I already posted a brief excerpt from the huge undergraduate paper I did that turned out to be badly wrongheaded, but the simple truth is that without that work almost nothing I know or teach today would have been worked into me in the manner it now has. I don’t want to sell short the real danger of exceeding all reasonable bounds in argumentative zeal and ending up in dangerous heresy; but I want to point out that riches to be gained by sustained engagement with the history of Christian teaching, and sustained effort to reason vigorously and rigorously about the faith, are hard to overstate.
And, really, when I read some of this today, I wish profoundly that there had been someone equipped with a solid understanding of patristic and medieval theology, and a Catholic approach to them, to sit down and talk with me about this work. I am not sure I would have been responsive (though I would be strongly influenced by several explanations of Catholic understanding over the next few years). At any rate, I would like to be that person for others on a similar path.
Here, then, some excerpts from near the end of “Original Sin: Origin of a Doctrine,” that seem oddly similar to the decrees on Justification from the Council of Trent–an assertion both I and my interlocutors at the time would have regarded as an accusation! We learn; we learn.
An excerpt on the role of Resurrection in Justification, as I speculated at the time:
If God were willing for the entire universe to simply annul itself by means of sin and death, then there would be no problem except the question of why God would create a universe, only to let it die. If any are to be saved, a just God must have some way to save them without simply commuting the sentence. This provision is in Christ, and in God’s infinite wisdom and eternal foreknowledge is made possible by the very curse which makes the universe just. It is just, and necessary to justice, that the natural consequences of universal sin be universal death; but the curse makes death a condition of human existence itself, hence itself contributing to sin. If no man lives in a cursed human body sinlessly and dies, then the curse is absolutely just and efficient, closely and directly relating the opportunity to sin, the sin and the result so as to provide minimal suffering and ambiguity. Death makes the universe as pleasant as it can be with sin in dominance. However, if one man in a cursed human body were to live sinlessly and still die, then justice would not only allow, but in fact require, that the curse be altered. The result is that, while death still results from sin in the world, there is now a new life as well, a resurrection from the dead. In that life, as in this, those who are obedient will be blessed with fellowship with God and their fellows; those who are disobedient will be cursed with that which they choose, separation from God and the natural consequences of continuing death in an immortal body.
It is finally the promise of the resurrection that is the distinctive hope of the Christian. This is the ultimate thing man is unable to do; no man can act when he is dead, much less create life in his death. God alone could provide the means by which men who in their sinfulness were already left for dead, who were naturally subject to the condemnation of death and who spent their lives earning that sentence, could be brought to life after their death. God alone could make it possible for sins to be expiated (by the justice of death for sin) and at the same time for salvation to be possible (by the justice of resurrection for Christ’s obedience, with eternal life for believers). God alone could at the same time punish and forgive, love and judge. God alone could exercise justice and mercy in such an absolute fashion that neither compromises the other in any detail. Man cannot solve this problem for himself; he cannot create new life; he is entirely dependent upon the grace of God, and must in faith submit to that which that grace demands of him in order to partake of that glory.
A footnote that shows that God was “breaking in” even where my arguments were colliding with each other in painful cacophony:
Of course, the actual course of action taken (resurrection of all men, with the promise of eternal life to those who believe and obey Christ) is only one of several possible courses that would still be just. Rather than resurrect all on account of the one unjust death, God could have a) caused the curse to be individual, rather than general or b) prevented Christ’s death. However, neither of these would have accomplished the assumed end, which is the salvation of sinners. Therefore, God’s plan of redemption, which includes the curse itself, is based in an economy of love, not natural necessity.
(Yes, I added that emphasis.)
And something still a little too close to semi-Pelagian, but on the way to agreement with the councils of Orange and Trent (a long road yet ahead):
Since justification means “to be made just,” and being just is a fundamental statement of man’s moral state, justification without moral change is a word without meaning. For God to act as if people were just without truly making them so is for God to be arbitrary, unjust and untruthful. There can be no movement toward a state of justification, or a state of always being just in one’s actions, made on paper. Justification must be a moral, rather than a forensic, change. Second, all of these notions are based upon and perpetuate the conception of moral qualities as substance, rather than volition. One cannot be given righteousness; one must be taught to live righteously, and must choose to do so. Nor is righteousness transferrable; it is irrevocably a quality of the man who acts righteously. Whatever can be understood of justification must be understood in these terms, or it is meaningless.
Justification, therefore, is a moral transformation identical with the act of faith in God’s promises. Abraham clearly exemplifies that, as do the “men of old” in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. To separate justification from faith is anti-biblical. Faith is made possible by God, Who perfectly performs His promises; the grounds, opportunity, understanding and even desire to act are provided by God. None of this is of man; nor is the substance of the Christian hope provided by man. Man cannot make himself alive after he is dead; man cannot reverse his own moral downfall; God must make this possible in Christ through His Spirit. Man, however, must exercise faith by ceasing to resist God’s Spirit, by ceasing to suppress the truth in his injustice and lawlessness. This is the great and eternal truth of the Gospel, one which must not be allowed to fade with time, regardless of the years of theories and traditions which have obscured it.