Per and Pre
Bill Long 10/01/04
Prevenient/Pervenient; Prepensity/Perpensity and Propensity
Wow. We have to do some signficant sorting out of things today. We might as well begin with Puritan theologians, since those 17th century intellectuals already gave us plerophory and perpession.
Pervenient and Prevenient
Prevenient is another one of those $64,000 Puritan words. It derives from the verb prevene, and this comes from the Latin "prevenire." Prevene means "to take action before or in anticipation of" something and thus, by extension, means "to prevent, frustrate or evade." The OED says that prevene is Obsolete, but "Obsolete" doesn't discourage me; rather, it encourages. It is like a tax lawyer I worked with used to say to clients when the IRS sent them dunning notices with reasons attached for the penalty. He said the IRS notice was only the "first gambit" in the chess match of how much you owed. Thus, when the OED says something is "Obsolete," it is just the first move in the chess match of words. Maybe it is obsolete. Maybe not. But it certainly is not obsolete simply because the OED says it is.
Prevenient means "coming before, preceding," or in its more specialized and used form, "antecedent to human action." Ah, here is the theological connection, for the doctrine of prevenient grace teaches that God's action toward the sinner in mercy both precedes any action on the part of the sinner to seek God and stimulates the heart to seek repentance. No less an authority than John Milton uses the term in this way in Paradise Lost: "From the Mercie-seat above Prevenient Grace descending had remov'd The stonie from thir hearts, and made new flesh (PL 11.3)."
This word emerges in the 17th century just when the theological debate is heating up on this very point with the Dutchman Arminius and his followers. The Arminians would argue for something else, that is, for the ability of the sinner to "make the first move," so to speak, towards God, even if they confessed that God's grace ultimately drew the person to Himself. But the Puritans were adamant in response. Their strict Reformed heritage would permit of no human initiative in the salvation process. Indeed, how could sinner, a massa peccati ("mess of sin," to use Augustine's colorful phrase) even initiate a move toward God? Impossible. Thus, grace was needed not just to "convict the sinner" of sin but even to "awake the sinner" to his need for conviction. These technical but crucial theological subtleties required a new word for the Puritans, and the term prevenient grace filled the bill. Wonderful.
But we can dispatch of pervenient much more quickly. It is only attested once in the OED and means "the number which comes as the result of multiplying one number by another," or "the product" in multiplying. I am sure that no one has ever heard or used the word to describe the concept of the product, and though it clearly derives from the Latin pervene, meaning "to reach" or "arrive," [hence, one "arrives" at the answer], I feel safe in immuring this one deeply in the tomb of obsolescence.
But ignorant people have kept pervenient temporarily alive. Preachers who have posted their sermons on the net and others with some interest in theology have referred to it as pervenient grace. Well, maybe it is pervenient for them, because it makes things multiply out to reach a product, but I think I would be attributing too much sublety to those preachers for this use of the term. But certainly for the Puritans God's grace was prevenient.
Clergy misuse of words like prevenient is reminiscent of the sermon I once heard in Kansas where the eager preacher launched an attack against the "scrounge" of racism. Sometimes, all you have to do is listen closely to people, and you can't help but burst out laughing.
From Grace to Murder
I think I only have time to start this thought here, because it has to do with the history of murder, and I have written a great deal on murder. Well, murder doesn't really have a history, I suppose, but ways we talk about it does. The term I want to get to here is prepense or prepensed, meaning "considered beforehand" or "premeditated." It is derived from "pre" meaning "before" and "pensere" meaning "to think (pensive, etc.)." At common law in the earliest days, murder was defined as killing someone "in malice prepense." As William Blackstone, that Eighteenth Century fountainhead of knowledge of the common law says, "The benefit of clergy is taken away from murder through malice prepense [Don't ask me now to go into benefit of clergy!]."
When the common law tradition made it to America, we changed the word prepense for a much more "modern-sounding" term: "aforethought," and hence murder was described as a crime that was done "with malice aforethought." But then, in the late 1790s, Pennsylvania decided to become the "liberal" state with respect to murder, and divided murder in half, without killing the word, and came up with "first degree" and "second degree" murder. A perpetrator of the former would be subject to the death penalty, but not the latter. First-degree murder alone would be done "with malice aforethought" while the latter was done intentionally but without the deliberation or malice necessary for the death penalty.
This terminology regarding murder still exists in many people's minds and conversations ("first degree" and "second degree" and "malice aforethought") even though that terminology is passe now with the advent of the Model Penal Code and modern murder statutes (for example, Oregon has gotten rid of "first degree" and "second degree" and now just has "aggravated murder" and "murder"). I could go on for quite some time about murder, but I think I will stop here, and continue my thoughts on prepense/d and perpensed in the next essay.
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