Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
In our previous article (Jan. 1, 2000) we saw that Rabanus, the archbishop of Mainz, repudiated Gottschalk’s view of the sovereignty of grace in salvation; that Gottschalk courageously accused Rabanus of holding views which were Semi-Pelagian; and that the synod of Mayence condemned Gottschalk. The controversy, however, did not die with Gottschalk’s imprisonment, for he had supporters who not only agreed with his views but protested the scandalous treatment he received. Later synods therefore were forced to deal further with the matter.
Synod of Valence (855)
The synod of Valence was a surprise. In some important respects it upheld Gottschalk. Its decision reads:
We confess predestination of the elect to life, and a predestination of the wicked to death; but that, in the election of those who are to be saved, the mercy of God precedes good merit, and in the condemnation of those who will perish, evil merit precedes the righteous judgment of God. But that in predestination God has determined only those things which he himself would do, either from gratuitous mercy or in righteous judgment…. But that in the wicked he foreknew the wickedness because it comes from them; and did not predestinate it, because it does not come from him.
The synod also said: Those teachers in the church were condemned who think that “some are predestinated to evil by divine power, i.e., so that, as it were, they cannot be anything else.”
A word of explanation here might be of benefit. The clause in the above decision which reads: “in the condemnation of those who will perish, evil merit precedes the righteous judgment of God” is the sticky one. The Canons of Dordt do not say that; nor has any Reformed man ever agreed to that. The statement, as it stands there, seems to teach conditional reprobation after all. It seems to say that God reprobates those who make themselves worthy by their unbelief. This is not so. The matter is different. The Reformed have always refused to say that reprobation is simply God’s sovereign determination that men sin so as to send men to hell. This formulation has always been rejected on the grounds that it makes God the author of sin. But the Reformed have also refused to say that God determines that some should go to hell because He foresees that they would reject the gospel and live in unrepentant sin. This is a conditional reprobation which does not do justice to God’s sovereignty. Rather, the very careful language which has always been employed is this: God determines to damn others to hell in the way of their sin. The formulation may not be entirely clear, but it is a formulation which takes into account the two truths that God is sovereign over sin, and that man is responsible for his own sin so that he justly suffers eternal damnation because of sin.
Two More Synods and the End of the Matter
Quite understandably the enemies of Gottschalk were not satisfied with the decisions of Valence. Another synod was held in Savonieres in 859 which attempted to make compromise decisions; but every effort failed.
The final synod to deal with the matter was held in Touchy in 860. All went against Gottschalk. The decisions of Chiersy were reaffirmed, and the decisions of Valence were altered and revised to fit the decisions of Chiersy. Gottschalk stood alone. But the synod did have its moments when its conscience was pricked. That became evident in the fact that every man at the synod took his turn to profess solemnly his loyalty to Augustine. It was something similar to a husband spending five minutes every day professing his faithfulness to his wife. She might, I suspect, begin to wonder a bit about him.
The Views That Prevailed
The views which finally prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church are best defined by the views of Rabanus himself, for they reflect what became standard RC teaching. When I speak of the views of Rabanus, I mean not only his positive teachings, but also the points at which he condemned Gottschalk. What were these views?
The objections to Gottschalk’s teachings were chiefly against the doctrine of predestination. This is not surprising because this was the truth which Gottschalk himself so strongly emphasized. Rabanus brought up many objections, all of which we ourselves have repeatedly heard and which have become old and tired tirades against the Reformed faith. Gottschalk makes God the author of sin, said Rabanus. And, further, God is unjust in His actions towards the wicked when He sends them to hell for doing things which they were destined to do. And, as far as election is concerned, the doctrine which Gottschalk teaches leads people into carnal security and despair.
But when it came to the atonement, Rabanus made a surprising statement. It really proved conclusively that anyone who teaches an atonement which is for all men must, necessarily, also believe that the atonement is ineffectual, that is, that it cannot accomplish salvation. Rabanus complained that Gottschalk denied that Christ’s blood was shed in vain for the lost. Do not let the negatives confuse you. This means that Rabanus insisted that Christ did die in vain for those who are lost.
And so, positively, Rabanus taught that Christ died for all men because God willed the salvation of all. God could not, Rabanus insisted, will the salvation of all men unless that salvation was actually available for all men in the cross.
Hence, said Rabanus, the determining factor was man’s faith or unbelief. His faith in Christ’s death saved him; his unbelief doomed him to hell. It all hinged on man’s choice.
Because the decisive element in salvation was man’s choice, this choice became the condition for predestination. God elected those whom He foreknew would believe; and God rejected those whom He foreknew would not believe. Predestination is conditional.
These views became the position of the RC. It is at least a consistent position. One could wish that those who defend a well-meant offer of the gospel would be as consistent as Rome. They rather choose to say that God wills the salvation of all men and wills the salvation of some men; that, in one sense, Christ died for all men, and that, in some other sense, Christ died only for His people; that salvation depends on man’s acceptance of the gospel offer, and that salvation is by grace alone. And when such flat contradictions are protested, these defenders of the well-meant offer fall back on apparent contradiction and paradox.
Rome’s Error and the Doctrine of Merit
We face one more question. It is an important one, for it uncovers the deepest evil of Rome’s position — and, of course, the evil of those who agree with Rome on these matters. I have earlier suggested that question. I made the assertion that Rome was compelled to reject Augustine and compelled to adopt Semi-Pelagianism. It really could do nothing else. That is, it could do nothing else without ceasing to be Rome. It could do nothing else without changing the whole structure of Roman Catholicism from the ground up. This Rome would not and, in a sense, could not do.
What do I mean by this?
I made earlier references to the fact that monasticism had become an integral part of the life of the church. It had not only received the church’s approval, but it was encouraged by the church as the ideal life for the Christian.
Monasticism was built foursquare on the doctrine of merit. Without the doctrine of merit, monasticism not only lost its appeal, but became a useless exercise in self-denial which really made one who practiced it a fool. But the monastic life was a life of superior holiness. The man who ate bread and water once a day was holier than the man who enjoyed a full evening meal after a hard day’s work. The man who lived alone in his cell and slept on a narrow stone bench was holier than the man who slept with his wife. The man who did not own even the clothes on his back, which were borrowed or donated, was holier than the man who purchased a new dress for his wife and a new suit for himself.
Why? Why was it holier? Well, such a life of self-denial was holier because one was more obedient to Christ’s command. He was doing deeds which were more approved by Christ than the poor normal mortal who simply lived his life to God’s glory in his daily calling. Because this greater holiness was closer to the will of Christ and more approved by God, it also brought a greater reward. Why did it bring a greater reward? Because it merited more of Christ’s favor.
The whole concept of monasticism is a flat-out denial of Scripture. We are solemnly warned by Scripture that such talk is characteristic of those who depart from the faith and give heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils (I Tim. 4:1, 2). They forbid to marry and command to abstain from meats. These are hypocritical lies of men whose consciences are seared with a hot iron (vv. 2, 3). We are, Scripture says, to confess the great truth that every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is sanctified by the Word of God and by prayer (vv. 3-5).
However all that may be, Rome introduced the whole concept of merit with its doctrine of monasticism. This was early, in fact before Augustine’s time. It was imbedded in the very fabric of the life of the church. Man merited with God. That was all there was about it.
Other factors contributed to Rome’s dilemma when it was confronted with Augustine’s teaching. Rome’s view of the sacraments was a contributing factor. Rome taught that baptism, in itself, conveyed grace. That is, all that received baptism received grace. How then was it to be explained that some who received grace went lost? Rome had only one answer, namely, that the grace of baptism enabled a man to choose either for or against the gospel. Interestingly enough, Augustine himself held to this same view of the sacraments, but never seemed to have faced the contradiction in his own views. He could teach that baptism gave grace to all baptized, and yet that grace is sovereign (that is, it always saves) and particular. But Rome made it crucial to its doctrine. We may be thankful for this contradiction in Augustine’s theology.
Another factor was the long-held view in the church of the freedom of the will. Augustine was very close to singing a solo when he insisted that the will of fallen man was totally incapable of choosing good. The doctrine of free will won. I know that Rome taught a will made free by baptismal grace. That makes no difference. God frees every man’s will. The choice of salvation is now up to him.
And so all the rest followed. A conditional predestination — not only conditional reprobation, but also conditional election. A universal will of God that all men be saved. A cross of Christ for all. Salvation dependent upon man’s will. Merit! Man merits salvation by a choice of his own.
And so Rome committed itself to salvation by grace and works. From this it never wavered. It has not wavered from this position today. Evangelicals may sign their documents of agreement with Rome, but by their signatures they are selling the truth for a mess of pottage.
It is well to conclude with an observation and a warning. We may talk all we please about salvation by grace alone without human merit. But when we teach a universal love of God rooted in a universal cross, we make salvation dependent upon man’s will. All the shouting in the world to the contrary does not change that basic truth. When salvation is dependent upon man’s will in any sense of the word, salvation is no longer of grace, but of merit. Man merits his salvation. He earns it by his acceptance of the gospel offer. He has made himself worthy of being saved. He can claim salvation as his own because of his works.
The issue always is one of merit. Can man merit with God? To a Reformed Augustinian (I do not now say “Calvinist,” although the two are the same) this very idea is abhorrent. It is not only wrong, but it is a repulsive notion which the believer throws as far from him as he can. It repels because to the extent that man introduces the concept of merit into the work of salvation, one denies God’s glory. After all, by grace are ye saved, through faith. That salvation by grace through faith is not of yourselves. It is the gift of God. All of it. There is nothing of man. Why must it be all of God? Because salvation by works gives man reason to boast. And boasting deprives God of glory.
You ask: Well, what about our good works, then? This too Paul puts in unmistakably clear language. We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of doing good works. And those God works are prepared by God from all eternity and earned in the cross. God has even sovereignly determined that we should walk in them. Good works do not merit. Good works are given by grace as a privilege to God’s people earned in the cross (Eph. 2:8-10).
This is the legacy of Augustine. Rome had the gall to give to Augustine not only sainthood but the honorable title Doctor Gratiae, that is, Doctor of Grace. This was after murdering Gottschalk, Augustine’s eloquent defender. Such hypocrisy does not go unnoticed in heaven.