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The Augustinian Legacy in the English Catholic Church: Thomas Bradwardine

Thomas Bradwardine, born c. 1290, was the briefly the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1349 before the plague took his life.  He is known as one of the English Church's greatest philosophical clergymen.  An Augustinian, he defended predestinarianism against the "New Pelagianism" that was becoming widespread in the church of that day (one of the contributing factors to the Protestant Reformation two centuries later).   From Book Rags

(Bradwardine's) masterpiece . . .  is a voluminous theological and philosophical work, De causa Dei contra Pelagium, divided into three books (1344). It originates from lectures he had given in Oxford and London and, more radically, from a deep spiritual change he had experienced in his youth: "When I was applying myself to philosophy … Pelagius's opinion seemed to me nearer to truth.… But afterwards (I was not yet a theological student) … I thought I saw from afar the grace of God preceeding all merits in time and in nature, in the same way that in all movements He is the first Mover." (bk. I, ch. 35, p. 308). This conversion induced Bradwardine to fight for God's cause against "the new Pelagians, " a group of post-ockhamists theologians that included Richard Fitzralph, Adam Wodeham, and Robert Holcot. 

To these thinkers the issues of chief concern were grace and merit, future contingents, prescience, and predestination. On the first point, Bradwardine, as an ardent Augustinian, strongly reasserts that grace is a mere gift, not a retribution: in no way man can merit it, and, moreover, without God's special help man cannot act right. 

Concerning future contingents, the new Pelagians' opinion stressed the contrast between the necessity—that is, the fixity—of the past and the contingency of the future. This view could hardly be reconciled with the idea of an immutable and truthful God: If God or a prophet were to reveal a future event, is it possible that it would not happen? If it is possible, then God can deceive and lie. Countering this opinion, which he had first rejected in his question, De futuris contingentibus, Bradwardine closely examines the notions of contingency and necessity; he argues they are founded on the power of the will. Aristotle wrote, "What is, necessarly is, when it is. (De interpretation, ch. 9). But Duns Scotus observed that when man wills A at time t, he has the power not to will A, not only before or after t, but also at time t. Therefore a kind of necessity, the "consequent" necessity of present, is compatible with contingency. Regarding God, Bradwardine extends this conclusion to all times: For God, past, present, and future are equally contingent and equally necessary. Consequently He can undo any past event (in an improper meaning of undo), not because He could alter it (this would be a contradiction), but because at each instant of time He is yet freely willing the past event. In this way, there is no longer antinomy between the necessity of the prophecy and the contingency of the future event. 

The same argument about contingent causality clears up the most famous tenet of Bradwardine's teaching, the assertion of "antecedent necessity": Since God's will is the first cause of everything and cannot be thwarted, everything happens by necessity in relation to His will. That is the proper definition of theological determinism. But again, according to Bradwardine, when man is willing something, though his act is determined by God, he does not lose the power to do the opposite act at the same time. So it seems there is in Bradwardine's doctrine an original attempt to conciliate God's predetermination and human freedom of will.

As in other parts of Catholic Europe, Augustinianism in England (here for instance in the person of Bradwardine) stood in opposition to the "New Pelagianism" that, like its condemned forebear, was deemed by many in the Church to be a threat to the Gospel, as various forms of resultant legalism and moralism consequently threatened to take its place.   Moreover, as the Roman Catholic scholar (and Augustinian) George Tavard documented in his book Justification: An Ecumenical Study, this medieval incarnation of Augustinian theology would later give rise -- quite naturally -- to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, principally in the work of the Augustinian monk Martin Luther but eventually in the Church of England as well.  Thus Bradwardine was an immediate predecessor to the English Reformation, though that Reformation came about mainly through continental influences.

Though Alister McGrath compellingly argues in his magisteral work Iustitia Dei that Luther's doctrine was a "theological novum", one may argue, as evidenced in these quotes,  that it was always implicit in Augustine *despite* the fact that he had what McGrath calls a "transformational concept of justification."

Not so our father Abraham. This passage of scripture is meant to draw our attention to the difference. We confess that the holy patriarch was pleasing to God; this is what our faith affirms about him. So true is it that we can declare and be certain that he did have grounds for pride before God, and this is what the apostle tells us. It is quite certain, he says, and we know it for sure, that Abraham has grounds for pride before God. But if he had been justified by works, he would have had grounds for pride, but not before God. However, since we know he does have grounds for pride before God, it follows that he was not justified on the basis of works. So if Abraham was not justified by works, how was he justified?” The apostle goes on to tell us how: What does scripture say? (that is, about how Abraham was justified). Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Rom. 4:3; Gen. 15:6). Abraham, then, was justified by faith. Paul and James do not contradict each other: good works follow justification. 

3. Now when you hear this statement, that justification comes not from works, but by faith, remember the abyss of which I spoke earlier. You see that Abraham was justified not by what he did, but by his faith: all right then, so I can do whatever I like, because even though I have no good works to show, but simply believe in God, that is reckoned to me as righteousness? Anyone who has said this and has decided on it as a policy has already fallen in and sunk; anyone who is still considering it and hesitating is in mortal danger. But God’s scripture, truly understood, not only safeguards an endangered person, but even hauls up a drowned one from the deep. My advice is, on the face of it, a contradiction of what the apostle says; what I have to say about Abraham is what we find in the letter of another apostle, who set out to correct people who had misunderstood Paul. James in his letter opposed those who would not act rightly but relied on faith alone; and so he reminded them of the good works of this same Abraham whose faith was commended by Paul. The two apostles are not contradicting each other. James dwells on an action performed by Abraham that we all know about: he offered his son to God as a sacrifice. That is a great work, but it proceeded from faith. I have nothing but praise for the superstructure of action, but I see the foundation of faith; I admire the good work as a fruit, but I recognize that it springs from the root of faith. If Abraham had done it without right faith it would have profited him nothing, however noble the work was. On the other hand, if Abraham had been so complacent in his faith that, on hearing God’s command to offer his son as a sacrificial victim, he had said to himself, “No, I won’t. But I believe that God will set me free, even if I ignore his orders,” his faith would have been a dead faith because it did not issue in right action, and it would have remained a barren, dried-up root that never produced fruit. (John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., WSA, Part 3, Vol. 15, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., Expositions of the Psalms 1-32, Exposition 2 of Psalm 31, 2-4 (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2000), pp. 364-365.)

When someone believes in him who justifies the impious, that faith is reckoned as justice to the believer, as David too declares that person blessed whom God has accepted and endowed with righteousness, independently of any righteous actions (Rom 4:5-6). What righteousness is this? The righteousness of faith, preceded by no good works, but with good works as its consequence. (Exposition 2 of Psalm 31, 6-7.)

Justification is obtained by faith. ... By the law we fear God, by faith we hope in God. But to those who fear punishment grace is hidden; laboring under this fear, the soul by faith flees to the mercy of God, that He may give what He commands.  (The Spirit and the Letter.)

How should the law be upheld if not by righteousness? By a righteousness, moreover, which is of faith, for what could not be fulfilled through the law is fulfilled through faith.  (On Romans)

. . . the apostle Paul says that a man can be justified without works - preceding works.  For, having been justified by faith, how can he in turn do anything but what is righteous, although, when earlier he did nothing righteous, he attained justification of faith, not the merit of good works, but by the grace of God, which cannot now be barren in him when he does good works through love?  But, should he depart this life soon after having believed, the justification remains with him, since he attains justification by grace rather than good works, and not because of any subsequent good works, because he is not allowed to continue in this life.  Hence it is clear that the apostle's claim, "For we consider a man to be justified by faith without works" [Rom. 3:28], must not be understood in such a way that we may say a man who has received faith and continues to live is righteous, even though he lead a wicked life. (De Div. Quest (76:1), FC 70:194)

I am sometimes dismayed when I hear or read some Anglo-Catholics/Papalists who, laboring under dubious notions about free will, express opposition to great medieval Catholics such as St. Augustine and Thomas Bradwardine (and against predestination in general).  When I encounter these arguments, I get the sense that their advocates confuse anti-Augustinianism or anti-predestinarianism with the Catholic Faith, when in fact these positions are mere theologoumena.   These brothers relentlessly excoriate the "Calvinism" that supposedly spawned such "heresies" as predestination, unconditional election, justification by faith, etc. when these "heresies" were held in either seminal or mature form by great Catholic theologians who antedated John Calvin and the Protestant Reformation by hundreds of years.

I am dismayed, however, not simply because they have distorted the facts, but more importantly because their position arguably puts them at odds with the Gospel of grace.  Pelagianism was condemned by the universal Church and Semipelagianism was condemned in the Western Church for a reason; they were deemed to be corrosive of biblical soteriology.

Now, to be sure, Bradwardine like St. Augustine before him was not a solifidian, and nor will I defend any solifidianism that logically terminates in antinomianism.  I follow St. Paul, and not certain Lutherans, in this regard.  But the good Archbishop's Augustinian theology arguably does terminate (as Tavard argues) in Article XI, and this due principally to the objective nature of God's salvific provision.  What's more, as even the presumably "Arminian" Anglo-Catholic theologian J.B. Mozley said, it is in the Augustinian theology, and not in Pelagius' kind of voluntarism, that we find a safeguard for the Christian Faith.

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