Conversion and Grace, Controversies On

views updated


A conversion is a turning toward God and away from sin. Chrisian reflection on the nature of conversion derives largely from St. Paul. The need for conversion is expressed throughout his writings. He uses different terminology in speaking of different types of conversion. For the pagans, conversion consists in turning away from, leaving the service of, idols in order to be in God's service (Gal 4.9). Conversion is the fruit of divine initiative. God calls man to His kingdom and to His glory (1 Thes2.12). One of the essential elements in every conversion to the life of grace is the knowledge of God, a knowledge that includes a total commitment of self to God. When turned away from God, one is unable to discern the things of God (cf. 1 Cor 2.14). As a result, one's moral judgments are perverted. Conversion effects a renewal of the mind so that one becomes capable of discerning all that is good, pleasing to God, perfect (Rom 12.2). The principal effect of conversion, according to Paul, is that one becomes a new creature (Gal 6.15), leaving off the old economy of the Law, which was sterile, and adopting the new economy brought by Christ. [see rebirth (in the bible).] baptism is, of course, the prime source of this new creaturehood. By it man is united to the death and resurrection of christ, and is thus enabled to live a new life.

Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians. Through the centuries Catholic theology has elaborated upon the nature of and the requirements for this conversion to the life of grace. In the 5th century, against Pelagianism, which denied the absolute necessity of divine help in order to effect this conversion (see pelagius and pelagianism), a Council of carthage anathematized anyone who denied that only through the grace of God is one enabled to know, desire, and do what he knows must be done for salvation (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum,226). Later, against semi-pelagianism, a Council of or ange (529) settled the question concerning man's need of grace to dispose himself in a positive way for conversion (Denz 373397). The Semi-Pelagians admitted against the Pelagians the absolute necessity of grace for salvation. They wished to save both the universal salvific will of god, and the cooperation of man's free will in the matter of salvation. God's universal salvific will could not, they believed, be reconciled with His justice if He did not give the same grace to all in order that all might thereby be saved. On the other hand, it seemed impossible to explain the decisive cooperation of man's free will in his salvation unless there is at least one act that is attributable to that free will alone and in no way to the influence of grace. That one act they technically called "the beginning of faith" (Denz 375; see faith, beginning of.) According to the Semi-Pelagians, just as the man who is sick and needs the doctor to cure him nevertheless retains the capacity to call him, so, too, without grace one cannot be saved, although he may positively prepare himself for the reception of grace by desiring it. If a man, according to the Semi-Pelagians, thus disposes himself to conversion, he will receive grace from God by which he is physically capable of being saved. Nevertheless, man's conversion to grace (and consequently his salvation) is in his own hands, just as his damnation is ultimately attributable to his free rejection of God's help. After origi nal sin man is not dead but only sick; he can still call the doctor, in order to be healed.

Before the time of the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians, the Fathers did not methodically consider the problem of the necessity of grace for conversion, but much of what they wrote implicitly contained a condemnation of the two errors of these heretics. The Fathers indicated, at times, the need for grace even for the first steps toward salvation. The effects of the regeneration that takes place in conversion were described as totally surpassing man's natural capacities.

The principal opponent of Semi-Pelagianism was St. augustine. Against its errors he wrote many works, among which was De praedestinatione sanctorum, in which he invites those who have erred as he once did to admit with him that even the beginning of faith is a gift of God.

Medieval Theologians. The decrees of the Council of Orange were practically forgotten until the middle of the 16th century. Medieval theologians did not consider explicitly the question of the need of grace for conversion, for the beginning of faith. It was only slowly that they came to the correct solution of this problem. In commenting upon St. Paul's Epistles medieval theologians frequently said that all good things, even the beginning of conversion, come from God. Paul had said: "For who singles thee out? Or what hast thou that thou hast not received?" (1 Cor 4.7); theologians began to affirm with St. Augustine and St. Paul that God singles the just from out of the mass of the damned by a gratuitous call. Man left to his own powers is the "sensual" man about whom Paul speaks (1 Cor 2.1416), the man who cannot assent to the truths of faith or desire eternal life.

But when it came to further explanations the scholastics had difficulty. They admitted that grace is infused at the moment of justification. They likewise held that before justification a man can and must prepare himself by his own acts for conversion. Some concluded: if he does everything he can without the aid of grace, God will not deny him that grace. They thought that man could by his own powers, and without grace, perform some acts that would in some way prepare him for the reception of grace. Until the second half of the 13th century scholastics tried to reconcile this conclusion with the doctrine of St. Paul and St. Augustine. Many held that man could prepare himself negatively for conversion by doing things that in no way placed an obstacle to grace. For example, if he were to observe the law of nature without grace, he would not be placing any impediments to grace, which would follow; the observance of the natural law would not be the positive reason for the reception of grace but only an occasion or condition for its reception. Finally, St. Thomas explained why the initiative must come from God. Every cause must direct its effects toward their proper end. Since the order of ends is according to the order of agents or movers, it is necessary that a man be converted to his ultimate end by the action of the first mover. Since God is the first mover, all things are converted to Him as to their last end by His own action (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 109.6).

Kind of Grace before Conversion. With regard to the nature of this grace, which precedes conversion and leads to it, there is discussion. Some theologians speak of it as an elevating actual grace by which a man performs an act of faith or hope or repentance. Infused habits of faith, hope, and charity come in the moment of justification. Others insist that according to St. Thomas no act that is supernatural can proceed other than from an infused habit. According to the Summa theologiae, conversion begins, strictly speaking, with faith, which is a prevenient grace, absolutely gratuitous. Divine motion does not add power to created being. It simply actuates those that it has already. The supernaturality of an act comes from its form; the divine motion only actuates the form. Therefore the divine motion toward conversion is always in relation to an infused habit, whether of faith, hope, fear, repentance, etc. This latter opinion seems to explain more coherently the texts of St. Thomas. An act that did not proceed from an infused habit would either be a natural act or it would not be accomplished actively by the subject. St. Thomas seems to admit that the habit of faith is sometimes infused before and without the virtue of charity or the moral virtues.

On an exact opposite pole to the Pelagians are the reformers, who would not admit that a man could do anything to prepare himself for conversion since through original sin he has lost his freedom. Fiducial faith alone, which is a total casting of self into the arms of God, saves him. Even with this faith he does not merit conversion; it is rather an instrument by which man makes his own the justice of Christ.

In ch. 5 of its decree on justification, the Council of Trent repeats the doctrine of the earlier Council of Orange by establishing the divine initiative in conversion. Anyone who would say that without the prevenient inspiration and aid of the Holy Spirit a man could believe, hope, and love or repent as he must in order that he receive the grace of justification is condemned (Denz 1553). In ch. 6 the council enumerates the various human acts that individually, or at least implicitly, are present in the process of conversion. They are: dogmatic faith, filial fear of divine justice, hope, the "beginnings of love," and repentance. These shall not be considered here, but suffice it to say that with this declaration one has the perfect synthesis of revealed truths concerning this question of conversion. On the one hand, divine initiative is responsible for conversion to the life of grace. On the other hand, man himself, moved by this grace, freely cooperates in his own conversion.

See Also: justification; conversion, i (in the bible); conversion, ii (psychology of); conversion, iii (theology of).

Bibliography: Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951), Tables générales 1:811812; 2:278296. r. schnackenburg et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 8:103350. h. bouillard, Conversion et grace chez s. Thomas d'Aquin (Paris 1944). m. flick, De gratia Christi (Rome 1962) 140176, 239288. d. mollat, "La Conversion," Lumière et vie 9.47 (Bruges, Belgium 1960) 1114. m. flick and z. alszeghy, Il vangelo della grazia (Florence 1964).

[g. f. kirwin/eds.]