Phillip Cary

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.


Augustine on Justification

To ask about Augustine’s view of justification is already something of an anachronism. To begin with, Augustine does not make a distinction between justification and sanctification. Of course he speaks a great deal about righteousness (i.e. justitia) and holiness (i.e. sanctitas) but these terms are not related to each other the way the later Protestant tradition relates justification and sanctification. That distinction comes much later. Indeed, it’s only beginning to emerge in Calvin himself (e.g. Inst. 3:14.9). What later Calvinists call sanctification, Calvin himself will often call regeneration or repentance (ibid. 3:3 passim), which can get rather confusing.

Still less does Augustine distinguish between an event of justification and a process of sanctification. In fact for Augustine justification, so far as he discusses it at all, is not a particular event but the activity of God throughout our lives. When he uses the verb justificare, Augustine is thinking of God’s role in bringing us along in our lifelong journey to Him (cf. the article on “Justice” in the encyclopedia Augustine through the Ages). This image of a journey, pilgrimage or road to God is central to his theology, and any account of justification that is true to Augustine’s thought will really just be an account of that journey, in which we grow closer to God by growing in charity, which is the righteousness (justitia) that consists in obeying the twofold law of love.

The linking of justification with a one-time event of conversion is a much later development, though it is often read back into the famous “conversion” narrative in Confessions 8. This in fact is not a conversion in the Protestant sense, because Augustine is clear that he already had a personal faith in Christ as savior at that point (Conf. 7:5.7, end, and 7:7.11, beginning). The outcome of this narrative is not faith in Christ, which he already had, but the decision to get baptised, which he had been resisting for many years. And Augustine is abundantly clear that his sins are forgiven and he is born again, not because of the change of heart he narrates in book 8 but because of his baptism, which he narrates in book 9.

Augustine does have a kind of ordo salutis (e.g. in On the Spirit and the Letter, 30.52) but neither justification nor sanctification are terms that play a role in it. Typically, he’s trying to figure out how grace is related not to justification and sanctification but to faith and love. He always assumes that faith comes first in the process of salvation, and then love of God and neighbor is a gift of grace given in response to the prayer of faith (a process actually illustrated quite nicely in Confessions 8 ).

Augustine does, however, lay the groundwork for later notions of conversion toward the end of his life, when he explicitly teaches that the very beginning of faith is a gift of grace (e.g. in On the Predestination of the Saints 3ff), so that grace is wholly prevenient, coming even before our prayer for grace, because the faith with which we pray is itself a gift of grace. That makes it possible for late-medieval theologians to fuss over when exactly “first grace” is given (the question that tormented young Luther, until he realized he should believe in the Gospel promises contained in baptism and sacramental absolution) which leads in turn to Calvinist preoccupation with conversion, which rapidly becomes identified with justification as a one-time event—a notion almost wholly alien to the Bible and the previous Christian tradition.

In this connection, it’s worth considering Calvin’s rejection of the Catholic side of Augustine in Inst. 3:11.15f: “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.” If I understand him right, Calvin’s saying that Augustine does not actually have a doctrine of justification, properly speaking, but only a doctrine of sanctification. And my gloss on this is, that Calvin is imposing categories on Augustine that are alien to him and the whole prior tradition. But if you’re going to use these terms the way Calvinists use them, then that’s the correct thing to say about Augustine: he knows nothing of the Calvinist doctrine of justification, but only of sanctification.

As for Augustine’s doctrine of operative grace, this is simply God beginning the process of justification (or, to use more genuinely Augustinian terms, getting us on the road by which we journey to him), a beginning which takes place prior to our active co-operation and thus becomes the starting point of all our faith, love and good works, like the first time we set foot on the right road. From our perspective, this gift of operative grace is called the “beginning of faith” (initium fidei)—the key term in On the Predestination of the Saints, from whence it ends up becoming a technical term in medieval theology, and then much later is identified with conversion and justification by Protestants—leading to much misreading of Augustine, as both sides of the Reformation debates try to recruit him for their cause.

Since for Augustine justification is not an event but a process, how does the idea that justification is an event arise in the tradition? I think it stems from a key development that takes place between Augustine’s time and Luther’s, which is often overlooked. Some time in the middle ages the term “justification” came to be used to describe the outcome of penance—especially sacramental penance (cf. e.g. Aquinas, Summa Theologica III 85.6 ad 3 and I-II 113.1). This means justification is an event that recurs many times in life, beginning with baptism and repeated every time we truly repent of our sins and are forgiven—in contrast to the classic Protestant doctrine of a single event of justification that is closely connected with, if not identical to, a once-in-a-lifetime conversion.

Luther is with Aquinas on this score. For him justification is the repeated event in which the righteousness of God “is given to men in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant” (from his famous sermon “On Two Kinds of Righteousness,” LW 31:297). This is one of many ways that Luther is, I argue, not quite Protestant (cf. Pro Ecclesia, Fall 2005). For both Luther and Aquinas, the first time one is justified is in baptism (which is itself a form of repentance) and then all subsequent events of justification are also results of repentance—which for Luther consists of nothing other than a “return to baptism.”

So when someone asks whether justification is an event or a process, the first thing to notice is what the question implicitly leaves out. Typically the hidden assumption is that “event” means a once-in-a-lifetime conversion, not repeated events of repentance and forgiveness. Indeed, typically the default position is assumed to be that justification is a one-time event, and the person asking the question wants to know whether justification might also involve a process stretching beyond the one-time event. So the first thing to say to such a question is that it takes for granted the novel Protestant view that justification is a one-time event, which is not even shared by Luther, much less by Aquinas or Augustine or any previous Christian theologian.

Having clarified that point, you can say: yes, justification is an event, but one that happens many times in life, just like Aquinas and Luther teach. But it’s best to leave Augustine out of this discussion. If you asked him whether justification was a process or an event, he’d be utterly baffled, since he shares none of the key assumptions lurking behind the question. If you wanted to give him a sense of what the 16th-century questions mean, you’d need to take a different approach. You could ask, for instance: when you pray for grace or forgiveness of sins, how do you know God will give it to you? Do you know? These are not the kind of questions Augustine actually asked, but they make good sense in an Augustinian context, and it was such questions that drove Luther to the doctrine of justification and the promises of the Gospel, which he first found in sacramental absolution.

14 July 2006


Augustine and the Varieties of Monergism

Synergism is just a Greek way of saying “co-operation,” which in turn is just a Latin way of saying “working together.” Paul uses the corresponding Greek verb when he describes himself and his colleagues as “co-working” (2 Cor. 6:1) with God as ambassadors for Christ, through whom God urges people to be reconciled to himself (ibid., 5:20). Monergism, a much more recent term, means to work alone, having no co-worker. So monergists are those who think that in some respect God works alone.

The crucial question is: in what respect? The standard Protestant view is monergism with respect to justification: God alone renders us just or righteous in his sight, without our co-operation. But most Protestants would add that sanctification is a co-operative enterprise in which our will and work have a necessary role to play, working together with the grace of God. So most Protestants are monergists about justification but synergists about sanctification. And since justification by faith alone is all that is necessary for salvation, most Protestants are also monergists about salvation.

Of course in order to be thoroughly monergist about justification one must also be monergist about the faith by which we are justified, understanding it to be a divine gift resulting from grace alone and not from human work. Luther, in effect, insisted on this type of monergism when he excoriated the medieval nominalist notion of “congruent merit,” according to which sinners work to acquire the gift of “first grace” (meaning roughly, the gift of conversion and true faith) by praying as well as they can, trying their best to “do what is in them” (facere quod in se est) even without grace. The term “synergism” seems to have come into use for the position rejected by the Lutheran orthodox theologians when they reaffirmed Luther’s doctrine in the Book of Concord in 1580 (see especially article 2). Later, Calvinists used it to describe the Arminian position that our free will has an independent role to play in accepting the gift of grace. Synergism, for both Lutherans and Calvinists, means the teaching that grace does not simply cause us to have faith, but rather makes an offer of salvation which it is up to us to accept or reject. Both Lutherans and Calvinists reject this synergism, and thus can aptly be labeled monergists with respect to the gift of faith.

The question of whether Augustine is a monergist or a synergist is more complicated. For one thing, even at his most monergistic, Augustine does not deny that we are active in our own salvation. Augustine is a monergist with respect to the origin of faith, for instance, in that he sees it as resulting from prevenient or “operating grace” rather than “co-operating grace” (his terms). But for Augustine this does not take away the role of human free will, for what prevenient grace does is precisely to move our wills so that they freely will the good. Hence for Augustine grace never undermines or replaces free will. In that sense he is never a radical monergist, as if the human will had no active role to play. On the other hand, he is indeed a monergist in a less radical sense, because for him the gift of faith is wholly the work of God, since even our freely willing to accept God’s gift is a work of grace alone.

So in that sense, Augustine is clearly a monergist with respect to the gift of faith, unlike the Arminians. Ultimately it is up to God, not us, whether we freely choose to accept what God has to give us. However—and here is the real complication—this does not make Augustine a monergist with respect to salvation. The reason why is that Augustine does not have a Calvinist concept of saving faith. For he does not share Calvin’s distinctive new doctrine about the perseverance of the saints, according to which everyone with true (i.e., saving) faith is sure to persevere to the end and be eternally saved. For Augustine, you can have a perfectly genuine faith but not persevere in faith to the end of your life. There is no guarantee that believers will not lose their faith and thus ultimately be damned. Hence no matter how true your faith presently is, that does not mean you are sure to be saved in the end. Consequently, Augustine’s monergism about faith does not make him a monergist about salvation.

About salvation Augustine is a synergist, explicitly drawing a contrast between “operating grace” (i.e., the grace that works in us), which is monergistic in its granting the gift of faith, and co-operating grace (i.e., the grace that works with us), with which we are co-workers in the journey of faith, hope and love by which we come to eternal life in the end. In Calvinist terms, Augustine is a synergist about sanctification like most Protestants, but because he thinks sanctification is necessary for salvation unlike most Protestants, he ends up being also a synergist about salvation—despite being a monergist about faith.

A good illustration of Augustine’s distinction between operative and co-operative grace is the late treatise On Grace and Free Will, 33. Addressing the issue of how a person comes to love God (in Calvinist terms, the issue of sanctification rather than justification) he asks, “Who was it that had begun to give him his love, however small, but He who prepares the will and perfects by his co-operation [synergism!] what He initiates by his operation [monergism]? For in beginning [i.e. in the initial choice to have faith, from which charity springs] He works in us that we may have the will, and in perfecting works with us when we have the will.” In Augustinian terms: prior to any co-operation of our will, operative grace produces faith (i.e., a good will) in us, then from faith springs charity, which works together with the (co-operating) grace of God in the journey to eternal life. In Calvinist terms, again, this amounts to monergism about faith, but synergism about salvation.

However, as I mentioned above, there is a radical sense of the term monergism in which Augustine is not a monergist at all. This is the sense in which “grace alone” excludes any exercise of human free will, even one which is wholly a gift of prevenient grace. One reason often given for this radical monergism is a yet more fundamental monergism—call it “absolute monergism”—in which the answer to the question “monergism with respect to what?” is: “absolutely everything.” This amounts to a denial of the existence of what the Christian tradition calls second causes. It means that only God, the First Cause, has real power, and that neither human free will nor anything else in creatures is a real cause of anything that happens.

This absolute monergism could thus also be called “mono-causalism.” It is contrary not only to Augustine and the whole Catholic tradition, but also to the Westminster Confession, which teaches that the eternal decree of God by which he does “ordain whatsoever comes to pass” works in such a way that “neither is God the author of sin … nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (3.1; cf. also 5.2). The point of this teaching, which is couched in the language of Thomas Aquinas and agrees with his doctrine, is that God’s working in all things does not mean that creatures have no power to work, but rather that the creatures’ power, will and work derive from the work of God, and precisely for that reason are real, just like all God’s works. God’s primary causality therefore does not undermine or replace the secondary causality of creatures, including their free will. God has ambassadors, apostles and other servants with a will of their own and work to do, even while he is always indispensably at work in them. The two forms of causality are not incompatible or in competition with one another.

Mainstream Calvinism is thus at one with Catholicism in rejecting absolute monergism. The place to locate the difference between Catholicism and Calvinism concerning monergism is rather in the fact that the whole Roman Catholic tradition since Augustine is synergist about salvation. For Catholicism our works of love (made possible by operative grace in the beginning and aided by co-operative grace throughout) are necessary for salvation. That’s precisely the purport of Trent’s denial of the sola fide: faith alone is not enough for salvation without works of love (Decree on Justification, articles 10-11).

However, there is a division within Catholicism on the point about monergism with respect to faith. Whereas one important strand of Catholic theology, including Aquinas and the Dominican tradition, promotes an Augustinian monergism about faith, another strand, most powerfully represented by the 16th-century Jesuit Luis de Molina, defends a form of synergism about faith. Molinism is thus something like the Catholic form of Arminianism. In the De Auxiliis controversy around 1600, the Pope adjudicated between these two positions, decreeing that both were legitimate and neither side could accuse the other of heresy. This was of course not a relativist move: the two positions are probably irreconcilable, and if so then at least one of them is in error in some way. But the pope’s decree meant that such error is not heresy and does no harm to the faith, so the debate may continue but must do so in mutually respectful terms.

There is of course no one on earth to adjudicate between Catholics and Protestants. But perhaps it will help to be aware, at least, of the difference between absolute monergism and the more modest monergism about faith, justification and salvation which is the legacy of Luther and Calvin.

31 October 2006


The Eucharistic Presence in Calvin

Is Christ’s body objectively present in the sacrament, according to Calvin? Unfortunately, that depends on what you mean by “objective,” which is a slippery and ambiguous word with no exact equivalent in the 16th-century discussion. (The word did not begin to acquire its current range of meanings until the writings of Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century). Still, we can always try defining our terms explicitly. And if we do that, we can identify one important sense of the phrase “objectively present,” in which Christ’s body is objectively present in the sacrament in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views but not in Calvin’s.

For suppose we define “objectively present” as meaning “present independent of anyone’s state of mind,” where “state of mind” includes things like belief. Then Christ’s body is not objectively present in the sacrament in Calvin’s view but is objectively present in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views. Let me illustrate.

I may believe there is no bread present in the house, but be mistaken: my wife has bought bread and put it in the breadbox where it is objectively present despite my belief to the contrary. Likewise, I can even have bread objectively present in my mouth without believing it: suppose for instance I inattentively pop a piece of bread in my mouth thinking it’s a bit of ricecake. The bread is present in my mouth even though I don’t believe it. In precisely this sense, according to both Lutheran and Roman Catholic views, Christ’s body is objectively present in the mouth of all who partake in the sacrament, whether they believe it or not.

This is a form of Eucharistic presence that Calvin explicitly and repeatedly denies, and he quite astutely identifies it as the key point on which he differs from the Lutherans. The point even has a technical name: manducatio indignorum, or the eating of the unworthy. In the Lutheran view, even unbelievers and anyone else who unworthily partake of the supper have not only bread but Christ’s body in their mouths, whether they believe it or not. Calvin insists, on the contrary, that we do not partake of Christ’s body without faith.

In what sense, then, can a Calvinist say that Christ’s body is objectively present in the sacrament? I would suggest that according to Calvin’s view Christ’s body can rightly be said to be “objectively presented” to us. This seems to me a good description of the intention of Calvin’s characteristic language of Christ’s body being truly offered, exhibited, presented and even given to us.

Since that last verb can be misleading, let me clarify: when Calvin says the body of Christ is given to unbelievers in the supper, he means it is offered but not received, like a gift given but refused. People who partake of the sacrament without faith of course do not refuse the bread—they take it right into their mouths—but they do refuse Christ and his body. And their refusal is effective. Again, the Lutherans affirm the contrary: precisely in putting the bread in their mouths, all who partake of the sacrament put Christ’s body in their mouths, whether they believe it or not. Roman Catholics agree, except that they teach that the Eucharistic host is wholly Christ’s body under the appearance of bread. Those who partake of the sacrament, worthily or not, have no bread in their mouths at all, but only Christ’s body.

Calvin’s view that Christ’s body is objectively presented rather than objectively present–—as he would say, “truly presented to us” but not “enclosed in the bread” or “chewed with the teeth”—gives his teaching a distinctive place on the spectrum of Eucharistic doctrine. This is distinct not only from the Lutheran and Calvinist views but also from the low Protestant view usually attributed (I do not know how fairly) to Zwingli. In this low Protestant view the supper is merely a memorial, which means that the only link to Christ’s body is our state of mind, our faith. On the contrary, when Calvin insists that Christ’s body is truly presented, offered, and given to us, he is talking not about our state of mind but about the action of God, and perhaps the most important thing to pay attention to is the adverb truly, for what is at stake here is the truth of God’s word. Does God do as he says when he offers us Christ’s body? Calvin’s answer is an emphatic yes.

With this in view, we can see why Calvinist theologians insist on the objectivity of the sacrament. And we could explain the fact that the unworthy do not partake of Christ’s body using this terminology: the offer is objectively made—quite independent of whether we believe it—but subjectively refused. As Calvin puts it, in one of his most helpful discussions of the manducatio indignorum, “it is one thing to be offered, another to be received” (Institutes 4:17.33). What is not objective is whether we actually partake of Christ’s body, for that requires precisely our subjective appropriation of the truth of God’s word, which is to say, our faith.

All this can be explained without using the technical terminology of signum and res (sign and thing signified) which goes back to Augustine. But if we turn to that terminology, I think we will see the fundamental conceptual difference at stake here. There are a number of key conceptual points, going back to Augustine, on which all parties to this dispute agree. Reformed, Lutheran and Roman Catholic all think of the sacrament as a sign that signifies spiritual gifts. What is more—and this is not often noticed—all agree that certain kinds of unworthiness, especially unbelief, separate the sign from the thing it signifies, so that the unworthy receive the signum or sacramentum but not the res. So for instance all agree that those who receive the sacrament in unbelief receive an outward sign but not the inner grace it signifies.

Given these agreements, the crucial question is whether Christ’s body is signum or res, the sacramental sign or thing it signifies. Calvin’s answer is clearly the latter. To see this, those of us who read Calvin in English need to be reminded that when he says Christ’s body is the “substance” or “matter” of the sacrament, which he does quite often, the Latin term he uses is res. Thus, in the shared Augustinian vocabulary of 16th-century theology, he identifies Christ’s body as belonging to the res sacramenti, the thing signified by the sacrament. That means it is precisely the sort of thing that is not received by unbelievers.

It can be properly be said of unbelievers that they receive a mere empty sign—which for Calvin means, the bread of the supper without the body of Christ that it signifies. Or to put it in medieval terms, those who partake of the sacrament without faith receive “the sacrament alone” (sacramentum tantum, which means sacramentum without res). This is just another way of saying “the sign alone,” since by medieval definition the sacrament is always a sign, so that sacramentum and res are related precisely as signum and res. And the key point is that those who partake of the sacrament unworthily do partake of the sign, quite independently of what they believe, because to partake of this sacrament is to precisely to take the sacramental sign into your mouth.

The difference between Luther and Calvin on this point is that Luther thinks of the body of Christ as the sacramental sign, not just the thing signified (see for instance his Babylonian Captivity, in Luther’s Works 36:44). Thus in Luther’s reckoning when unbelievers receive the sacrament but not the thing it signifies, this means that they receive no grace or spiritual benefit in the sacrament, but they do receive Christ’s body. For unbelief separates signum from res, but it cannot prevent the sacrament from being the sign that it is. So long as the sacrament is present, the sign is present, which includes Christ’s body. Thus even in receiving a “mere sign” the unworthy eat Christ’s body, whether they believe it or not. They are partaking of the body to their own harm. (There is no paradox in this, for Christ’s bodily presence has always been an occasion not just of blessing and grace but of scandal and unbelief. It was, after all, quite possible to receive Christ’s body and nail it to a tree.)

When Luther thinks of the body of Christ as both sign and thing signified, he is following a standard medieval view. Peter Lombard, followed by many other medieval theologians, not only distinguished sacramentum and res, but added a third, hybrid category, sacramentum et res (“sacrament and thing”), to which Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist belonged. Calvin rejects this threefold classification in Institutes 4:17.33 (the same passage cited above rejecting the manducatio indignorum) and specifically denies that Christ’s body can be classified as sacramentum. He clearly recognizes the implication: if Christ’s body is sacramentum as well as res, sign as well as thing signified, then every valid sacrament will contain not only bread but Christ’s body, present in the outward sign whether you believe it or not. And that is precisely what he means to deny.

1 March 2008


“Clinging to Externals: Weak Faith and the Power of the Sacraments”

Behind the debates about the objectivity of Christ’s presence in the Reformed view of the supper are crucial pastoral questions about the nature of faith, and I think it will bring clarity to the debate if we can state those questions clearly. I have suggested elsewhere (“Why Luther is not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise” in Pro Ecclesia, Fall 2005) that the crucial issue for Protestants is whether faith must be reflective—i.e., whether we must first know we have faith before we are permitted to believe that God is gracious to us as he promised. In connection with the sacrament, the question is: must I first know I believe (i.e. must I have reflective faith) before taking the sacrament, or can the sacrament itself be a means of giving me a faith I am not confident I really have? In short, can the sacrament strengthen weak faith, or does it demand faith? Although it is logically possible for the sacrament to do both, in pastoral practice the latter typically excludes the former. Requiring people to believe is not a good way to strengthen weak faith. For—–to use the classic Protestant distinction—to require something of people is to preach Law rather than Gospel. God gives his gifts by the promise of Christ, which is the Gospel, not by the commandments of the Law—not even the command to believe.

A good way to get at this issue is in terms of the Augustinian theory of signs that Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed share. The sacrament is a sign (signum) says Augustine, and the thing (res) it signifies is a spiritual gift of grace. What all parties to the 16th-century debate agree on is that unbelief separates the signum from the res. This means that to receive the sacrament without faith does a person no good, because that way one receives a sign of grace without the grace it signifies. The crucial difference between the Reformed on one side and the Lutherans and Catholics on the other, I suggested in my previous essay, is that the Reformed identify the body and blood of Christ as the res in the sacrament, whereas the Lutherans and Catholics identify them as belonging to the signum as well. So for the Lutherans and Catholics, those who receive the sign of the sacrament without the thing it signifies still receive the body and blood of Christ, but do so to their own harm.

What all agree about, again, is that those who receive the sacrament without faith receive it to their harm. That point, I suggest, is what raises the crucial pastoral question. The question is: since faith is required for the sacrament to do me good, must I know—or at least believe—that I believe (i.e. must I have reflective faith) before I approach the sacrament? If so, then the sacrament is not likely to strengthen those who have weak faith.

These pastoral questions have played a large role in the history of the Reformed churches, especially among the Puritans. Early in the history of New England Puritanism, for instance, communicant church membership was restricted to those who could give a profession of saving faith. (For the history here, see the classic study by Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea). This institutionalized the requirement of reflective faith: anyone who could not sincerely profess that they had saving faith was excluded from the sacrament and from church membership. And it is important to emphasize here that we are talking about a distinctively Protestant view of saving faith. In contrast to requirements of church membership among earlier Puritans, it was not sufficient simply to confess the creed or to believe and understand Christian teaching. Much less was it sufficient to be baptized. The profession of faith (which made you, in the technical language or the time, a “professor of religion”) meant that you could confidently show that you had a saving interest in the blood of Christ, which typically meant you must be able to narrate the occasion on which you made regenerate by the Holy Spirit through conversion to saving faith.

The concept of saving faith here is distinctively Reformed, and it underlies the requirement of reflective faith. The crucial distinction is articulated by Calvin himself, who contrasts the faith by which we are saved with a temporary faith, by which we experience the goodness of God for a time but do not persevere in true faith until the end. For like Augustine, Calvin teaches that in order to save us God gives not only the intitial gift of faith but also the gift of persevering in the faith until the end. But unlike Augustine, he sees these as one and the same gift: when God gives true saving faith, he necessarily gives us persevering faith, for a faith that does not persevere to the end does not save.

This is a radical departure from Augustine, and it has enormous consequences. For Augustine and the whole Christian tradition prior to Calvin, it is perfectly possible to have a genuine faith and then lose it. Apostates, in other words, have apostasized from the true faith. For Calvin, on the contrary, there is a kind of faith I can have now which I am sure not to lose, because it comes with the gift of perseverance. What is more, I can know that I have such faith rather than the temporary kind. For the whole point of the distinction between saving and temporary faith is that I can know that I am eternally saved, and that means I must know I have saving rather than temporary faith. Again, this is a profound departure from Augustine, who explicitly teaches that we are not yet saved (nondum salvos, in City of God 19:4). In a typical formulation, Augustine insists that we are saved in hope but not yet in reality (in spe, not in re).

Calvin’s departure from Augustine here results in the requirement of reflective faith. In order to believe that you are eternally saved, you must believe that you have saving faith. From this follows what is genuinely distinctive about Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, which is not (as Calvin rightly argues) the doctrine of double predestination, but rather the epistemic thesis that we can know we are among the elect, those chosen by God and predestined for salvation. For anyone who adds to an Augustinian doctrine of predestination the notion that we can know we are saved for eternity will necessarily believe that we can know we are predestined to be saved. For if Augustine is right about predestination, it is logically impossible to know you are saved for eternity without knowing that you are predestined for such salvation. That is precisely why Augustine denies you can know you are predestined for salvation.

So the reflective faith of the Reformed tradition is strong stuff. It assures you not just that God is gracious to you today (like Lutheran faith) but also that you are saved for eternity, which means you can be assured of this much about God’s hidden decree of predestination: that it includes you among the elect. To require such a faith before admission to the sacrament is to require a great deal. It is, I think, to make faith into a work—and quite a substantial work indeed, which many anguished souls could never accomplish. The Puritan churches of New England included many baptized persons who believed that the creed was true but who did not believe they had experienced a conversion to saving faith, and therefore were excluded from the sacrament. In their case, the sacrament could not serve to build up the weak in faith.

Strikingly, there were attempts to reverse this. Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edward’s grandfather, allowed baptized churchgoers who could not profess saving faith to come to the sacrament, which Stoddard said could function as a “converting ordinance.” This is an important moment in the history of the Reformed tradition because it displays the possibilities available within Reformed theology. But the fact that Edwards and his followers, who called themselves “consistent Calvinists,” rejected this compomise, suggests that the weight of the Reformed tradition tends to be against it.

Why? Samuel Hopkins, a student of Edwards and a leader of the consistent Calvinists, gives an explanation that parallels the Augustinian point about how unbelief separates signum from res. The means of grace, Hopkins argues, do no good except to the regenerate, and when the unregenerate (i.e. those who do not have saving faith) make use of the sacraments, they succeed only in offending God by their inexcusable unbelief and misuse of his holy ordinances. Note that all the objectivity in the sacraments thus only makes this offense worse: if Christ is truly presented and offered in the sacrament, as Calvin insists, then all the more inexcusable is the unbelief of those who partake of the sacrament unworthily.

How might the Reformed resist such reasoning? I do not see how they can do so consistently without abandoning the requirement of reflective faith, and I do not see how they can do that without abandoning the fundamental Calvinist conviction that we can know we are eternally saved. It is that radical new conviction that creates the characteristic tensions and pastoral problems of the Calvinist tradition. This is not to say that other traditions do not have tensions and problems of their own. The point is that they take a different form than in the Reformed tradition. Catholics, for instance, do not worry about whether they have true saving faith. You will never find a hint of any such worry anywhere in Augustine, for instance, despite all his introspective power. For the idea that I have to have a special kind of faith which I know in advance will persevere to the end is an idea that simply never occurred to him.

Different worries generate different pastoral practices. Catholics don’t worry about whether they have saving faith but whether they are in a state of mortal sin—so they go to confession. Reformed Protestants don’t worry about mortal sin but about whether they have true saving faith—so they seek conversion. The pastoral problem this generates is that either it turns faith into a work, a decision of faith one is required to make, or it leaves a poor sinner nowhere to go to find the grace of God, since all means of grace only work harm to the unregenerate.

Let me suggest a Lutheran diagnosis (and then identify the pastoral problems that result from this Lutheran view). Reformed and Lutheran will heartily agree that the sacramental means of grace can only do me good only because of the Word that gives them their form and power. There is no sacrament of Christ’s body without the Word of institution: “This is my body, given for you.” The question is, if I am weak in faith, how can I trust that this sacrament and its Word will do me good? Luther points here to the words “for you,” and insists that they include me. When faith takes hold of the Gospel of Christ, it especially takes hold of these words, “for you,” and rejoices that Christ did indeed died for me.

In this way the Gospel and its sacraments are signs that effectively give us the gift of faith. I do not have to ask whether I truly believe; I need merely ask whether it is true, just as the Word says, that Christ’s body is given for me. And if the answer is yes, then my faith is strengthened—without “making a decision of faith,” without the necessity of a conversion experience, and without even the effort to obey a command to believe. In Luther’s view, I have not chosen to believe—as if this were something that could be achieved by my own free will, a notion that Luther fiercely rejects—but have instead received faith as a gift. For what the sacramental word tells me is not: “You must believe” (a command we must choose to obey) but “Christ died for you” (good news that causes us to believe). Thus both Word and sacrament do not demand faith but strengthen it, functioning not as Law but as Gospel.

In my judgment, the requirement of reflective faith is a disaster because it means that I have no right to believe that the sacramental words, “for you,” include me unless I first know or at least believe that I have true saving faith. To make this judgment is to say that the characteristic pastoral problems of the Reformed tradition are not so much problems to be solved as theological mistakes to escape. But to be fair, let me say what pastoral problems my Lutheran view entails.

It entails rejecting the view that we can know we are eternally saved. In Luther’s view, we can be assured we have grace, but we cannot be assured of eternal salvation. For the promise of God gives us Christ—in both word and sacrament—but it does not promise that we shall persevere in the faith of Christ until the end. This is a crucial fact about the biblical Word that no amount of theologizing can get over: the Word of Christ can give me faith and thereby give me Christ himself, but it does not promise to give me perseverance in the faith and therefore does not give me assurance of eternal salvation. If you want that kind of assurance, you have to go the road of reflective faith, believing not just in the Word but in your own belief in it, being somehow assured that the faith you have is true saving faith. To put it succinctly, what you give up by rejecting the requirement of reflective faith is the assurance of salvation.

The pastoral problems this produces have a label, which Luther himself gives them. He calls them anfechtungen, the assaults of the devil, who loves to taunt us with the fear that maybe we are not among those predestined for salvation. This is why Luther insists on turning away from the Deus absconditus, the God of the hidden decree of predestination, and clinging to the Deus revelatus, the God who reveals himself in the Gospel. It is sufficient to know that Christ’s body is given for me. If I cling to that in faith, all will go well with me. And whenever the devil suggests otherwise, I keep returning to that sacramental Word, and also to the Word of my baptism, and to the “for us” in the creed (“for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven” and “he was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate”), where the “us” includes me. Thus precisely the kind of faith that is insufficient to get me admitted to the Puritan sacraments—which is to say, mere belief in the truth of the creed and trust in my baptism—is all the faith I have. If Luther is right, it is all the faith I can ever have, and all the faith I need.

In this way the sacraments do help me when I face the typical pastoral problems generated by Lutheran theology. By contrast, the Reformed tradition generates pastoral problems that cannot be helped by the sacrament, because neither word nor sacrament can assure me that I have true saving faith. The logic of the matter, it seems to me, makes it impossible to split the difference between these two positions and get the best of both. On the one hand, if you want a concept of saving faith and the assurance of eternal salvation, then the sacraments cannot help you in the way that matters most. For—on the other hand—if you cling to the sacraments to strengthen your faith, then the faith you get is not what the Reformed tradition calls saving faith. Therefore I do not think one can consistently hold both a strong view of the power of the sacraments and the Reformed view of the nature of faith.

4 March 2008


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