L’Homme Machine: La Mettrie’s Philosophy of Mind


I recently just finished reading Julien Jean Offray de La Mettrie’s L’Homme Machine and have come away with a surprising appreciation for this 18th century French materialist philosopher. Originally published in 1747, La Mettrie’s philosophical treatise argued in favor of classical materialism instead of Cartesian dualism in seeking to explain the human species. The major underpinnings of La Mettrie’s argument are both his full embrace of the philosophical works of John Locke and the medical science of his day.

One of the primary hallmarks of Cartesian dualism was the belief that human beings were composed of two distinct substances: a thinking substance (res cogitans) or soul and a physical material substance (res extensa). It is important to first note before proceeding that during this period res extensa/body/material matter was thought to comprise of extension, however, this is not how modern physicists think of material matter today, which is why I dub La Mettrie a classical materialist. In fact, as Noam Chomsky is apt to point out, there has not been a coherent notion of material matter since Sir Issac Newton dismantled René Descartes’ framework of it with the publication of Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica in 1687. What set human beings apart from the rest of the animals, as Cartesians argued, was the fact that humans have this res cogitans while animals do not. For the Cartesian philosophers, animals were just extremely complex machines without minds/souls.

La Mettrie rejects the Cartesian notion of res cogitans and argues that human beings are just as much an animal as any other. This is not to say that the mind/soul (L’Esprit / L’Ame), which should not be confused with the brain, does not exist. Rather, La Mettrie argues that the mind must be based upon physical/materialist principles. In short, all animals, including humans, have minds, but that these minds originate from material substances, not from a separate thinking substance (res cogitans). In order to prove his argument, La Mettrie looks for causation of not only mental events, but also bodily events. One such example is the thought experiment of the French king getting agitated for being in the cold. This is because, La Mettrie argues, the French king has not been raised in a cold environment. However, for those who have been raised in a cold environment, they would not be caused such discomfort.

In a more radical experiment, La Mettrie proposes that someone take a young monkey and place it within an urban human setting under the tutelage of a human tutor. The tutor is then to raise the monkey as though it were a human child. La Mettrie argues that the monkey, due to its intense similarities with human beings, would inevitably learn human language for thinking and profiting its own education. Clearly to modern day people, such a proposition is patently ridiculous. Monkeys do not have the mental capacities to do such feats.

Concerning motion itself, La Mettrie points to several medical experiments of his day whereby motion occurs in separated body parts and organs. In one experiment, he details the prodding of muscles which causes them to contract, and another where a human heart is tossed into a fire, whereby it begins to bounce. For La Mettrie, these experiments demonstrate that there is no need for a thinking substance or soul to cause motion. The body parts themselves move, albeit due to outside material forces.

He makes similar arguments concerning ideas and thought themselves. Following in the footsteps of Locke, La Mettrie believes that all ideas are generated due to the inputs of external factors via sensations and the processing of such by thought. This leads him to say:

La plus belle, la plus grande, ou la plus forte imagination, est donc la plus propre aux Sciences, comme aux Arts. Je ne décide point s’il faut plus d’esprit pour exceller dans l’Art des Aristotes, ou des Descartes, que dans celui des Euripides, ou des Sophocles; et si la Nature s’est mise en plus grands frais, pour faire Newton, que pour former Corneille, (ce dont je doute fort;) mais il est certain que c’est la seule imagination diversement appliquée, qui a fait leur différent triomphe et leur gloire immortelle.

The most fine, the most grand, or the strongest imagination is just as well exposed to the sciences as to the arts. I have not decided if it is necessary for the most excellent mind to excel in the art of Aristotle, or Descartes, than in the arts of Euripides, or Sophocles; and [whether] if Nature has placed more effort in forming Newton than in forming Corneille, (which I strongly doubt); but it is certain that only the imagination diversely applied has forged their various triumphs and immortal legacies.

Julien Jean Offray de La Mettrie, L’Homme Machine, 30 (FB Editions)

In short, exposure to new ideas and elements is fundamental to a good education, although one might quibble with La Mettrie’s staunch Lockeanisms. Despite these staunch proclamations of materialism, La Mettrie is eventually forced to concede the limitations of his theory insofar that he doesn’t fully account for thought. His theories offer the explanatory power as to how thought works, but he doesn’t explain why thought exists at all.Towards the end of his work La Mettrie says concerning the matter of thought:

Je crois la pensée si peu incompatible avec la matière organisée, qu’elle semble en être une propriété, telle que l’Electricité, la Faculté motrice, l’Impénétrabilité, l’Entendüe, etc.

I believe that thought is so little incompatible with organized material, that it seems to be a property of material matter such as electricity, motor faculty, impenetrability [due to the property of extension], hearing, etc.

Julien Jean Offray de La Mettrie, L’Homme Machine, 48 (FB Editions)

In the end, while La Mettrie feels that he has divested res cogitans of some of its most central elements of simplicity and centrality, he recognizes that there are still some aspects of it that he has not explained. However, whereas a Cartesian might seek to use this mystery to justify the existence of res cogitans, La Mettrie holds out the hope that one day it might fully be explained in materialistic terms. In some sense, La Mettrie’s hope is very similar to the modern thesis proposed by some cognitive neuroscientists: that things mental arise from brain states.

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Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis: Enemies of the Enlightenment

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill

About a couple of weeks ago, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow expressed himself as against the concept of human rights. Needless to say, the backlash against such comments was substantial insofar that the patriarch felt the need to respond. He made his position all the more precise insofar that he argued that human rights do not constitute the entirety of morality. This part of his position I can fully agree with, because natural rights are based upon a certain conception of natural law. Nevertheless, natural law is not fully encompassing of all of God’s desires. The patriarch then went on to say that natural rights do not allow an individual to choose to sin. I completely disagree, and this is where the patriarch is unequivocally wrong. God quite clearly has allowed us to make our choices and has reserved punishment for himself on almost every matter. This position is clearly shown in the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30. If one seeks to root out evil in its entirety by criminalizing people exercising their rights in an evil way, such as pornography or some other matter, then they will eventually wind up uprooting society in a more harmful way than if they were to leave the matter alone. We are in a fallen world and are fallen ourselves. There are limits to what we can do.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that Western bishops are any better on this matter. Take for example Pope Francis’ reaction to the the Charlie Hebdo massacre, where he not only explicitly rejected the Enlightenment and the idea of freedom of speech, but elevated all religions above criticism. Francis’ position is remarkably similar to Kirill’s in that they both agree that human rights should not allow people to do things that some might perceive as sinful or evil. According to Francis, Kirill, and many other Christians, it is better to protect their own feelings and sensibilities regarding their own faith even if it is at the expense of criticizing other faiths. Not only does such a position run contrary to the evangelical spirit of Paul the Apostle who endured withering criticism in his ministry, such a position is antithetical to reason, and like the good Christian Galileo Galilei said in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God, who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect, has intended for us to forgo their use.” Much of this, as is most clearly shown in the speech given by Pope Francis, has to do with many Christians’ rejection of the principles of the Enlightenment. I think this is a serious error on our part and betrays a serious misunderstanding of the Enlightenment.

At one of its most fundamental level with respect to humans themselves, the Enlightenment concerned itself with the subject of human nature. The idea was and still is that if human nature can be pinpointed, then so can natural law which is to be applied equally across all of society and the world. Orthodox scholar Stanley S. Harakas has examined the scope of natural law:

At its heart the natural moral law speaks to basic social relationships. The natural moral law is perceived by the Fathers as an expression of the basic conditions permitting and protecting the existence of human society. Thus, St. John Chyrsostom, in his Sermons on the Statues characterizes the natural moral commandments as “necessities which hold together our lives.” … The patristic position then points to the content of the natural moral law as quite basic, fundamental and universally applicable to human social (societal) life. The content of the natural moral law is to be identified with the basic rules of conduct which insure the continued existence of any social group. In the mind of the Fathers, these requirements can be specified and particularized.

– Stanley S. Harakas, “Eastern Orthodox Perspectives on Natural Law,” Selected Papers from the Annual Meeting (American Society of Christian Ethics), Eighteenth Annual Meeting (1977): 44.

This is eerily similar to what Edmund Burke wrote concerning human nature and thus implications regarding natural law:

Most of the ideas which are capable of making a powerful impression on the mind, whether simply of Pain or Pleasure, or of the modifications of those, may be reduced very nearly to these two heads, self-preservation and society; to the ends of one or the other of which all our passions are calculated to answer.

– Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Part I: Chapter 6

By no means does this mean that all figures of the Enlightenment thought that the source of all morality is ultimately in some form of natural law theory. In fact, very few did, whom were generally the French materialists, such as Julien Jean Offray de La Mettrie. Many Enlightenment thinkers in fact rejected the notion that natural law encompassed all morality, Edmund Burke being one of them. Arguably, in times past even many Christians have tried to boil down all aspects of morality to natural law, although they had a very different understanding of natural law. However, patristically speaking, this all-encompassing natural law cannot be. Not all moral imperatives can be reduced to natural law. Harakas explains why:

Natural moral law is useful to Christian ethics as it seeks to speak to some moral issues in a pluralistic society. The Christian could note that since the natural moral law, the written law of the Old Testament and the evangelical ethic all have this common core, there is no need for Christians to concern themselves with the natural law, since they have a higher, more complete ethic in the Gospel. This would perhaps be a practical truth in a homogeneous Orthodox Christian society. It obviously is not a practical affirmation in a pluralistic society and world. The “low level morality” of the natural moral law is a very important means for Orthodox Christian ethics to relate to such a society as citizens in participatory democracies. Thus, it is not acceptable to argue against a public policy of abortion on demand with the argument that abortion on demand violates Orthodox Christian ethic of the value of person-hood, which is based on the Orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This would be perceived as a sectarian approach to a public issue and, therefore, unacceptable. But, by approaching the issue of abortion on demand as a question based on the natural moral law and as a case of “you shall do no murder,” Orthodox Christians can participate in the public debate in an acceptable manner.

– Stanley S. Harakas, “Eastern Orthodox Perspectives on Natural Law,” Selected Papers from the Annual Meeting (American Society of Christian Ethics), Eighteenth Annual Meeting (1977): 49-50.

This same principle can be applied to the Christian moral mandate to forgive others and countless others. There is no basis in natural moral law for engaging these topics, no matter how much some Christians would like it to be so. Therefore, in a pluralistic and secular society, it is wrong for a Christian to use the force of law against those who would rather not forgive or who wish to dip pictures of Christ into jars of piss.

Much of what I am saying is generally dismissed by many of my coreligionists as evil modernist atheistic nonsense. Therefore, I think it is also important to note that the Enlightenment was composed of a wide variety of people: deists, atheists, and Christians. The Christians of the Enlightenment included the likes of René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Blaise Pascal, Edmund Burke, George Berkeley, John Locke, and many others. At the same time, the Enlightenment yielded many thinkers who were highly critical of Christianity. These criticisms of faith put-off my coreligionists to the point where they dismiss the Enlightenment in its entirety. Their immediate impetus is to silence them, in which case I must simply point to Matthew 18:15-17 where Christ directs us to exhort those in error to correct themselves but never to use force. If all else fails in our efforts, then we are to leave them to their own devices. Saint Paul also writes similarly in Galations 6:1, emphasizing that any correction is to be in a spirit of gentleness. Threatening anyone’s ability to speak their mind in any form or fashion is not in the spirit of gentleness. Saint John Chrysostom echoes this sentiment:

“For Christians above all men are forbidden to correct the stumblings of sinners by force…it is necessary to make a man better not by force but by persuasion. We neither have authority granted us by law to restrain sinners, nor, if it were, should we know how to use it, since God gives the crown to those who are kept from evil, not by force, but by choice.”

St. John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, Book II

As one can see by the teachings of Jesus Christ and St. John Chrysostom is that Christianity was from the very beginning intended to accommodate a pluralistic world, whether it be pagan, secular, Islamic, etc. insofar that it never demanded through the force of law or by the sword the submission of one’s neighbor to our beliefs. Christianity is supposed to be a faith of peaceful and genuine conversion and gentle correction. Implicit too in these scriptures and this Patristic quote is the fact that thought and freedom of conscience is a fundamental component of human nature. It is the guide to the exercise of our free will and hence our actions. These are the things that we are judged upon. God gave us a will for a reason. It was that we would exercise it and not be coerced, by force or law, as St. John Chrysostom said. This falls under what Burke would consider the aspect of self-interest or self-preservation in human nature. This is not to say that this means that there shall be no laws. Indeed, laws against murder, thievery, adultery, etc. are all necessary to maintain a functioning society, because as Harakas showed quite clearly in his brief article (which I encourage the reader to read in full), mutual trust is a fundamental component to society. Without trust, there can be no society. And as Burke pointed out, human nature is fundamentally social or at least inclined to be. By design God wants us to be social, but he also wants us to make our own decisions.

In short, freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right and our actions that result from such flow therefrom. Many of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment echoed these sentiments, perhaps more clearly than any of the Fathers who do have a mixed record. Descartes recognized this when he formulated his cogito argument, cogito ergo sum:

Non posse a nobis dubitari, quin existamus dum dubitamus; atque hoc esse primum, quod ordine philosophando cognoscimus. … Repugnat enim, ut putemus id quod cogitat, eo ipso tempore quo cogitat, non existere. … Ego cogito, ergo sum. Est omnium prima et certissima, quae cuilibet ordine philosophanti occurrat.

[There is] stuff that is not able to be doubted by us, while we doubt that we exist; and that this is the prime [thing], that we think of for philosophizing in order. … In fact, one rejects that  we might believe that whatever thinks does not exist while at the same time it itself thinks. And therefore [I know] this knowledge:  I think therefore, I am. It is the first and most certain of everything, which occurs in proper philosophizing.

– René Descartes, Principia philosophiae, 1.007

Quid sit cogitatio.

Cogitationis nomine, intelligo illa omnia, quae nobis consciis in nobis fiunt, quatenus eorum in nobis conscientia est. Atque ita non modo intelligere, velle, imaginari, sed etiam sentire, idem est hic quod cogitare.

What is thought?

By the notion of thought, I understand everything that is within us that we are conscious of. And thus not only including the ability to understand, to wish, to imagine, but also to feel, which is synonymous with thinking.

– René Descartes, Principia philosophiae, 1.009

Quomodo, quamuis nolimus falli, fallamur tamen per nostram uoluntatem.

However as much as we may wish not to have failed, we have failed due to our will.

– René Descartes, Principia philosophiae, 1.042

Blaise Pascal also recognized this in his Pensées, and tied it directly to morality more clearly than Descartes:

I can certainly imagine a man without hands, feet, or head, for it is only experience that teaches us that the head is more necessary than the feet. But I cannot imagine a man without thought; he would be a stone or an animal.

– Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Fragment 111  Louise Lafuma edition

Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this.

Thus all our dignity consists in thought. It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery, not space and time, which we could never fill. Let us then strive to think well; that is the basic principle of morality.

– Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Fragment 200 Louise Lafuma edition

As Christians, we know that God will judge us by not merely our actions but also by our thoughts from which they flow. However, if we attempt to force people not to think certain thoughts or step beyond the bounds of authority that Christ had given us, then we step into the very dangerous territory of not acting in justice, but rather acting in power. Pascal cautioned us about such temptations saying:

Justice is open to dispute, might is easily recognized and beyond dispute. Therefore justice could not be made mighty because might challenged justice, calling it unjust and itself claiming to be just.

Being thus unable to make justice into might, we have made might into justice.

– Blaise Pascal, Penées, Fragment 103 Louise Lafuma edition

As Pascal makes clear, to understand justice is to have critical thought. If we force our beliefs on others rather than convince others of their merit, there can be no critical thought. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill are wrong. We do have freedom to sin, and laws restricting our ability to sin should be few. Instead of forcing people to adhere to the supreme morality of the Christian faith through force or by law, we should be persuading them to adhere to it. To attempt otherwise runs contrary to the example of Christ.


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Catholic Proof Texts and One-liners for Papal Primacy Debunked: Part One

If there isn’t anything more annoying to an Orthodox individual who happens to engage in debate with a Catholic, it is the endless proof texts that Catholics trudge out to prove their case for their version of papal primacy, namely that the pope is unique and reigns supreme over all of the other bishops. This authority of the pope, according to Catholics, is due solely by the virtue of the pope holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and being the actual rock of the Church. I have heavily criticized such a position before using Latin exegeses from approximately 400 AD to 1200 AD. In that previous post, I had made the case that Sacred Tradition regards the keys given to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19 as the exact same as the powers of binding and loosing, and that at a minimum the rest of the apostles were given these keys. Additionally, Sacred Tradition also regarded Peter as the rock only in metaphorical terms. Nevertheless, as important of a historical and theological revelation as this might be, to a dedicated Catholic believer such truths might not be enough. Instead, what is often resorted to in recourse is to turn to proof texts that have been used for centuries by Catholic apologists to justify their understanding of papal primacy.

What is often characteristic of these so-called “proof texts” is that they are unusually short and come from various genres of literature. As such, they are easily taken out of context. In the case of being excruciatingly short, allow me to provide an example of an instance where something is taken out of context and thus offers a very different picture:

Out+of+context+hilarity+big3+dagashi+kashi+big3_b17da9_5845248Now one would assume that she might be talking about some new and latest drug from the picture, but in actuality she is talking about the latest candy that one could find at a Dagashi store (roughly equivalent to a candy and snack store). As we can see from this example, context very much requires more than single lines. Otherwise, we are prone to misunderstanding. Contextualization is a basic reading skill taught from childhood here in the First World, and we would be foolish not to use it.

As for the latter portion concerning genres of literature, it is somewhat related to the former. Letters and other theological tracts are much easier to take out of context than exegeses. The reason for this is because when one quotes from letters et al, they usually don’t provide the historical scenario unto which the author of the text was writing. The reader of the one-liner “proof-text” has no way of knowing what the full conversation was or what it might have been, because there is no evidence to provide additional clues. All they have is the single solitary line of text in front of them. Meanwhile, within the genre of exegesis, when one quotes from such writings, the reader has a pretty good idea of what the writer is referring to and the full context in which they are writing. This is because Late Antique and Medieval exegeses usually involved commentary verse by verse and line by line. The author almost always quoted the scripture that they were referring to, and it is because of such detailed writing that it makes it much more difficult to take exegeses from the Late Antique and Medieval periods out of context.

Now I will tackle some of the proof-texts that Catholics generally offer in favor of papal authority. By no means is this list meant to be comprehensive, as they are numerous. And neither am I sure how many parts this series of posts will have. However, I do hope to chip away at these fallacies that Catholic apologists have rendered through their poor readings. My efforts of course will be limited due to the fact that I do not have reading knowledge of Greek. Many of their proof-texts are translations from the Greek, albeit removed from their context. Therefore, I am restricted to finding the full sources of their quotes not in the original Greek, but in either English, Latin, German, or French so that I might provide the full context of their quotes.

[Christ] made answer: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church. . . .’ Could he not, then, strengthen the faith of the man to whom, acting on his own authority, he gave the kingdom, whom he called the rock, thereby declaring him to be the foundation of the Church?

St. Ambrose of Milan, Exposition on the Christian Faith, Book IV, Ch. 5: 57

There is nothing contradicting here in this quote to an Orthodox understanding of Peter and papal authority. In fact, this understanding accords well with Jerome’s understanding of Peter as the rock and foundation of the Church in a metaphorical sense. Orthodox understand that Christ and the faith in Christ are the foundation of the Church, not Peter.

‘But,’ you [Jovinian] will say, ‘it was on Peter that the Church was founded’ [Matt. 16:18]. Well . . . one among the twelve is chosen to be their head in order to remove any occasion for division…

St. Jerome, Against Jovianus, Book I: 26

Jerome’s understanding of Peter and the rock of the Church is, as I stated before, in accordance with an Orthodox understanding. Let us look at the full context of this quote:

If, however, Jovinianus should obstinately contend that John was not a virgin, (whereas we have maintained that his virginity was the cause of the special love our Lord bore to him), let him explain, if he was not a virgin, why it was that he was loved more than the other Apostles. But you say, Matthew 16:18 the Church was founded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism.

St. Jerome, Against Jovianus, Book I: 26

Note that the red is Jerome quoting Jovinianus’ argument, while the blue is Jerome’s own argument. The full context here reveals quite the different picture, doesn’t it?

Blessed Simon, who after his confession of the mystery was set to be the foundation-stone of the Church, and received the keys of the Kingdom…

St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity Book VI: 20

Let me stress that Orthodox do not dispute that Peter received the keys nor that he was privileged in being the first. What we do dispute, again, is that it ended with him and thereby all are subject to him and his successors. Now, allow me to quote the same work of Hilary, which supports the Orthodox position:

36. A belief that the Son of God is Son in name only and not in nature, is not the faith of the Gospels and of the Apostles. If this be a mere title, to which adoption is His only claim; if He be not the Son in virtue of having proceeded forth from God, whence, I ask, was it that the blessed Simon Bar-Jona confessed to Him, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God Matthew 16:16 ? Because He shared with all mankind the power of being born as one of the sons of God through the sacrament of regeneration? If Christ be the Son of God only in this titular way, what was the revelation made to Peter, not by flesh and blood, but by the Father in heaven? What praise could he deserve for making a declaration which was universally applicable? What credit was due to Him for stating a fact of general knowledge? If He be Son by adoption, wherein lay the blessedness of Peter’s confession, which offered a tribute to the Son to which, in that case, He had no more title than any member of the company of saints? The Apostle’s faith penetrates into a region closed to human reasoning. He had, no doubt, often heard, He that receives you receives Me, and He that receives Me receives Him that sent Me. Matthew 10:40 Hence he knew well that Christ had been sent; he had heard Him, Whom he knew to have been sent, making the declaration, All things are delivered unto Me of the Father, and no one knows the Son but the Father, neither knows any one the Father save the Son. What then is this truth, which the Father now reveals to Peter, which receives the praise of a blessed confession? It cannot have been that the names of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ were novel to him; he had heard them often. Yet he speaks words which the tongue of man had never framed before:— You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. For though Christ, while dwelling in the body, had avowed Himself to be the Son of God, yet now for the first time the Apostle’s faith had recognised in Him the presence of the Divine nature. Peter is praised not merely for his tribute of adoration, but for his recognition of the mysterious truth; for confessing not Christ only, but Christ the Son of God. It would clearly have sufficed for a payment of reverence, had he said, You are the Christ, and nothing more. But it would have been a hollow confession, had Peter only hailed Him as Christ, without confessing Him the Son of God. And so his words You are declare that what is asserted of Him is strictly and exactly true to His nature. Next, the Father’s utterance, This is My Son, had revealed to Peter that he must confess You are the Son of God, for in the words This is, God the Revealer points Him out, and the response, You are, is the believer’s welcome to the truth. And this is the rock of confession whereon the Church is built. But the perceptive faculties of flesh and blood cannot attain to the recognition and confession of this truth. It is a mystery, Divinely revealed, that Christ must be not only named, but believed, the Son of God. Was it only the Divine name; was it not rather the Divine nature that was revealed to Peter? If it were the name, he had heard it often from the Lord, proclaiming Himself the Son of God. What honour, then, did he deserve for announcing the name? No; it was not the name; it was the nature, for the name had been repeatedly proclaimed.

37. This faith it is which is the foundation of the Church; through this faith the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. This is the faith which has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever this faith shall have loosed or bound on earth shall be loosed or bound in heaven. This faith is the Father’s gift by revelation;

St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book VI: 36

As can be shown again, Hilary supports the Orthodox understanding, not the Catholic understanding. The keys are the powers of binding and loosing, and all those who have the faith, have the keys. The keys are not exclusive to Peter and his successors.

Peter, the chief of the Apostles, is recalled and the remaining members of the Church are glorified with him for indeed the Church of God is established upon him. This is accord with the Lord’s words who made him the firm and most solid rock upon which he had built his Church [cf. Mt 16.16ff].

St. Gregory of Nyssa, Two Homilies Concerning Saint Stephen

One must understand that Gregory speaks of Peter’s name as a play on words, and throughout this particular work refers to Peter, James, and John as equally important and equal leaders. He refers to the names of James and John as the “sons of thunder” just as Peter is a rock. This is the appropriate context for understanding:

Peter, the chief of the Apostles, is recalled and the remaining members of the Church are glorified with him for indeed the Church of God is established upon him. This is accord with the Lord’s words who made him the firm and most solid rock upon which he had built his Church [cf. Mt 16.16ff]. Then we have mention of James, John and [J.105] as sons of thunder whom the Savior had named and who had brought rain clouds; for the gathering of clouds by necessity herald rain. Thus the clouds represent Apostles and prophetic words; although times of preaching differ, nevertheless the laws of true religion are in harmony and one spirit is the source of various gifts….

St. Gregory of Nyssa, Two Homilies Concerning Saint Stephen

A full reading of this work, which I have linked above, would dispel any notion of Gregory supporting the Catholic position. It is not a long work, and I highly recommend it.

This Peter on whom Christ freely bestowed a sharing in his name. For just as Christ is the Rock, as the Apostle Paul taught, so through Christ Peter is made Rock, when the Lord says to him: ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My church.’

St. Maximus of Turin, Homilia LXVIII, Patrologia Latina 57: 0394A

Note: Translation is not my own, although I cite the original Latin in the PL. The PL can be found freely available on Google Books.

This actually conforms to the Orthodox understanding and to Jerome’s understanding of it as a metaphor, and it actually matches up quite nicely with St. Bruno of Segni’s interpretation in particular.

After carefully considering all of these proof-texts here, it seems abundantly apparent that they do not support the Catholic interpretation of papal primacy, but rather support the Orthodox view of papal primacy, that is a primacy of honor.

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Pelagius Explored: On His Own Terms Part Three/Conclusion

Cassian, Pelagius, and Augustine

For the past several weeks have been discussing the various aspects of Pelagius’ theology on grace. In part one, I discussed his concept of Creation Grace (die Schöpfungsgnade) and in part two Revealed Grace (die Offenbarungsgnade). In this final post on Torgny Bohlin’s understanding of Pelagius, I will offer an overview of Pelagius’ understanding of die Vergebungsgnade (Forgiving Grace).

Die Vergebungsgnade: Forgiving Grace

Pelagius’ concept of Forgiving Grace can be divided into two parts: A and B. Part A is relatively simple. Pelagius understood Part A in mainly historical terms insofar that it only concerned God’s covenant with Abraham and the Old Testament. He believed that Abraham’s faith was so great that he gained forgiveness for all of his previous sins and that the rock that accompanied the children of Israel throughout their wanderings in the desert was the figure of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). Additionally, he believed that circumcision functioned as some sort of baptism or pre-figurement of baptism. Therefore, the death and resurrection of Christ applied to all of creation – past, present, and future.

As for Part B, this portion of Pelagius’ theology on grace has consistently come under harsh scrutiny. Pelagius believed that Part B of Forgiving Grace was best realized through Christian baptism. The effects of baptism helped the individual to overcome the conseutudo (bad customs) ingrained in humans after the Fall. Baptism annulled the past and future effects of sin. For Pelagius, Forgiving Grace acted in synergy with the human will to realize the will in action (velle in arbitrio, esse in effectu). In short, Pelagius is operating off of Christ’s maxim: The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Mark 14:28). The question then may arise as to whether man merits this grace by explicitly undergoing baptism. This question is often asked, but Pelagius actually doesn’t offer an answer to this question in any of his writings. The “problem” simply does not occur to Pelagius, so he never addressed it.

How Heretical Was Pelagius, If At All?

Perhaps most implicit in Pelagius’ theology on grace is that he rejects any notion of Original Sin. This is not to say that Pelagius believes that humans have not fallen. Indeed, he does believe that humanity has fallen, but that the flaw lay not in human nature but rather lay in blindness or conseutudo (bad customs). Pelagius’ understanding is certainly unorthodox to say the least, but his way of framing the condition of humanity after the Fall is certainly not antithetical to traditional Christian understanding. For example, Pelagius clearly understood the free will and the grace of God as acting in synergy with one another, insofar that it closely resembles St. John Cassian’s understanding of synergy between the human will and God’s grace. This is best represented in Cassian’s Conference XIII, in particular Chapter 3 with his analogy of the farmer and his environment.

But what of the differences? St. Augustine’s position was that humanity was totally depraved in nature after the Fall and that free will is no longer free. Humans cannot hope to believe without first having the gift of grace to restore their free will let alone do truly good works:

…because faith itself does not precede that calling of which it is said: For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance; (Romans 11:29) and of which it is said: Not of works, but of Him that calls (Romans 9:12) (although He might have said, of Him that believes); and the election which the Lord signified when He said: You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you. (John 15:16) For He chose us, not because we believed, but that we might believe, lest we should be said first to have chosen Him, and so His word be false (which be it far from us to think possible)…

– Augustine of Hippo, On the Predestination of Saints, Ch. 19, Paragraph 38 Note: In the New Advent translation the chapter and paragraph numbers are reversed. My citations are based off of those found in the Patrologia Latina.


Cur ergo non omnes docet, ut veniant ad Christum; nisi quia omnes quos docet, misericordia docet; quos autem non docet, judicio non docet? Quoniam cujus vult miseretur, et quem vult obdurat: sed miseretur, bona tribuens; obdurat, digna retribuens. Aut si et ista, ut quidam distinguere maluerunt, verba sunt ejus cui Apostolus ait, Dicis itaque mihi: ut ipse dixisse accipiatur, Ergo cujus vult miseretur, et quem vult obdurat; et quae sequuntur, id est, Quid adhuc conqueritur? nam voluntati ejus quis resistit? numquid responsum est ab Apostolo, O homo, falsum est quod dixisti? Non: sed responsum est, O homo, tu quis es qui respondeas Deo? Numquid dicit figmentum ei qui se finxit, Quare sic me fecisti? Annon habet potestatem figulus luti ex eadem massa, et sequentia, quae optime nostis. Et tamen secundum quemdam modum, omnes Pater docet venire ad suum Filium. Non enim frustra scriptum est in Prophetis, Et erunt omnes docibiles Dei. Quod testimonium cum praemisisset, tunc subdidit, Omnis qui audivit a Patre et didicit, venit ad me. Sicut ergo integre loquimur, cum de aliquo litterarum magistro, qui in civitate solus est, dicimus, Omnes iste hic litteras docet; non quia omnes discunt, sed quia nemo nisi ab illo discit, quicumque ibi litteras discit: ita recte dicimus, Omnes Deus docet venire ad Christum, non quia omnes veniunt, sed quia nemo aliter venit. Cur autem non omnes doceat, aperuit Apostolus, quantum aperiendum judicavit: quia volens ostendere iram, et demonstrare potentiam suam, attulit in multa patientia vasa irae quae perfecta sunt in perditionem, et ut notas faciat divitias gloriae suae in vasa misericordiae, quae praeparavit in gloriam (Rom. IX, 18-23). Hinc est quod verbum crucis pereuntibus stultitia est; his autem qui salvi fiunt, virtus Dei est (I Cor. I, 18). Hos omnes docet venire au Christum Deus; hos enim omnes vult salvos fieri, et in agnitionem veritatis venire (I Tim. II, 4). Nam si et illos quibus stultitia est verbum crucis, ut ad Christum venirent, docere voluisset, procul dubio venirent et ipsi. Non enim fallit aut fallitur qui ait, Omnis qui audivit a Patre et didicit, venit ad me. Absit ergo ut quisquam non veniat, qui a Patre audivit et didicit.

Why does he [God] not teach all, so that they might come to Christ? Perhaps because all those he teaches in mercy [he taught]; but those who he does not teach in justice he does not teach [at all]? Because ‘he has mercy on whom he wills, and whomever he wills he hardens. (Romans 9:18)… Thus rightly we say, God leads all to come to Christ, not because they all come [on their own accord], but because no one in any other matter [is able] to come. But why does he not teach all? The Apostle made it abundantly clear: because ‘wanting to show his anger, and his power, he endured with much patience the vessels of wrath who are made for perdition, and so that he might make [some] signs of his divine glory with the vessels of mercy, who he prepared in glory’ (Romans 9:18-23). Hence it is that ‘the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18).‘ Here God teaches all to come to Christ; for here ‘he wishes all to be saved, and to come to knowledge in truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4). For if God wished to teach those whom the word of the cross is foolishness so that they might come to Christ, undoubtedly they too would have come. For he does not deceive nor is deceived when he says, ‘All who have heard from the Father and have learned, come to me’ (John 6:45).Therefore, perish the thought that anyone does not come who has heard from the Father and has learned.

– Augustine of Hippo, On the Predestination of Saints, Ch. 8, Paragraph 14; Patrologia Latina 44: 0971

Augustine’s stark position has never really gained much of a foothold in the Christian East, although it has enjoyed much more popularity in the Latin West, albeit often contended and convoluted. In fact, it can be said that Augustine’s position was condemned by the Orthodox Church at the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672, when it explicitly denounced Calvinism (Note: Augustine himself was not condemned, I believe). But is this to say, necessarily, that human nature was not damaged at all after the Fall? I would say that it was damaged to some extent, but not anywhere near to the extent that Augustine believed it to be. Traditionally, St. John Cassian has been understood to have spoken in these terms, specifically in Chapter 10 and Chapter 12 of his Conference XIII. Nevertheless, if one really wanted to, they could read Pelagius’ understanding of conseutudo (bad customs) into Cassian’s writings, and it is because of this that I am forced to the conclusion that Pelagius’ objections to a wounded human nature and Original Sin are largely semantic on this point. This is not to say that any Orthodox individual should prefer Pelagius’ formulation to the Orthodox formulation of Ancestral Sin. By no means should they. However, Pelagius clearly was not as far off base as has traditionally been assumed.

Aside from this, the only thing that I could take issue with Pelagius is that he all-to-often seems to think that free will itself is nature and that nature is grace. I myself am not inclined to this fuzzy theology, but considering the fact that Pelagius was only trying to answer the charges of both Arianism and Manichaeism, I can certainly forgive him of this imprecision. Additionally, Pelagius implies that natural death is not the result of Adam and Eve’s transgression. In short, I don’t think that Pelagius merits the charge of being a heretic. At worst, I would say that he merits the lesser charge of being in minor error.

The Council of Ephesus and the Council of Trullo

It is often objected that the case for Pelagius cannot be revisited because both the Council of Ephesus (the Third Ecumenical Council) and the Council of Trullo (the Quinisext Council) explicitly condemned Pelagius as a heretic. This is simply not true. First off, Canon IV of Ephesus does not name Pelagius at all, but rather his supposed disciple, Caelestius, whom Pelagius actually denounced. The closest condemnation of Pelagius can be found in the council’s letter to Pope Celestine. That being said, it is historically demonstrable that Pelagius’ teachings were misunderstood and warped in the eyes of his detractors. When read on their own terms, not Augustine’s, his views come across as far less sinister, even if still a bit objectionable on some points (namely Original/Ancestral Sin and the nature of death). The Council of Trullo also happened to have accepted the vast corpus of canons from Carthaginian councils and synods. However, if one looks at the anti-Pelagian Council of Carthage from 418, the canons condemn doctrines and not people. Pelagius is simply not named, and none of the doctrines that are condemned are explicitly advocated by Pelagius.


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Pelagius Explored: On His Own Terms Part Two


In Part One of my series on Pelagius, I had previously discussed the historical context in which Pelagius developed his doctrines regarding grace and free will. Additionally I mentioned the three types of graces that Pelagius believed in: die Schöpfungsgnade (creation grace), die Offenbarungsgnade (revealed grace), and die Vergebungsgnade (pardoning grace). For the discussion of Creation Grace, see Part One. In this post, Pelagius’ views on Offenbarungsgnade or Revealed Grace are outlined.

Die Offenbarungsgnade: Revealed Grace

As with Creation Grace, Pelagius’ Revealed Grace can be divided into two parts: A and B. As a whole, Pelagius believed that Revealed Grace was concerned with acknowledging God’s natural law. Although Pelagius did not believe that the Fall of Man entailed a change in the essence of humanity, he did believe that this Fall entailed the clouding or blinding of mankind’s ability to see or know the will of God and thereby natural law clearly. Pelagius saw this type of grace at work throughout the scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament. He felt that the Revealed Grace worked as a sort of process, which led to true knowledge (Erkenntnis), but not necessarily salvation (Vergebung). The Mosaic Law itself was part of a process that led human law (Gesetz im Verhältnis) to develop more closely to the original and lost natural law (natürlichen Gesetz), which lay in accord with God’s will. This was an integral part for Part A of Revealed Grace. By this means of argument, Pelagius was able to counter the arguments of both the Marconians and the Manichees: that the Old Testament God could not have been the same as the God of the New Testament, because of the stark differences between the two. For Pelagius, the Old Testament foretold the coming of Christ and was a necessary step for the salvation of all of mankind.

Part B of Revealed Grace entails an individual’s belief in Christ as the messiah. For Pelagius, the belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God the Father was an endpoint in the intellectual endeavor of Revealed Grace. In particular, Pelagius discussed the Jews and their own rejection of Christ. In a moment that betrays the common antisemitism of the day, Pelagius went as far as to claim that the Jews crucified Christ (instead of the Romans) because they did not believe in him. According to Pelagius, the rejection of Christ necessarily leads to the failure to grasp the full truth contained within the Old Testament. Here Pelagius was possibly alluding to the vast amount of exegeses of his day, such as the works by Origen, Tychonius, etc. or the sort of exegesis that occurs throughout Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, all of which provided insights as to how the texts of the Old Testament relate to the New Covenant. The lack of the full truth consequently leads to the formation of false knowledge. This formation of false knowledge is not necessarily rooted in malice, Pelagius argues, but rather in ignorance. In short, the rejection of Christ stunts the spiritual growth of the individual, even if they are a morally upright person.

I hope to finish my discussion of Pelagius in my next post, where I will discuss his concept of die Vergebungsgnade (Forgiving Grace) and then conclude with my own thoughts on Pelagius as a whole. In the meantime, what strikes me as interesting is that Pelagius implicitly admits that those who are not Christian can still make morally justified choices. In other words, one must not necessarily be Christian or perhaps even religious to make moral choices, according to Pelagius. The reason for such is solely because the human being is not totally depraved, but merely clouded in judgment. Since unveiling one’s eyes is a process, Pelagius admits that there are a variety of stages of moral progress unto which one proceeds back towards the perfect knowledge of natural law (natürlichen Gesetz).

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Pelagius Explored: On His Own Terms Part One


Issues regarding free will, consciousness, autonomy, and human nature have always fascinated me, both from the philosophical perspective and the theological perspective. One of the most interesting subjects within Christian theology has always been the subject of human free will and the grace of God in their roles in human salvation. The first big battle or debate regarding this complex subject occurred during the fourth and fifth centuries AD between Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius. Anyone formally acquainted with basic Christian history knows all too well that Pelagius lost the argument and has long since been considered a heretic. This legacy is mostly written by Augustine himself, as he characterized the teachings of Pelagius, and possibly some of Pelagius’ successors in the Pelagianist camp.

However, what would our picture of Pelagius look like if rather than reading Augustine’s work and taking his word for it, we simply examined the work of Pelagius himself? History has long not been kind to such endeavors since much of his work has been lost. Yet beginning in 1922 A. Souter began a long-term project of reconstructing Pelagius’ commentaries on the thirteen Pauline epistles from his remaining works, quotations from Augustine, and working with the interpolated Commentary on the Pauline Epistles written by pseudo-Jerome. The project took a number of years, but was finally completed in three volumes in 1931. Since then there have been a large number of analyses of Pelagius’ theology.

Currently, I am in the throes of reading one of the earliest studies of Pelagius since; written in 1957 by Torgny Bohlin titled Die Theologie des Pelagius und ihre Genesis. Bohlin frames his analysis in the following ways: 1.) to avoid the polemic of Augustine; 2.) to take Pelagius on his own terms and to not discuss the work of other Pelagians such as Caelestius; 3.) to understand the historical context of Pelagius and his debates with both the Arians and the Manichees. Bohlin also breaks down Pelagius’ understanding of grace into three categories: die Schöpfungsgnade (creation grace), die Offenbarungsgnade (revealed grace), and die Vergebungsgnade (pardoning grace). Each of these categories he divides into roughly two parts: A and B. It is my purpose here to examine these three categories of Pelagius’ theology of grace and to prod them with Orthodox questions.  This first part will only be concerned with die Schöpfungsgnade (creation grace).

Historical Context of Pelagius’ Theology on Grace

It is important to note that Pelagius did not develop his theology during his encounter with Augustine, but rather developed it many years beforehand. He developed is theology on grace in direct response to two early Christian heresies: Arianism and Manichaeism.

The basic Arian position was that because the Son was the right hand of the Father, he was thereby subordinate to the Father and was created. Pelagius sought to correct this understanding of the Arians by emphasizing the salvific role of Christ. He asserted that Christ was the Word and the Word was there since the beginning (see Genesis and the Gospel of John). Therefore, Christ was not created by the Father. Additionally, Christ is lord according to 1 Corinthians 1:9 as well as having one operation (una operatio) with the Father.

The basic Manichean position was dualistic in that material matter was inherently evil and that spiritual matter was inherently good. Therefore, there were two gods so-to-speak. The god that created material matter was evil, whereas the god that created spiritual matter was good. Essentially, the Manicheans boiled the values of good and evil to material substance or substance dualism. The additional argument on their part was that Christ was therefore not a man, because that would make him evil and therefore not the good god. Pelagius, however, rejected the Manichean arguments on the basis that the evaluations of good and evil do not lie in the substances, but rather that they lie in the will. In other words, substance or matter are morally neutral. What determines good and evil are wills.

Die Schöpfungsgnade: Creation Grace

As mentioned before, Pelagius held that matter or substance was inherently neutral in moral accountability. Therefore, the nature of mankind was not evil or good in anyway in terms of either salvation or damnation. Additionally, Pelagius held that since God’s nature was divine and good, so too was mankind’s nature good. Pelagius makes this connection primarily due to the fact that God thinks and is naturally good. Man too thinks and is able to make choices. These are attributes that God is observed having as well. Pelagius connects this to the fact that man was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and therefore has a number of similarities in nature to him.

The question then becomes, did Pelagius believe that mankind was fallen? It is difficult to say. Pelagius did admit that although our nature was not blemished we were befallen to the service of sin (wir selbst begeben unsere Leiber in den Dienst der Sünde). So implicitly, Pelagius viewed that there is a need and role for grace in salvation. What is more important is that Pelagius viewed this power to will (posse) as not only part of human nature but also as a form of grace itself, that is given by God at the moment of creation (Schöpfungsakt). Bohlin labels this aspect of creation grace as Part A. Part B for creation grace is slightly more complex. Pelagius understands Part B as the aspect of God continually giving us aid with the help of his grace in order to give us real possibilities to will and act.

As can be clearly seen, Pelagius saw human free will as an inherent part of human nature that people still posses naturally to this day. He did not believe that it was stripped during the Fall and thereby leaving mankind totally depraved. Additionally, the power to will itself is part of the nature of God and thus reflects man being made in the image of God. So in this particular sense, free will is both part of human nature and a form of grace. Nevertheless, because man has suffered the Fall, mankind has given itself over to the service of sin. This same creation grace from God therefore acts as a continual form of guidance from God to give us power to make moral choices. So far as is seen now, Pelagius’ teachings are far less sinister than Augustine had made them out to be.

The one remaining question therefore is whether or not Pelagius ever felt that this grace would be stripped from the damned in the afterlife? Pelagius does not seem to have answered this question, but it seems to me at least that Pelagius would not have believed that this grace ever left anyone, even the most heinous sinners. Implicit in this position would be that Pelagius would have not agreed with the idea of Hell being a place in total separation from God. Such a view would have been totally antithetical to his theology on grace.

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On the Issue of Infallibility: An Absolute Value or Just an Honorific?

A little over a week ago, Joe Heschmeyer over at Shameless Popery published a blog post attacking the so-called epistemic problems of both Protestantism and Orthodoxy. In short, Father Heschmeyer argues that Protestantism and Orthodoxy cannot with absolute certainty define what is or what isn’t infallible. It is a convincing argument insofar that he is correct that both Protestantism and Orthodoxy cannot indeed define absolutely what is or is not infallible. However, Father Heschmeyer is wrong to think that this problem doesn’t plague Catholicism either. Heschmeyer implicitly makes an argument against Catholicism itself all the while severely misunderstanding what infallibility implies.


What Really Is Infallible?

Whatever is truly infallible cannot feasibly be falsified within human reasoning. It was Blaise Pascal who once said “We have an incapacity for proving anything which no amount of dogmatism can overcome. We have an idea of truth which no amount of skepticism can overcome (Pensées, Fragment 406 Louise Lafuma edition).” The question then becomes, what is it that no amount of skepticism can overcome? This was a question undertaken by none other than René Descartes in the seventeenth century in his famous cogito argument:

Non posse a nobis dubitari, quin existamus dum dubitamus; atque hoc esse primum, quod ordine philosophando cognoscimus. … Repugnat enim, ut putemus id quod cogitat, eo ipso tempore quo cogitat, non existere. … Ego cogito, ergo sum. Est omnium prima et certissima, quae cuilibet ordine philosophanti occurrat.

Stuff that is not able to be doubted by us, while we doubt that we exist; and that this is the prime [thing], that we think of for philosophizing in order. … In fact, one rejects that  we might believe that whatever thinks does not exist while at the same time it itself thinks. And therefore [I know] this knowledge:  I think therefore, I am. It is the first and most certain of everything, which occurs in proper philosophizing.

– René Descartes, Principia philosophiae, 1.007

No amount of skepticism can overcome this basic fact highlighted by Descartes (and earlier Augustine). It is indubitable, even if it is an illusion. Therefore, it is the only infallible fact. Every other belief is to one extent or another an act of faith. So for the Heschmeyer to claim that the Catholic Church possesses infallibility cannot possibly hold up to basic scrutiny. For example, tomorrow archaeologists may find the body of Jesus of Nazareth, and thereby disprove the entirety of Christianity. This possibility is feasible, although I myself in faith do not believe that it will happen. Ultimately, claims of infallibility boil down to simple power projections in an effort to be taken seriously. They cannot, with the exception of one case, be infallible in an absolute sense.

Allowances for Presuppositions

Tossing aside the tool of extreme skepticism for a second, I will allow some basic presuppositions for Heschmeyer for the sake of argument. These presuppositions are the following: 1.) God exists; 2.) there is a Holy Spirit; 3.) there is a tradition; and 4.) there is a revealed scripture. Catholic claims of infallibility necessarily bypass the need for rational argument. For sure, things that are declared infallible are only done so after rigorous debate. But once they are declared infallible, one has to accept the conclusions and not find fault with the argument. Otherwise, they must leave the church. My question, however, is this: Since all four of these are true, why then would anyone feel the need to skip the steps of argument to arrive at the conclusion of a synod or ecumenical council’s arguments? It is one thing to read the conclusion and thesis. But it is quite another thing to say that the conclusion and thesis are justified in their own right, which is exactly what Catholic claims for infallibility ultimately boil down to. Yet, nevertheless, by the very virtue of the creation of these conclusions and theses from papal proclamations and ecumenical councils, such a position is wholly irrational. Simply put, theological truths are only purported to be infallible out of respect, not because they positively are. Something is only honorifically called infallible due to the merits of the argument. If someone wants to claim that a purported infallible truth is in fact incorrect, they are more than welcome to do so. However, it will likely be at the cost of unity with their present institutional affiliation.

Heschmeyer’s Circular Argument

One final flaw of Heschmeyer’s case is that his argument for Catholicism’s infallible claims is just as circular as any Protestant’s or Orthodox believer’s claims. Heschmeyer writes, “The reality: Without papal infallibility, there’s no way to know for sure which Ecumenical Councils are Ecumenical Councils, or why.” Cannot the same be said for Catholicism? Under Catholic logic, the pope declares a council to be infallible. On what basis does the pope have this power? Catholics will inevitably point to Matthew 16:18-19, which I have discussed in another post, but isn’t that particular interpretation of Matthew sanctioned and declared infallible by the papacy itself? This is hardly objective and is most certainly circular.

After so much deconstruction of the claims of infallibility, I must then ask myself, why would I prefer the circular arguments of Catholicism to the circular arguments of Orthodoxy or even Protestantism? A Catholic might argue that although their claims to infallibility are circular, at least they are more clear and concise than the circular arguments of either Orthodoxy or Protestantism. This much I will grant them. However, what exactly are the benefits for this clear and concise circular argument? Generally, a Catholic would argue that their arguments afford them unity and proper order. I highly doubt such claims. If Catholic claims are to be taken seriously and to be given historical credence, then how do they explain the rise of Arianism, Manichaeism (including all of the dualistic Christian heresies), Nestorianism, Oriental Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, Calvinism, Lutheranism, Old Catholicism, Sedevacantism, Iconoclasm, Anglicanism, Donatism, Adoptionism, Waldensianism, Lollardism, Jansenism, Gallicanism, Santería, Monothelitism, etc.? The list of direct splits goes on and on. It seems to me at least that Catholics have just as much of a problem keeping proper order and unity as any other church does. In the end, all that I am left with is the ability to content myself with the prayer, the grace of God, and with what Galileo Galilei once wisely said when concerning the merits of arguments:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

– Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

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Was Peter the Rock? Latin Exegetical Interpretations of Matthew 16:18-19: From Late Antiquity to the Twelfth Century

Note: I have since added an addendum to this blog post. Also, I mistook Christian of Stavelot’s work for Dungal of Bobbio’s. I have since made this correction.


This post has its origins on Catholic Answers Forums, where once again the topic of Matthew 16:16-19 came up for discussion. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this topic, Matthew 16:18-19 is used to justify the Catholic doctrine of Papal Supremacy. The logic is as follows: 1.) Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ; 2.) Christ renames Peter (formerly Simon) as Peter, which means rock; 3.) that the rock unto which Christ proclaims that he will build his Church is Peter himself; 4.) although the rest of the apostles themselves receive the powers of binding and loosing as is later detailed in John 20:23, Peter alone received the keys; 5.) therefore in conclusion Peter holds supreme authority over the other apostles and thus too do Peter’s successors (the popes of Rome). This can be seen in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

553 Jesus entrusted a specific authority to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). 287 The “power of the keys” designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate after his Resurrection: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17; 10:11). 288 The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles 289 and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom. (881, 1445, 641, 881)

Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 142

Most of the times that I see this topic discussed, it usually revolves around the discussion of certain dialects of Greek and Aramaic, the language that Jesus presumably spoke. However, what I noticed to be missing from every discussion was the verses’ interpretation throughout history. I grew curious, so I decided to sift through the various exegetical writings of holy men from Late Antiquity to the High Middle Ages. I focused only on exegetical writings solely because these writings are extremely difficult to take out of context, unlike decrees and letters, which apologists all too often do take out of context. I lack any knowledge of Greek, so I decided that I would engage the topic by concerning myself with only Latin writers, since I know Latin fairly well. What I found is that the present-day Catholic understanding of Matthew 16:16-19 is entirely alien to the understandings of the Latin Fathers, saints, and holy writers all the way up to at least the twelfth century. They understood the “rock” as being Peter only metaphorically, and that primarily it referred to either Christ or Peter’s confession of faith. Additionally, they understood the powers of binding and loosing to not be separate from the keys at all, and that these keys were at least given to all of the apostles. Listed below are the writings of St. Jerome, St. Hilary of Poitiers, pseudo-Bede, St. Paschasius Radbertus, St. Hrabanus Maurus, Christian of Stavelot, Rupert of Deutz, and St. Bruno of Segni. Note: Scriptural verses are not always translated, but when they are left untranslated, they are always unitalicized and bolded in the quotes.

Matthew 16:18-19:

et ego dico tibi quia tu es Petrus
et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam
et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversum eam

et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum
et quodcumque ligaveris super terram erit ligatum in caelis
et quodcumque solveris super terram erit solutum in caelis

And I say to thee: That thou art Peter;
and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven:
and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.

Matthew 16:18-19 Latin Vulgate, Weber-Gryson Fifth Edition

St. Jerome, who lived during the fourth and fifth centuries and is responsible for the Bible’s translation into Latin:

Quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Sicut ipse lumen apostolis donavit, ut lumen mundi appellarentur, caeteraque ex Domino sortiti sunt vocabula: ita et Simoni, qui credebat in petram Christum, Petri largitus est nomen. [Col.0117D] At secundum metaphoram petrae, recte dicitur ei: Aedificabo Ecclesiam meam super te.

Just as he himself gave the light to the apostles, so that the light of the world would be addressed, and the rest [of the apostles’] names are chosen by the Lord: and thus to Simon, who believed in Christ the Rock, the name of Peter is imparted. But following the metaphor of the rock, rightly it is said to him: “I will build my Church upon you.”


St. Hilary of Poitiers, who lived during the fourth century :

7. Confessionis merces.[Col.1009C] —Et dignum plane confessio Petri praemium consecuta est, quia Dei filium [Col.1010A] in homine vidisset. Beatus hic est, qui ultra humanos oculos et intendisse et vidisse laudatus est: non id quod ex carne et sanguine erat contuens, sed Dei filium coelestis patris revelatione conspiciens; dignusque judicatus, qui quod in Christo Dei esset, primus agnosceret. O in nuncupatione novi nominis felix Ecclesiae fundamentum, dignaque aedificatione illius petra, quae infernas leges, et tartari portas, et omnia mortis claustra dissolveret! O beatus coeli janitor, cujus arbitrio claves aeterni aditus traduntur, cujus terrestre judicium praejudicata auctoritas sit in coelo: ut quae in terris aut ligata sint aut soluta, statuti ejusdem conditionem obtineant et in coelo.

The Reward of Confession. And plainly the confession of Peter received a worthy award, because he had seen the Son of God in a man. Blessed is this man, who is praised to have seen and have contemplated [this truth] beyond human eyes: beholding not what was of flesh and blood, but seeing the revelation of the Son of God from the heavenly Father; and worthy and just, was he such that in Christ of God he was the first to recognize. Oh! By appellation of a new name the fruitful foundation of the Church, her rock is of a worthy build, [the rock] which (feminine) destroys the hellish laws, the gates of Hell, and all the barriers of death . O blessed door-keeper of heaven, by whose will had the keys of the eternal gates been delivered, by whose earthly judgment the authority was decreed beforehand in heaven : so that what was bound or loosed on earth, obtains the condition of the same status in heaven.

Hilary of Poitiers, IN EVANGELIUM MATTHAEI COMMENTARIUS, Patrologia Latina 9: 1009C – 1010A

Had ye seen, O holy and blessed men (the apostles), who for the reward of your faith have received the keys of the kingdom of heaven and power to bind and to loose in heaven and earth, works so great, so truly Divine, wrought by our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and do ye yet profess that it was not until He had first told you that He had gone forth from God that you attained the knowledge of the truth?

Hilary of Poitiers’ On the Trinity 6.33

This faith it is which is the foundation of the Church; through this faith the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. This is the faith which has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever this faith shall have loosed or bound on earth shall be loosed or bound in heaven. This faith is the Father’s gift by revelation; even the knowledge that we must not imagine a false Christ, a creature made out of nothing, but must confess Him the Son of God, truly possessed of the Divine nature. What blasphemous madness and pitiful folly is it, that will not heed the venerable age and faith of that blessed martyr, Peter himself, for whom the Father was prayed that his faith might not fail in temptation; who twice repeated the declaration of love for God that was demanded of him, and was grieved that he was tested by a third renewal of the question, as though it were a doubtful and wavering devotion, and then, because this third trial had cleansed him of his infirmities, had the reward of hearing the Lord’s commission, Feed My sheep, a third time repeated; who, when all the Apostles were silent, alone recognised by the Father’s revelation the Son of God, and won the pre-eminence of a glory beyond the reach of human frailty by his confession of his blissful faith! What are the conclusions forced upon us by the study of his words? He confessed that Christ is the Son of God; you, lying bishop of the new apostolate, thrust upon us your modern notion that Christ is a creature, made out of nothing. What violence is this, that so distorts the glorious words? The very reason why he is blessed is that he confessed the Son of God. This is the Father’s revelation, this the foundation of the Church, this the assurance of her permanence. Hence has she the keys of the kingdom of heaven, hence judgment in heaven and judgment on earth.

Hilary of Poitiers’ On the Trinity 6.37


Et ego dico tibi quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Metaphorice ei dicitur: Super hanc petram, id est, Salvatorem, [Col.0079A] quem confessus es, aedificatur Ecclesia, qui fideli confessori sui nominis participium donavit.

Metaphorically it is said: Upon this rock, that is, the Savior, which you have confessed, the Church shall be built, who had given a participation of his name to the sincere confessor [Peter].

Et tibi dabo claves regni coelorum. Id est, discernendi scientiam potentiamque, qua dignos debeas in regnum recipere, et indignos secludere.

Et quodcunque ligaveris, etc. Haec potestas sine dubio cunctis datur Apostolis, quibus ab eo post resurrectionem dicitur generaliter: Accipite Spiritum sanctum, etc. (Joan. XX).

That is the knowledge and power for discerning by which you may ought to receive the worthy into the kingdom and exclude the unworthy [therefrom].

This power is without a doubt given to those apostles, to whom by Him it is generally said after the resurrection: Receive the Holy Spirit, etc. (John 20).

pseudo-Bede’s IN MATTHAEI EVANGELIUM EXPOSITIO, Patrologia Latina 92: 0078D – 0079A

St. Paschasius Radbertus, a Frankish monk and abbot of Corbie who wrote numerous important theological and hagiographical works during the ninth century:

Non enim, ut quidam male putant, Petrus fundamentum totius Ecclesiae est: Quia fundamentum nemo aliud potest ponere, praeter id quod positum est, quod est Christus Jesus (I Cor. III, 11). Licet super eodem fundamento primus, ac si caput Petrus recte positus credatur, tamen in ea petra, de qua nomen sibi ex dono traxit, et super eam tota construitur et constabilitur illa coelestis Jerusalem, id est, supra Christum, ut firma permaneat in sempiternum.

It is not in fact so that someone badly reckons that Peter is the entire foundation of the Church. For another foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid: Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). It is allowed upon the same foundation that the first, as if the head Peter rightly believed to have been fixed, but in it, the rock, from which itself the name derives by gift, and upon the entire rock that the heavenly Jerusalem is built and is established, that is upon Christ, so that it may be permanently strong and everlasting.

Tu es, inquit, Simon Joannis, tu vocaberis Cephas, quod interpretatur Petrus (Joan. I, 42). Et non dixit, tu vocaberis Petrus, quo jam vocatus erat nomine, sed ait signanter: Tu es Petrus, [Col.0560D] et super hanc petram, a qua petra factus es, aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Non quod jam, ut dixi, tam firmus esset, sed quod futurum erat ut fieret a Christo, Qui vocat ea quae non sunt, tanquam ea quae sunt (Rom. IV, 17). Et per Spiritum sanctum ita firmaretur: Ut neque mors, neque vita, neque instantia, neque futura, neque ulla creatura posset eum separare a charitate quae est in Christo (Rom. VIII, 38, 39).

And he did not say, “You will be called Peter,” by which name he was called, but distinctly he says: You are Peter, and upon this rock, from which rock you are made, I will build my Church. Not that now, so that it is said, so much that he was strong, but that he will be made in the future from Christ, He who calls those who are not, as if they are those. (Romans 4:17) And through the Holy Spirit he would thus be strengthened: So that neither death, nor life, nor present things, nor future things, nor any created thing is able to separate him from love, which is in Christ (Romans 8:38-39).

Petrus autem talem ac tantam expressit de corde confessionem, ut ejus confessio sit omnium apostolorum. Et sicut simul omnes interrogantur, ita in eo omnium est responsio una, supra quam fundatur Ecclesia, et contra quam portae inferorum non praevalebunt.

However Peter expressed such and such from the heart of confession, so that his confession (feminine) shall be [the confession] of every apostle. And just as at once all are asked, thus in him [Peter] is the one response of everyone, upon which [response/faith (feminine)] the Church is founded, and against which [response/faith] the gates of hell will not prevail.

Et tibi dabo, inquit, claves regni coelorum. … Omnis namque species virtutum cum ex corde fuerit adimpleta, quasi ipsa clavis regni videtur, ita ut inveniatur eadem virtus et clavis esse portae simul et porta per quam introitur ad regnum.

For with every type of virtue he will have been filled from the heart, as is seen with the keys to the kingdom,  thus so that the same virtue and keys shall be discovered to be both the gates [of the Church] and the gate through which one is accepted into the Kingdom [of Heaven].

Et quodcunque ligaveris supra terram, erit ligatum et in coelis, et quodcunque solveris super terram, erit solutum et in coelis. Quaeso unusquisque circumstantiam lectionis hujus diligenter intendat, maxime tamen episcopi, quibus videtur cum Petro et cum omnibus apostolis haec potestas specialius a Domino attributa, licet et omni Ecclesiae eadem sit concessa…

I look at every circumstance of its reading diligently which he extends, but maximally to the bishops, to whom are seen with Peter and with all of the apostles to have been attributed this special power by the Lord, and granted that in the same way everyone of the Church is given…

Paschasius Radbertus’ EXPOSITIO IN EVANGELIUM MATTHAEI, Patrologia Latina 120: 0560B; 0560C – 0560D; 0561A; 0562C – 0562D; 0563A

St. Hrabanus Maurus, a highly influential Frankish theologian who was abbot of Fulda and archbishop of Mainz during the ninth century:

Et dabo tibi claves regni coelorum. Qui regem coelorum majori prae caeteris devotione confessus est, merito prae caeteris ipse collatis clavibus regni coelestis donatus est, ut constaret omnibus, quia absque ea confessione, ac fide, regnum coelorum nullus potest intrare. Claves autem regni coelorum ipsam discernendi scientiam potentiamque nominat, qua dignos recipere in regnum, indignos secludere deberet a regno.

He who has confessed the Kingdom of Heaven well before with heavenly devotion, merits before Heaven itself the gifted keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, so that it may correspond with all, because it is without this confession, and faith, that no one is able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. However, the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven themselves are for discerning the powerful knowledge that he names, by which the worthy receive in the Kingdom, and the unworthy ought to be separated from the Kingdom.

Et quodcunque ligaveris super terram, erit ligatum et in coelis, et quodcunque solveris super terram, erit solutum et in coelis. Quae solvendi ac ligandi potestas, quamvis soli Petro data videatur a Domino, absque [Col.0992B] ulla tamen dubietate noscendum est quod et caeteris apostolis datur, ipso teste, qui post passionis, resurrectionisque suae triumphum apparens, eis insufflavit et dixit omnibus: Accipite Spiritum sanctum; quorum remiseritis peccata, remittentur eis, et quorum retinueritis, retenta sunt (Joan. XX). Nec non etiam nunc in episcopis ac presbyteris omnibus Ecclesiae officium idem committitur, ut videlicet agnitis peccantium causis, quoscunque humiles ac vere poenitentes aspexerit, hos jam a timore perpetuae mortis miserans absolvat; quos vero in peccatis quae egerint persistere cognoverit, illos perennibus suppliciis obligandos insinuet. Omni igitur electorum Ecclesiae, ut diximus, juxta modum culparum vel poenitentiae, ligandi ac solvendi datur auctoritas.

What power is for unbinding and for binding, as you will it may be seen as given only to Peter by the Lord, but without any doubt it is known that it is given to the rest of the apostles, witness yourself, he who after his passion and resurrection appearing to them in triumph breathed and said to all: Receive the Holy Spirit; the sins of all that you remit, they are remitted, and of all that you retain, they are retained (John 20). In fact, also presently in the bishops and presbyters is the same office committed to the everyone of the Church, so that clearly by the recognized causes of sins, whatever humble and true penitents he may have seen, he absolves them now from lamenting fear of perpetual death; truly he must have known that they led those in sin to continue steadfastly. He may recommend those towards unceasing supplication for obligation. Therefore, so that we have said, near an extent of culpability and of penance, the authority for binding and loosing is given to all of the elect of the Church.

Hrabanus Maurus’ COMMENTARIORUM IN MATTHAEUM LIBRI OCTO, Patrologia Latina 107: 0992A-0992B

Christian of Stavelot, monk from ninth-century Aquitaine:

Et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Super hanc firmitatem fidei quam confessus es, aedificabo Ecclesiam meam, et super me aedificabo te cum omni Ecclesia mea.

Upon this strength of faith that you have confessed, I will build my Church, and upon me I will build you with all my Church.

Et tibi dabo claves regni coelorum. Claves regni coelorum scientia discernendi, potentiaque qua dignos recipere in regnum, indignos excludere debeat intelligitur. Et quodcunque ligaveris super terram erit ligatum et in coelis, et quodcunque solveris super terram erit solutum et in coelis. Hoc tam Petro quam omnibus apostolis et successoribus [Col.1397B] eorum qui in Ecclesia eumdem locum tenent recte credimus concessum, quia ipse post passionem apparens eis, dixit: Accipite Spiritum sanctum; quorum remiseritis peccata, remittuntur eis; et quorum retinueritis, retenta sunt…

The keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are for discerning knowledge, and the power which receives the worthy into the Kingdom, and excludes the unworthy ought to be understood. And whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. This [applies] as much to Peter as to the all of the apostles and their successors, who hold the same office rightly we lend permission, because he himself appears to them after the passion, saying: Receive the Holy Spirit; every sin that you forgive are forgiven; and every sin that you retain are retained…

Christian of Stavelot’s EXPOSITIO IN MATTHAEUM EVANGELISTAM, Patrologia Latina 106: 1396D; 1397A – 1397B

Rupert of Deutz, abbot of Deutz Abbey who publicly debated a number of scholastic professors during the twelfth century:

Hinc est illud quod huic Simoni Petro dixit: «Et ego dico tibi, quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam (Matth. XVI).» Super petram fidei, quam confessus est Petrus, Ecclesiam suam aedificavit, eamque regendam illi, caeterisque apostolis eorumque similibus, commisit.

Upon the rock of faith, which Peter confessed, he built his Church, which for the sake of being guided by them, and the rest of the apostles and of those similar, he entrusted.


St. Bruno of Segni, the bishop of Segni and abbot of Montecassino as well as a supporter of the Gregorian Reform Movement in the eleventh and twelfth centuries:

Et ego dico tibi, quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Tu dicis, et verum dicis, quia ego sum Christus Filius Dei vivi: [Col.0213B] et ego dico tibi, quia tu es Petrus, fide fortis, et doctrina stabilis. Nisi enim in hoc nomine fortitudinem et stabilitatem Christus intellexisset, non ea quae sequuntur protinus addidisset, dicens; et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Si Petrum non intelligis, petram respice: petra autem erat Christus. Sic igitur a petra Petrus, sicut a Christo Christianus. Videamus itaque quid sit et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Super hanc petram, quam tu modo in fidei fundamentum posuisti; super hanc fidem, quam tu modo docuisti, dicens: Tu es Christus, Filius Dei vivi; super hanc petram et super hanc fidem aedificabo Ecclesiam meam.

You say, and you speak truth, because I am the Christ, Son of the living God: and I speak to you, because you are Peter, strong in faith, and in stable doctrine. In fact, unless in this name of fortitude and stability Christ would have had understood, not by it [the rock/petram] which onward it is followed to have had been joined, saying: and upon this rock I will build my Church. If you do not understand Peter, [then] look at the rock: but the rock is Christ. Yes, therefore, Peter [is] from the rock, just as a Christian [is] from Christ. Accordingly we may see what shall be and upon this rock I will build my Church. Upon this rock, which only you have laid in the foundation of faith; upon this faith, which only you have taught, saying: You are Christ, Son of the living God; upon this rock and upon this faith I will build my Church.

Et tibi dabo claves regni coelorum. Hoc enim quod principaliter Petro [Col.0214B] dicitur, caeteris quoque apostolis dictum esse intelligi debet.

In fact, this is principally said to Peter, and it ought to be understood as being said to the rest of the apostles.

Bruno of Segni’s COMMENTARIA IN MATTHAEUM, Patrologia Latina 165: 0212A – 0213B; 0214A – 0214B

As it can be seen, all of these writers understood Peter as the rock only metaphorically. They focused on the rock as either being Christ or the confession of faith. Almost all of the writers considered the keys to be the exact same as the powers of binding and loosing, and not to be a distinct entity. The only exceptions are Jerome and Rupert, only because Jerome and Rupert do not discuss the keys. Therefore, they all believed that all of the apostles received the keys, with a few exceptions: Hrabanus Maurus, Paschasius Radbertus, and Hilary of Poitiers . Their positions were quite radical in that they believed that every Christian believer held the keys by virtue of faith, not just the apostles and their successors.

While my labors here by no means resolve the issue of Matthew 16:18-19 definitively, especially if one is more concerned with modern biblical hermeneutics, they do at least call into question if not falsify the idea that the present-day Catholic Church’s understanding of Matthew 16:18-19 is the same as how the Latin West understood it before the Great Schism of 1054 and shortly thereafter.

P.S. My sources come from the Patrologia Latina, which is freely available on Google Books, should anyone feel the need to check my sources.

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