"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Slick, Clark, and Monocausalism

The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) was founded in the mid-1990s by Matt Slick, a 1991 graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California. He claims to be ordained, though by whom is not clear to me. At the CARM website, we can find an article with the following title: "Are Roman Catholics Christian?".

The article begins as follows:
Are Roman Catholics Christians? They are, if they have trusted in Jesus alone for the forgiveness of their sins. However, if they believe that they are saved by God's grace and their works, then they are not saved -- even if they believe their works are done by God's grace -- since they then deny the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice.
His argument goes like this:

(1) We are saved by grace and works [Assumption]

(2) Our works are done by God's grace [Assumption]


(3) Christ's sacrifice was not sufficient. [From (1) and (2)]


(4) Christ's sacrifice was sufficient. [Assumption]


(5) Premise (1) is false. [From (1), (2), (3) and (4)]

(6) Anyone who claims (3) is not saved. [Assumption]


(7) Catholics who claim (1) and (2) are not saved. [From (3), and (6)]

The problem with this argument is that (3), (5) and (7) are all non sequiturs, given a Catholic understanding of the term 'sufficient'. So the entire argument is, in that sense, question-begging. What is missing is the specification of the term 'sufficient': sufficient for what, with respect to what? When St. Paul fills up in his own flesh that which is lacking in Christ's sufferings (Col. 1:24), is St. Paul suggesting that Christ's sacrifice was insufficient? For Catholics, the answer is 'yes' and 'no', i.e. 'yes' in one sense, 'no' in another sense. 'Yes', in the sense that Christ's sacrifice was not sufficient to make St. Paul's sufferings for the Colossian believers unnecessary. But 'no' in the sense that Christ's sacrifice was sufficient to make possible a way to God for the Colossians and the whole world.

I'm concerned that monocausalism is working as an underlying assumption here in Slick's argument. Monocauslism is the notion (in this context) that if God is doing something, then we cannot also be doing it. It is a denial of the concurrence of primary and secondary causation. This is what seems to be driving the idea that if we (by divine grace) are contributing to our salvation through our works (cf. Phil 2:12), then it must be the case that something is being taken away from our being saved by grace alone, or by Christ alone. Our good works (worked in us by God's grace) are treated by monocausalists as though in competition with Christ's salvific work. If Christ's work saves us, then (think monocausalists) there is no room for us to do anything that contributes to our salvation. In this way monocausalism is what sets up the false dilemma of Pelagianism on the one hand, and the "Free Grace" type of position [i.e. think Zane Hodges] on the other hand. Monocausalism is a philosophical position, and it should not be treated as a claim that needs no substantiation.

With monocausalism in mind, notice the way Scott Clark, of Westminster Theological Seminary, accuses the Catholic doctrine of being "Pelagian" in his recent article titled: "Trent, Sungenis, Shepherd and Federal Vision". He followed that the next day with an article titled, "Mark Noll on Why the Reformation is Over (or Not)". Notice the monocausalism in the following line from that article:

Rome teaches a different definition of grace and she has always taught a soteriology of "grace plus." We confess a soteriology of grace plus nothing.
The Catholic Church also teaches a soteriology of grace plus nothing: it is all by grace. Only through monocausalistic lenses are grace-given works seen as something outside of (or in addition to) grace. Clark then adds:

She [i.e. the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent] understood that we [i.e. Protestants] say that only Christ fulfilled the law and that justification cannot be improved or perfected, that there is no "initial" and "final" justification but only one justification for all time.

Then he says:

Mark notes that Rome says that faith is a free gift. Yes, it is, but to imply that Rome means by "faith" in the act of justification that it remains a free gift is equivocation. Yes, in Roman dogma, faith begins as a free gift initiated in baptism, but in Roman dogma it is also the case that we must do our part. We must cooperate with grace.

Notice the monocausalism in the notion that if we must do our part, it is no longer a free gift. The implicit assumption is that our salvation cannot be a free gift if our very doing of these good works contributes to our salvation. But implicit in that assumption is the assumption that our very doing of these good works cannot itself be a free and gracious gift of God. Hidden behind these claims is the philosophical assumption that operates behind both occasionalism and deism: monocausalism. In my opinion, we need to shine a critical light on that philosophical assumption.


contrarian 78 said...

I have been waiting for you to comment on this matter---where does Aquinas touch on this issue, by the way?


Bryan Cross said...

Hello Jonathan,

Aquinas deals with this in Summa Contra Gentiles III, chaps.66-70 and De Potentia Dei, Q. 3, A. 7.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Anonymous said...

Not to mention that his doctrine isn't grace + nothing at all. It's grace + a Protestant understanding of how grace works = salvation.

contrarian 78 said...

Thanks for the follow-up w/Aquinas references.

I read the Summa chapters but not the De Potentia Dei--at any rate, monocausalism is clearly used by Reformed thinkers as a refutation of the claim that predestination obliterates the validity of our actions as humans.

My question then is this: how would one see this with regard to election, but fail to do so with regard to the role of works in a believer's life?

Is this an instance of consistency? If so, how would one argue that justification and the decrees are different?

Additionally, I am still unsatisfied with the idea that Protestants are wrong to separate justification and sanctification logically, as am I unsatisfied with the idea that Catholics are wrong for not separating them logically. It all depends on one's frame of reference, as I see it.

But as usual, I am thinking that there is something that I am missing that carries this beyond a matter of perspective and semantics to a true substantive difference worthy of reflection.

Any thoughts?


contrarian 78 said...

I made a serious error in my last comment.
In my second sentence I meant to type "...the denial of monocausalism is clearly used by Reformed thinkers as a refutation of the claim that predestination obliterates the validity of our actions as humans."

I was trying to emphasize that Reformed thinkers have at some points refuted monocausalism, but apparently not at others.


Bryan Cross said...


I agree with you. There seems to be a kind of inconsistency here. It is puzzling. But this question is extremely important, because 'sola fide' is one of the two main 'pillars' of the Reformation. If we can show that there is no principled reason for maintaining monocausalism with regard to the application of Christ's work (while denying monocausalism with respect to the eternal decrees), perhaps we can make some headway with respect to reconciling Reformed and Catholics on the issue of justification.

As for the justification/sanctification issue, it is hard to address this because there is not just one Protestant position on this. I'm going to postpone that for another post.

Thanks for your comments.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan