The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Which Came First the Gospel or the Law?

The knee-jerk response of many to the question posed in the title of this essay will be to say that the Law came first. It, after all, is the “Old” Covenant whereas the Gospel is the “New” Covenant. The proof-texting types will then back up this answer with John 1:17 “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”

Since the Exodus took place approximately half-way through the second millennium BC this might seem conclusive. Back up, however, sixteen verses to the words with which the Gospel of John opens: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The beginning alluded to is the same beginning references in the first verse of Genesis which precedes Exodus. The Word, as the fourteenth verse clearly states, is Jesus Christ.

Now let us jump ahead seven chapters to where this same Jesus, Who brought the grace and truth of the Gospel, tells the Pharisees “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.” Abraham was the first of the Hebrew Patriarchs, the grandfather of Jacob in whose days the Israelites went down to Egypt, from bondage in which God delivered them in the days of Moses, four centuries later. When Jesus was then asked “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?” He responded with “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”

While Moses lived a millennium and a half prior to the Incarnation, the verses that I have been pointing you to, which testify to the deity of Jesus Christ demonstrate that He, Who in Himself IS the Gospel, is prior to Moses. Elsewhere, St. John testifies to seeing an angel flying in the midst of heaven “having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth” (Rev. 14:6). The word translated “everlasting” here is αἰώνιος. It is the Greek word for “eternal” which means having neither beginning nor end.

Lest it be thought that I am finding clever arguments for a moot point turn to the third chapter of epistle to the Galatians and note how St. Paul hangs his entire argument that grace finishes what grace begins upon the priority of the Gospel over the Law. In the eighth verse he writes “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.” Later in the seventeenth verse he writes “And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.” The Gospel, the Covenant of grace and promise, St. Paul is clearly arguing, is older than the Law, which he proceeds to argue was temporarily added, “because of transgressions” (v. 19) as a “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (v. 24).

This third chapter of Galatians demonstrates several doctrines that are popular in various circles within contemporary Christianity to be utterly in error. Let us look at two of these.

The first is the “Church Age as parenthesis” doctrine that has been taught by many dispensationalists in support of their eschatology. This doctrine teaches that we are living in an Age that began with Pentecost and which will conclude with the Rapture and which, having been completely unknown to the prophets of the Old Testament, is a parenthesis – a gap – in the timeline of Old Testament prophecy and in God’s dealings with national Israel under the Mosaic Covenant (the Law). John F. Walvoord, who was president of Dallas Theological Seminary, the flagship school of dispensationalism, from the 1950s to the 1980s, articulated and defended this doctrine in both The Rapture Question (1979) and The Millennial Kingdom (1983). Earlier, Harry A. Ironside, popular Bible teacher and pastor of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago had written an entire book entitled The Great Parenthesis: The Mystery in Daniel’s Prophecy (1943). Both men derived this doctrine from the earlier teachings of men like John N. Darby and C. I. Scofield. Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, in his Major Bible Themes (1926), which was later revised and expanded by Walvoord (1974), took the parenthesis theory to its logical conclusion, given the premises of dispensationalist eschatology, and argued that in the Great Tribulation after the Rapture, the Age of Law would resume. Of the Age or Dispensation of Law Chafer wrote “Its course was interrupted by the death of Christ and the thrusting in of the hitherto unannounced age of the church. Thus the church age, while complete in itself, is parenthetical within the age of the law.” That this is the exact opposite of what St. Paul taught in Galatians ought to be obvious to anyone who reads that epistle. It is the Law, not the Gospel, that is the parenthesis.

The second doctrine is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was drawn up in 1646 by the Puritans, those seditious, regicidal, maniacs, who murdered and martyred King Charles I, the legitimate king who was the true defender of his people’s liberty and freedom against those who wished to use Parliament as a means to subjecting the kingdom to their own arbitrary rule, because he stood in the way of their plans to abolish all that is ancient and aesthetically pleasing in the Church, to impose such a rigid, legalistic Sabbath keeping upon everyone that had the Pharisees of old survived to see it they would have cried “whoa, chill out, man”, to accuse everybody they didn’t like of “popish” leanings or witchcraft, to persecute those so accused, and to require that everyone subscribe to the darkest, gloomiest, version of the dark and gloomy doctrine known as Calvinism. The Puritans were the first liberals and leftists – their party within Parliament developed into the Whigs who later became the Liberals, their rebellion again the King and Church of England became the model for the Jacobin and Bolshevik Revolutions in France and Russia, and their Cromwellian Protectorate was the template for all subsequent totalitarian terror states from the French Reign of Terror to the Soviet Union to the Third Reich. Here is what their Confession has to say about man’s original condition:

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. (Westminster Confession of Faith, VII, ii)

The verses the Westminster divines pointed to in support of this idea of a “covenant of works” are verses which speak of the principle of the Law, including, ironically, a verse from Galatians 3. Ironies abound with regards to this teaching of the Westminster Confession. By making the original condition of man in the Garden a “covenant of works” that is the equivalent of the Law, they have fallen into the same mistake usually found in Gospel tracts written by Arminian – or outright Pelagian – evangelicals of saying that God’s original plan was messed up by man so He had to fall back on Plan B which was the Cross. St. John speaks of Christ as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8) in language that echoes that used by St. Peter in the eighteenth to twentieth verses of the first chapter of his first Catholic Epistle. Note St. Peter’s use of the word “foreordained” in verse twenty. The Cross was never “Plan B”, and one would think that people who emphasized the doctrines of election, foreordination, and predestination to the extent that the Puritans, who took these doctrines to such an extreme that they turned them into a gross, impious, and blasphemous heresy that denies the universal love of God and the universal offer of salvation in the Gospel, ought to know that better than anyone else. (1)

Man in the Garden of Eden was not under the Law. The Scriptures are very clear about this. Here again are the words of St. Paul from the first part of the nineteenth verse of the third chapter of Galatians: “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions.” The Fall of Man was the first such transgression. Consider also the following which St. Paul wrote to Timothy:

But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust. (I Timothy 1:8-11)

If the Law was added because of transgressions, of which the Fall, which resulted in the expulsion from Eden was the first, and the law was not made for a righteous man, which Adam was prior to his transgression, but for the lawless and disobedient, i.e., men after the Fall, then man’s condition prior to the Fall in the Garden was not the “covenant of works” of the Westminster Confession.

Indeed, it is quite evident from the Genesis account alone that man’s original state was one of grace. It is an impoverished understanding of grace that thinks of it exclusively or even primarily as a merciful response to man’s sin. Grace, which we get from the Latin word gratia, the equivalent of the Greek Χάρις. These words had a similar range of meanings, from being the proper name of a class of pagan goddesses, usually three in number, to being the standard word used in giving thanks, which is why we speak of a prayer of thanksgiving prior to a meal as “saying grace.” All of its meanings, however, point back to its primary meaning of “favour”. When used of outward beauty, as we still use it when we speak of someone speaking or moving “gracefully” this had connotations both of beauty as a gift bestowed by divine favour, and that which is pleasing to the eye and so wins the favour of the beholder. The Graces were so-called because they were the goddesses of beauty and other related concepts. Thanksgiving, of course, is the proper and polite response to favour bestowed. When the Bible speaks of the grace of God it speaks of God’s favour, freely bestowed upon mankind, and it is a comprehensive term covering everything from the divine benevolence which motivates the bestowal of favour, the act of freely bestowing it, the favour itself, and everything which is freely given to show that favour, including both the Saviour of mankind, all that He did to accomplish our salvation, that salvation itself and the Holy Spirit Who was sent to indwell His Church and to perform the work of sanctification. Grace did not begin with man’s Fall. Man’s entire original state was one of grace. God poured His grace upon man by creating Him in the first place, for God did not owe us existence, by blessing him upon Creation and giving him dominion over the rest of creation (Gen. 1:28), and preparing the Garden of Eden for him and placing him in it (Gen. 2:8-15).

Note that the Genesis account mentions the Tree of Life as having been placed in the Garden of Eden before it mentions the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Gen. 2:9). No conditions are placed on eating of the Tree of Life, which man is only barred from – and only temporarily at that (Rev. 22:1-2) – after his fall into sin (Gen. 3:22-24). A single commandment is given – the prohibition from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:17) Commandments are not contrary to grace. Jesus, on the eve of His Crucifixion and the dawn of the New Covenant, in conversation at the same Passover seder in which He instituted the New Covenant Sacrament of the Eucharist, left His disciples a “new commandment.” The new commandment was similar to the two commandments that He had said summarized the Law, but with a difference. The new commandment was “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” “As I have loved you” has a double meaning. It means both “in the same manner as”, i.e., self-sacrificially, and “because.” Christ’s self-sacrificial love for us is both the example we are to follow and the motivation given for following it. Under the Gospel of grace, our motivation for obeying God is not that of the Law – do this and live (Gal. 3:12) – but gratitude (a word derived from grace). Being under grace rather than Law does not mean being under no authority and having no obligation to obey God. It means that our being in God’s favour is in no way dependent upon our performance of these obligations but that that favour is freely bestowed. (2) Which is exactly the condition of man in the Garden prior to the Fall. Nowhere in Genesis 1-3 is life “promised to Adam…upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” On the contrary, life was freely given to Adam, as was access to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. The prohibition on the other Tree came with a warning of death, but there is a huge difference between saying “you have A on condition that you do B” and “don’t do X or you will get Y.” The Puritans never understood this difference. This is why they preached the regulative rather than the normative principle of worship, i.e., that it should include only what is specifically commanded in Scripture rather than that it can include all that it is not specifically prohibited in Scripture. This is why they rebelled against their legitimate king in the name of “liberty” and proceeded to establish the grandparent of all totalitarian despotisms. This is why they saw Law rather than grace in the Garden of Eden and included this, ironically Pelagian, heresy in their famous Confession of Faith.

Should someone want to quibble that the Gospel properly refers to the Good News about divine favour restored by He who redeemed us from sin rather than the grace enjoyed by man in his innocence, look to Genesis 3:15. The promise of the Redeemer was given in the midst of the curse, even before the expulsion from Eden, long before God saw fit to hand down the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

(1) The dispensationalists also ought to have known better. In many other respects they have the strongest grasp of the distinction between Law and Gospel/Grace of any group in Christendom except the Lutherans. Whatever else can be said, for or against, the teachings of C. I. Scofield, the distinctions in his “Law and Grace”, originally the sixth chapter of his booklet Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, (1896) later modified and included by R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon in The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, (1910-1915) are superbly worded. “Law shuts every mouth before God; grace opens every mouth to praise Him… Law never had a missionary; grace is to be preached to every creature. Law utterly condemns the best man; grace freely justifies the worst.”

(2) It also means that the commandments are light rather than burdensome. In the Garden of Eden there was only one commandment – it prohibited eating of one tree, all other trees in the Garden were allowed. While the Law, containing over 600 commandments, could be essentially reduced to the famous Ten, and these summed up in two, the commandment of the Gospel is, like that in the Garden of Eden, single. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Gospel Repentance – a Lenten Meditation

Law and Gospel are Scriptural terms with multiple connotations. Both are the proper designations of portions of holy writ. Law, as the translation of Torah, is the collective name of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Gospel is the genre label of each of the four portraits of the life of Christ by SS. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with which the distinctly Christian Scriptures begin. Each term is also sometimes used as a shorthand for the Scriptures as a whole, making them in this one usage, synonyms. More often, however, they are used as shorter titles for the Old and New Testaments and the Covenants from which the two major divisions of the Bible get these other names. When used this way, and especially when distinguishing the dominant principle and distinct message of each of the two Covenants, Law and Gospel are generally set in contrast with each other.

The contrasts are myriad but there is one in particular that I wish to reflect upon and that is the difference between repentance under the Gospel and repentance as it was under the Law. Or rather, I wish to focus on one of several differences between Gospel repentance and Law, others of which I have discussed elsewhere.

Before looking at this difference we should briefly observe what is the same about repentance under both Law and Gospel. Repentance is the way appointed for those who have offended God to return to Him and find forgiveness and restoration. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is the attitude which those who have offended God are expected to take in returning and seeking His forgiveness. This was the case under the Law and it has not changed under Gospel. Under both Covenants it is primarily preached to and expected of those who are already members of the Covenant, although there are Old Testament examples of others repenting and the Sacrament of initiation into the Christian Covenant is a ritual which is symbolic of repentance and the washing away of sin.

Under both the Law and the Gospel people are expected to repent of their bad deeds. Under the Law it is only of evil that people are called upon to repent. When the prophets call upon the Israelites to repent and return to their God it is over idolatry, child sacrifice, injustice, and assorted other such wickedness. When Jonah, very much against his will, proclaimed God’s judgement upon the wickedness of Ninevah, it was of that wickedness that they repented. There is even a word play that is not infrequent in the Old Testament in which “repent” and “evil” are used with a double sense – one the one hand they designate the contrition and the sin of the sinner, and on the other the clemency and the averted retribution of God. The end of the third chapter of Jonah is an example of this, at least if you read it in the original Hebrew or a translation that preserves the Hebrew play on words like the Greek Septuagint or the English Authorized Version and avoid the Non Inspired Version which, favourite of evangelicals though it be, does not. When applied to divine retribution ערַ/κᾰκῐ́ᾱ/evil is clearly limited in its sense to destructive effect and does not have the connotation of moral culpability but the figure of speech preserves the common theme that it is “evil” of some sort that is the object of repentance.

Which brings us to the difference. The Gospel calls upon us to repent, not only of our bad deeds, but of our good deeds as well.

Perhaps your initial reaction to that assertion is to ask how on earth it is possible to repent of one’s good deeds. It is an understandable reaction, especially if you have been taught to think of repentance primarily in terms of a kind of self-improvement – turning away from past wrongdoing and starting to do that which is right. Scripturally, however, the essence of repentance is contrition and humility, and behavioural change is merely its fruit. To repent of one’s good deeds is to confess them to be sins, to renounce all claim to divine praise and reward for them, and to seek God’s mercy and grace for them, as well as for one’s overt bad deeds.

St. Paul showed us how it is done in the third chapter of his epistle to the Church at Philippi. After summarizing all of the reasons why he might “have confidence in the flesh” in verses four and five, he wrote “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ” in verse six and then proceeded in the next verses to use the following much stronger language:

Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.

To count one’s personal righteousness “as dung” surely merits the description repentance of good works.

Another passage in which we are enjoined to take a similar attitude is Luke 17:7-10. In this passage the Lord Jesus Christ uses a parable about an earthly lord and his domestic servant to illustrate to His disciples that they are to regard their service to God as their obligation or duty, i.e., that which they owe God, and not as something done for gratitude or reward. “So likewise ye,” the Lord says, “when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”

Next, consider the parable that is found at the end of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 25, beginning at the thirty-first verse. In this famous parable about the Last Judgement, the Lord Jesus says that at His Second Coming He will send His angels to divide the sheep from the goats, placing the sheep on His right hand and the goats on the left, then He will judge the works of each. The same list of works, which has taken on the traditional name of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, is gone over twice, and the sheep are bidden to “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” because they performed these works to Christ Himself whereas the goats are told to “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” because they did not perform these works to Christ Himself. When each group is surprised to be told that they had ministered or failed to minister to Christ they are told that their ministry or failure to “the least of these my brethren” is counted as being done or not done to Christ Himself.

This parable has suffered from much misinterpretation over the years due to a superficial reading. The misinterpretation is theological rather than ethical. Obviously, on the ethical level, the parable conveys the simple moral lesson that we ought to perform these works to everyone who needs them, great or small, as best as we are able and is in this regard, similar in meaning to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Theologically, however, legalists of all stripes have regarded this passage as evidence that Christ taught otherwise than St. Paul on the matter of works and justification, despite the abundant testimony to the contrary that can be found in St. John’s Gospel. In this passage, the legalists claim, works are all that is talked about and there is no mention of faith at all. Note what this simplistic and superficial interpretation overlooks.

The sheep are divided from the goats, not by the judgment of their works, but before the judgment of their works. At no point is it suggested that performing the Works of Mercy is what makes the sheep sheep or that failing to so perform is what makes the goats goats. Indeed, to interpret the parable this way goes against the obvious implications of the responses of each group to the judgement. The sheep are surprised to hear their works praised, the goats are surprised to hear of their failure. In the case of the goats what this suggests is that they were self-satisfied and confident that they HAD performed sufficient good works of this type so as to merit eternal reward. Ergo the shock to find their smallest failures being brought into focus and the harsh condemnation that they actually receive.

As for the sheep it suggests that they had done precisely what I have been arguing the Gospel calls us to do – to repent of our good works as well as our bad. They counted the good works that they were surprised to hear praised as loss, they had disavowed any and all claim to praise and reward for their works, and considered themselves, as Christ had commanded, to be “unprofitable servants.” They had renounced all claims to a righteousness of their own works and had placed their faith entirely in the Saviour Whom God had provided to a fallen and sinful world, trusting to His all-sufficient merit alone. For that is where faith is to be found in this parable. It is what makes the difference between the sheep and the goats. Believers and unbelievers alike will be judged on their works, because works are the only basis upon which anyone can be judged. The nature of the judgement is radically different for the two different groups. Those who have placed their faith in the Saviour that God has freely and graciously provided, and who are pardoned for their sins and credited with the righteousness of Christ, find their smallest service praised and rewarded (Matthew 10:42). Their service, if subjected to scrutiny, would not measure up, so God’s acceptance of it and bestowing of praise and reward upon it, is also an act of mercy and grace, on top of His having freely given them salvation in Christ. Those, however, who reject the salvation that God has freely given but seek to establish their own righteousness by works, find their self-righteousness subjected to that scrutiny to which no human works can stand up.

If the need under the Gospel to repent of good works as well as bad has not already been made clear, let us now consider the basic meaning of ἁμαρτία which is the primary word used for “sin” in the New Testament. The branch of theology that considers the doctrine of sin takes its name, hamartiology, from this word and it is also the word used in the classical literary criticism of Aristotle for the “tragic flaw” of the hero in a Greek tragedy. The basic concept suggested by ἁμαρτία is that of missing the mark.

Imagine that you are back in Nottinghamshire in the reign of Richard the Lionheart competing in an archery contest. You have been doing very well and have outshot all your competitors. All of a sudden a last minute challenger shows up. He is wearing a heavy hooded cloak hiding his features because he is the legendary Robin Hood, an outlaw being hunted by the very Sheriff who is hosting the match. Your last shot was just slightly off the bull’s eye. The hooded challenger claims that he can beat you. Allowed to try, Robin hits the bull’s eye smack dab in the centre. The Sheriff rules that you be given another chance and you try again. Your next arrow comes even closer to the bull’s eye than your previous one – but Robin’s is still closer. Then, to rub it in, Robin shoots a second arrow and splits the first having hit the mark perfectly twice in a row. He then proceeds to blow a raspberry, wiggle his thumbs at you, and do an obnoxious victory dance all around you but you aren’t paying any attention too of this. All you can think about is how your shots, of which you had been so proud, don’t look so good anymore compared to his. You were closer than all of the other competitors except Robin – but you had still missed the mark. That’s ἁμαρτία. That is what the New Testament’s primary word for sin means.

If sin is “missing the mark” then our good deeds are to be counted as sins as much as our bad deeds. For however good our deeds may appear to us, or however well we may think we do in comparison with others, they fall far short of the mark for which we ought to be aiming – the perfect righteousness of God as stated in His Commandments and manifested in Jesus Christ. Many who seem to have no problem with confessing that they have sinned by their bad deeds and who would acknowledge that their good deeds fall short of the perfection of God balk at confessing such shortcomings to be sin. The pride that is at the root of the sinfulness of fallen human nature wishes to cling on to something for which it can claim credit, even if it be merely the intention or sincerity of our deeds. The Gospel, however, calls upon us to renounce all claim to merit of our own that we might place our confidence entirely in the all-sufficient merits of Christ.
We are in Lent, the period the Church has assigned since ancient times for penitent reflection in preparation for Passion Week’s commemoration of the events of our salvation, culminating in the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter. This Lent, let us not be satisfied with repenting of our bad deeds, but repent of all of our deeds, even those we are accustomed to think of as g

Monday, March 4, 2019

Some Modern Ancient Heresies

The late Modern Age was a period that saw Western Civilization gradually abandon the Christian religion and replace it with the secular religion of liberalism. Indeed, the very label Western Civilization indicates this change. Formerly it had been Christendom – Christian civilization. Not coincidentally, the same period saw large segments of the Christian Church abandon orthodoxy – the sound doctrines of the faith as taught by Christ and His Apostles, written in the Holy Scriptures, and formulated in the ecumenical Creeds of the early undivided Church. Many nominally Christian Churches now reject as literal truth virtually every statement in the basic Apostles’ Creed, let alone the more precise Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed or the comprehensive Athanasian Creed, and teach instead that these were mythological embellishments of the Christian message the only essential content of which is its ethical teachings, by which, such Churches always seem to mean, an interpretation of Christian ethics that supports a progressive, left-wing, political and social agenda. This kind of “theology” was once named Modernism after the Age which spawned it but is now generally called by the same name as that Age’s secular faith, liberalism.

Unsurprisingly, the Age that has seen this retreat from orthodoxy has seen also the rebirth of many of the heresies against which the orthodox Fathers successfully contended in the early centuries of Christianity. The sixteenth century saw the much needed reform of many corruptions and superstitions that had gradually risen in connection with the papacy’s usurpation of supremacy over the entire Church, itself a departure from primitive orthodoxy, but not all of the Reformers shared the same conservative respect for the primitive orthodoxy of the first five centuries as Dr. Luther and the English Reformers. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura was understood, by many of the more radical Reformers, as meaning that the individual should interpret the Bible for himself with disregard to the consensus of the early Church. Unsurprisingly, a tendency towards Nestorianism manifested itself among Calvin’s followers, and some really radical versions of Anabaptism rejected Trinitarianism.

One of the early heresies that has been reborn and which now seems to be ubiquitous is Manichaeism. This system of belief takes its name from its third century Persian founder, Mani, who incorporated elements of Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism into his teachings. For a decade in his youth, prior to his conversion to orthodox Christianity, St. Augustine was an adherent of this sect against which several of his treatises were written (De duabus animabus, Contra Faustum, Contra Fortunatum, De Natura Boni, among others). The doctrine for which it is primarily remembered is dualism – the idea that the forces of light and the forces of darkness are more or less equal principles between which the world is locked in a perpetual struggle. This is an idea that can be found everywhere today – it is a dominant theme in the Star War motion picture saga and, indeed, is quite prevalent in the fantasy genre of fiction in general. More problematic is its presence in the Church. There are, indeed, many who think that it is sound Christian doctrine.

The error of dualism, which I dealt with in a previous essay entitled The Nature and Origin of Evil, is not in the assertion that there are evil spiritual forces present in the world but in the degree of significance it attaches to these and to evil itself. There are those who in the interest of promoting morality, purity, and holiness constantly harp on the danger of treating evil lightly and, in the sense in which they are speaking they do have a point. Yet there is a greater danger in making evil more important than it really is. The fourteenth chapter of the book of Isaiah contains a “proverb against the king of Babylon” and traditionally Christianity has seen the segment of that proverb that begins at verse twelve with the words “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” as addressing through the spiritual entity standing behind the king of Babylon, an interpretation that can be supported by our Lord’s words in the eighteenth verse of the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke. Therefore, when Isaiah writes:

For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. (vv. 13-14)

this has been understood as referring, at least on one level, to the sin that led to the downfall of the devil. Note that the dualism, which places the forces of evil on the same level as the forces of good, gives the devil precisely the honour that he in his Pride sought to usurp according to the traditional interpretation of this passage.

Orthodox Christian doctrine, however, teaches us that there is only One Being Who is eternal – in the sense of having neither beginning nor end -, infinite, all-powerful, and omnipresent. This Being, God, is also Good. Goodness, therefore, as an attribute of God, is itself eternal. It follows from this that Goodness does not require its opposite, evil, either to exist itself, or, much less, to balance it, as some of the more perverse versions of Dualism suggest.

Furthermore, while Goodness does not require evil for its own existence, the same is not true in reverse. Evil, if it can be said to exist – and something that is neither eternal nor created by God can hardly be said to exist in the most proper meaning of the word existence – exists as a defect in the Goodness of Creation. God, Who is Good Himself and in Whom there is no evil, created all that is and He imparted Goodness to all that He created. “And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31) God imparted this Goodness to His Creation in two tiers. The lower level of created Goodness is that of inanimate objects and irrational life forms which serve the Good for which they are created automatically and whose nature is such that they lack the power to do otherwise. The higher level of created Goodness, voluntary Goodness, is that of angels and human beings, who were created with reason, the power to recognize the Good for which they exist, and will, the power to choose that Good for themselves. This higher level of created Goodness could not exist without either reason or will, and created reason and will are therefore themselves Goods, because they serve the end of voluntary Goodness. The power to choose the Good for oneself, however, at least in a state of Innocence rather than Perfection, which was the initial state of angels and human beings, is also the power to choose what is not Good. Or, more precisely, it is the power to choose wrongly, by choosing what to mistaken reason appears to be the greater Good, but which as the object of wrong choice loses even the lesser Goodness upon which the miscalculation was based. In the case of Lucifer and the angels who followed him in his rebellion, and in the case of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, this is exactly what happened, and in each case the result was that the created Goodness of their nature was broken.

That is all that evil is – broken Goodness. Not a force in this world, equal to, opposite, and independent of Goodness, but the damaged condition of created Goodness itself. Just as speed, the ability to move fast, denotes an actual power which human beings possess but slowness is merely a term for a deficiency in that power, so is evil to the Goodness of Creation.

Note that what I have said here applies also to Truth and Beauty which, like Goodness, are eternal attributes of God, which He imparted as properties to all that He made. (1) Falsehood and ugliness, like evil, are neither things in themselves, nor real properties which exist in other things, but are present merely as defects in the Truth and Beauty of Creation. Note what some of the most famous orthodox writers of the early part of the last century had to say about the kind of falsehood, heresy, with which we are concerned here. G. K. Chesterton, writing for The Daily News on June 26, 1909 said “Every heresy is a truth taught out of proportion” and in America on November 9, 1935 “A heresy is always a half-truth turned into a whole false¬hood.” T. S. Eliot wrote:

Furthermore, the essential of any important heresy is not simply that it is wrong: it is that it is partly right. It is characteristic of the more interesting heretics, in the context in which I use the term, that they have an exceptionally acute perception, or profound insight, of some part of the truth; an insight more important often than the inferences of those who are aware of more but less acutely aware of anything. So far as we are able to redress the balance, effect the compensation, ourselves, we may find such authors of the greatest value. If we value them as they value themselves we shall go astray. And in the present state of affairs, with the low degree of education to be expected of public and of reviewers, we are more likely to go wrong than right; we must remember too, that an heresy is apt to have a seductive simplicity, to make a direct and persuasive appeal to intellect and emotions, and to be altogether more plausible than the truth. (2)

These insights into the nature of heresy are particularly helpful in understanding another ancient heresy which has even more thoroughly permeated Modern Western thought than Manichaeism. This is the heresy of Pelagianism. This heresy was named after Pelagius a fifth century monk from somewhere in the British Isles, probably Ireland, who lived and taught in Rome. St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Jerome were the primary champions of orthodoxy in the fight against this heresy, which was first condemned in the Council of Carthage, a regional synod of the African Church, in 418 AD, but which condemnation was upheld by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. This Council, convened to address the Nestorian controversy, was the third ecumenical Council and as such spoke with the authority of the entire orthodox Church, eastern and western. Pelagianism is ordinarily thought of as a denial of Original Sin. Think back to our explanation of the origin and nature of evil. Original Sin is the doctrine, clearly taught by St. Paul in the fifth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, that after the Goodness of human nature was broken by Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, it was passed down to us in that broken condition. Since one of the implications of Original Sin is the idea, fundamental to orthodox Christianity, that we cannot save ourselves but must rely entirely upon the grace of God given to us in Jesus Christ, an implication of Pelagianism’s denial of Original Sin is the idea that we can save ourselves, an idea clearly present in the Modern concept of progress. However, to go back to the insights into the nature of heresy that we borrowed from Chesterton and Eliot, if Pelagianism is “truth taught out of proportion” then it is the truth of Free Will that Pelagianism exaggerates.

We have already set forward the doctrine of Free Will without naming it as such in our discussion of the origin of evil. It is the power which God gave to rational beings such as men and angels to perceive the Good with their reason and to choose it with their will. (3) While this power is what made evil a possibility and in practice a reality, it is itself a Good because the end it serves, which could not be achieved without it, is Good, which Good, as we have already seen, is the higher order of Created Goodness that is voluntarily chosen. This is a truth that orthodox Christianity holds simultaneously with that of Original Sin. There is a degree of tension between the two truths since an obvious implication of Original Sin is that Free Will along with human Goodness was damaged in the Fall. Orthodox Christians have disagreed as to the extent of the damage however. The Pelagian view, that the Fall did not damage man’s ability to choose Good unassisted by God’s grace, and the Semi-Pelagian view, that after the Fall man retains the ability to initiate the choice of Good but requires the grace of God to complete it, have both been rejected as heresy by orthodox Christianity, but this still leaves a large spectrum of degrees of damage that fall within the scope of orthodoxy, and some of the most unedifying theological conflicts of the Modern Age have been the direct result of attempts to limit that scope even further.

Free Will in orthodox Christianity is not unlimited. It is the power to choose Good or evil, not the right to decide for ourselves what is Good. Goodness is what it is, it is the role of reason to perceive it, and the will is supposed to follow the lead of reason. In the post-modernism of today – if we have not actually arrived at a post-post-modernism – liberalism has arrived at the point where freedom is regarded by many liberals as being so absolute that it is not subject to the limitations even of reality. This is Pelagianism taken to the nth degree, for Pelagius himself would never have dreamed of asserting a freedom of our will that places limitations on the authority of God as Sovereign Ruler over all His Creation, to issue laws, reward obedience, and punish disobedience.

The history of liberalism, from the Whiggism of the seventeenth century to the present day madness described in the previous paragraph, has been one of the progressive removal of limitations, real or perceived, on the freedom of the will. In other words, it is the history of Pelagianism going to seed. The Whig Interpretation of History, which was prevalent in the history books of the nineteenth century and which lingers on still despite having been ably refuted by Herbert Butterfield in 1931 almost a decade before the Modern Age was brought to its conclusion when the rival totalitarianisms of Communism and National Socialism plunged the world into the Second World War, maintains that this period was also a period in which, through the efforts of reformers and revolutionaries, political rights and freedoms gradually increased and tyranny receded. That this is utter nonsense is most evident in the fact that today’s uber-Pelagian liberalism with its absolute freedom of the will from the constraints of reality is one side of a coin the other side of which is the soft totalitarianism of politically correct thought control. If this seems paradoxical, consider the implications of George Grant’s wise judgement on the American and Canadian Supreme Courts after they had struck down their respective nations’ abortion laws in Roe v. Wade and R. v. Morganthaler, that they had “used the language of North American liberalism to say yes to the very core of fascist thought—the triumph of the will.”

A more genuine paradox is perhaps to be found in the fact that the Whigs who started the ball rolling on all of this were originally Puritans, i.e., fanatical Calvinists. Calvinism is ordinarily thought of as erring in the exact opposite direction of Pelagianism by taking Original Sin to the extreme of teaching that it annihilates utterly the Image of God in man and by denying, at least in effect, Free Will. How Whiggism developed from this to the opposite error is difficult to explain but the fact that it did is undeniable. The answer may simply be that to depart from orthodox truth in one area, opens one up to other heresies, even if they seem to be miles removed from your original position. Samuel Johnson had some interesting observations about the direction in which their political ideas pointed. Boswell records the following incident which had been related to him by Dr. John Douglas, Bishop of Salisbury:

One day when dining at old Mr. Langton's, where Miss Roberts, his niece, was one of the company, Johnson, with his usual complacent attention to the fair sex, took her by the hand and said, “My dear, I hope you are a Jacobite.” Old Mr. Langton, who, though a high and steady Tory, was attached to the present Royal Family, seemed offended, and asked Johnson, with great warmth, what he could mean by putting such a question to his niece! “Why, Sir, (said Johnson) I meant no offence to your niece, I meant her a great compliment. A Jacobite, Sir, believes in the divine right of Kings. He that believes in the divine right of Kings believes in a Divinity. A Jacobite believes in the divine right of Bishops. He that believes in the divine right of Bishops believes in the divine authority of the Christian religion. Therefore, Sir, a Jacobite is neither an Atheist nor a Deist. That cannot be said of a Whig; for Whiggism is a negation of all principle.” (4)

The principles that Dr. Johnson ascribes to the “Jacobite” here are the principles of seventeenth century Toryism, and also the principles of civil and ecclesiastical government to which all orthodox Christian believers, if they wish to be consistent with the teachings of their faith, must subscribe. The Jacobites were the Tories who were so true to these principles that they remained loyal to King James II and his heirs after 1688, (5) as opposed to today’s Conservatives, who claim the name and mantle of the Tories while showing little evidence of being acquainted with their principles, let alone subscribing to them. The relevant point, however, is that Whiggism, the original liberalism, was in its rejection of these political principles, a step away from Christian orthodoxy and, while the first Whigs were fanatical Calvinists, by the next century, in which Dr. Johnson lived, many of them had taken further steps towards Deism or even Atheism. If we consider how Unitarianism, a non-Trinitarian sect built on a foundation of theological liberalism, developed in New England out of the colony’s original strict Puritanism, then perhaps it will be less surprising that the political expression of Calvinist Puritanism eventually developed into an extreme version of Pelagianism.

Indeed, the root of the problem with Puritanism and what made it the well-spring of so much revived ancient heresy, can be found in its Calvinism. To return to a point made at the beginning of this essay, John Calvin, like Dr. Luther and the English Reformers held that the Holy Scriptures as God’s Written Word held supreme authority over the teachings and traditions of the Church. There was a difference, however, in how Calvin understood this truth and how Dr. Luther and the English Reformers understood it. Dr. Luther and the English Reformers believed – correctly – that they shared this truth with the Fathers of the early, undivided, Church and that while the Scriptures must have the final say, we need to pay respectful attention to how the Church Fathers understood them. This was not entirely untrue of John Calvin, but it was much less true of him than of these other Reformers, and it would become even less true among his followers, especially the English Puritans. The idea developed among them that the individual believer, aided only by the Holy Spirit, should mine the truth of Scripture for himself, and ignore what other Christians – prior to Calvin – had to say about it.

This goes a long way towards explaining why there has been such leanings towards ancient heresies like Nestorianism (6) in the Calvinist tradition. In it can also be seen the seeds of the perverse Modern attitude that C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield so aptly dubbed “chronological snobbery.” If we, who live in the present, have better access to the truth the Holy Spirit conveys through the Scriptures when we apply to them directly without consulting the exegesis of the Fathers of the Church, then chronological snobbery, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” (7) necessarily follows.

By contrast, Dr. Daniel Waterland, the early eighteenth century champion of orthodoxy against the revived Arianism of Dr. Samuel Clarke, wrote:

Having taken a view of the moderns in relation to the Creed, we may now enter upon a detail of the ancients and their testimonies, by which the moderns must be tried. (8)

Dr. Waterland was speaking with regards to the question of the age and authorship of the Athanasian Creed, but it we would apply this principle, that the moderns must be tried by the testimonies of the ancients, more broadly, we would find in it a curative to chronological snobbery, and the many heresies of our own age.

(1) The philosophical way of saying this is to say that these are the Transcendentals – the properties of Being itself.

(2) T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, Faber & Faber, 1934, pp. 24-25.

(3) See Richard Hooker’s excellent discussion of this in chapters VII through IX of Book I of his Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie.

(4) James Boswell, Life of Johnson, July 14, 1763.

(5) Dr. Johnson held these principles all his life but upon the accession of George III accepted the Hanoverian Succession as having attained legitimacy through prescription. Boswell inserts the anecdote from Douglas at the point in his narrative where he notes this fact.

(6) Thomas F. Torrance in his book Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2009, argued that the doctrine of Limited Atonement, implied, although not directly worded as such, by the Second Main Point of Doctrine of the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) had Nestorian implications. Nestorianism cannot be imputed to John Calvin himself, because of this, for it is clear from his writings that he taught an Unlimited Atonement, but others, especially of the Lutheran tradition, have found evidence of Nestorianism in his doctrine of the Eucharist. That the late R. C. Sproul was guilty of outright and open Nestorianism, I demonstrated here:

(7) C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966 p, 207.

(8) Daniel Waterland, A Critical History of the Athanasian Creed: A New Edition, Revised and Corrected by the Rev. J. R. King, Oxford and London, James Parker And Co., 1870, p. 20.