Grace and Free Will

Our good brother gives a quote from Donald Bloesch, which states:

“It must be acknowledged…that in much popular Protestantism synergism (salvation through both grace and free will) is even more evident than in Catholicism, and human reason and experience firgure more prominently than Scripture in determining the norms for faith.”

Good to see his war is multi-frontal.  Most everyone else, besides the Catholics, has it wrong too.  Anyway, this is what the Council of Trent says about “grace and free will”.

[I]n adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight.

The phrase “grace and free will” is misleading.  It makes it seem as if we place both grace and free will on the same plane.  That where one is lacking, the other will supply.  But truth is much more nuanced than that, and I think the Council captures this quite nicely.  But it is also necessary to point out that the Council is not exhaustive on the subject, and Catholic theology goes into much more depth on the subject than does the Council in these few short sentences.

But anyway.  The Council is, in fact, quite clear that man “is […] not able, by his own free will […] to move himself unto justice in His sight.”  So right off the bat, free will alone is declared to be futile for justification.  Even before this text I have quoted, the Council also says that man is  “so far the servants of sin, and under the power of the devil and of death, that not the Gentiles only by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter itself of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated, or to arise, therefrom.”  Man’s powers alone cannot justify him.

What is necessary for justification is grace.  Specifically, this is “prevenient grace […] whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called.”  Our free will comes in by “freely assenting and co-operating” with grace.  The same paragraph goes on to specify what the Church means by “assenting and co-operating”.  Namely, “while God touches the heart”, man doesn’t do nothing, as the “inspiration” may yet be rejected.  So our free will in this process, as described here, is limited to not rejecting that grace.  To accepting it.

Or as St. Augustine says, “But he who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent.  He made you without your knowledge, but he does not justify you without your willing it.”

What Trent doesn’t say, and what Catholic theology does, especially in Aquinas, is that the human act of co-operation it itself the fruit of grace.  So that it is God who begins and sustains the whole act of justification.  The details of how this all plays out are not dogmas of the Church, and thus are open to be discussed.  And indeed different schools in the Church have come to blows over these issues in times past.  But none would have argued over whether “grace and free will” were two equal sharers in the work of justification.  Obviously, our free will is itself dependent on the grace of God for its proper operation.

Which St. Augustine, again, has gone to great lengths to explain.

Edit: I had forgotten this very enlightening essay about the different strains of monergism and synergism.


~ by Rob on December 10, 2008.

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