Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Da quod iubes et iube quod vis" Dio provvede cio' che comanda

"Da quod iubes et iube quod vis" -- grant what you command and then command what you will.
Confessions X. xxix. 40; xxxi. 45 (MPL 32. 796, 798; tr. LCC VII. 225, 228).

Augustine's famous phrase "da quod iubes, iube quod vis," repeated three times in book 10 of the Confessions (10.29, 31, 37). It also was the starting point of the Pelagian Controversy.

Pelagius was especially infuriated when he overheard Augustine’s prayer, Domine, da quod iubes et iube quod vis: “O Lord, give what You command, and command whatever You will.” This kind of devotion, Pelagius thought, undercut the moral nerve of Christian faith. If we are not able to obey God’s commandments by ourselves, then why had He given them in the first place? Salvation must come from the performance of good works and the fulfillment of obligations laid down by God.

Pelagian theology begins with the notion that Adam was created mortal: he would have died even if he had never sinned. Thus, we do not inherit death from Adam as the punishment for sin. Nor do we inherit the sin itself. According to Pelagius, sin is transmitted by imitation, not propagation. Human beings are born without sin, and they commit sins only by following the bad examples of others.

This means that grace is not opposed to nature but rather is present within nature itself. With the law in the Old Testament and Christ in the New, God has given us the perfect rulebook and the perfect rulekeeper, but nothing more—for salvation, like sin, is by imitation. This means that perfection in this life is possible. Pelagius did not say it was easy. He did not claim to be perfect himself. But he did believe that, in addition to Jesus, there were perfect people who always obeyed all of God’s commands. It is the worst kind of defeatism, he thought, to tell Christians in advance that perfection was unattainable. Indeed, for Pelagius, predestination is subordinate to foreknowledge: when the Bible speaks of God’s predestination of the elect, it is merely speaking of His ability to see into the future and ratify in advance what He knows human beings will do by their own efforts.

In the course of the Pelagian controversy, St. Augustine answered that Pelagius had turned the whole of Christian theology upside down. Death is not natural but radically inimical to human life, an “enemy” to be overcome, as St. Paul put it. The moment Adam sinned, he began “verging toward old age and death.” Developing a robust doctrine of original sin, which emphasized the seminal and corporate identity of the human family, Augustine argued that the human situation is far more serious than Pelagius allowed. Only a supernatural work of God, which comes to sinners from beyond themselves, can make any real difference in our standing before a holy God. Christians can indeed make great progress in their walk with God, and they should be encouraged to do so, but sin is an ever-present reality with which we must struggle until we draw our last breath. Thus every day we need to offer again this petition from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses.”

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