Bad Reasons

Bad reason #1

Sound historical scholarship clearly demonstrates that the Catholic claims about the papal office are Latin innovations and departures from the apostolic deposit of faith.

In fact, a “neutral” examination of the fragmentary historical evidence does not yield a decisive, dispositive judgment on the truth of the papal claims. Ecclesial commitments, and noncommitments, inevitably inform one’s evaluation of the data. John Henry Newman, no mean patristic scholar, believed that the historical evidence authorizes a strong probabilistic claim about papal supremacy, especially if one allows antecedent considerations to guide one’s interpretation of the evidence:

It will be said that all this is a theory. Certainly it is: it is a theory to account for facts as they lie in the history, to account for so much being told us about the Papal authority in early times, and not more; a theory to reconcile what is and what is not recorded about it; and, which is the principal point, a theory to connect the words and acts of the Ante-nicene Church with that antecedent probability of a monarchical principle in the Divine Scheme, and that actual exemplification of it in the fourth century, which forms their presumptive interpretation. All depends on the strength of that presumption. Supposing there be otherwise good reason for saying that the Papal Supremacy is part of Christianity, there is nothing in the early history of the Church to contradict it.

Note what Newman is both saying and not saying. He is not saying that the historical evidence for the papal claims is indisputable, nor is he saying that every neutral scholar (are there such creatures?) must so evaluate the evidence as to conclude that the papal claims are true. What he is saying is that the papal claims are a reasonable interpretation of the evidence in light of (1) the reasonable antecedent expectation that God would provide a divinely-authorized authority to govern the Church and judge developments in doctrinal reflection and (2) the manifest divinity of the Catholic Church (see “Newman did not become Catholic because of the Pope“).

All data, the philosophers of science tell us, are theory-laden. There are no pure facts. Even in the physical sciences, observations and measurements are shaped by the theories, preconceptions, and philosophical commitments of the scientists who are observing and measuring. And if this is true for the hard sciences, how much more true must this be for history and the soft sciences. This does not mean that all knowledge-claims are purely subjective and relative; but it does force us to recognize the inescapability of the subjective. We cannot see reality as God sees it.

Newman claims that the actions of the the patristic popes in fact witness to an implicit claim to doctrinal infallibility. “There were continual collisions between Rome and nearly every Church, and that Rome was always in the right,” Newman wrote to Mrs. Magdalene Helbert. “Why did the Pope always interfere and (if you will) dictate, except that he had a tradition of his infallibility? and why was he always right, except that he was infallible?” Anglican historian Trevor Jalland’s evaluation of the evidence is only a tad more cautious:

The evidence … will show, we believe, that the Roman see was recognized by other churches as possessing from very early times, if not from the beginning, an undoubted primacy in the sphere of doctrine, at least in the sense of a right to be heard in preference to others. … Equally, as we venture to believe, it will emerge that the primacy of jurisdiction … namely, the right to act as supreme judge in matters of discipline, if not traceable so far back as the doctrinal primacy, is at least contemporary in respect of its development with the evolution of episcopal jurisdiction. (The Church and the Papacy [1944], p. 22)

A hundred years earlier than Jalland, T. W. Allies conducted a comprehensive examination of the papacy and found the historical evidence for its divine institution so compelling that he was forced to resign as an Anglican clergyman and enter into the communion of the Catholic Church. “I felt convinced,” he writes, “that those who deny the Papal Supremacy must, if they are honest men, cease to study history, or at least begin their acquaintance with Christianity at the sixteenth century. Also that they must be content with a dead Church, and no Creed.”

Yet equally competent Orthodox and Protestant scholars survey the same evidence and come to very different conclusions. Thus John Meyendorff: “The history of the first centuries of Christianity produces no evidence that this concept of a ‘Petrine’ succession in Rome entailed, either in the West or in the East, anything but a moral authority and prestige.” Thomas Hopko sees papal interventions in the affairs of other Churches as succumbence to the temptation “to usurp unwarranted hierarchal authority and administrative control over all the world’s Christians.” Who are we to believe? Who do we trust?

The Catholic, however, does not finally rest his convictions on the mutable, always provisional judgments of historians and scholars (see Cardinal Journet). The Catholic believes that the papacy is divinely instituted because the Catholic Church authoritatively and infallibly proclaims it to be such; and so the Catholic, legitimately and rationally, interprets the evidence of history in light of this revealed truth (see “Does History Confute the Pope?“). As Newman writes:

Why should Ecclesiastical History, any more than the text of Scripture, contain in it “the whole counsel of God”? Why should private judgment be unlawful in interpreting Scripture against the voice of authority, and yet be lawful in the interpretation of history? … For myself, I would simply confess that no doctrine of the Church can be rigorously proved by historical evidence: but at the same time that no doctrine can be simply disproved by it. Historical evidence reaches a certain way, more or less, towards a proof of the Catholic doctrines; often nearly the whole way; sometimes it goes only as far as to point in their direction; sometimes there is only an absence of evidence for a conclusion contrary to them; nay, sometimes there is an apparent leaning of the evidence to a contrary conclusion, which has to be explained;—in all cases there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church. He who believes the dogmas of the Church only because he has reasoned them out of History, is scarcely a Catholic. It is the Church’s dogmatic use of History in which the Catholic believes; and she uses other informants also, Scripture, tradition, the ecclesiastical sense or phronema, and a subtle ratiocinative power, which in its origin is a divine gift. There is nothing of bondage or “renunciation of mental freedom” in this view, any more than in the converts of the Apostles believing what the Apostles might preach to them or teach them out of Scripture.

And of course this must be the case. We who dare to take up our crosses and follow Jesus do not do so because the historians have convinced us beyond a reasonable doubt that everything the four gospels report about Jesus’ words and actions are completely accurate. If our faith rested solely on the consensual judgment of historians, then we would need to put down our crosses and wait for the Jesus Seminar to abandon the field. In fact, historians vigorously debate just about every alleged saying, teaching, and action of Jesus. And as far as Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, how can history prove that such a supernatural event actually occurred? I find N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God to be mightily persuasive; but would I find it such if I were an atheist? Ultimately, Catholic Christians experience the claim of the resurrection to be absolutely compelling because it belongs to a belief-system that they experience to be absolutely compelling, both rationally and existentially. And intrinsic to this belief-system is the claim that the Christ has founded a Church that authoritatively, faithfully, and reliably teaches the divine revelation entrusted to the Apostles of Jesus Christ.

Critics of Catholicism often point to the clear development in the Catholic Church’s understanding of the papacy as discrediting the belief that the papacy was instituted by Christ Jesus. As one Orthodox convert recently put it, “In the end I asked myself how would Leo the Great have reacted if someone had stood up in downtown Rome circa 431 and proclaimed the dogmas of the First Vatican Council. The answer I came to was that said person would have been condemned as a heretic and sent packing.” Church historian William Tighe has noted that the writer chose the worst possible patristic witness for his argument: in Leo the Great, a bishop and theologian revered as a saint by the Eastern Churches, we find in nuce the teaching of Vatican I.

But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that only a minority of Church Fathers shared Leo’s evaluation of the role and authority of the bishop of Rome. Does this prove that the papacy as divine institution does not belong to the apostolic deposit of faith? Here one might adduce the Vincentian canon (“that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all”) to establish the novelty and noncatholicity of the papal claims. Yet as Newman observes in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, the rule of St Vincent effectively excludes many critical Christian doctrines. Consider, for example, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity:

Let us allow that the whole circle of doctrines, of which our Lord is the subject, was consistently and uniformly confessed by the Primitive Church, though not ratified formally in Council. But it surely is otherwise with the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. I do not see in what sense it can be said that there is a consensus of primitive divines in its favour, which will not avail also for certain doctrines of the Roman Church which will presently come into mention. … Now it should be clearly understood what it is which must be shown by those who would prove it. Of course the doctrine of our Lord’s divinity itself partly implies and partly recommends the doctrine of the Trinity; but implication and suggestion belong to another class of arguments which has not yet come into consideration. Moreover the statements of a particular father or doctor may certainly be of a most important character; but one divine is not equal to a Catena. We must have a whole doctrine stated by a whole Church. The Catholic Truth in question is made up of a number of separate propositions, each of which, if maintained to the exclusion of the rest, is a heresy. In order then to prove that all the Ante-nicene writers taught the dogma of the Holy Trinity, it is not enough to prove that each still has gone far enough to be only a heretic—not enough to prove that one has held that the Son is God, (for so did the Sabellian, so did the Macedonian), and another that the Father is not the Son, (for so did the Arian), and another that the Son is equal to the Father, (for so did the Tritheist), and another that there is but One God, (for so did the Unitarian),—not enough that many attached in some sense a Threefold Power to the idea of the Almighty, (for so did almost all the heresies that ever existed, and could not but do so, if they accepted the New Testament at all); but we must show that all these statements at once, and others too, are laid down by as many separate testimonies as may fairly be taken to constitute a “consensus of doctors.” It is true indeed that the subsequent profession of the doctrine in the Universal Church creates a presumption that it was held even before it was professed; and it is fair to interpret the early Fathers by the later. This is true, and admits of application to certain other doctrines besides that of the Blessed Trinity in Unity; but there is as little room for such antecedent probabilities as for the argument from suggestions and intimations in the precise and imperative Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus, as it is commonly understood by English divines, and is by them used against the later Church and the see of Rome. What we have a right to ask, if we are bound to act upon Vincent’s rule in regard to the Trinitarian dogma, is a sufficient number of Ante-nicene statements, each distinctly anticipating the Athanasian Creed.

Place St Athanasius in the mid-second century. Would it not have been the case that many orthodox bishops would have considered his teaching on the homoousion heretical? Did not the Synod of Antioch in 269 condemn the use of the term homoousios to speak of the Son? Rightly does R. P. C. Hanson refer to the fourth century, not as “the story of a defence of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy, a search conducted by the method of trial and error” (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, pp. xix-xx). Clarity was achieved only by struggle, disputation, creative innovation, and dogmatic definition. Hanson even goes so far as to describe the achievement of Athanasius and the Nicene theologians as a change in doctrine: “There is no doubt, however, that the pro-Nicene theologians throughout the controversy were engaged in a process of developing doctrine and consequently introducing what must be called a change in doctrine” (p. 872). The Catholic will want to insist that this doctrinal alteration was only apparent—the Church always knows the truth of the apostolic revelation and cannot and does not propose falsehood in her formal de fide teaching—but he is happy to acknowledge that dogma does indeed develop in the life of the Church.

Or consider the doctrine of the full divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit? How many of the Ante-Nicene Fathers explicitly believed what came to be ecumenical dogma? In fact, as Dom Gregory Dix observes, very few indeed:

The doctrine of the full Deity of the Holy Ghost offers an even clearer illustration. It was defined in 381 against the teaching of Macedonius that the Holy Ghost is not God as the Father and Son are God, but is in some way subordinate and intermediate between God and creatures. There is nothing in the N.T. which clearly indicates that the Orthodox doctrine is certainly right, or which is irreconcilable with Macedonianism in some form. Even the baptismal formula of Matt. xxviii.19 can scarcely be pressed (as it was pressed then) in such a sense, seeing that baptism “in the Name of the Lord Jesus” only is scriptural, and so late as the ninth century was still an officially accepted alternative. St. Athanasius and St. Basil both raised the question of the Third Person, but their controversy was waged with those who had followed them against the Arians. They appealed, naturally, to scripture and tradition, and it is notorious how defective in substance their appeal is found to be when it is closely examined. It is also remarkable that in the works which they wrote to vindicate this doctrine both carefully avoid even once applying the decisive word “God” to the Holy Ghost, though in this they are but following earlier writers, even professed trinitarians like Novatian, and the N.T. itself. St. Gregory Nazianzen, “the theologian” par excellence for the East, under whose presidency the Oecumenical Council of 381 actually defined the doctrine, is explicit that there were by “few” who accepted it in his day and that Athanasius was the first and almost the only doctor to whom God had vouchsafed light on this subject (Orat 21.32). Elsewhere he is even more devastatingly honest with the admission that while the N.T. plainly revealed the Godhead of the Son it no more than “hinted at” that of the Holy Ghost, which was now being plainly revealed in his own day (Orat 31.26). This is some distance from talk of “most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” It was neither Scripture nor Tradition which imposed the dogma of 381, defined by the most thinly attended and least unanimous of all the assemblies which rank as General Councils, but the living magisterium of the Church of that age. And upon that basis only it is accepted today. That the full doctrine of the Spirit’s Godhead was then believed in some sense “everywhere” we may hope, though the evidence is not reassuring. That it had “always” been believed by some we may suppose, though the evidence is at least defective. That it had previously been believed “by all” is demonstrably untrue. An enormous catena can be formed of ante-Nicene writers from St. Clement of Rome in the first century onwards who are either Macedonian Subordinationists or who definitely make the Holy Ghost a creature. One would have hard work to find one ante-Nicene writer who consistently teaches the full Constantinopolitan doctrine—apart from the Montanist Tertullian!

The appeal to an alleged consensus of the Fathers, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all,” simply fails as an adequate standard in matters of doctrinal controversy; and it does so for the simple reason that it presumes a time when the Church uncontroversially, explicitly, and infallibly taught the propositional fullness of the Catholic faith. But such a golden time has never existed. The Church as Church knows the totality of the deposit of faith; but this knowledge at any given point in history is only partially discursive. Her grasp of the revelation may be described as akin to Michael Polanyi’s conception of tacit knowledge: “We know more than we can tell.” Gerald Jantzen’s summary of A. N. Whitehead is also apposite: “We experience more than we know; and we know more than we can think; and we think more than we can say; and language therefore lags behind the intuitions of immediate experience.” Newman has taught us that the Church lives in history and that her formal teaching will and must develop as new questions are put to her both by the world and by her own theologians, thus requiring her to speak in words that which is deeper than words. “The Church’s teaching lives forward,” explains Richard John Neuhaus, “and no definition, including that of councils, is entirely adequate to the whole of the truth.”

The belief that doctrine does not develop may seem to be a necessary inference from the fundamental Christian conviction of the finality and sufficiency of the self-revelation of God in Christ; but it is not itself a revealed truth nor infallibly taught by the Church, at least not by the Catholic Church. Those who reject doctrinal development have far more serious historical problems to overcome than do Catholic papalists.

Ultimately we are brought back to the question of authority. Thus Michael Liccione:

The question is by what authority any given doctrinal development must, in the end, be either ratified or rejected. Pointing out that many in the East never accepted the doctrine of papal primacy as it developed in the West, and speculating that many even in the West would not have done so before the question made itself felt, serves only to beg the question. For if papal authority is what the Catholic Church says it is, then the centuries-long development of the doctrine thereof itself entails and illustrates the legitimate exercise thereof. Of course if papal authority is not what the Catholic Church says it is, then her development of the doctrine thereof is a prime instance of inauthentic development—i.e., addition to the deposit of faith—which is a polite term for heresy. So, what we need to ask ourselves is not whether Pope Leo the Great, or some hypothetical Christian belonging to his flock at the time, “would have” accepted or rejected Vatican I. Any answer to that question is purely a matter of speculative opinion. The question is what ultimate authority in the Church is to settle the other questions as they arise.

What a given individual, be he Supreme Pontiff or humble shepherd, would say before the question arises would not be dispositive even if we could be certain what he would say. For we have no guarantee that knowing the truth into which the Holy Spirit has led the Church at a given time ensures that any given individual of that time would infer and recognize the truth into which the Spirit has led the Church at a later time. The only guarantees we have from Christ are that the later development, if taught definitively by whatever the duly constituted magisterium is, will neither contradict the former nor add anything substantive that was not there, at least implicitly, from the beginning.

Catholics identify the bishops of the Church, in communion with the bishop of Rome, as the divinely-ordained magisterium within the Church. This magisterium authoritatively judges doctrinal developments and, when needed, imposes Spirit-inspired dogma which does not mislead the faithful. No other ecclesial body, including Orthodoxy, makes an analogous claim; no other ecclesial body, including Orthodoxy, can make this claim.

Consider, for example, the distinction of St Gregory Palamas between the divine being and energies: in God we may ontologically distinguish between God’s incommunicable essence and his communicable uncreated energies. This distinction, Palamite theologians tell us, is real and not just nominal. By grace human beings may participate in the divine energies of God and thus truly share in the divine life and be divinized; but the divine essence necessarily remains inaccessible and nonparticipable. The Palamite position was defined by three Constantinopolitan synods in the 14th century (1341, 1347, and 1351) and is accepted by all Orthodox as dogmatically binding on theological reflection. Yet the patristic evidence for this distinction is remarkably meager and can hardly claim consensual support (see A. N. Williams, The Ground of Union). Certainly it was not accepted and taught by the Western Fathers, nor was it employed by the Alexandrian Fathers, Athanasius and Cyril, to describe human deification in Christ (see Daniel Keating, The Appropriation of Divine Life in Cyril of Alexandria). The question thus arises, Is the Palamite distinction a truth of divine revelation? If it is not, how can it be legitimately imposed upon the faithful as a dogma of the Church? If it is, how can we know this to be true in the absence of compelling biblical and patristic testimony, especially if doctrine does not in fact develop? And so we are brought back to Michael Liccione’s insistence that only the Catholic understanding of ecclesial authority provides a satisfactory answer to the question “How do we know that ____ is a truth of divine revelation?”

How do we know that the Catholic understanding of the papacy implicitly belongs to the apostolic deposit of faith, despite conflicting testimonies within the Tradition? Because this is what the magisterium of the Catholic Church infallibly teaches. How do we know that doctrine develops? Because this is the only theory that adequately explains all the historical evidence and justifies the present state of Catholic de fide teaching. How do we know which doctrinal developments are authentic and which are not? By the definitive judgments of the Catholic magisterium. Is this circular reasoning? Of course, but not all circles are vicious. As Philip Blosser states, “Every system is based on presuppositions that control its epistemology, argument, and use of evidence; therefore ultimate circularity is philosophically inescapable.”

We may now return to the question with which we began this article: Does sound historical scholarship undermine or contradict the claims of the Catholic Church regarding the papacy? Not when the data is assessed in the faith of the Church. History may pose difficulties; but every theory has its anomalies. Ultimately, the persuasiveness of the historical evidence for the divine institution and universal authority of the papacy depends upon the persuasiveness of the Catholic religion as a whole.

7 November 2006

Bad reason #2

The Catholic Church formally teaches that sinners must earn their way into heaven through good works.

The allegation has been forcefully advanced for the past five hundred years and continues to be advanced to justify corporate separation from the bishop of Rome and to dissuade individual conversions to the Catholic Church.

The allegation is false.

A perusal of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reveals that the Catholic Church clearly teaches that salvation is by grace and grace alone.

Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life. (CCC 1992)

But what the Catholic Church means by sola gratia is different from what the Lutheran and Reformed Churches mean by the phrase. What precisely is this difference and why the difference?

I propose the following: The Lutheran and Reformed Churches understand the sola gratia as requiring the elimination of all human activity from the salvific equation. Each accomplishes this elimination in its own way. Lutherans speak of imputation and the passivity of justifying faith; Calvinists speak of absolute divine predestination. This is a simplification, of course. A wide diversity of theological expression exists in each tradition. Yet I think that the simplification holds. Reformation faith seeks to ground the salvation of the believer so completely in the work of God that the believer contributes absolutely nothing to his attainment of eternal life. Only if God does all is personal certainty of salvation possible, and it is this desire for certainty that drives both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. As Phillip Cary states, Lutherans and Calvinists are “monergists about salvation.”

It is at this point that the Catholic Church and the Reformation separate. While the Catholic Church affirms that justification is freely given in Holy Baptism, she also affirms that believers must cooperate with God’s grace to retain their status of justification and thus gain eternal life. “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent” (CCC 1993). This is the significance of the Tridentine assertion that the baptized may merit final justification. This language of merit accomplishes two things: first, it reminds the believer that life in Christ is a work in process, a work to which he may and must contribute and which he is free to abandon (God forbid); second, it reminds the believer that God is irrevocably committed to his salvation—at each step of the way the divine Lover graciously makes himself present to the believer and “rewards” him with sufficient grace to bring him to his heavenly destination. Though this may sound like a crass quid pro quo transactionalism, it in fact is not. The scholastic language of merit and reward must be interpreted in light of God’s infinite mercy showered upon mankind in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Par caritas, par meritum: “love is the measure of merit.” Justice has been gathered up into absolute love. Who, after all, are said to merit eternal life? Only those who have been freely justified in Holy Baptism, reborn by the Spirit, adopted as sons in the eternal Son, and incorporated into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Merit is predicated upon prevenient grace, forgiveness, regeneration, adoption, theosis. God “must” reward the perseveringly faithful with heaven—indeed it would be incomprehensible and the most profound and unjust betrayal if he were to do otherwise—because they already live in heaven and have become heaven. Those whom God has freely made to be his heirs have a “right” to their inheritance. In the words of Piet Fransen:

Growth in grace is ordained by the Spirit toward its final fulfillment in Christ. This statement of fact is just another way for us to understand how grace on earth can merit heaven. Heaven is nothing else than the final revelation of what we have become through grace. (The New Life of Grace, p. 220)

The works of love, because they are performed by those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, may thus be said to merit the final reward of eternal life, which is the consummation of the state of justification into which the baptized have been gratuitously brought. These works have a real value before God, because they flow from the love that God has planted in their hearts. But the reward of eternal life is due to them, as John Henry Newman writes, “only in consequence of the promise of God. Good works have on this ground a claim on God’s faithfulness to His promises, and thereby a claim on His justice, for it would be unjust to promise and not fulfil.”

All lovers know that the bonds of love transcend right or honor. Love is a miracle. I cannot earn the love of my beloved by my achievements. She either loves me or she does not. Yet love also brings the most intense obligations—hence the profound sense of betrayal when solemn promises are broken and trust is violated. “Love does away with ‘merit’ by the very intensity to which it attains,” explains Fransen (p. 205). The employment of merit and reward to speak of growth in grace and final justification began early in the Tradition and needs to be respected; but it is easily misunderstood. At no point does merit become a basis for boasting before the Lord and others: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty” (Lk 17:10). Perhaps this is why sermons about meriting salvation have largely disappeared from Catholic preaching. Hans Urs von Balthasar has proposed the replacement of merit by the biblical term fruitfulness:

The gospel may promise a “reward in heaven” to a faith that is rightly lived out, but faith itself is very far from calculating any “merit” that may bring about such a reward. The word “merit,” insofar as it concerns some value conferring a right to something, is theologically an unhappy term that would be better dropped. (In tradition it very often has a quite different sense, namely, “being found worthy” by God: tu quae meruisi portare …) We need have no qualms about dropping the word, for there is a biblical word ready to replace it: fruitfulness. God responds to Abraham’s faith in this way: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you” (Gen 17:6). The Lord is always using the word in his parables. In John it is the grain of wheat, which dies in the earth, that brings forth much fruit. The metaphor of the vine is even clearer. Apart from Jesus a man can do “nothing,” but if he abides in him he brings forth “much” fruit. If he fails to do this, he is removed; if he succeeds, he is “cleansed,” cut back in order to produce “even more fruit.” (In the Fullness of Faith, pp. 74-75)

Fruitfulness expresses the important truth that the Holy Spirit transforms sinners into saints, into persons capable of selflessly loving God and neighbor. To live in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to live a new life of self-giving and fruitfulness. Grace either incarnates itself in faith, worship, and godly living; or it is never received. Once again, no one can earn this new life nor achieve it by his own efforts. Only the Creator can communicate his supernatural energies to sinners and make them new creations; only the Creator can infuse the theological virtues of love, faith, and hope into sinners and conform them to Christ. But though the sinner cannot accomplish the life of grace apart from grace, within this life he is given the freedom to cooperate with grace and to grow in the life of the Spirit, with all of its risks and challenges. God wants lovers, partners, and co-workers, not automatons.

I remain unpersuaded, however, that fruitfulness expresses everything intended by the notion of merit. Absent from its semantic range of meaning is covenantal fidelity. Merit is only possible because God is faithful to his promises. Our Lord and Savior has irrevocably committed himself to his Church and summons his followers to claim his promises and rely upon them. These promises undergird the daily and life-long drama that is Christian life. Precisely because final salvation is not monergistically given, these divine assurances are practically necessary. The believer needs to know that God will provide him the power to love, hope, believe, and obey and will reward his efforts with even more grace and power. He needs to know that his daily pursuit of holiness unto eternal salvation will not come to nought. God thus invites believers to trust his word and to live their lives in confident hope. In the oft-quoted words of St Augustine: “God’s goodness toward men is such that he wants his gifts to be their merits.”

Lutherans and Reformed are typically horrified by the Catholic assertion of salvific synergism. Often they will describe the Catholic understanding as Semi-Pelagian. But the charge is false. The formal teaching of the Catholic Church on justification is directly continuous with the teaching of St Augustine and the Second Synod of Orange. I well understand the desire to remove from the sinner the possibility of throwing away, through mortal sin, the precious gift of eternal life given to him in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. I, too, wish to be relieved of moral responsibility for my eternal destiny. I, too, wish God would assure me that I will never refuse his love and will persevere to the end in repentant faith. I, too, wish to know with indubitable certainty that I will gain heaven. But the gospel does not guarantee me my final salvation apart from my repentance, cooperation, and faithfulness. It only guarantees me the absolute love and mercy of the hound of heaven who will chase me relentlessly unto glory. The gospel promises me that God has given me and will give me sufficient and abundant grace to appropriate the freely-offered gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. But he will not take away my freedom. He loves me too much to do so.

12 November 2006

Bad Reason #3

The Catholic Church does not teach that sinners are saved by faith alone.

This statement is absolutely true. The Catholic Church does not teach faith alone. She does not teach faith alone because she judges it to be unbiblical, unpatristic, and uncatholic. She does not teach it because she judges it to be, at best, a one-sided and misleading statement of the truth and, at worst, a heretical distortion of the truth.

Of course, having said this, I do not deny that it’s possible to construe the sola fide in ways acceptable to Catholic doctrine. Hans Küng devoted a chapter of his book Justification to faith alone. “‘Sola fide’ makes good sense,” he writes, “when it is used to express … the total incapacity of man for any kind of self-justification. In justification the sinner can give nothing which he does not receive by God’s grace. He stands there with his hands entirely empty. … Thus man is justified through God’s grace alone; man achieves nothing; there is no human activity. Rather man simply submits to the justification of God; he does not do works; he believes: ‘In this that he believes in God who justifies, he submits to his justification and thus receives its effect’ (Thomas Aquinas In Rom. 4.5)” (pp. 250-251). But lest this be misunderstood, it must also be remembered that according to Catholic teaching, justification is sacramentally mediated, specifically in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Penance. The sinner comes to these two sacraments not proclaiming his works and worthiness but his need for forgiveness and transforming grace. Only then does the Church baptize and absolve. As John Henry Newman declaimed: “None are justified but those who are grafted into the justified body; and faith is not an instrument of grafting, but a title to be grafted. It is baptism, ‘whereby, as an instrument, they that receive it rightly,’ that is, by faith, ‘are grafted into the Church.'”

When Catholic bishops and theologians heard the Reformers proclaiming “faith alone,” they heard them proclaiming an antinomian gospel: one can be justified by intellectual assent to the truths of revelation, apart from moral conversion and spiritual renewal. Hence the condemnation of the Council of Trent: “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema” (Canon IX). Even the devils believe and tremble. Are they justified? Of course not. Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans rightly protest that this is not what they mean by faith alone. John Calvin writes, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” Yet Catholic unease with the Reformation sola fide continues. How indeed can it not continue, given the emphatic statement of the Apostle James: “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24; my emphasis).

Much ink has been spilt by Protestants and Catholics in the interpretation of the Epistle of James. The plain meaning of the text itself, however, seems clear: our moral actions contribute to our justification before God. “Can words be plainer,” wonders Newman, “were it not that they are forced into connection with a theory of the sixteenth century.” What is perhaps not clear, or at least has not been clear to Protestants for the past four hundred years, is how to harmonize the teaching of St James with the teaching of the Apostle Paul that we are “not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16). Some proposed solutions are ingenious to the point of incredulity. The Church Fathers, though, do not appear to have found the reconciliation of James and Paul to be a difficulty. Their solution is simple and elegant: before baptism sinners are incapable of living lives truly pleasing to God; after baptism they are so capable, because they have been justified in Christ, regenerated in the Holy Spirit and given a new freedom to cooperate with grace and accomplish good works unto salvation. St Augustine may be taken as representative. In his essay The Spirit and the Letter, Augustine comments on Paul’s saying that “the doers of the law shall be justified” (Rom 2:13):

The words “the doers of the law shall be justified” cannot mean that they are justified by works and not by grace: that would be to contradict his own statement that a man is justified freely by faith apart from the works of the law—where the word “freely” means simply that works do not come before justification. This he makes plain in another place: “if by grace, then not of works: else grace would be no longer grace.” That “the doers of the law shall be justified” must be taken in the sense that they can be doers of the law if, and only if, they be justified: so that justification does not follow but precede the doing. The word “justified” is equivalent to “made righteous”—made righteous by him who justifies the ungodly, so that he who was ungodly becomes righteous. The statement “men shall be made free” could only be understood to mean that freedom comes to persons who are already men. But the statement “men shall be created” could not possibly denote the creation of already existing men: it means the bringing of men into being as such by the act of creation. Similarly, if we were told that “the doers of the law shall be honoured,” we should properly understand the honour is to be given to those who are already doers of the law. But to say that “the doers of the law shall be justified” is equivalent to saying that “the just shall be justified”; for doers of the law are ipso facto just. We must take it therefore in the same way as we should understand “the doers of the law shall be created”: not because they were, but in order that they may be. So it should be made clear even to the Jewish hearers of the law that they need the grace of the justifier in order that they may become doers. (38)

To understand Augustine on justification, we must first understand that he, and with him the entire patristic tradition, did not teach justification by imputation. According to the doctor of grace, to be justified by God is to be made righteous; it is to be reborn in the Holy Spirit and made into a person capable of fulfilling the law of love. Augustine’s view is typically discounted by Protestants as a misreading of St Paul based on the Latin mistranslation of dikaioun as “make righteous” (iustificare); but in fact the Greek Fathers often read dikaioun as a making righteous (see, e.g., John Chrysostom’s homilies on Romans), and it was this reading that guided the Latin translators. St Jerome did not pull iustificare out of his hat. As New Testament scholar Joseph Fitzmyer writes:

Yet the issue is whether or not one can leave dikaioun solely with the declarative denotation. Is God’s word, spoken in a verdict of acquittal, efficacious or not, i.e., does it terminate or not in a real change in the human beings so addressed? Or, to put it in terms of Kasemann’s thinking, is the “power” (Macht) of the righteous God effective in his declaration? If we admitted above that the piel and hiphil of Hebrew sdq were delocutive, we also have to realize that the Greek contract verb diakioun used in the LXX belongs to a class that is normally factitive in meaning (e.g., deloun, “make clear”; douloun, “enslave”). Since patristic times diakioun has been understood by Greek interpreters of Paul to mean “make righteous.” Indeed, this even seems to be suggested by Rom 5:19 itself. Here one may recall the OT notion of God’s word as effective (Isa 55:10-11). Yet it is not merely that God’s creative power “makes” the sinner anew (that would be to confuse the images again!), but rather that God’s declarative justifying power even makes the sinner righteous. (Righteousness in the New Testament, p. 208)

The Protestant reformulation of justification as forensic declaration, with the accompanying sola fide, represents a significant departure from the Church’s understanding of justification. It elevates the forensic metaphor to a determinative position, thereby distorting our reading of the New Testament, and introduces a bifurcation in baptismal humanity. Justification is reduced to a change in the legal status of the sinner without a necessary change in his ontological reality. The baptized become simul iustus, simul peccator.

There are, of course, ways to articulate the Reformation simul that are acceptable to Catholic theology (see, e.g., Balthasar). It is also important to remember that the Lutheran construal of the simul is not identical to Reformed and Anglican construals. But as popularly presented, the simul iustus, simul peccator must be judged as grievously flawed. Ultimately it leaves us with the image of a pile of shite covered with snow. We are accepted just as we are in all of our wickedness, as we await our eschatological transformation. Precisely because justification is by imputation, from baptism to death, we are revealed to be ungodly, from baptism to death. There is no movement in this life from sin to sanctity. Imputation creates the personal possession by faith of two mutually exclusive states of being: we are simultaneously totally righteous, totally unrighteous. Gerhard Forde puts the matter thusly:

Since God has to impute righteousness we must be sinners. It would make no sense for him to impute righteousness if we were already wholly or partially righteous or even had some hope of becoming so according to our legal schemes. … The iustia exists simultaneously with the peccatum. The unconditional act of justification exposes; by declaring us to be just, it reveals us as sinners. In the light of the totality of justification, sin is confessed simultaneously as a total state. The justifying deed therefore does not remove sin in the sense one might accord a moral or legal scheme; it exposes it. As if the more light you get, the more dirt you see! And the miracle is that God nevertheless does business with sinners—in just that way. (Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life, pp. 30, 43).

There can be no growth in holiness, therefore, for there is no escaping in this life the totality of our sinfulness. Sanctification is simply believing the divine imputation. Here is the evangelical cutting edge of the sola fide. What must we do to be saved? Absolutely nothing, Forde replies! We are saved by faith alone, by believing the imputational promise spoken to us. There can be no more righteousness than that which is given to us, has been given to us, in the gospel. No more can be done; no more can be given. All we can do, need do, is believe. Just shut up and listen! So construed, faith alone excludes all increase in sanctity and righteousness. “The ‘progress’ of the Christian therefore,” explains Forde, “is the progress of one who has constantly to get used to the fact that we are justified totally by faith” (p. 51). Sanctification is the life-long internalization of the truth that we do not have to do anything, for Christ has done all and will do all. Sanctification is a daily self-forgetting—allowing oneself to be grasped by the promise of unconditional grace. For the justified, the only question that remains is “What am going to do now that I do not have to do anything?” But who before Luther ever understood life in grace in this way? By a single phrase, sola fide, the Reformation overthrows the ascetical tradition of the Church and mocks the lives of her saints.

To understand Augustine on justification, we must, secondly, understand that he, and with him the entire patristic tradition, teaches that justification is a process of becoming righteous. This may sound strange to those accustomed to the strict Reformation distinguishment between justification and sanctification; but the Church Fathers made no such distinction, at least not consistently, and would have denied the presence of such a strict and decisive distinction in the New Testament (see Phillip Cary, “The Righteousness of St Augustine“). Life in Christ is a journey toward God within the life of God, a journey made possible by grace, supported and undergirded by grace, directed to grace. To grow in holiness is to grow in our justification and become more acceptable and pleasing to our Creator.

Justification may therefore be described as both event and process. It is event, for in Holy Baptism God absolves the sinner of all his sins and regenerates him in the Holy Spirit. It is process, for in Holy Baptism God establishes a friendship with the believer, a friendship that can be strengthened and deepened as the believer conforms himself to Christ through prayer, sacrifice, and good works, but which can also be injured or lost through grievous sin and impiety. Within this baptismal relationship of love, Augustine, unlike the Eastern Fathers, is also willing to speak of the meritorious quality of good works and their proper reward in eternal life. “For the works of the law,” writes Augustine, “are meritorious not before but after justification” (On Faith and Works 21). Alister McGrath summarizes:

Once justified by divine action, the sinner does not at once become a perfect example of holiness. Humans need to pray to God continually for their growth in holiness and the spiritual life, thereby acknowledging that God is the author of both. God operates upon humans in the act of justification, and co-operates with them in the process of justification. Once justified, the sinner may begin to acquire merit—but only on account of God’s grace. Merit is seen to be a divine rather than a human work. Thus it is clearly wrong to suggest that Augustine excludes or denies merit; while merit before justification is indeed denied, its reality and necessity after justification are equally strongly affirmed. It must be noted, however, that Augustine understands merit as a gift from God to the justified sinner … Hominis bona merita, Dei munera. Eternal life is indeed the reward for merit—but merit is itself a gift from God, so that the whole process must be seen as having its origin in the divine liberality, rather than in human works. If God is under any obligation to humans on account of their merit, it is an obligation which God has imposed upon himself, rather than one which is imposed from outside, or is inherent in the nature of things. … There is no hint in Augustine of any notion of justification purely in terms of ‘reputing as righteous’ or ‘treating as righteous’, as if this state of affairs could come into being without the moral or spiritual transformation of humanity of grace. The pervasive trajectory of Augustine’s thought is unambiguous: justification is a causative process, by which an ungodly person is made righteous. It is about the transformation of the impius to iustus.

Augustine has an all-embracing transformative understanding of justification, which includes both the event of justification (brought about by operative grace) and the process of justification (brought about by operative grace). Augustine himself does not, in fact, see any need to distinguish between these two aspects of justification; the distinction dates from the sixteenth century. … The righteousness which God bestows upon humanity in justification is regarded by Augustine as inherent rather than imputed, to anticipate the vocabulary of the sixteenth century. A concept of ‘imputed righteousness’, in the later Protestant sense of the term, is quite redundant within Augustine’s doctrine of justification, in that humans are made righteous in justification. The righteousness which they thus receive, although originating from God, is nevertheless located within humans, and can be said to be theirs, part of their being and intrinsic to their persons. An element which underlies this understanding of the nature of justifying righteousness is the Greek concept of deification, which makes its appearance in the later Augustinian soteriology. By charity, the Trinity itself comes to inhabit the soul of the justified sinner. (Iustitia Dei, pp. 43-44, 47-48)

Within a transformative construction of justification, faith alone can only have a limited role—specifically, it can only properly refer to that faith that brings the sinner to the sacramental waters of regeneration. In fact, St Augustine even wrote a tract to refute a fifth century version of the sola fideOn Faith and Works. It is true, says Augustine, that neither ceremonial nor moral works justify the unbaptized. They do not justify because they are not performed in true love of God and neighbor, which is only possible to those who have been born again by water and Holy Spirit. Not even faith, which Augustine understands as assent to revealed truth, can justify: St Paul “does not say that any faith in God is good, but he says clearly that that faith is good and in conformity with the teaching of the gospel which results in works of love; and faith, he says, that worketh by charity. As for that faith which some think is sufficient for salvation, he says that it profits nothing: If I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. On the other hand, where faith is joined to charity, there without doubt you will find a good life, for charity is the fulfillment of the law. … For faith that saves is not the faith which the devils have and which is correctly called a dead faith, but the faith which works by charity” (21, 30).

For St Augustine, therefore, it is love that most truly justifies, for love is the Holy Spirit who indwells the hearts of the faithful. Love is the life of God. To be saved is to share in the divine life of the Holy Trinity; to be saved is to love and to freely perform the works of love. Because grievous sin kills the divine life within us, we may not offer assurance of eternal life to those who are living in sin, even if they profess the Christian faith:

Let us take care, therefore, with the help of the Lord God, not to make men falsely secure by saying to them that, as long as they are baptized in Christ and have the faith, they will be saved, no matter what kind of life they lead. Let us not make Christians the way the Jews make proselytes, concerning whom the Lord says: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, who compass sea and land to make one proselyte, but after you have made him, you make him the child of hell twofold more than yourselves. Let us rather hold fast to the true doctrine of God, our Master, holding fast to both these truths, namely, that a Christian’s life should harmonize with the sacred character of the sacrament of baptism, and that eternal life should not be promised to anyone who is either not baptized or not leading a good life. For it is Christ who said: Unless a man be born again of the Holy Spirit, he will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. And it is Christ who also said: Unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. And concerning these same scribes and Pharisees He says: The scribes and Pharisees sits on the chair of Moses; what things they say, do; but what they do, do not. Their righteousness, therefore, consists in “saying and not doing.” It is evident from this reproach that our Lord wills that our righteousness abound more than the “saying and doing” of the scribes and Pharisees; if it does not, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (48)

There is no doubt that St Augustine here represents the consensual tradition of the Church. Is it any wonder that the Catholic Church has refused to confess justification by faith alone?

23 November 2006


Last month, Gerald Hiestand published a three-part series in response to my November article on Catholicism and the sola fide, “Bad Reason #3 Not to Become Catholic.” With the holidays now concluded I have finally had time to read through his pieces. I wish to thank him for the time and thought he invested in this series, as well as for the irenic spirit in which they were written. Not being terribly irenic myself, I am always grateful when I run into it in others. I am a relative newcomer to St Augustine, and welcome the opportunity to learn more about him. I would like to offer a response to part 3 of Gerald’s series.

I want to first note an unfortunate conflation of faith and grace in Gerald’s argument. In the first paragraph he writes, “And though I am largely comfortable with Al’s portrayal of Augustine, I am less comfortable with Al’s use of Augustine as ‘representative of the Church’s consensual opinion’ that ‘justification is by faith plus works.’” He then immediately goes on to say, “I had originally intended to make my case by quoting a number of passages from Augustine demonstrating his insistence that justification is by grace apart from works.” Note how he has substituted grace for faith. After two quotations from Augustine, Gerald then writes, “At no point in any of Augustine’s writing have I ever read him to state that salvation/justification is by grace plus works. He simply does not use this language.” I of course absolutely agree that Augustine does not teach grace plus works. I never stated that he did. Perhaps Gerald has simply mistyped, yet this confusion of grace and faith seems to work its way throughout his piece, particularly in his own construal of the Catholic understanding of justification. Let me emphatically state: the Catholic Church does not teach salvation by grace and works. She teaches salvation by grace alone.

At the conclusion of the second paragraph, Gerald catches himself and returns to “faith”: “I sincerely welcome any of my readers to show me a passage where Augustine—without qualification—explicitly teaches that justification is by faith plus works.” Now I have not studied Augustine nearly as extensively and well as Gerald, but I am acquainted with one tract where Augustine in fact addresses this question in response to the antinomianism of his day: On Faith and Works. While Augustine does not say, without qualification, that we are justified by faith plus works, he does assert both the inadequacy of faith alone and the salvific necessity of works:

Let us now consider the question of faith. In the first place, we feel that we should advise the faithful that they would endanger the salvation of their souls if they acted on the false assurance that faith alone is sufficient for salvation or that they need not perform good works in order to be saved. This, in fact, is what some had thought even in the time of the apostles. For at that time there were some who did not understand certain rather obscure passages of St. Paul, and who thought therefore that he had said: Let us do evil that there may come good. They thought that this was what St. Paul meant when he said: The law entered in that sin might abound. But what St. Paul means here is this: when man received the law, he presumed too much on his own strength. He was too proud to ask God’s help, as he should have done, that he might overcome his evil desires. The result was that his sins were now more and greater because of the law which he did not observe. When he realized his guilt, he turned to the faith for pardon and for help from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Thus it was necessary that the Holy Spirit fill his heart with love, in order that he might overcome his evil desires and perform out of love for God whatever God commanded him. This is what St. Paul means, and this too is what the Psalmist means when he says: Their infirmities were multiplied; afterwards they made haste.

When St. Paul says, therefore, that man is justified by faith and not by the observance of the law, he does not mean that good works are not necessary or that it is enough to receive and to profess the faith and no more. What he means rather and what he wants us to understand is that man can be justified by faith, even though he has not previously performed any works of the law. For the works of the law are meritorious not before but after justification. …

As we said above, this opinion originated in the time of the apostles, and that is why we find some of them, for example, Peter, John, James, and Jude, writing against it in their epistles and asserting very strongly that faith is no good without works. And as regards Paul himself, he does not say that any faith in God is good, but he says clearly that that faith is good and in conformity with the teaching of the gospel which results in works of love: and faith, he says, that worketh by charity. As for that faith which some think is sufficient for salvation, he says that it profits nothing: If I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. On the other hand, where faith is joined to charity, there without doubt you will find a good life, for charity is the fulfilment of the law. (21)

St. Paul has the same mind on the question of eternal salvation as have all the other apostles, namely, that eternal salvation will not be given except to those who lead a good life. (22)

St. James, moreover, is so opposed to those who think that faith can save without good works that he compares them to devils. You believe, he says, that there is one God? You do well; the devils also believe and tremble. Could he have said anything more concise, more true, more forceful, since, as we read in the Gospel, this is what the devils professed when they acknowledged that Christ is the Son of God? But Christ rebuked the devils, while, on the contrary, he praised St. Peter for making the same profession. St. James says also: What shall we profit, my brethren, if a man say he has faith, but has not works? Shall faith be able to save him? And in other place he says that faith without works is dead. See, then, what a great mistake they make who think that they can be saved by a faith that is dead! (23)

Throughout the tract, St Augustine maintains a distinction between faith qua faith, which does not save, and faith that works by charity, which does save. I do not recall if Augustine offers a precise definition of faith in On Faith and Works; but it’s clear that he understands faith as something that the baptized can have even while continuing in grievous sin. This faith is dead, because it is not united to love and therefore does not manifest itself in obedience and good works. “Faith can exist without love, on the basis of Augustine’s strongly intellectualist concept of faith,” writes Alister McGrath, “but is of no value in the sight of God. God’s other gifts, such as faith and hope, cannot bring us to God unless they are accompanied or preceded by love. The motif of amor Dei dominates Augustine’s theology of justification, just as that of sola fide would dominate that of one of his later interpreters. Faith without love is of no value” (Iustia Dei, p. 45). What then is faith? According to McGrath, faith for Augustine is assent to revealed truth (p. 46). What saves for Augustine is not faith but the love that has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In love we are united to the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—this is our salvation.

Works are essentially connected to salvation, i.e., meritorious, because love for God and neighbor necessarily expresses itself in obedience and good works. Augustine writes, “For a good life is inseparable from faith, from that faith that works by charity; in fact, they are one and the same” (42). It is not sufficient to confess Christ, says Augustine, citing 1 John 2:3-4; we must obey his commandments. A faith devoid of good works is no better than the faith of demons (40). For this reason, persistence in grievous sin cuts one off from the life of God and eternal salvation:

Let us take care, therefore, with the help of the Lord God, not to make men falsely secure by saying to them that, as long as they are baptized in Christ and have the faith, they will be saved, no matter what kind of life they lead. … Let us rather hold fast to the true doctrine of God, our Master, holding fast to both these truths, namely, that a Christian’s life should harmonize with the sacred character of the sacrament of baptism, and that eternal life should not be promised to anyone who is either not baptized or not leading a good life. For it is Christ who said: Unless a man born again of the Holy Spirit, he will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. and it is Christ who also said: Unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.. And concerning these same scribes and Pharisees He says: The scribes and Pharisees sit on the chair of Moses; what things they say, do; but what they do, do not. Their righteousness, therefore, consists in “saying and not doing.” It is evident from this reproach that our Lord wills that our righteousness abound more than the “saying and doing” of the scribes and Pharisees; if it does not, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (48)

I am therefore perplexed why Gerald is curious that I have no hesitancy “using Augustine as representative of the Catholic position that ‘justification is by faith plus works.'” Clearly for Augustine, saving faith is faith plus; the only question is plus what. “Faith plus works” is certainly not the most accurate description of either Augustine’s views on justification or the formal teaching of the Catholic Church, but I have never stated that it was. This phrase is Gerald’s, not mine. For both Augustine and the Catholic Church, we are saved by faith informed by love that expresses itself in deeds. This love is not a love that we can create of ourselves from ourselves. It flows from our baptismal union with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who is love. It is this joining of faith and love that distinguishes the Catholic understanding of justification from the Reformation understandings and which firmly and clearly parks Augustine in the Catholic camp.

In the debates preceding the final composition of the Decree on Justification, the council fathers quoted St Augustine more than any other theologian. (Aquinas was second.) Augustine’s voice rings throughout the decree. It is not surprising that at the crucial moment when Trent defined the formal cause of justification, it chose the phraseology of Augustine: “the justice of God, not that by which He Himself is just, but that by which He makes us just” (chap. 7). I am not suggesting that Tridentine soteriology is identical to that of Augustine’s—notably absent, for example, is Augustine’s thesis of absolute predestination—but I do assert that its essential structure is Augustinian. Prevenient grace; faith as divine gift; the union of pardon, adoption, and spiritual renewal within the one divine act of justification; baptismal regeneration; the distinction between initial justification and final salvation; cooperative grace; the necessity of perseverance and the possibility of losing one’s justification through mortal sin; meritorious works through grace—these are all Augustinian notes adopted by the Council of Trent.

Midway through his article Gerald finally concedes that “Augustine’s position on justification is substantively representative of Tridentine soteriology,” but he then suggests that the Reformation construals of justification are semantically closer to Augustine than are Catholic construals. I’m not sure what this means or why Gerald thinks this is relevant. Surely what is important is what Catholics and Protestants mean by the words they use. It may well be true that Catholic/Protestant disagreements in the past have been, at least partially, due to terminological misunderstanding and confusion—one example of such terminological confusion are the different meanings assigned by both Protestant and Catholic theologians to the word faith—but as the American Lutheran/Catholic ecumenical dialogue acknowledged in its 1985 report, Justification by Faith, the heart of the dispute lies in a clash between models of salvation: the Catholic Church maintained and refined the transformationist model inherited from Augustine; the Reformers advanced a new, indeed novel, model of simultaneity (simul iustus et peccator), with its assertion of imputational righteousness and a real distinction between justification and sanctification. (With the publication of the new research by Finnish Luther scholars, though, typecasting Martin Luther has become increasingly difficult.) Calvin in particular noted the difference between the two models:

Augustine’s view, or at any rate his manner of stating it, we must not entirely accept. For even though he admirably deprives man of all credit for righteousness and transfers it to God’s grace, he still subsumes grace under sanctification, by which we are reborn in newness of life through the Spirit. But Scripture, when it speaks of faith righteousness [i.e. justification] leads us to something far different: namely, to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection. (Inst. 3:11.15f; quoted by Phillip Cary in “The ‘Righteousness’ of St Augustine“)

But I by no means wish to diminish the ecumenical convergence of the past two decades on the doctrine of justification. I simply wish to assert that when Catholicism refuses to affirm the Reformation “faith alone,” it is only being faithful to the Doctor of Grace, St Augustine of Hippo.

10 January 2007


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers

%d bloggers like this: