Why Brother Rooney is Wrong About Grace, Nature and ‘Pelagianism’

Daniel Heck
22 min readDec 3, 2022
Photo of nature being held in grace. Style of Hundertwasser. Midjourney 12/3/2022

Context and Background

This article is part of what is now apparently a series on why Brother James Dominic Rooney is wrong about things. I discuss why he is wrong about freedom here, and why he is wrong about Christian hope here. I also made him this gift to help him understand how he was wrong about Maximus the Confessor. I guess you can say that I’m his self-appointed volunteer theology research assistant! It’s a job that I accept freely and graciously and filled with hope, as a movement of my will in Christ that God has given me as a gift. This sort of hopeful graciousness is, really by definition, the nature of the gift that is Christian faith. The coherence of those sentences is really the crux of the theological matter this morning.

Although the names of the articles in this series might be taken in a dismissive way, I don’t mean them that way. I’ve found Br. Rooney to be a helpful conversation partner in addressing some deep theological problems that surface when people talk about patristic universalism. Part of what makes these conversations theologically fascinating and fruitful, if we’re willing to approach them irenically but also discursively (with an insistently truth-oriented posture), is that a lot of theological priors are surfaced in the process. Br. Rooney has done more than any other interlocutor to suss out and model the various problems with attacks on patristic universalism by playing the role of self-appointed Prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith. That’s fine. I’m also happy to appoint myself to the role for the sake of conversation! The topic of endless torture itself is, understandably, extremely difficult for many people to discuss in a calm and irenic way. Still, I think we can and should do that for a lot of reasons, not least because a lot of spiritual abuse happens in these conversations, and the work of healing spiritual trauma requires a calm and steady posture in the face of traumatizing spirituality.

My own identity, to be clear, is not rooted in universalism or annihilationism or the belief that some will suffer in sin forever. The third perspective has branding issues, but is someone called infernalism, ECT, or people falsely call it ‘the traditional view’. The tradition includes all of these views, as well as conflict around them.

Still, I have found that defenders of the third view routinely attack others for being heretics in unwarranted ways, and then slip into grave theological error (even heresy) themselves in their attempts to articulate why. My perspective on this was changed substantially after I read That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart, and then watched this happen over and over and over again. People got in line to fall all over themselves, articulating their own apparent heresies in their efforts to take Hart down.

If someone wants to name my perspective, it is probably best to call it “hopeful universalism”. Even this sad spectacle has failed to move me into the “hard universalist” column, as Br. Rooney names it, although those who have attacked Hart have really tried their hardest to turn me into a universalist. Nonetheless, the surreal response has convinced me that those who reject patristic universalism have serious, deep, enduring, and important flaws in their theology that extend far beyond the immediate questions at hand. What are we supposed to do when we realize that the people attacking patristic universalism as a heresy repeatedly end up defending heretical positions themselves? For my part, I find it helpful to explain, document, and reflect on the phenomenon.

Today, Br. Rooney has decided to try to accuse St. Gregory of Nyssa of Pelagianism. I think he is wrong, and that St. Nyssa was not a Pelagian, not even a closet one. Rather, I think that the post-Augustinian construction of the distinction between grace and nature is itself the root of our problems related to Pelagianism, including later schisms initiated by that Augustinian Friar, Brother Luther. Put simply, I think we slip away from classical theism if we understand grace and nature to be mutually exclusive categories. Instead, I think that Christian theologians should treat grace and nature as importantly distinct while, nonetheless, always emphasizing that nature must be held in grace if Christian theology coheres. Grace and nature, variously defined across the history of the tradition, should robustly be understood in a differentiated way that is connected by a relation of mutual holding. Why? Because without this approach to the issue, the logic of Nicaea and the classical creeds collapses even as the underlying disciplines of enemy love, reconciliation, and solidarity with the poor also collapse when someone tries to construct a ‘Christian’ imperial court theology.

Even with all of the problems associated with a diagram, this one nicely illustrates the heart of the issue in my view. Christian theism becomes fundamentally and confusingly incoherent if the second view is taken. I think that Br. Rooney, like many others in the history of imperial court theology, is functionally operating on the second view and suffering from the collapse that results.

Brother Rooney’s Argument

This is, at least, how I understand the problem with Br. Rooney’s arguments shown here. Of course, I’m open to clarifications on his part. However, this is the fruit of my best efforts to parse this series of tweets. I’ve offered a cleaned-up version of them here, hopefully in a better format than the one we find on that Nazi-ridden and unreadable platform. Maybe Br. Rooney would be willing to present his arguments in a clearer format, but for now I’ll just tidy it up a bit for him:

Some people insist that all will be saved is only something necessarily true because God or we foreknow it will occur. What they fail to see that something needs to make true this proposition, even when God knows it. It cannot merely be a brute fact. But if what makes it true…

is one of the logical possibilities below, then the view is very clearly going to have serious philosophical and theological consequences. [1] If God cannot do otherwise than create (and save), God is essentially related to the universe (pantheism). [2] If God saves all only…

…conditional on His choice to create human beings, then supernatural union with God is essential to human nature and God would be violating justice by not elevating humans to that sort of union (denying a distinction between grace/nature, i.e. Pelagianism).

[3] If humans cannot by nature ever sin, but I am still free, then I can only freely by nature do either natural or supernatural good deeds. But, since we were talking about never doing anything to lose grace, that would mean I only perform by nature salutary deeds without grace.

[3a] is Pelagianism exactly. [3b] If what I can do by nature is only non-salutary deeds, then it needs to be that God gives you grace at birth and you can never lose it by a mortal sin, so that human acts always necessarily involve charity, i.e., loving God. That’s also Pelagian.

To Br. Rooney’s credit, I think he’s integrating some of the constructive and critical responses to his work. I cleared up how [1] isn’t what patristic universalists are arguing in the first article in this series, and he now recognizes that he needs to deal with other matters. I’ll take this set of tweets as a concession that my previous clarifications were correct. Still, I’d recommend that he apologize to David Bentley Hart and others for misconstruing their position as [1] in Church Life Journal, and he should also probably thank me for helping illustrate the issue decisively. This is just basic manners. It should be expected of anyone. It is also what it means to model a Christian reconciling life, especially if you are a vowed member of a religious order and a priest who is also academic faculty.

After this we get into Rooney’s deeply confused charges of Pelagianism, which are very helpful precisely because they are so confused. Pelagianism, as I understand its relevance to this discussion, is not a matter of failing to distinguish between grace and nature. Rather, it involves claiming some kind of ultimacy of human will, especially with respect to choosing the good. The classic Pelagian claim is that human will is enough for salvation, operating in a way that is entirely independent of God’s grace. The Pelagian argument therefore presumes that grace excludes nature. See below, for where I’m getting this understanding of Pelagianism. The part that seems most relevant to this discussion is bolded, with other parts included for context.

(Note, for our purposes, that Augustine’s document might be taken to reflect that the charge of universalism could have been leveled against Pelagius, based on the engagement around 1 Cor 15. But if that’s the case Pelagius seems to have evaded this charge, at least on its face, as with the others. Still, the point of Augustine’s argument is that Pelagius is actually guilty of the things he denies. Could someone construct a revisionist view of Pelagius as a universalist, because he was charged with universalism and he was guilty of all charges? It might be an interesting, if bizarre, exercise. It would also be approximately as bizarre as arguing that patristic universalists are Pelagians. It seems altogether much more likely that Pelagius wasn’t a universalist, as generally agreed, and that the use of 1 Cor 15 here is not primarily about that. More on that in the end. Ultimately, it is vanishingly unlikely that Pelagius was a universalist, and the core of his position seems to have involved the damnation of sinners for things like hoarding wealth. This further illustrates how very strange it is to charge patristic universalists with Pelagianism. Others, like McClymond, charge them with gnosticism, even though a common theme in a variety of ‘gnosticisms’ was the damnation of the unilluminated. Why do patristic universalists routinely get attacked for heresies that are much more plausibly associated with their attackers? Projection may be playing a real role here.)


Since it was necessary that the Apostle Paul’s prediction should be accomplished, — “There must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you,” — after the older heresies, there has been just now introduced not by bishops or presbyters or any rank of the clergy, but by certain would-be monks, a heresy which disputes, under colour of defending free will, against the grace of God which we have through our Lord Jesus Christ; and endeavours to overthrow the foundation of the Christian faith of which it is written, “By one man, death, and by one man the resurrection of the dead; for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive;” and denies God’s help in our actions, by affirming that, “in order to avoid sin and to fulfil righteousness, human nature can be sufficient, seeing that it has been created with free will; and that God’s grace lies in the fact that we have been so created as to be able to do this by the will, and in the further fact that God has given to us the assistance of His law and commandments, and also in that He forgives their past sins when men turn to Him;” that “in these things alone is God’s grace to be regarded as consisting, not in the help He gives to us for each of our actions,” — “seeing that a man can be without sin, and keep God’s commandments easily if he wishes.”


After this heresy had deceived a great many persons, and was disturbing the brethren whom it had failed to deceive, one Cœlestius, who entertained these sentiments, was brought up for trial before the Church of Carthage, and was condemned by a sentence of the bishops. Then, a few years afterwards, Pelagius, who was said to have been this man’s instructor, having been accused of holding his heresy, found also his way before an episcopal tribunal. The indictment was prepared against him by the Gallican bishops, Heros and Lazarus, who were, however, not present at the proceedings, and were excused from attendance owing to the illness of one of them. After all the charges were duly recited, and Pelagius had met them by his answers, the fourteen bishops of the province of Palestine pronounced him, in accordance with his answers, free from the perversity of this heresy; while yet without hesitation condemning the heresy itself. They approved indeed of his answer to the objections, that “a man is assisted by a knowledge of the law, towards not sinning; even as it is written, ‘He hath given them a law for a help;’ ” but yet they disapproved of this knowledge of the law being that grace of God concerning which the Scripture says: “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”4 Nor did Pelagius say absolutely: “All men are ruled by their own will,” as if God did not rule them; for he said, when questioned on this point: “This I stated in the interest of the freedom of our will; God is its helper, whenever it makes choice of good. Man, however, when sinning, is himself in fault, as being under the direction of his free will.” They approved, moreover, of his statement, that “in the day of judgment no forbearance will be shown to the ungodly and sinners, but they will be punished in everlasting fires;” because in his defence he said, “that he had made such an assertion in accordance with the gospel, in which it is written concerning sinners, ‘These shall go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.’ ”6 But he did not say, all sinners are reserved for eternal punishment, for then he would evidently have run counter to the apostle, who distinctly states that some of them will be saved, “yet so as by fire.” When also Pelagius said that “the kingdom of heaven was promised even in the Old Testament,” they approved of the statement, on the ground that he supported himself by the testimony of the prophet Daniel, who thus wrote: “The saints shall take the kingdom of the Most High.” They understood him, in this statement of his, to mean by the term “Old Testament,” not simply the Testament which was made on Mount Sinai, but the entire body of the canonical Scriptures which had been given previous to the coming of the Lord. His allegation, however, that “a man is able to be without sin, if he wishes,” was not approved by the bishops in the sense which he had evidently meant it to bear in his book9 — as if this was solely in a man’s power by free will (for it was contended that he must have meant no less than this by his saying: “if he wishes”), — but only in the sense which he actually gave to the passage on the present occasion in his answer; in the very sense, indeed, in which the episcopal judges mentioned the subject in their own interlocution with especial brevity and clearness, that a man is able to be without sin with the help and grace of God. But still it was left undetermined when the saints were to attain to this state of perfection, — whether in the body of this death, or when death shall be swallowed up in victory.

Now if the human will is part of the human nature, and human nature (and therefore human will) are the result of God’s free and gracious desire to create this creation in which we move and live and have our being, then there is no room for the confusions around Pelagianism to take root at all. The fact that we exist, and therefore the fact that we exist as humans with wills by our nature, is itself a free gift of God’s grace. Beyond assisting our natural will with additional grace, which Pelagius and Saint Nyssa and I and countless others all assent to, I would add that God creates our natural will in the first place. The perspective that sees nature being held in grace cuts off Pelagianism at the root, before we even get started.

This same perspective that so thoroughly defeats this element of Pelagianism also defeats Br. Rooney’s arguments [2] and [3], by illustrating that they proceed from a faulty premise. What premise is that? The arguments are hard to parse. But insofar as there’s something new here in our discussions, they seem to be the same problem that underlies Pelagianism, and Pelagian readings of various conversations about the human will: it presumes that grace and nature are not only distinct (with God’s grace holding but not being reducible to human nature or human volition) but that they are in fact mutually exclusive of each other.

[2] If God saves all only…

…conditional on His choice to create human beings, then supernatural union with God is essential to human nature and God would be violating justice by not elevating humans to that sort of union (denying a distinction between grace/nature, i.e. Pelagianism).

The patristic universalists do not deny a distinction between grace and nature. Rather, they see grace holding nature, which is part of why they then reach their other conclusions related to God always already intending to save all, and being able to realize it. It is precisely because grace holds nature that nature arises from and returns to grace, based on the sort of underlying teleological logic that we also find in Paul.

[3] If humans cannot by nature ever sin, but I am still free, then I can only freely by nature do either natural or supernatural good deeds. But, since we were talking about never doing anything to lose grace, that would mean I only perform by nature salutary deeds without grace.

Here, I’m not defending any type of universalism that holds that humans cannot by nature ever sin. This argument isn’t relevant to conversations about patristic universalism, because it assumes a prior that no patristic universalist defends as far as I know. Certainly Hart doesn’t claim that people cannot, by nature, ever sin.

[3a] is Pelagianism exactly.

This is a strange claim. How did we get there? Maybe Rooney is now trying to shoehorn his old mistaken arguments about freedom into some kind of Pelagian mold. It is truly bizarre to claim that Pelagianism is exactly [3], as if Pelagius was accused of holding that no one could ever do anything to lose grace. On the contrary, as we’ve seen, at least some of the charges seem to have been very much to the opposite effect, that baptism is worthless for salvation without the deeds that supposedly earn grace.

Somehow Br. Rooney ended up thinking Pelagianism is a matter of failing to distinguish grace from nature, when it is closer to the opposite: it results from an excessive distinction that sees nature excluding grace because they are construed as mutually exclusive. In answering that confusion according to its folly, some anti-Pelagians end up becoming like Augustine’s ‘Pelagius’: they accept the flawed Pelagian prior of mutual exclusion on the way to refuting it. This is a common problem in rhetorical dialectic, as Proverbs 26:4 attests. This problem plagues both Catholic and Protestant theology and spirituality, insofar as people struggle to do something by God’s grace instead of by their will, as if their will could ever be anything but one limited manifestation of God’s grace, the grace that not only creates but sustains all things.

Maybe Br. Rooney can clarify his thoughts here, but it seems to me that if anyone is suffering from a kind of Pelagianism here it is him. How is that, exactly? Because he is treating grace and nature as mutually exclusive categories, and misconstruing “Grace holds nature” as Pelagian because he mistakes a relationship of distinct holding as a lack of distinction. This then makes it possible to imagine some kind of human will utterly independent of God (excluded from the category of grace), which then makes it possible to articulate a Pelagian perspective. Such perspectives, in turn, relate to our previous discussions on freedom and hope. The Pelagian will, meaning the utterly deified human will with a perfect and ultimate independent subsistence entirely apart from God (just as nature is imagined to be ultimately independent of grace) is, arguably, the doctrine that is most cherished at the heart of freewill defenses of hell, like Br. Rooney’s project. These confusions run deep and are interconnected in a web of foolish priors, possibly picked up through the tradition answering fools according to their folly, and so becoming like them. This is often how the plank ends up in the eye of the beholder.

Those who adopt the view that Grace holds Nature don’t even know how to form Pelagian sentences within their framework. They need to redefine the relationship between grace and nature quite fundamentally to be able to articulate both Pelagianism and narrow anti-Pelagianism. But this isn’t because they fail to distinguish the two. Rather, it is because they distinguish them and then also understand the relationship between the two properly. At least this understanding is the proper one, provided classical theism is correct in holding that this whole creation is an act of God’s free and gracious will. (In short, the problem is avoided insofar as we avoid a creational dualism.)

[3b] If what I can do by nature is only non-salutary deeds, then it needs to be that God gives you grace at birth and you can never lose it by a mortal sin, so that human acts always necessarily involve charity, i.e., loving God. That’s also Pelagian.

That’s really not Pelagian, either. Pelagius certainly thought people could freely will sin! In the final analysis, it seems that Br. Rooney is just extremely confused about what Pelagianism is about, what’s wrong with it, and how it can be nipped in the bud.

Nonetheless, by bringing up Pelagius he has done us a favor. The trouble with a lot of arguments for endless suffering in sin (perhaps all of them) is that they deify the human will. They treat it as something that is at least coequal with the will of God in its endless creative capacity. Rooney’s trouble all fits very well with what is sometimes called “Two-tier Thomism” and it all seems to proceed from the presumption that Grace and Nature are mutually exclusive categories. While not necessarily exactly Pelagian, it seems to me that these are the roots of Pelagianism. Better to go with the view that Grace holds Nature … otherwise, it is awfully easy to slip into mistakes like ones that imagine a self-creating Nature independent of God’s free and active will, the will by which God chose to create, out of love.

In short, it seems that Br. Rooney is projecting what are, at best, his own system’s severe vulnerabilities to Pelagianism onto others. Or if I were as devoid of grace and therefore as eager to pull the heresy trigger as Br. Rooney, I’d just put it this way: he is a Pelagian. Burn him.

Lost Nature, Devoid of any Grace. Style of H.R. Geiger. Horror. Midjourney. 12/3/2022

Bonus Material!

Are you still here?

Here, I’m going to try to take Br. Rooney’s novel idea that Pelagianism has something to do with universalism as seriously as possible. How might someone try to draw that connection, because they’re bending over backwards to be as generous to this surreal claim as possible?

Let’s look at this text:

Augustine of Hippo, “A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 211–212:


Let us now, by a like recapitulation, bestow a little more attention on those subjects which the bishops said he rejected and condemned as “contrary;” for herein especially lies the whole of that heresy. We will entirely pass over the strange terms of adulation which he is reported to have put into writing in praise of a certain widow; these he denied having ever inserted in any of his writings, or ever given utterance to, and he anathematized all who held the opinions in question not indeed as heretics, but as fools. The following are the wild thickets of this heresy, which we are sorry to see shooting out buds, nay growing into trees, day by day: — “That6 Adam was made mortal, and would have died whether he had sinned or not; that Adam’s sin injured only himself, and not the human race; that the law no less than the gospel leads to the kingdom; that new-born infants are in the same condition that Adam was before the transgression; that the whole human race does not, on the one hand, die in consequence of Adam’s death and transgression, nor, on the other hand, does the whole human race rise again through the resurrection of Christ; that infants, even if they die unbaptized, have eternal life; that rich men, even if baptized, unless they renounce and surrender everything, have, whatever good they may seem to have done, nothing of it reckoned to them, neither can they possess the kingdom of God; that God’s grace and assistance are not given for single actions, but reside in free will, and in the law and teaching; that the grace of God is bestowed according to our merits, so that grace really lies in the will of man, as he makes himself worthy or unworthy of it; that men cannot be called children of God, unless they have become entirely free from sin; that forgetfulness and ignorance do not come under sin, as they do not happen through the will, but of necessity; that there is no free will, if it needs the help of God, inasmuch as every one has his proper will either to do something, or to abstain from doing it; that our victory comes not from God’s help, but from free will; that from what Peter says, that ‘we are partakers of the divine nature,’8 it must follow that the soul has the power of being without sin, just in the way that God Himself has.” For this have I read in the eleventh chapter of the book, which bears no title of its author, but is commonly reported to be the work of Cœlestius, — expressed in these words: “Now how can anybody,” asks the author, “become a partaker of the thing from the condition and power of which he is distinctly declared to be a stranger?”

Accordingly, the brethren who prepared these objections understood him to have said that man’s soul and God are of the same nature, and to have asserted that the soul is part of God; for thus they understood that he meant that the soul partakes of the same condition and power as God. Moreover, in the last of the objections laid to his charge there occurs this position: “That pardon is not given to penitents according to the grace and mercy of God, but according to their own merits and effort, since through repentance they have been worthy of mercy.” Now all these dogmas, and the arguments which were advanced in support of them, were repudiated and anathematized by Pelagius, and his conduct herein was approved of by the judges, who accordingly pronounced that he had, by his rejection and anathema, condemned the opinions in question as contrary to the faith. Let us therefore rejoice — whatever may be the circumstances of the case, whether Cœlestius laid down these theses or not, or whether Pelagius believed them or not — that the injurious principles of this new heresy were condemned before that ecclesiastical tribunal; and let us thank God for such a result, and proclaim His praises.

One might try to associate universalists with Pelagianism by attempting to read universalism into the engagement with 1 Cor 15 in chapter 61. Maybe Pelagius ably defended himself against this charge, like the others, although the question of the meanings of the Greek term aionios as opposed to Latin terminology haunts any efforts to parse Pelagius’s defense. Was he a universalist finding some wiggle room in the language reported in chapter 61, or was he an infernalist? That could be a historically interesting discussion!

Nonetheless, the fact that Pelagius renounced all of this enduringly raises questions about whether he was also being strawmanned, just as Br. Rooney is strawmanning his opponents. The trouble with coercively ‘winning’ an argument is that you haven’t won the argument, but you have shown yourself to violate the norms of discourse. This is the sort of win that will, forever, need to be counted as a loss by those who reject authoritarian epistemologies. The coercive celebrate their victory, and the rest of us remember forever that they were the kind of people who confuse might for right.

My own view is that here we see the continued corrupting effects of imperial court politics on theology, so that views such as those of Saint Nyssa are now getting caught up in the dragnet of various political disputes that end up conflating a wide range of different positions. The development of doctrine is a fascinating topic! Still, patristic universalists can respond by suggesting that even if Pelagius is interpreted as being an evasive universalist in chapter 61 and they oddly and tendentiously chose to adopt him as one of their own, it is especially clear here that “Pelagianism” (like “Origenism”) is condemned, but Nyssism is not. (And Pelagius and Origen arguably are not either.)

Nonetheless, I’m not aware of universalists trying to claim Pelagius in this way, and why would they? They already have plenty of acknowledged saints in their column, and the normal problems of Pelagianism seem to be far more manifest in their opponents than in patristic universalists. After all, isn’t the charge against patristic universalists often coming from a kind of radical free will voluntarist perspective that looks … awfully Pelagian? What sort of human will could be so utterly powerful, essentially self-subsisting, that it could resist God forever? A Pelagian one that doesn’t depend on God sustaining and helping it could do that. This is a bit of a stretch, but it is far less of a stretch than the one Br. Rooney is attempting here.

Given Saint Nyssa’s centrality to the formulation of the Nicene Creed, declaring him a Pelagian heretic based on a contestable reconstruction of chapter 61 remains a hard one to pull off, unless we want to reject Nicaea. Ultimately, it seems to me that those who want to reject Nyssism do repeatedly fall into an implicit and functional rejection of Nicaea. Hart’s TASBS nicely lays out the shape of the theological mine field here. I have yet to see an attacker cross it without being hoisted away by Hart’s grasp of classical theism. Why does this keep happening? Because his attackers are too eager to attack, and so they don’t bother to read. I still don’t think it is impossible for someone to cross the field, even if I have no idea how they would do it. What I do know is that many fools have rushed in without bothering to ask where all the angels went. It goes very badly for them, over and over and over again.

This provides a starting point for a historically informed discussion about the ways in which complex systems of theology interacted as tokens in imperial politics, as the persecuting society arose.

As we’ve shown here, a subtle prior about the particular relationship between grace and nature, granted a distinction between them, can have far reaching implications. How often, in the history of theology, have we been talking past each other because we have subtle and unexamined priors? This, to me, seems to be an eminently worthwhile theological question, and one that Br. Rooney’s interactions with patristic universalism help us trace out.



Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. I pastor and practice serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.)