Protestant Passivity and Catholic Activity

The opening line of an essay by Father Richard Veras in this month’s Magnificat caught my eye: “How did original sin originate?” It caught my eye because I’ve been reading about original sin in Symbolism by Father Johan Adam Möhler, specifically how the Protestant conception of original sin differs from the Catholic conception of it. Honestly, until I picked up this book, I had no idea that Martin Luther’s notions about the beginnings of mankind (and the consequences) were so different from what I, as a lifelong Catholic, have always believed. This passage from Symbolism (translated by James Burton Robertson) pretty much sums it up:

According to Catholic principles, in the holy work of regeneration we find two operations concur—the Divine and the human; and when this word succeeds, they mutually pervade each other, so that this regeneration constitutes one theandric work. God’s holy power precedes, awakening, exciting, vivifying:—man, the while, being utterly unable to merit, call forth, or even desire, that divine grace; yet he must let himself be excited, and follow with freedom. God offers his aid to raise the sinner after his fall; yet it is for the sinner to consent, and to receive that aid. By accepting it, he is accepted by the Divine spirit; and through his faithful co-operation, he is exalted again gradually (though never completely in this life) to that height from which he was precipitated. The Divine Spirit worketh not by absolute necessity, though he is urgently active: His omnipotence suffers human freedom to set to it a bound, which it cannot break through, because an unconditional interference with that freedom would bring about the annihilation of the moral order of the world, which the Divine wisdom hath founded on liberty. With reason, therefore, and quite in conformity with her inmost essence, hath the Church rejected the Jansenistical proposition of Quesnel, that human freedom must yield to the omnipotence of God. This proposition involves as an immediate consequence, the doctrine of God’s absolute predestination; and asserts of those who attain not unto regeneration, that they are not the cause of their own reprobation, but that they have been absolutely cast off by the Deity Himself; for a mere inspiration of the Divine spirit would have moved their free-will to faith, and to holy obedience.

It is not difficult to see, that the above-stated doctrine of the Catholic Church, is determined by her view of original sin; for, had she asserted that an utter extirpation of all germs of good, a complete annihilation of freedom in man, had been the consequence of his fall, she then could not have spoken of any co-operation on his part, of any faculties in him, that could be excited, revivified, and supported. Man, who in this case would have lost all affinity, all likeness unto God, would no longer have been capable of receiving the Divine influences towards the consummation of a second birth; for the operation of God would then have found in him as little response, as in the irrational brute.

On the other hand, it is evident, from the Lutheran representation of original sin, that the Lutherans could not admit the co-operation of man; and the reason wherefore they could not, is equally obvious; namely, because, according to them, the hereditary evil consists in an obliteration of the Divine image from the human breast; and this is precisely the faculty capable of co-operating with God. Accordingly, they teach, that man remains quite passive, and God is exclusively active. Even so early as the celebrated disputation at Leipsig, Luther, defended this doctrine against Eck and compared man to a saw, that passively lets itself be moved in the hand of the workman. Afterwards he delighted in comparing fallen man to a pillar of salt, a block, a clod of earth, incapable of working with God. It may be conceived, that not only was such a doctrine necessarily revolting to Catholics, but that even among Luther’s disciples, who, in the unreflecting excitement of feelings, had followed him, a sound Christian sense, rallying by degrees, must offer resistance to such errors. In Melancthon’s school, more enlightened opinions spread; and his followers, after Luther’s death, had even the courage openly to defend them. Pfeffinger, and after him, the above-named Victorinus Strigel arose; but their power went no further than to occasion a struggle, wherein they succumbed. Luther’s spirit gained so complete a victory, that his views, nay his very expressions, were adopted into the public formularies.

I shall take the liberty of citing a passage from Plank, which states the opinion of Arnsdorf, on the nature of God’s operation in respect to man—an opinion, which was put forth amid the synergistic controversies. Nicholas von Arnsdorf said: “By his will and speech God worketh all things, with all creatures. When God wills, and speaks, stone and wood are carried, hewn, and laid, how, when, and where He will. Thus, if God wills, and speaks, man becomes converted, pious, and just. For, as stone and wood are in the hand and power of God, so, in like manner, are the understanding and the will of man in the hand and power of God; so that man can absolutely will and choose nothing, but what God wills and speaks, either in grace or in wrath.” Who will not here see the remarkable influence which Luther’s theory touching the mutual relation between the divine and the human operations, consisted in themselves, and even independently of the fall, has exerted on this article of belief? God’s wrath, thought Nicholas von Arnsdorf, forces one person to evil, in the same way as His grace absolutely determines another to good. So much doth the human mind find itself constrained to reduce to general laws that special relation between God and man, which was revealed by the redemption of Christ Jesus.

Remarkable is the subterfuge, which the Formulary of Concord saw itself forced to adopt, in order to prevail upon men to hear preaching—a subterfuge which of itself should have convinced its authors, how erroneous was the doctrine which they inculcated. For as, according to their view, man on his part can contribute nought towards justification, as he possesses not even the faculty of receiving the Divine influences, and thus, in consequence of the loss of every trace of similitude to his Maker, is cut off from all possibility of union with God, what blame could be uttered, what reproaches made, if anyone remained obdurate, when it depended on God alone to remove that obduracy? What blame was yet possible, when anyone was disinclined to read the Bible, or obstinately resisted hearing the evangelical sermon, which was laid down by the Reformers, as the condition for receiving the Divine Spirit? To be asked to listen to a sermon, must certainly seem to one, devoid of all spiritual qualities and susceptibilities, as the most singular demand—not less singular than if he were asked to prepare for flying; nay, more singular, for in the latter case he could understand the purport of the demand, while, in default of every spiritual organ for understanding the sermon, he could not even comprehend what was the proposed design: he might conjecture, indeed, that it was intended to pass a joke on him! …

In general, the Reformers were unable to succeed in finding, in their system, a tenable position for the idea of human responsibility—an idea not to be effaced from the mind of man, and whereon Kant established what he deemed the only possible proof of the existence of God. They observe, indeed, as we have seen, that man can repel the Divine influence, though he cannot co-operate with it; whereby they think, his guilt is sufficiently established. But this solution of the difficulty in question is unsatisfactory, because every man can only resist; since all are in a like degree devoid of freedom, and of every vestige of spiritual faculties. The explication of the fact, that some become just, and others remain obdurate, can be sought for, not in man, but in God only—whom it pleases to remove in one case, and to let stand in another, the obstacle of which is the same in all!

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