"ARRRRGGHHH!" I thought to myself, "I have been through this debate so many #$%^ times I can't stand it!"
Our well-known Christian guest had nothing good to say about Augustine. He went on to say, "if what some people think about salvation is true, only about 5% of the people who have ever lived will be saved." "But," he said, "when you stop to think about all those who have died before the age of accountability--those who have died in childbirth, or as young children, or through abortion or infanticide—it could be a lot more than that, perhaps as much as 70% of the 40 billion or so who have ever lived. And that gives me hope!"
At this point outwardly I am smiling and trying to be gracious (since I also was a guest at this luncheon), while inwardly I am hitting my head against an imaginary wall so hard I can see stars. Here is a Christian leader who derives hope from the fact that infant mortality, abortion, and infanticide will account for most of the population of heaven! (I don't mean to disparage the great work this man has done or the numerous books he has written, but that is the inescapable conclusion of his statements on this subject.)
Still smiling and trying hard to remember that I am a guest, I raise the concern, "It seems to me that if we really believe in the awful reality of eternal torment in hell and eternal separation from God, then it seems from what you are saying, that it would be preferable for people to die before they reach the age of accountability."
Not to be deterred by this negative consideration, this fellow went on, "Some people say there is no biblical justification for an age of accountability, but I see it right there in Paul;" and he proceeded to quote 1 Corinthians 15:22, "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive." He then said, "You see, to die you have to first be alive. So that means that all of us when we are born are alive, and it is at the age of accountability that we die when we knowingly sin."
So I proceeded to assert the orthodox understanding of that verse: "No, what that means is that you and I and every human who ever lived were positionally in Adam and died when he died, i.e., when he sinned." (The theological term for this is "federal headship;" and, while the term is used most often in Reformed or Calvinistic theology, it is the same concept of original sin that was articulated through St. Augustine and finds its expression in Catholic theology as well. The representative headship of Adam is virtually the universal understanding of the the Church, both East and West.)
Later, I was talking with another participant in the luncheon who I could see was also troubled by the conversation. I couldn't help but make the observation that, if you want to belong to a religion that believes that Christ's Atonement eliminates original sin, that we are born in innocence, and that makes an "age of accountability" officially a part of their theology, there is a religion you can join: They are called the Mormons. As Mormon theologian Sterling M. McMurrin has stated, “the theology of Mormonism is completely Pelagian.” (Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. University of Utah Press, 1965.)
To be clear about what we mean when we use the term Pelagianism: Pelagianism is a heresy taught by Pelagius, a British monk who lived in the 5th century A.D. and was a teacher in Rome. Pelagius denied original sin, the doctrine that we have inherited a sinful nature from Adam. He taught that Adam only hurt himself when he fell, and not the entire human race. Pelagius taught that, therefore, a person is born with the same innocence and moral abilities as Adam was when he was first made by God. He taught that people can choose God by the exercise of their free will and reason. God's grace is merely an aid to help individuals come to him.
Semi-Pelagianism is a weaker form of Pelagianism that does not entirely deny original sin and its effects upon the human soul and will; but, it teaches that God and man cooperate to achieve man's salvation. This cooperation is based on the ability of a person to make a free will choice. Semi-Pelagianism teaches that man can make the first move toward God by seeking God out of his own free will, and that man can cooperate with God's grace even to the keeping of his faith through human effort. This would mean that God responds to the initial effort of a person, and that God's grace is not absolutely necessary to have faith.
In contrast, the theology that comes from Augustine through the Reformed but also through the Catholic tradition to a large extent is that: (1) humankind has been affected by sin in all of our faculties to the extent that we are incapable of choosing the good, apart from God's grace (Romans 3:10-12). (2) God's grace is extended to us by virtue of his sovereign love and mercy and not because of any good that is inherently in us (Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:5). (3) Christ's atoning death is the sole basis for our being reckoned righteous before God and saved (1 Peter 3:18, Hebrews 9:26-28). The application of Christ's Atonement is efficacious for those who are referred to in Scripture as God's elect (Matthew 24:31; Romans 8:33-34; Romans 9:11; Romans 11:7; 2 Timothy 2:10; Titus 1:1). (4) The grace of God is manifest to us, once the Holy Spirit opens our eyes through regeneration, in a way that is effectually compelling. ("Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God" John 3:3, 1 Corinthians 2:14). (5) Those whom God has truly saved by his grace are saved everlastingly (John 10:28).
You could categorize these two schools as the "God's choice" vs "my choice" schools or the "sovereign grace" vs. "free will" schools. But it is important to note that every time the "my choice" school has gone up against the "God's choice" school before a Church council or synod, or the issue has been dealt with in a Church canon, confession, or article of belief—in either the early Church, the Roman Catholic Church, or the churches proceeding from the Reformation—the "my choice" folks have lost:
- Councils of Carthage (412, 416, and 418)
- Council of Ephesus (431)
- The Council of Orange (529)
- Council of Trent (1546) Roman Catholic
- 2nd Helvetic Confession (1561-66) 8-9. (Swiss-German Reformed)
- Augsburg Confession (1530) Art. 9, 18 (Lutheran)
- Gallican Confession (1559) Art. 10 (French Reformed)
- Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 15 (Lowlands, French/Dutch/German Reformed)
- The Articles of Religion (1571), Art. 9. (Anglican)
- Canons of Dort (1618-19), 3/4.2 (Dutch/German/French Reformed).
Not to be deterred, those who persist in exalting human choice and who have a weak view of the necessity of grace still walk among us, even wearing the mantle of Christian leaders. What can we do? Pray. Persuade. Persevere.
A Note about the Eastern Orthodox and the Doctrine of Justification
The Eastern Orthodox churches never thought through the issues of justification in the way that the juridical Roman mindset of Augustine's time was prone to do. Nor did the East experience the medieval accretions to Roman Catholic theology that gave us the Treasury of Merit, the "Romish Doctrine" of Purgatory, Indulgences, and other unfortunate errors that were countered in the Reformation. In 1629, Cyril Lucaris, who later became Patriarch of Constantinople, but who had studied in Calvin's Geneva, published a short treatise known as his Confession. Cyril's exposure to Roman Catholicism in the West and the theology of the Reformation led him to express opposition to the errors of the Roman Church and to attempt to show how Calvinism could be compatible with Orthodoxy. Since the Orthodox Church had not lived through the developments and errors of the West and had no saint in their history who had done work on the doctrine of man or of sin in the same manner as Augustine, the faith Cyril proclaimed seemed like an innovation and heresy to those in the East and was condemned by a Eastern Orthodox Synod, in Jerusalem, in 1672. (There are some Orthodox authorities today who dispute Cyril's authorship of his Confession, but most sources, including Orthodox sources, continue to attribute the authorship to him.)
This rejection of Calvinism (and the continued failure of the East to appreciate Augustine) is the basis for Metropolitan Jonah's denunciation of Calvinism in his address to the Anglican Church in North America's Inaugural Assembly in 2009. The resolution of this thorny theological problem will only come when representatives of the Orthodox and Western churches can engage in a thorough study of the doctrine of justification. This is immensely important; in fact, it is essential if unity on this question is ever to be achieved. The Anglican Church in North America's dialogue with the Orthodox Church in America presents a wonderful place where this study could begin. I pray it will happen in my lifetime.