July 28, 2009

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Correlation, Causation, and Salvation

The New Testament uses a number of criteria to identify the 'saved' (in this post, I won't be concerned with what exactly 'saved' means, though I will be assuming, somewhat controversially, that its meaning is more or less consistent). For instance, the saved are identified as:

  • Those who 'bear fruit' (Matt. 7:16-20), where this seems to involve undergoing some kind of general change of character (Gal. 5:22-25).

  • Those who perform particular good or loving deeds (Matt. 7:21, 1 John 1:6, 2:3-6), especially care for the poor (Matt. 25:31-46).

  • Those who abstain from particular evil or hateful deeds (1 John 2:9-11).

  • Those who trust (have faith in) Christ (Gal. 2:16, Eph. 2:8).

  • Those whom God 'raises up' (Eph. 2:4-7) or chooses/'elects' (Rom. 11:7).

Now, clearly these are distinct criteria, though they are not completely unrelated, and the New Testament seems at least to claim that all of them are very strongly correlated with salvation. In fact, every one of them seems at least sometimes to be treated as a universal characteristic of the saved. A question much debated in Western Christianity, especially since the Reformation, has been how exactly they are related to each other and to salvation. (I haven't been able to find any clear statements about this question coming from the Eastern Christian tradition - if anyone knows of any, please leave comments.) There are, however, two claims on which I think there is broad agreement among Christians: (1) God's election is an efficient cause of salvation, and (2) trust in Christ is an occasional cause of salvation.

What (1) means is that it is God who is actually effective in bringing about salvation. What (2) means is that God acts to bring about salvation on the occasion of trust in Christ. That is to say, it is God who brings about salvation, and he brings it about for those who trust Christ. Now, it is a mistake (and this mistake is made by some Protestants, though usually not by actual theologians) to understand trust (i.e. 'faith') purely in terms of belief, and this is important to keep in mind in evaluating its relationship to the other criteria. More on this later.

Now, so far I have been saying that God's election is an efficient cause, and that trust in Christ is an occasional cause. One way of understanding the Protestant 'sola fide' is as the claim that trust in Christ is the one and only necessary and sufficient occasional cause of salvation (that is, God saves all and only those who trust in Christ, without regard for the other criteria), and one way of understanding the Protestant 'sola gratia' is as the claim that God's (gracious) election is the one and only necessary and sufficient efficient cause. (However, 'sola gratia' is perhaps better understood in terms of our inability to merit salvation rather than our inability to effect it; see below.) These claims are both at least somewhat contentious. To claim that any creature can be the efficient cause of her salvation (or anyone else's) is a form of Pelagianism and universally condemned by the Christian Church.* I distinguish this view, which I call 'efficient cause Pelagianism' from 'merit Pelagianism' which I discuss later on. Note that neither of these is just exactly what Pelagius taught, but I take it that they are similar enough to his teaching that the condemnation of Pelagius implicitly condemned these views as well.

Although Pelagianism is condemned, if salvation is construed to include not only the resurrection of the righteous dead, but also being freed from the dominion of sin and having closer relationship to God, then many Christians have held that we are partial efficient causes of our salvation. Thus some sort of cooperation on our part may be regarded as necessary but insufficient to salvation. Note that we are talking about necessary but insufficient efficient causation. This means that whatever it is God does to save us, he could do the very same thing and if we didn't do our part we wouldn't be saved. (That is not to say that God is incapable of acting in such a way as to be a sufficient efficient cause of salvation, but only that, according to this view, he does not act in this way.) This view may rightly be described as ' efficient cause semi-Pelagianism.' It is of note that, as far as I know, no council except those restricted to avowedly Calvinist (or 'Reformed') churches has condemned semi-Pelagianism.

Again, some hold that trust in Christ is not the sole occasional cause of salvation. For instance, the Roman Catholic doctrine, as I understand it, is that one must express trust by receiving the sacraments, so that the sacraments too become an occasional cause. (This is, of course, complicated by the sacraments' being regarded as 'means of grace,' so that they are not only occasional causes but also instruments of God's efficient causation.) Lutherans sometimes talk this way as well, though their official view, as I understand it, is that trust is the one and only occasional cause.

It should be noted that if receiving the sacraments or even performing good works is an occasional cause of salvation, this will not necessarily run into efficient cause Pelagianism or even semi-Pelagianism, because this is only an occasional cause. God acts freely in effecting salvation, and simply chooses to effect it in certain circumstances. Thus those who receive the sacraments or perform good works do not thereby effect their salvation or even contribute to effecting their salvation.

Nevertheless, many Calvinists claim that the view that I am the total efficient cause of my trust in God runs into Pelagianism, and the view that I am a partial efficient cause of my trust in God runs into semi-Pelagianism. Now, there are two good reasons not to believe that I am the total efficient cause of my trust in God, one from Scripture and one from philosophy. First, in Ephesians 2:8 it may well be trust which "is not from yourselves; it is God's gift." (The grammar is a bit ambiguous; because the pronoun is neuter the 'this' is probably the entire previous clause, "by grace you are saved through faith," but it is plausible to interpret it as saying that nothing - grace, salvation, or trust - in the previous clause is "from yourself" but rather that it is all "God's gift.") Second, given God's omnipotence, we should probably not hold that any created thing is ever a total efficient cause of anything: God is always a necessary contributing cause. Nevertheless, the error involved here is clearly not efficient cause Pelagianism, for this view does not claim that I am the total efficient cause of salvation, but only that I am the total efficient cause of my trust, and my trust is not an efficient cause of salvation, as if I just tipped over the first domino in a chain; it's only an occasional cause. As long as whatever it is I am thought to efficiently cause is a mere occasional cause which does not contribute to the efficient causation of my salvation, the view does not run into efficient cause semi-Pelagianism.

It is quite possible, however, that these Calvinists have a different concern: they may worry that claiming that I am the total efficient cause of my trust in Christ leads to merit Pelagianism. By merit Pelagianism I mean a certain view about why God chooses a particular event (such as trusting Christ) as an occasional cause of salvation. According to this view, individuals who trust Christ (or receive the sacraments, or do good works) deserve to be saved. The concern here would seem to be that, while trusting Christ (or whatever) may not be a way of effecting my salvation, it might nevertheless be a way of earning my salvation. Thus in order to avoid merit semi-Pelagianism, they claim, it is necessary to deny that I am even a partial efficient cause of my trusting Christ.

However, this claim is rather implausible: if I am ever a partial efficient cause of anything surely I am a partial efficient cause of my trusting Christ. It is, after all, an intentional decision I make. I (repeatedly) resolve to follow Christ, and I take particular actions on the basis of this resolution. So it seems implausible to claim that I am a partial efficient cause of some things, but not of my trusting Christ. Calvinists can go one of three ways: they can adopt a generally occasionalist picture, which denies that human beings are genuine partial efficient causes; they can disagree with my understanding of trust and go on to show how trusting Christ is not like any of the actions I choose from day to day; or they can accept that I am a partial efficient cause of my trusting Christ. Note that this last does not require that I be able to do otherwise than trust Christ, and so does not conflict with irresistible grace. If I strike the cue ball and cause it to knock the 9 into the corner pocket, the cue ball is a partial efficient cause of the 9's being in the pocket, but the cue ball couldn't have done otherwise, given the conditions. This, then, does not undermine God's causal role or necessarily imply that grace is resistible.

Supposing that I am a partial efficient cause of my trusting in Christ and my trusting Christ is an occasional cause of my salvation, can we avoid merit semi-Pelagianism? Yes, easily. All we have to do is deny that people who trust Christ are more deserving of salvation than those who do not. Note that by treating trust as an occasional cause and denying that it is either a partial efficient cause or a source of merit, even Christians who do believe in libertarian free will, and even those who believe that I can trust God without any kind of prevenient grace (thus adopting a more radical Arminianism even than Wesley) can avoid both efficient cause semi-Pelagianism and merit semi-Pelagianism. (A similar argument can be found in Richard Cross, "Anti-Pelagianism and the Resistibility of Grace," Faith and Philosophy 22 (2005): 199-210.)

Given this general picture, what should we say about the other ('works-based') criteria which appear in the New Testament? Protestants will generally argue that these criteria are the results or consequences of salvation. But are they consequences of salvation itself (whatever that is), or of trusting Christ, or of God's election? All three of these answers seem to be suggested at various points in the New Testament and there is no reason they should not all be correct: if we are being saved, we are being set free from sin; if we trust Christ, then we trust that his will is best and so obey him; and if we are chosen by God then we are chosen for good works (Eph. 2:10).

* While the council which actually discussed and condemned Pelagius's views was only a local council in Africa, its decision was confirmed by the Pope of Rome and by the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (the phrase "the doctrines of ... Celestius" refers to Pelagianism; see Schaff's excursus).

Posted by Kenny at July 28, 2009 3:40 PM
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It's been suggested to me (offline) that some Calvinists hold that trust in Christ is a partial efficient cause of salvation. On this view, it would be the case that God does something to those who trust, and whatever he does is such that it would not produce salvation if they didn't trust. However, because Calvinists believe in limited atonement, they will still be treating trust as an occasional cause: God doesn't do this to people who don't trust. It does seem that an Arminian who believed in unlimited atonement and that trust was a partial efficient cause would be guilty of efficient cause semi-Pelagianism.

Posted by: Kenny at July 30, 2009 11:15 AM

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