old, so Papists at this day make a proud boast of this passage, with the view of extolling man’s excellence . . . Inasmuch, then, as the work is ascribed to God and man in common, they assign the half to each.

Of course, Catholics have done no such thing. We do not claim that salvation is a half-and-half proposition. Catholics accept the plain meaning of this passage: we cooperate with God, but in the end: it is God who does all, since He is “at work” in us, “both to will and to work.” Calvin is simply unable to grasp this biblical paradox. For him it is either/or: if God does all, man must do nothing. Conversely, if man does anything, then this is works-salvation and contrary to grace. But the Bible does not require this choice. Grace does all, and man also cooperates with it.

In two sermons (one on this very passage), John Wesley, the great evangelist and founder of Methodism, expresses thoughts very similar to Louis Bouyer’s. Again, we observe that there need be no significant difference between mainstream (Arminian) Protestantism and Catholicism with regard to the place of works in the scheme of salvation:

Neither is salvation of the works we do when we believe; for it is then God that worketh in us: and therefore, that He giveth us a reward for what He Himself worketh.

God works in us – therefore man can work . . . God works in you – therefore you must work. You must work together with Him, or He will cease working.

(“Salvation by Faith,” 1738; “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” 1788; in Lindstrom, 92, 215)


Calvin, John, Calvin's Commentaries, 22 volumes, translated and edited by John Owen; originally printed for the Calvin Translation Society, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1853; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI: 1979. Available online: http://www.ccel.org/c/calvin/comment2/

Lindstrom, Harald, Wesley and Sanctification, Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press, 1980.
That is the entire context, documented to a tee, from Calvin and Wesley both. Now, note that I did not come right out and assert that Calvin accused Catholics of Pelagianism. I simply cited what he wrote about this passage in his biblical commentary (because the book was devoted to how well-known historic Protestant exegetes dealt with verses that Catholics use as prooftexts for Catholic theology).

Calvin compared Catholics to Pelagians in a particular context, and then made an argument that seems to equate Catholic soteriology with at least semi-Pelagianism (which I would fully expect him to do). My point was perfectly valid in and of its own right. Nothing was taken out of context or distorted. I criticized Calvin, but then cited a great Protestant, John Wesley, over against him.

So much for my alleged "license" and taking Calvin out of context . . . readers can look at Calvin's entire text online and make up their own minds. Isn't the Internet wonderful? Now if only people would make use of the marvelous resources of this technology, for the purpose of word searches. In fact, this is so much fun and I am so curious now about Calvin's exact thoughts in this vein, that I will now search his works to find out more. Is it true, that, Calvin "couldn't possibly have lodged Pelagianism against the Catholic Church", as our Methodist friend confidently asserted, and that he could only have made the accusation of semi-Pelagianism against only some Catholics (like the Jesuits)? Well, let's see for ourselves:

13. Let us now hear Augustine in his own words, lest the Pelagians of our age, I mean the sophists of the Sorbonne, charge us after their wont with being opposed to all antiquity. In this indeed they imitate their father Pelagius, by whom of old a similar charge was brought against Augustine.

(Inst., II, III, 13)

15. The Schoolmen treat the matter somewhat more grossly by mingling their preparations with it; and yet the others instill into the simple and unwary a no less pernicious dogma, when, under cover of the Spirit and grace, they hide the divine mercy, which alone can give peace to the trembling soul. We, indeed, hold with Paul, that those who fulfill the Law are justified by God, but because we are all far from observing the Law, we infer that the works which should be most effectual to justification are of no avail to us, because we are destitute of them. In regard to vulgar Papists or Schoolmen, they are here doubly wrong, both in calling faith assurance of conscience while waiting to receive from God the reward of merits, and in interpreting divine grace to mean not the imputation of gratuitous righteousness, but the assistance of the Spirit in the study of holiness. They quote from an Apostle: “He that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him,” (Heb. 11:6). But they observe not what the method of seeking is. Then in regard to the term grace, it is plain from their writings that they labour under a delusion. For Lombard holds that justification is given to us by Christ in two ways. “First,” says he (Lombard, Sent. Lib. 3, Dist. 16, c. 11), “the death of Christ justifies us when by means of it the love by which we are made righteous is excited in our hearts; and, secondly, when by means of it sin is extinguished, sin by which the devil held us captive, but by which he cannot now procure our condemnation.” You see here that the chief office of divine grace in our justification he considers to be its directing us to good works by the agency of the Holy Spirit. He intended, no doubt, to follow the opinion of Augustine, but he follows it at a distance, and even wanders far from a true imitation of him both obscuring what was clearly stated by Augustine, and making what in him was less pure more corrupt. The Schools have always gone from worse to worse, until at length, in their downward path, they have degenerated into a kind of Pelagianism. Even the sentiment of Augustine, or at least his mode of expressing it, cannot be entirely approved of. For although he is admirable in stripping man of all merit of righteousness, and transferring the whole praise of it to God, yet he classes the grace by which we are regenerated to newness of life under the head of sanctification.

(Inst., III, XI, 15 [complete section] -- my emphases)

Note how Calvin attacks Augustine himself at the end, since he recognizes that the great Father organically relates justification and sanctification in a way that is anathema to the novel Protestant soteriological heresy.

We are thus enabled to refute the slanders of the Pelagians and Papists, who argue, that, if the grace of the Holy Spirit performs the whole work of enlightening our minds, and forming our hearts to obedience, all instruction will be superfluous.

(Commentary on Eph 3:14)

This seems to me to be some not insignificant evidence that the equation of "papist" and "Pelagian" would not have been an entirely foreign one in Calvin's mind. This is all the more plausible, seeing that Martin Luther, in his influential (and personal favorite book, The Bondage of the Will (1525), placed Catholics and his opponent Erasmus on an even lower plane than Pelagians:
The guardians of "free-will" . . . are worse than the Pelagians upon two accounts . . . giving out that they disagree with the Pelagians, when there is nothing that they are further from doing! 'If you regard our pretences, we appear as the Pelagians' bitterest foes; but if you regard the facts and our hearts, we are Pelagians double-dyed.' Then, in the second place, this hypocrisy of theirs results in their valuing and seeking to purchase the grace of God at a much cheaper rate than the Pelagians.

(Translation of J.I. Packer & O.R. Johnston, Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1957, rep. 1995, 293-294 [VII, vi] )
Here is a longer section, incorporating the above, from the Henry Cole translation (1823):
Sect. CXLIX. - IT has happened to these assertors of "Free-will" according to the old proverb, 'Striving dire Scylla's rock to shun, they 'gainst Charybdis headlong run.' For devotedly striving to dissent from the Pelagians, they begin to deny the 'merit of worthiness;' whereas, by the very way in which they deny it, they establish it more firmly than ever. They deny it by their word and pen, but establish it in reality, and in heart-sentiment: and thus, they are worse than the Pelagians themselves: and that, on two accounts. First, the Pelagians plainly, candidly, and ingenuously, assert the 'merit of worthiness;' thus calling a boat a boat, and a fig a fig; and teaching what they really think. Whereas, our "Free-will" friends, while they think and teach the same thing, yet mock us with lying words and false appearances, as though they dissented from the Pelagians; when the fact is quite the contrary. So that, with respect to their hypocrisy, they seem to be the Pelagians' strongest opposers, but with respect to the reality of the matter, and their heart-tenet, they are twice-dipped Pelagians. And next, under this hypocrisy, they estimate and purchase the grace of God at a much lower rate than the Pelagians themselves. For these assert, that it is not a certain little something in us by which we attain unto grace, but whole, full, perfect, great, and many, devoted efforts and works. Whereas, our friends declare, that it is a certain little something, almost a nothing, by which we deserve grace.

If therefore there must be error, they err with more honesty and less pride, who say, that the grace of God is purchased at a great price, and who account it dear and precious, than those who teach, that it may be purchased at that which is very little, and inconsiderable, and who account it cheap and contemptible. But however, Paul pounds both in pieces in one mortar, by one word, where he saith, that all are "justified freely;" and again that they are justified "without the law" and "without the works of the law." And he who asserts that the justification must be free in all who are justified, leaves none excepted who work, deserve, or prepare themselves; he leaves no work which can be called 'merit of congruity' or 'merit of worthiness;' and by the one hurling of this thunder-bolt, he dashes in pieces both the Pelagians with their 'whole merit,' and the Sophists with their 'very little merit.' For a free justification allows of no workmen: because, a free gift, and a work-preparation, are manifestly in opposition to each other.

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