Category Archives: Anti-Catholicism

The Catholic Church, which Christ founded, determines the canon of the Bible


Devin Rose

“I have found that the canon of Scripture is the single most fruitful topic to discuss with Protestant friends. The canon is the set of books that make up the Bible—Scripture’s “table of contents”—and it is one of the most important issues between Catholics and Protestants for two reasons: first, because the Catholic and Protestant canons differ (Catholics have seventy-three books in their canon and Protestants have sixty-six); second, because Protestants believe in a doctrine called sola scriptura or “the Bible alone.”

Sola scriptura means that only the Bible is the sole, infallible rule of faith and the sole source of public revelation given by God to man. Under this doctrine, Scripture is the first, best, and ultimate depository for divine truth, as well as the only one that is without error, having been inspired by God himself, who cannot lie.

But for sola scriptura to be true, we must first be able to know which books, exactly, make up Scripture (i.e., the biblical canon). We must also know this biblical canon with a certainty strong enough to bind our consciences. After all, if we believe that God inspired books to be written such that they are without error but we don’t know which books those are, we are left in the unacceptable position of not knowing whether a given book is inspired (and therefore inerrant) or whether it is just another book written from the mind of a human being.

Martin Luther was not afraid to challenge the canon of Scripture. He relegated four New Testament books to an appendix, denying that they were divinely inspired. Though this alteration of the New Testament wasn’t adopted by the Protestant movements, his alteration of the Old Testament was, and by the end of the Reformation Protestantism had removed seven books (the deuterocanonicals) from the Old Testament canon.

This means if Protestantism is true, God allowed the early Church to put seven books in the Bible that didn’t belong there.

Why Protestants changed their canon

The Protestants rejected the books for several reasons, two of which we will focus on here. The first was a “problematic” passage in 2 Maccabees, and the second was their desire to go “back to the sources”—ad fontes—which to them meant using the same books that the Jews had decided upon.

2 Maccabees included a laudatory reference to prayers for the dead, a practice that the Catholic Church had encouraged for assisting the souls in purgatory. Recall Luther’s protest of the sale of indulgences to remove the temporal punishment due for already forgiven sins—punishment that must be paid before a soul would be fit to enter heaven. Luther and the Reformers rejected purgatory, so all that was connected with it also had to go: indulgences, prayers for the dead, and the communion of saints (which includes those both living and asleep in Christ).

The Reformers pointed out that these seven books were not included in the Jewish Hebrew Bible. For that reason, they argued, the books should not be accepted by Christians. Some Protestant apologists seek to bolster this claim by mentioning the theory that, around A.D. 90, a council of Jews at Jamnia explicitly rejected these books. (The consensus among modern scholars is that the Jews closed their canon closer to the end of the second century A.D.)

Others like to point out that some Church Fathers rejected one or more of these books. They strengthen this argument with the testimony of Josephus and Philo—two Jews from the first century—who also did not accept them.

Why the deuterocanonicals are inspired

Because Catholicism is true, the church Christ founded, and not the Jews, possessed the authority and divine guidance to discern the Old Testament canon.

A little historical background is needed here. The first Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, used during Jesus’ time, was called the Septuagint. It was an evolving set of books that was added to from the third century B.C. until the time of Christ. It remains the most ancient translation of the Old Testament that we have today and so is used to correct the errors that crept into the Hebrew (Masoretic) text, the oldest extant manuscripts of which date only from the ninth century.

The Septuagint was used extensively in the Near East by rabbis, and in the first century the apostles quoted prophecies from it in the books that became the New Testament. It was accepted as authoritative by the Jews of Alexandria and then by all Jews in Greek-speaking countries.

By the time of Christ, the Septuagint contained the deuterocanonical books. The majority of Old Testament quotes made by the New Testament authors come from the Septuagint. In fact, the early Church used the Septuagint as its primary Old Testament source until the fifth century. Its importance cannot be overstated.

Historical evidence also shows that there were multiple, conflicting Jewish canons at the time of Christ. Protestants claim that the Hebrew canon was closed at the time of Christ. But let’s stop and think about that: How could the Jews close their canon when they were still awaiting the advent of the new Elijah (John the Baptist) and the new Moses (Jesus)?

Recall that Malachi 4:5 tells us that God would send a new Elijah the prophet: “Behold I will send you Elias the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” We know from John 1:19-25 that the Jews were eagerly awaiting this new Elijah, as well as the new Moses.

Since many prophets in the Old Covenant had been inspired by God to write books, it only makes sense that the Jews would expect these two great prophets to write books as well. Closing the Hebrew canon before the prophets’ advent, then, would have been unthinkable.

Timothy Michael Law, in his new book When God Spoke Greek, has demonstrated that the Jews did not close their canon until the second century A.D. This fact renders the (alleged) Jewish council’s decision at Jamnia moot. It should be noted that most scholars today doubt that any such council ever took place.

But even if it did, would Jewish leaders possess the authority to make a decision binding upon the Christian Church? Those Jews who had accepted Christ had already become Christians. The remainder had no authority to decide anything about divine truth, as that authority had passed to those filled with the Holy Spirit (i.e., the apostles). The same goes for the opinions of Josephus and Philo. The Jews did not have the authority to decide the canon. The Church did.

Law also shows that the Greek Septuagint is a witness to an, at times, even more ancient textual stream of the Hebrew scriptures when compared with the Masoretic text. Ironically, this meant that the Reformers goofed when they relied upon the Masoretic text and the (truncated) Hebrew canon in their attempt to go “back to the original sources.” They should have used the Septuagint translation and included the seven deuterocanonical books! Thus the argument that Christians should base their Old Testament off of the Hebrew Bible rather than the Greek Septuagint is dubious.

Regarding Church Fathers doubting the deuterocanonical books, it is true that several rejected one or more of them or put them on a level lower than the rest of Scripture. But many, including those with doubts, quoted them as Scripture with no distinction from the rest of the Bible.

The broader fact is that the testimony of the Fathers was not unanimous on the Old Testament canon. Even Jerome, the great biblical scholar, early in his career favored the Hebrew canon but then changed his mind and submitted his opinion to the wisdom of the Church, accepting the deuterocanonicals as Scripture (ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf203.vi.xii.ii.xxvii.html).

Finally, it should be pointed out that Protestants seeking to defend their canon based on historical evidence—even if they are convinced they have found sufficient proof—run into an insurmountable problem: Nowhere in Scripture does it say that this is the way to know which books belong in the canon. Such a criterion for choosing the canon in fact contradicts sola scriptura, because it is an extra-biblical principle.

A consistent Protestant argument for selecting the canon of Scripture, then, must itself come from Scripture, which would create a circular argument. Unfortunately—but providentially—no such instructions from God exist. No table of contents is found in any biblical book. No scroll with a table of contents is considered inspired by Protestants (or by Catholics).

The self-authenticating canon

Most Protestant apologists realize that all their stalwart arguments have iron-clad rebuttals. And so many have abandoned those arguments and cling to their last remaining bastion: They claim that the inspired books authenticate themselves. This idea is so widely used that it is worthy of a lengthy explanation.

The self-authenticating canon means that a true Christian can read a given book and easily tell whether it is inspired by God or not. The Holy Spirit dwelling within the Christian would witness to the book’s inspiration. This theory did away with the need for trusting the corrupted early Church or for tracing the messy history of the canon’s development. Instead, you as a faithful Christian simply picked up your Bible, read the books, and listened for the inner witness of the Spirit telling you that the books were inspired by God.

Similarly, you could theoretically pick up a non-canonical epistle or Gospel from the first or second century, read it, and note the absence of the Spirit’s confirmation of its inspiration. As Calvin described it:

It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the church and that its certainty depends upon churchly assent. Thus, while the church receives and gives its seal of approval to Scripture, it does not thereby render authentic what is otherwise doubtful or controversial. . . . As to their question—How can we be assured that this has sprung from God unless we have recourse to the decree of the church?—it is as if someone asked: Whence will we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Indeed, Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste. . . . those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and Scripture indeed is self-authenticated (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, vii.1, 2, 5).

Calvin makes two claims here. First, that the Church does not give authority to Scripture but rather Scripture has authority by the fact that God inspired it; second, that a Christian can know the canon from the Holy Spirit’s testimony within him, not by trusting a decision of the Church.

Calvin’s first claim has never been contested by the Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches, or any Christian. It is a straw man: The Church teaches that it received inspired texts from God (through human authors) and that God guided it in discerning which among many texts were truly inspired. The Church is thus the servant of written revelation and not its master.

Calvin’s second claim has become the common answer from Protestants who can’t concede that a corrupt Church selected the canon. There’s an element of truth to it: Surely the Holy Spirit does witness to our souls when we read the Bible. But Calvin sets up a false dichotomy here: Either the Church, by discerning the canon, imagines itself in authority over Scripture, or the canon is self-evident to any Christian. Calvin replaces the belief that God guided the Church in selecting the canon with the belief that God guides me or you in selecting it. He forces his readers to choose between these options, but in fact they are both false.

History contradicts Calvin’s claim

There is no principled reason, in Scripture or elsewhere, to believe that God would guide me or you in this discernment but not the Church. Moreover, Calvin’s subjective criterion for discerning the canon is surely impractical and unrealistic. How would a person seeking truth but not yet indwelt by the Holy Spirit know which books to read to find truth? What about a new Christian who had not learned to distinguish the inner voice of the Spirit from his own? At what point after his conversion would a Christian be considered ready to help define the canon? If two Christians disagreed, whose inner judgment would be used to arbitrate their dispute and identify the real canon?

Another problem with Calvin’s claim is that the facts of history contradict it. As we have seen, the selection of the canon was not an easy, debate-free process that ended with the close of written revelation in the early second century. Rather, the canon emerged slowly through a laborious process, with differing canons being proposed by different Church Fathers during these centuries.

If the canon were obvious and self-evident, the Holy Spirit would have led each of them to the same canon. Yet even these faithful, Spirit-filled men, so close to the time of the apostles and Christ himself, proposed different canons. It was not until almost A.D. 400 that the canon was settled, and it contained the seventy-three books of the Catholic Bible. When, more than 1,100 years later, the Reformers changed the canon by rejecting the seven deuterocanonical books (and Luther unsuccessfully tried to discard others), it was another example of intelligent and well-meaning Christians disagreeing about the “self-authenticated” canon.

The books of the canon are not obvious merely from reading them. Martin Luther should prove that to Protestants, since he was the founder of the Protestant Reformation, and yet he tried to jettison four books from the New Testament.

The Church discerns the Old Testament

This means that neither the New Testament nor the Old Testament is self-authenticating. And so we come full circle back to the question of the deuterocanonicals. Weighing this evidence, any open Protestant should be able to admit that the only thing keeping him back from considering these books as inspired by God is the Protestant tradition that rejected them. Is that tradition from God or from men?

The Church’s careful discernment of the canon settled on including the deuterocanonical books. And, with some occasional doubts, the books were consistently included in the canon from the 300s through the 1400s. In fact, the ecumenical council of Florence in the mid-1400s reaffirmed their inclusion in the Old Testament canon. This was long before Martin Luther and the first Protestants and lends further evidence that the Church accepted these books as inspired and did not “add” them to the canon in response to the Reformation, as many Protestants claim.

If Protestantism is true, then for more than a thousand years all of Christianity used an Old Testament that contained seven fully disposable, possibly deceptive books that God did not inspire. He did, however, allow the early Church to designate these books as Sacred Scripture and derive false teachings such as purgatory from their contents. Eventually, God’s chosen Reformer, Martin Luther, was able to straighten out this tragic error, even though his similar abridgment of the New Testament was a mistake.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Sola Scriptura 2


-by Jimmy Akin

“One of the stickiest points in Catholic-Protestant debates is what is meant by the Protestant term sola scriptura, or “Scripture alone.”

Protestant apologists assert the doctrine but are often reluctant to offer a precise definition of it. Most will say that it does not mean certain things and will make a general stab at saying what it does mean, but I do not know of a Protestant apologist who has offered a complete and precise definition.

Thus, Catholic apologists are left in the unenviable position of critiquing an imprecise assertion. They commonly critique what they perceive most Protestants to mean by sola scriptura, which brings on nigh-inevitable charges of misrepresenting “the Protestant position.”

The problem is that there is no single Protestant position on sola scriptura. The term is used different ways, the details of which vary. But there seem to be two major ways the idea is interpreted.

Two Definitions

At times the phrase is taken to mean that we must be able to derive from Scripture alone all of the theological truths that God wished to reveal to mankind—and even all of the religious practices in which Christians should engage (i.e., that Scripture is “sufficient for faith and practice”).

Other times a more restricted claim is made: that we can derive from Scripture alone all of the truths that are needed for salvation.

When the doctrine of sola scriptura is not under cross-examination, though, a more robust understanding is employed, and Evangelical Christians are trained to ask reflexively for a biblical basis whenever any theological idea or religious practice is proposed. Thus when Evangelicals talk with Catholics, they identify a particular Catholic doctrine or practice they disapprove of and then ask, “Where’s that in the Bible?” For example, an Evangelical may select a topic such as purgatory (a theological belief) or praying to saints (a practice) and demand a biblical basis for it.

Necessary for Salvation

Note that, strictly speaking, neither of these appears to involve a truth that is necessary for salvation: God exists; God is a Trinity; Jesus is God the Son; Jesus died on a cross for our sins; and we need to repent, believe, and be baptized to be saved—in other words, truths connected directly with the gospel.

Purgatory is not connected with the gospel in that way. Neither is praying to saints. A Protestant asking for biblical bases for these would seem to be using a more expansive understanding of sola scriptura than just the idea that Scripture states or implies all truths necessary for salvation. He seems to be expecting Scripture to contain bases for all theological truths and religious practices.

If the same individual retreats, when sola scriptura is being questioned, to the more modest understanding of it, then it is fair for the Catholic to note the inconsistency and ask him to choose one understanding of the doctrine and stick with it.

If he chooses the more expansive understanding, then he endorses a position that is much more difficult to defend. As many works of Catholic apologetics have shown, nobody in the pages of Scripture itself operated on the principle that all belief and practice should be derivable from Scripture alone. It’s hard to find passages that could be construed as teaching this idea, and it is easy to find passages that indicate the contrary, such as Paul’s exhortation to his readers to heed all of the traditions they had received, whether they were written in his letters or conveyed orally (2 Thess. 2:15).

If, though, the Evangelical chooses the more modest interpretation of sola scriptura, then he will have to let go of many common Protestant objections to Catholicism. If only truths necessary for salvation have to be given a biblical basis, then he would not be able to object to purgatory or praying to saints or Marian doctrines or other Catholic beliefs and practices that have been criticized since the Reformation. He might still disagree with Catholics on these, but he would not be able to fault a Catholic for not providing a biblical basis for them.

Infallible Teachings

An Evangelical might say, “Wait a minute: If a Catholic denies the existence of purgatory, which the Church has taught infallibly, that would be a grave sin. If he did it with adequate knowledge and consent, his grave sin would become mortal, and he would lose his salvation. Thus, for a Catholic, things such as purgatory are necessary for salvation.”

It’s true that a Catholic would commit a mortal sin under the circumstances just named, but that does not make purgatory a truth “needed” for salvation. If you have mere moments to evangelize a dying man, there are certain things that he needs to be told for the sake of his salvation: the truths mentioned above about God, Jesus, and how to respond to God’s offer of salvation.

Purgatory is not one of those. Purgatory may be an imminent reality for the dying man, but it is not necessary for him to know about it in order to accept God’s offer of salvation. If he has a while to live, he should be taught the fullness of the faith, including purgatory. But if he is in danger of death, he most needs the core facts of the gospel.

Ya Gotta Have Faith

Purgatory and similar beliefs are related to salvation in a different way: The reason it would be sinful to deny them is that it involves a rejection of the virtue of faith. God has taught them and empowered the Church to propose them infallibly to the faithful. Because that has happened, our faith in the working of God demands that we give assent to them. To refuse to do so, with adequate knowledge and consent, is to reject faith in God. One might still believe in the existence of God—and any number of other individual teachings of the faith—but the virtue of faith that unites us to God is extinguished if we reject his authority to teach us in the manner of his choosing.

A parallel can be proposed in an Evangelical context: The Bible clearly teaches many things that are not directly required for salvation. For example, it teaches the existence of angels. The reality of angels is not itself something that you need to know to get into heaven.

If you have a short time to evangelize a dying man who, by some fluke, has never heard of angels, you don’t have to take time away from telling him about God to make sure he knows about angels. Angels may be about to escort him to the pearly gates, but he doesn’t need to know about them in advance. The existence of angels is thus something that Scripture teaches, but it is not a truth necessary for salvation.

But suppose the dying man knows that the Bible teaches the existence of angels but refuses to believe it. Suppose he also knows that God is the author of the Bible and that God teaches the existence of angels, yet he still refuses to believe it. Does that man have faith in God? He may acknowledge God’s existence, he may want to be saved by God, but classical Protestant theologians would not say that a man who acknowledges God’s existence but refuses to accept what he knows to be God’s word has faith in God—certainly not saving faith.

Modest Interpretation

The question for the Evangelical thus remains whether such beliefs require a biblical basis. If they do require one, then we arrive back at a hard-to-defend interpretation of sola scriptura whereby everything we are expected to believe must have a biblical basis.

But what if the Evangelical really were willing to stick with the more modest interpretation? Suppose he said, “Okay, I don’t agree with Catholics on teachings such as purgatory, but I recognize that they are not necessary for salvation, so I won’t demand that Catholics produce a biblical basis for them.”

He might also say, “In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, Paul makes it clear that a person can sin by violating his conscience even when he mistakenly believes he is required by God to do or not do something. Paul even speaks as if such individuals may not be saved. So I can acknowledge that a person who believes the Catholic Church has been authorized to teach infallibly for God would sin and jeopardize his salvation if he rejected the ‘infallible’ teachings of the Church, even if they are not necessary in themselves for salvation.

“I just want to maintain,” he might conclude, “that there must be a biblical basis for every teaching that is in itself necessary for salvation. That’s all I mean when I talk about sola scriptura. What would a Catholic say about that?”

A Catholic Perspective

I don’t know any Evangelicals who are this startlingly consistent in advocating the modest interpretation of sola scriptura.

A Catholic would not use the term sola scriptura—which is historically contentious and highly prone to misunderstanding—but he certainly can agree that the basic facts of the gospel and how to respond to it can be derived from Scripture. A Catholic would add that these facts need to be understood in the light of Sacred Tradition and that the Church’s intervention may be necessary to make sure they are understood correctly.

Indeed, Peter warns that “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:21) and says of Paul’s writings that “there are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (3:16). But despite these qualifications, the basic facts necessary for salvation can be given a biblical basis.

It would be interesting to know how far such an Evangelical would be willing to rethink matters: If he’s willing to confine sola scriptura to just the basic facts needed for salvation, then what principles are to be employed in determining the rest of his theology?

The Catholic Church has a few he might want to consider.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Sep 30 – St Jerome of Stridon (347-420 AD) – the man who translated the Bible from Hebrew & Greek


-by Baroque Painter Jacques Blanchard’s Saint Jerome was made in 1632 and the original painting is in Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. The original size of the work is 145,5 x 116 cm and is made of oil on canvas., please click on the image for greater detail

-by Jaspreet Singh Boparai

“…We know quite a bit about (Jerome’s) life because he couldn’t help discussing it at length, in letters, treatises, commentaries and even the introductions to his translations of the Bible. The Catholic Church not only recognised him as a saint: it declared him to be one of the four first Latin-language Doctors of the Church.

His learning and intelligence were quite literally legendary. In the Middle Ages Jerome was said to have once been lecturing to students in Bethlehem when a lion approached. His students fled in terror; he saw that it was limping and removed a thorn from its paw. Thereafter he was followed everywhere by a tame pet lion. The story has never really been believed, at least among the learned; but the lion has been associated with Jerome as a symbol ever since. Perhaps this reflects certain aspects of his personality: you read his writing and cannot help but think, A saint? Him?


-Penitent Saint Jerome, Bernardino Luini, 1525 (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, Italy).

Saint Jerome of Stridon

Saint Jerome (AD 331–420), the man who translated the Bible into Latin, was born at Stridon in Dalmatia during the reign of Constantine the Great (r. 306–37). His home, and at least some of the family estates, appear to have been destroyed by invading Goths in 379.

Jerome’s parents were Christian, but did not bother to have him baptised. They insisted on speaking Latin at home, although they lived in the provinces. Later in life Jerome would complain of continuing to remember stray vocabulary from his “barbarous native language”, including the name of the unappetising beer that was brewed both locally and in the neighbouring province of Pannonia. Jerome appears to have learnt enough of the local Illyrian dialect to shout at peasants and slaves.

In a letter (AD 382) he admits that during his childhood and early youth he had been a glutton for luxurious food; he considered this to be the most difficult vice to drop when he chose to adopt a more ascetic manner of living.


-Saint Jerome in His Study, Albrecht Dürer, 1514 (Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden Castle, Germany).

Jerome in Rome

Jerome’s parents sent him to Rome to be educated under the famous schoolmaster Aelius Donatus, who remains well-known as the author of grammatical textbooks, as well as literary commentaries on the works of Terence and Vergil that summarise a great deal of earlier scholarship.

Donatus trained his pupils thoroughly according to his own fastidious literary tastes. Although his own prose has been described as dry, bland and wholly colourless, he at least had strong opinions about what good writing should be. From Donatus, Jerome acquired a passionate devotion to strict grammatical correctness.

Having left the school of Donatus at around the age of sixteen, Jerome began his formal rhetorical training. He appears to have thrived, relishing every available opportunity to challenge his fellow students to debates, which he treated as verbal duels. Later in life he would remember with pleasure how carefully he groomed himself at this point in his life, particularly when preparing to deliver practice orations in front of his rhetoric master.

Jerome appears to have been destined early on for a career at the Bar. He frequented courts of law, and mastered all the legal materials and techniques of argument that were to feature so frequently in his many writings, particularly where he threatened to sue his opponents. He never formally studied philosophy, but memorised many philosophers’ names, often in the original Greek.

As a student in Rome, one of Jerome’s greatest pastimes involved copying library books, as a relatively inexpensive means of creating a library of his own. He also bought many books, but many hours were spent writing out copies of his own in this way. The library that he began to build would never leave his side, even when he later retired into a cave; this handwritten collection would develop into one of the most important private libraries of his day, when Roman literary culture was already beginning to shrivel and decay.


-Saint Jerome, Leonardo da Vinci, 1483 (Vatican Museums).

“Have mercy on me, a sinner”

Books were not his only pleasure. During this period Jerome appears to have indulged in a range of unspecified activities which later caused him to be disgusted with himself; these are not catalogued in any of his later writings in which he castigates himself for his corrupt adolescence and early manhood. His most specific autobiographical description of the period describes the young Jerome as “befouled with the squalor of every type of sin”.

Jerome’s occasional lapses of self-mastery affected much of the course of his life. During a period of enforced self-isolation he was afflicted by powerful visions of sins that he thought he had abandoned, many of which appear to have involved saltatrices (dancing girls). In a letter to his friend Pammachius (AD 393) he admitted that if he exalted virginity to the skies, it was in admiration of what he had lost. Self-recrimination features in much of his correspondence.


-Saint Jerome in the Desert Tormented by Memories of Dancing Girls, Francesco de Zurbarán, 1639 (Royal Monastery of Santa Maria of Guadalupe), please click on the image for more detail

Jerome appears never to have endured a phase of petulant disbelief even as a teenager; he was not a baptized Christian, however, until his mid-twenties (or possibly even his early thirties). Yet he was evidently drawn to the religion of his parents. In his Commentary on Ezekiel he records his Sunday habit of visiting the tombs of all the Apostles and Martyrs in Rome with a small group of fellow students. The darkness in the crypts was total; the heat, humidity and terrifying blackness reminded them of the line from Psalm 55:

Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into Hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.

In Jerome’s own translation:

Veniat mors super illos, et descendant in infernum viventes: quoniam nequitiae in habitaculis eorum, in medio eorum.

The friends also remembered the latter part of the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid, and Aeneas’ frantic night-time stumbling through the burning ruins of Troy:

horror ubique animo simul ipsa silentia terrent.

(Aeneid 2.755: “Dread from every side fills my heart, whilst the very silence causes alarm.”)

Jerome leaves Rome

In 367 AD, Jerome and his childhood friend Bononus settled together by the “half-barbarian banks of the Rhine”, likely in the imperial city of Trier. During this period Jerome had much leisure to continue augmenting his library, although Trier does not appear to have been a centre of learning. He was already thirty-six years old.

In this “ghastly backwater” Jerome had leisure to observe what he considered the “primitive customs”, “clumsy language” and “unappetising food” of various Germanic tribes. He never forgot his first sight of the Attacotti, uncouth natives of Ireland, who sometimes ate human flesh, and had a taste for the buttock-meat of stolen livestock – they never seem to have acquired the skill of animal husbandry for themselves. The Irish “savages”, as he described them, were probably on display in captivity at the imperial residence.

According to Saint Augustine, Trier unexpectedly became an early centre of monasticism at around this time. The movement allegedly began when a pair of bored imperial courtiers stumbled (perhaps literally) over a copy of Saint Athanasius’ Life of Saint Antony of Egypt, a hagiographical account of how an illiterate holy man became the first Christian hermit. Athanasius’ work made the life of a monk appear highly attractive to the two courtiers. They settled in a hut outside the city walls of Trier and began to attract followers.

It is unknown whether the two courtiers mentioned by Augustine are Bononus and Jerome. If so, someone else must have taken over the monastery, because Jerome left Trier to visit his family in Stridon.

He had not been home in years. His younger sister, now in her early teens, was conducting herself in a manner which led him to describe her as “wounded by the devil” and “spiritually dead”; this led to a protracted quarrel with Jerome’s maternal aunt Castorina. St Jerome’s relationship with his parents cooled. He was also disenchanted with the Christian community at Stridon, describing it as boorish, rustic, greedy, materialistic and led by a bishop (Lupicinus) who was admirably suited to such a degraded people, whom he led in the manner of a blind man leading other blind men into a pit, as in the Biblical parable (Matthew 15:13-14).

Jerome pressured his sister to take religious vows, possibly at the convent in nearby Emona, and ended up breaking permanently with most of his extended family. Leaving home forever, he visited the city of Aquileia (near Venice). Bononus came with him; his old classmates Rufinus and Heliodorus were already there. The trio decided to settle together to form a sort of informal monastery (as it were).

The bishop of Aquileia appealed greatly to Jerome. There were many energetic Christian reformers in the city; they did not compromise on doctrine, dogma or the importance of orthodoxy. Jerome congratulated the bishop on cleansing the city of heresy. Pious ascetics were more than welcome in Aquileia. Among Jerome’s new friends was Paul, who was almost a hundred years old, and also had an extensive collection of books, many of which Jerome copied out himself.


-Jerome in his study, Colantino, 1445/6 (National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples, Italy).

Unknown adversaries

In 373, a crisis erupted. In letters Jerome complained of being relentlessly hounded by an unnamed enemy. Doors slammed shut in his face. We do not know why his reputation was so suddenly blackened, though he appears to have done something shocking, offensive and completely unforgiveable in the eyes of the community of nuns at Emona. They never replied to his letters begging their forgiveness, and pleading that they not judge him too hastily or give ear to malicious gossip. In at least one letter he admitted that he had done wrong and had to ask for their pardon.

Jerome and his three friends were compelled to leave Aquileia and go their separate ways. Rufinus sailed away to Egypt; Bononus became a hermit on a rocky island in the Adriatic; Heliodorus went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jerome decided to make his way to the Holy Land as well. They all appear to have had a distinctive motivation for leaving; the others’ reasons appear to have been unconnected to the scandal that drove St Jerome away from his new home.

Disillusioned and bitter, Jerome resolved to take his library with him into the wilderness. He would spend the rest of his life as a penitent ascetic near Jerusalem. But first he would make a tour of the East. He stopped in Antioch at the home of his friend Evagrius, a rich and influential priest, and ended up staying for over a year.

His health had suffered during his journey; he spent part of his convalescence studying Aristotle with a private tutor. But he fell into a state of mental and spiritual turmoil, torn by conflicting desires, and wracked by vacillation and remorse. He still enjoyed pagan literature, and knew he remained susceptible to pleasures of the flesh; he felt too unworthy and sinful to isolate himself as a hermit, or join a community of holy monks.


-The vision of Saint Jerome, Louis Cretey, mid-17th century (private collection, France).

The vision

At Lent 374 AD, while bedridden with a wasting illness, he had a terrible nightmare, which he later recounted in a letter (Epistle 22, to Saint Eustochium, section 30). In the dream he was dragged before a tribunal. A bright light blinded him. The Judge asked him what he was. “A Christian,” he replied. “Liar!” the Judge retorted. “You follow Cicero, not Christ – your heart lies where your treasure is.” The judge ordered him to be flogged. St Jerome was tormented more by guilt than by the lashes of his torturer, and cried out for mercy. Bystanders interceded, pleading on his behalf for mercy, begging that he be allowed a chance to mend his ways. He swore an oath:

“Domine, si umquam habuero codices saeculares, si legero, te negavi.”

“Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books, or read them, I shall have denied Thee.”

He was released.

Jerome woke up. His back and shoulders were swollen, and covered with welts and bruises.

For at least a decade Jerome kept his promise and refused to read pagan literature. Of course he had already memorized his favorite Classics long since. Eventually he found means of modifying, then drastically reinterpreting, his oath; despite his promise, he appears not to have dispersed a single volume of his book collection.

When he had fully recovered from his illness, Jerome revised his plans: instead of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem he would join the hermits in the Syrian desert. He pressured his friend Heliodorus to join him. After long, sometimes fraught discussions, he managed to drive Heliodorus back to Italy, then went to the desert alone.

The desert

The solitary hermits of the desert were not really solitary. Near Chalcis the barren landscape teemed with gangs of cave-dwellers and hermits, most of whom were dirty, uneducated and eccentric. They wore squalid garments made of hair, ate raw herbs and sometimes loaded their bodies with chains. One hermit was said to have lived for thirty years on a diet of barley bread and stagnant muddy water. Another kept himself alive in an abandoned cistern with a diet of five dates a day. The hermits wanted to subdue their bodies, break their own wills and crush every last carnal impulse. To that end they reduced all eating and drinking to a minimum, and deliberately made their sleep difficult. This was how they atoned for their sins and brought themselves closer to God.

Jerome’s hermit-cave was not entirely unfurnished. Although he slept on the bare earth, and sought to discipline his rebellious body by reducing it almost to a skeleton, he was still capable of receiving and entertaining regular visitors, including his friend Evagrius. Also, he brought his entire library with him to his cave, and employed several assistants to copy out books for him. He had leisure to teach himself the rudiments of Hebrew. There appears to have been at least one private tutor in his entourage.


-Saint Jerome writing, Caravaggio, 1606 (Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy).

In the desert Jerome’s correspondence was more extensive than ever; he wrote a great many letters asking for the forgiveness of those he had offended, and attacking those who would not forgive him. He concluded a long note to his aunt Castorina by warning her that if she continued to refuse to reply he would consider himself absolved of all wrongdoing. For all his desire to leave the world and the temptations of society, Jerome appears to have hated being alone. The fires of lust had not been extinguished either. Nobody wanted to join him in the desert – not even the friends to whom he wrote elaborate letters praising the ascetic life and its spiritual joys.

During the winter of 376/7, Jerome began to realise that he was unpopular among the hermits in the surrounding desert. He wrote a letter to Pope Damasus complaining about the acrimonious disputes about the Trinity into which he had been dragged by neighbouring hermits, who had the gall to question his orthodoxy. Jerome was particularly exasperated by how quarrelsome everybody else was. The entire Eastern Church seemed to him chaotic, self-contradictory and needlessly argumentative. Everybody he spoke to wanted to engage in a shouting-match about Christian doctrine. Pope Damasus’ reply is not recorded.

A few months later, Jerome wrote another, shorter letter to the Pope. His mood had not improved. Now he felt more persecuted than ever. The nameless adversary who had relentlessly pursued him in Aquileia continued to hound him; three separate Christian factions wanted to claim him as their own; his neighbours among the desert monks had become a menace. He found himself the target of threats, abuse and insinuations; his life as a solitary hermit was becoming intolerable. His many enemies were trying to silence him, which was why he wrote so many lengthy letters. Evidently somebody wanted to get rid of him; he and his team of copyists and his private Hebrew tutor no longer felt welcome among the hermit community in the desert. Pope Damasus’ reply is not recorded.

Jerome had lost all his illusions about monks, and began publicly to condemn their hypocrisy and arrogance, particularly after he returned to Evagrius’ house in Antioch before Easter 377. He stayed for another year, licking his wounds whilst enjoying Evagrius’ hospitality.


-Saint Jerome in his study, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1480 (Church of Ognissanti, Florence, Italy).

Retreat from the desert

This second extended period in Antioch was fruitful: Jerome produced his first major literary work in Latin, a biography of a hermit whom he claimed as the real founder of Christian monasticism, twenty years before Saint Antony of Egypt. The book evidently alienated not only Jerome’s former neighbours in the desert but also Evagrius, who had written a noted biography of Saint Antony of Egypt. Jerome also began to gain renown as the author of controversial pamphlets. Evagrius asked him to leave.

Jerome arrived in Constantinople at the beginning of 379. He claims to have become a disciple of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, bishop of Constantinople; though he is nowhere mentioned in Gregory’s voluminous corpus of surviving writings, even in passing.

At Constantinople Jerome embarked on his career as a literary translator, beginning with the Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea, the bishop who has long been regarded as the father of Church history. Jerome’s translation included numerous editorial interjections meant to correct the original work, bring it up to date, or else simply share the translator’s own opinions and knowledge with the reader. It is a mark of this translation’s qualities that it was popular in areas of Mediaeval Europe that remained untouched by the Renaissance.

Jerome was not so much a historian as an enthusiastic lister of facts, not all of which were judged critically for accuracy, veracity or relevance to the subject at hand. His historical essays are distinguished by the author’s loyalty to personal friends, and extensive revelations of Jerome’s preferred opinions, preoccupations of the moment and fluctuating emotional state. Occasionally the tone is inexplicably violent.

Incessant reading and translation nearly blinded Jerome. His eyesight suffered further due to a shortage of stenographers. In the aftermath of the Gothic invasion of Stridon in 379, Jerome’s family temporarily cut off his allowance. He was forced to carry out his own copying for some time.


-Saint Jerome, Christoph Paudiss, 1656/58 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria).

The joys of bureaucracy

In 382 Jerome accompanied Paulinus, Bishop of Antioch, to Rome. Back in the Eternal City he had the opportunity to meet many of the figures to whom he had been writing frequent long letters; these included Pope Damasus himself. The Pope decided to put him to work as a papal secretary.

Jerome thrived as a bureaucrat. He found a great deal of spare time for personal projects: the Pope was over eighty, and encouraged his new secretary to spend as much time as possible distracting himself on his own. It was Pope Damasus’ idea to encourage Jerome to go off and translate the entire Bible into serviceable Latin, preferably in a monastery somewhere. Before starting that project in earnest, Jerome decided to improve on existing ‘Old Latin’ translations of the New Testament.

Jerome’s improved versions of the Gospels led to howls of protest. He responded by describing his critics as “two-legged asses” who preferred to lap up muddy rivulets when they could have drunk, as he did, from the pellucid fountain of the Gospels’ original Greek. This was his way of criticising their mastery of Latin as well as Greek: the ‘Old Latin’ translations of the New Testament were poorly written even by the standards of Late Antiquity. Whilst Jerome did not think highly of St Paul or the Evangelists as prose stylists (none, after all, had been educated by Donatus) at least they were superior to the uncouth early Christians who had first tried to render these texts into Latin. Jerome began to amass further enemies in some number.

During this sojourn in Rome, Jerome became intimate with a small circle of aristocratic Christian widows, whom he encouraged in their tendencies towards strict asceticism. His most devoted follower was Saint Paula of Rome, one of the very richest women in the Empire at the time. Her daughter Blaesilla had been seriously ill; Jerome encouraged her to take on strict ascetic discipline; she died. Saint Eustochium, Paula’s other daughter, managed in the end to live almost as long as Jerome did.


-Saint Paula with Saints Eustochium and Jerome, Francesco de Zurburán, 1638/40 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA).

For the first time in his life, Jerome was fashionable, and much sought-after, if only by old women in mansions. He often had influence over their daughters as well. Certain pious young women began to receive inordinately elaborate letters encouraging them to rigorous chastity and self-mortification – there were dangerous desires and appetites to repress and suppress. One of Jerome’s most inspired rhetorical performances of the period is addressed to a wealthy teenage virgin, whom he strongly encourages in chastity with repeated warnings about the temptations of lust. These are described with great variety and imagination. Not long after writing this letter he was forced to leave Rome.

Pope Damasus died on 11 December 384. With his main patron out of the way Jerome was open to scrutiny by his enemies, who began to investigate his relationships with his various devout lady-followers. The Church opened an inquiry into his activities. Jerome was eventually acquitted; his name was fully cleared; but he was now less celebrated than ever, having declared Rome as the great harlot arrayed in purple and scarlet that had appeared in the visions of St John at Patmos (Revelations 17.1-6).

Farewell to Rome

Even as he stood on the deck of the ship that would take him from Rome’s port at Ostia to Jerusalem, Jerome was seen dictating a long, vehement letter of self-defence to one of his richer widow-followers. Several of his pious lady-friends decided to accompany him to Jerusalem, including Paula and Eustochium. The precise size of his entourage is unknown, but they appear to have had a large ship to themselves; their luggage included Jerome’s entire library.

Jerome and his entourage spent a year touring the Holy Land; they stopped for a month at Alexandria so that Jerome could listen to the lectures of the blind theologian Didymus, who had been a pupil of the vegetarian teetotaller Origen, who was later regarded as a heretic. Rufinus had also studied with Didymus, though for rather longer.

Paula and Eustochium would never leave Jerome’s side; they built a monastery for him outside Jerusalem, with an extensive library to house all his books. The convent that they built for themselves had at least fifty nuns; Jerome’s monastery retained considerably fewer long-term residents.

Jerome’s old friend Rufinus had established a monastery of his own by the Mount of Olives. He too had a wealthy widow to support his activities: his patron was Saint Melania the Elder. Both men’s monasteries copied out books; Rufinus’ subordinates often found themselves employed to expand St Jerome’s library even further.


-Saint Jerome and the lion, Rogier van der Weyden, 1450 (Detroit Institute of Art, MI, USA).

Bursts of activity

Jerome was not necessarily suited to the role of Abbot; he was particularly exercised by the need to be hospitable to foreigners. Even so, he was remarkably prolific in Jerusalem. Paula was a much more reliable source of income than his family. He began to compose commentaries on individual books of the Bible to supplement his continuing translations. His commentaries feature numerous frank descriptions of those who had offended him, or challenged his opinions. The commentaries on St Paul’s Epistles are a particularly rich resource for data on the personal habits of bishops whom he regarded as unsuitable for their duties.

During this period of unprecedented creativity Jerome took it upon himself to compile authoritative reference works on subjects that he had recently introduced himself to; his collection of Hebrew etymologies is limited in its application, though inventive in its way, and features a notably low proportion of invectives directed against now-forgotten contemporaries. This work inspired him to begin translating the Old Testament into Latin directly from Hebrew, without reliance on the Greek Septuagint (itself of the 3rd century BC) as an intermediary text or starting-point, except where strictly necessary.


-Saint Jerome in his study, Antonello da Messina, 1475 (National Gallery, London).

Jerome began this work in 390; he announced that he had completed the task in 392, though he overestimated the speed of his progress by fourteen years or so. These Bible translations were circulated book by book, and evidently caused widespread consternation throughout the Church, a fact to which Jerome draws attention in the often-vituperative prefaces to his versions of Samuel, Isaiah and the Psalms in particular.

Jerome’s most celebrated original work, De viris illustribus, is a chronological catalogue of 135 distinguished Christian writers beginning with Saint Peter (who died between AD 64 and 68) and ending with Jerome himself. An influential friend of whom we know nothing is said to have pressed Jerome to write this.

While defective from a scholarly point of view, and in some respects utterly reprehensible, De viris illustribus is illuminating on the subject of Jerome himself, even by the general standards of everything he wrote. He held an unusual number of men in contempt, including Saint Ambrose of Milan; that said, this work is generally less overtly libellous than his pamphlet on Christian chastity from this period. The tract caused considerable embarrassment to Jerome’s remaining friends in Rome. Whilst it is in places shockingly crude and coarse, Jerome was surprised to learn that it outraged many readers and added to his collection of enemies.


-“St. Jerome,” from the workshop of Marinus van Reymerswaele, ca. 1489 – ca. 1546, oil on wood, height, 101 cm (39.7 inches), width, 129 cm (50.7 inches), Swedish Nationalmuseum, please click on the image for greater detail

Controversies and strife

Around the beginning of 393, Jerome began to fall out, first privately, then publicly, with his old friend Rufinus. The origin of the dispute is itself disputed, although Jerome’s derogatory remarks extended beyond Rufinus himself to Melania as well as the local bishop, who eventually tried to retaliate by having Jerome and his monks expelled from Palestine by imperial command. But the minister instructed to carry this instruction to the Roman administration was stopped outside Constantinople and cut to pieces by a Gothic general (27 November 395).

Multiple attempts at mediating the conflict failed. Jerome published a blistering attack on the bishop, ridiculing him on personal as well as doctrinal grounds (January 397). Yet the bishop refused to be drawn into the controversy. In the end, Melania engineered a reconciliation on Easter Sunday 397; Jerome and Rufinus were forced to shake one another by the hand and declare that all had been forgiven. Both men were so humiliated that their mutual resentment only grew deeper. After a quarter-century in the Holy Land, Rufinus decided to leave the monastery that Melania had built for him, and moved back to Rome.

Rufinus had not intended to renew hostilities from Rome. But for whatever reason he decided to produce an expurgated Latin translation of one of Origen’s more hotly disputed texts, toning down or leaving out passages that might have outraged many faithful Christians. Why Rufinus felt compelled to translate this work in particular has never satisfactorily been explained. He tried to cover himself by insinuating in the preface to his translation that Jerome, as a former student of the blind Didymus, was more than friendly to Origen’s ideas. Jerome’s reaction was perhaps predictable.

-Saint Jerome in his study, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 1530; Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA).

The ugly and protracted scandal that surrounded Origen’s work at the end of the fourth century was based to a great degree on Church politics. Pope Anastasius I (r. 399-402) was not well-read in theology, although even he could see that there were theological problems in Origen’s work; he decided to end the dispute by condemning Origen and all his current followers.

Rufinus blamed Jerome for vindictively spreading rumours about his unorthodox opinions, claiming that he was not a heretic but a mere innocent literary translator producing a controversial text purely for the sake of the intellectually curious who did not have the Greek to read Origen’s original work. He noted that even Jerome himself had praised – and indeed translated – Origen. This was not wise. Jerome was not instantly provoked; but inevitably he would respond.

Rufinus laboured for two years on his Apologia against Jerome, which circulated widely from 401. Whilst lacking in dialectical verve, the pamphlet was highly effective. It made extensive use of documents, evidence and common-sensical logic. But the reply, the two-book-long Apologia against Rufinus, appeared at great speed even by Jerome’s usual standards. This was a brilliant polemic, displaying a relatively cool control of tone that is without parallel in Jerome’s oeuvre. The perpetual sneer of mild contempt, and the only occasional descent into slanging, demonstrate an artistic discipline of which Jerome had hitherto rarely seemed capable.

Penitent Saint Jerome, Albrecht Dürer, 1496 (National Gallery, London).
Some months later, Jerome felt compelled to add a third book to the Apologia against Rufinus. Rufinus regarded this as even more violently insulting than the previous two books, despite Jerome’s announcement in the preface that he had decided to refrain from abusing his opponent, citing St Paul’s reminder (Romans 12.19ff.) that a Christian ought not to seek revenge. On these grounds, he instructed the reader not to consider all the criticism of Rufinus’ wealth, mendacity, cowardice, pedantry, literary incompetence and so on, to be merely vengeful. Jerome thought that old men should not invent calumnies against the elderly, in the way that thugs slander gangsters, whores slander prostitutes and buffoons slander clowns.

For all the apparent poison and vitriol, Jerome held out what was, by his standards, an olive branch to his lifelong friend. But in the wake of this addition to the pamphlet a reconciliation was unlikely. In response, Rufinus tried to maintain a dignified silence. Jerome continued to denounce and ridicule his former friend even after he was dead.


-Saint Jerome at prayer, Orazio Gentileschi, late 16th century (Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, Turin, Italy).

The end of anger

In 404, Paula died, having consumed her entire vast fortune. Eustochium was left with crippling debts; another patron was urgently needed to save his monastery and Eustochium’s convent from starvation. Meanwhile, Alaric the Visigoth was terrorising the Empire; Ostrogoths and Vandals invaded and pillaged Italy as well as Gaul. Jerome was terrified: he understood just how difficult it would be from now on to solicit donations for his monastery.

In a letter of 407 Jerome counselled a wealthy Dalmatian, Julian, whose family had been brutally wiped out by invaders, to respond to all these tragic deaths by stripping himself of all possessions and remaining property and embracing Christ-like poverty. Similar appeals are found throughout his surviving correspondence from the period.


-The last communion of Saint Jerome, Giambattista Tiepolo, 1732/3 (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Germany)

Throughout the last dozen or so years of his life, Jerome relied increasingly on Origen’s work as an aid to producing commentaries. Not because he necessarily agreed with what he found in Origen; on the contrary he was fuelled by a desire to contradict and deride Origenism. Origen’s errors obsessed him, and not merely because they provided a convenient vehicle for proxy attacks on Rufinus, who died in Sicily in 412, much to his former friend’s openly-expressed satisfaction. Jerome’s few remaining friends in Rome were militantly anti-Origenist. This too does not explain his fanatical monomania, and late-life animus against a writer who died eight decades before his birth.

From around 414 onwards, Jerome began a campaign of aggression, the last of his life, against the “menacingly effeminate” heretic Pelagius, who was as simperingly passive-aggressive as St Jerome was active-aggressive. Within a few years Pelagian teachings would be declared heretical. But Jerome’s literary warfare was interrupted in 416 when his monastery and the convent of Eustochium were attacked and set on fire by a mob of hooligans. Monks and nuns were brutally assaulted; one deacon died in the violence. The attackers were thought to be uneducated lay Christians who were attracted to Pelagius’ message.


-Saint Jerome writing, Caravaggio, 1607 (Co-Cathedral of Saint John, Valletta, Malta).

Jerome’s library was destroyed in the fire. He personally blamed his old enemy the Bishop of Jerusalem for enabling this attack, and doing nothing to stop it when it was going on. The Pope agreed with Jerome, and sent a blistering, humiliating rebuke to the bishop. But Jerome was shattered by the attack. His health rapidly declined. So did Eustochium’s. She died on 28 September 420; Jerome died two days later, on 30 September, in his ninetieth year.

Jerome prayed all his life to be released from his great vice of anger. He was, if only in death. Let his life stand as the ultimate proof that quite literally anybody can become a saint.”

Love,
Matthew

Evangelical burnout

-by Howard Charest

“In the midst of a wild theological discussion, some Evangelical acquaintances asked me what I had gained by converting to Catholicism. I had embraced Evangelicalism for about five years, but its theological and spiritual inadequacies contributed to my nearly losing faith in Christ. Catholicism restored and deepened both my faith in and my love for Christ, and in so doing it began to fulfill my deepest spiritual and intellectual longings.

Raised at first as a Lutheran and then as a Presbyterian, by the time I finished high school I nevertheless had become an atheist of the scientific humanist sort. Scientific objections to Christianity, such as evolutionary theory, had been my primary stumbling block. But within a year of graduating from high school, during a personal crisis concerning the meaning of life and after I had made a commitment to embrace truth whatever it might be, I read How Should We Then Live? by the Evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer.

His reasoned critique of humanism opened my heart to the gospel, and, recognizing myself as a sinner and morally guilty before God, I believed that through Christ’s sacrifice my sins had been forgiven. I identified my conversion experience as the “born again” experience I had heard so much about during high school, and my attitudes towards life truly began to change.

Schaeffer’s interpretation of Christianity left a decisive mark on me. On the positive side, I gained an interest in defending Christianity intellectually (especially through philosophy) and a fascination with the history of theology, philosophy, and culture. For this reason, he still remains a man I admire.

On the negative side, Schaeffer left me with the conviction that true Christianity equals Reformation Christianity, represented in the modern world by Evangelicalism. For the next five years I would assume, virtually without question, that Christianity stands or falls with Evangelicalism. However fascinating the Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition might appear to be—and during the next few years I occasionally would feel a pull in this direction—intellectually I was convinced that Catholicism was an apostate religion.

Yet it was the expectations concerning Christianity raised by Schaeffer which ultimately would make my departure from Evangelicalism necessary. These expectations are best expressed by something Schaeffer wrote in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century. He explained that Christianity is the true and highest mysticism, for it is a personal relationship with God which is grounded in rationality. In other words, Christianity is a rational answer to the question of the meaning of life, one which fulfills man’s deepest spiritual longings and resolves his deepest spiritual problems. Two developments would lead me to conclude that Evangelicalism could not fulfill these expectations and that, if Evangelicalism equals Christianity, I should have to abandon the latter as well.

First, a number of emphases within Evangelicalism would contribute to my having a spiritual burnout. Second, I came to believe that Evangelical thought, based ostensibly on the Bible as its sole authority, was incapable of meeting the many intellectual challenges facing it. I would come to the conclusion that Schaeffer’s defense of Reformation Christianity had serious limitations even though his critique of humanism contained important insights.

Ultimately, and much to my surprise, I would find that it is the Catholic intellectual tradition which fits the glowing descriptions Schaeffer had penned of Christianity’s intellectual viability and that it is Catholic spirituality which most adequately fulfills the Christian mysticism Schaeffer hinted at.

After my conversion experience, my first Evangelical involvement was as a member of a Lutheran church. I remained as such for two years, when, through the influence of Campus Crusade for Christ, I left to become a Baptist. Looking back, I realized that part of my discontent with Lutheranism came from this: Although Lutheranism acknowledges the importance of doing good works, it seems more interested in consoling sinners than in showing them how to overcome sin. One of the benefits of being a Catholic, I have found, is a spiritual discipline centered around mortification and penance. This discipline is powerful in overcoming sin.

In the same year of my conversion, shortly after I joined the Lutheran Church, I became involved in Campus Crusade. At first Campus Crusade benefited me greatly, both spiritually and socially. Crusade’s emphasis on the Spirit-filled life helped me grow in personal character, and I was encouraged to spend time reading the Bible daily.

This I loved to do, and I became an avid student of Scripture, eventually beginning a personal study of Greek in order to draw closer to the meaning of the New Testament. In addition to these spiritual benefits, Crusade’s emphasis on evangelism and discipleship helped me learn to communicate my beliefs with boldness, and through the love and acceptance I found in this group I progressed considerably in social maturity.

I immersed myself in the Crusade way of life, evangelizing frequently and conducting small discipleship groups. One semester I led the Crusade group at a local community college. But the overall spirituality and practice of Crusade worked to inflict on me an intense spiritual burnout, almost destroying my Christian life. And this spirituality and practice, I would discover, is fairly typical of large segments of Evangelicalism.

The major cause of this burnout was Campus Crusade’s emphasis on activity. I found that the genuineness of one’s spirituality was measured by his involvement in evangelism and discipleship. This pressure created in me an assumption that, if I did not have a personal ministry, I was not living the true Christian life.

In many ways this would have a corrupting influence on me, an experience which, I would insist, is shared by other Evangelicals. For example, the need to find opportunities to share our faith and win disciples would lead us to develop friendships with people—Christians and non-Christians alike—for an ulterior motive: the practical goal of fulfilling the Great Commission. People tended to become means for us to achieve our ministry objectives and this because our lives were dominated and motivated by an activist cause.

Perhaps the most corrupting effect was the way this activism turned me into a manipulator of people. It was bad enough that I felt manipulated by my fellow Crusaders, but it hurt me more that I began to manipulate others. People had applied subtle pressure on me to become involved, and as I sought my own disciples I put pressure on them. The great amount of recognition given to those with a successful ministry further fueled this manipulation.

I fell victim to this syndrome because my life had become identified with a cause and my participation in this cause was my primary source of satisfaction. It has required Catholic spirituality with its emphasis on the path of humility and on the performing of quiet deeds of mercy and charity to begin uprooting these tendencies from my heart.

One might wonder what became of the personal relationship with Christ so tirelessly preached by Evangelicals. Certainly Crusaders emphasized the importance of this relationship, but in my experience their practical orientation limited its development.

Scripture became a tool to be controlled by the reader to develop his character and increase his ministry. Absent was the Catholic understanding that through receptive, loving meditation on Scripture Christ is conceived in our souls and begotten into the world through deeds of love. Even our praising of God was strictly active, as we looked for attributes of God in Scripture for which we could praise him. Absent was the Catholic understanding of silent, loving adoration.

As my burnout developed, I dreaded the very idea of discipleship, and my Christian life became strained. I sought deeper roots in the Baptist church I had started attending, one of the finest Evangelical churches in my area. Unfortunately, this church could do little to help me regain a sound Christian life for the simple reason that its spirituality differed little from Crusade’s.

It really should not have surprised me that this church should have the same orientation as Crusade; after all, Evangelicals define themselves as Christians committed to the spread of the gospel. Their defining characteristic and reason for existing is commitment to a particular cause. This was shown vividly during a talk by a professor from Talbot Seminary. He explained we were put on Earth not to learn to worship God–after all, he reasoned, we will worship God better when we see him face to face in heaven–but to evangelize.

Evangelicals are limited by the press of practical activity. The efficacy of their public worship is crippled by its subordination to practical activity. I found that Baptist-type worship is essentially the same as Crusade’s: The singing and other activities are structured primarily to encourage enthusiasm in the congregants (and to evangelize non-Christians).

Both Crusade and contemporary Evangelicalism are descended from nineteenth-century revivalism. A hallmark of revivalism was the belief that excitement was necessary to spread and revive the true religion. Often Evangelical church services are conducted as if they were designed for entertainment; there is never any dead time. The congregation is fed songs, novel prayers, and preaching, with no opportunity for contemplative prayer.

Catholicism subordinates all causes to worship. In Catholicism, the summit of the Christian life is public worship of God in the liturgy, in continuity with the worship of God in heaven by the angels and saints. There is an essential continuity between our lives in heaven and on earth. This liturgical worship begins in receptivity—that is, in contemplation, which is nothing other than receptivity to reality and to God—and ends in sacrifice as we offer ourselves to God after receiving him deeper into our lives through the Eucharist.

This worship overflows into all of life, even the most active life, for even the most active life is subordinate to contemplative and sacrificial worship. From this overflow all of our activity is elevated to worship insofar as we become living sacrifices to God, expressed through our deeds of love. Evangelism is one form of these good deeds, an act of mercy to the souls of others as we, nourished by worship, draw others through their repentance and conversion into the true worship and adoration of God. Through the examples of Catholic saints such as Dominic and Catherine of Siena I have been filled with a new desire for the salvation of others. But Dominic in particular has shown me how to evangelize in accord with my own abilities and personality—through my love of learning—rather than according to the legalistic mold of Campus Crusade.

Thus for me the greatest benefit of Catholicism has been the restoration of a deep relationship with Christ, and I learned this through reading classical Catholic spiritual writers and theologians. Contrary to popular opinion, Catholic thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, always understood the need for a personal relationship with Christ.

They never used this term since, after all, even enemies can know each other personally, but explained instead that by justification we are made friends and lovers of God. And these Catholic writers understood what it meant to be a friend and lover of God better than any Evangelical writer I had ever encountered.

I learned from Bernard of Clairvaux and Catherine of Siena that the most fundamental form of prayer is the loving adoration of God, a prayer which exceeds the ability of words to express. Whereas Evangelicals often think of the Spirit-filled life as one in which the Spirit controls us, Catholic writers teach that being Spirit-filled means that, as we meditate on and contemplate Christ and the Trinity, the Spirit ignites our hearts with love, and thus we willingly obey God.

Evangelicals speak often of a relationship with God based on the gratitude felt when they realized that God loves the unlovable, but my gratitude and love for God has deepened as I’ve learned that God by his grace goes even further and makes us lovable in his sight. It is a commonplace among Catholic writers that God by grace beautifies the soul, adorning it with virtues; he does not leave us hateful to him, but dignifies us by enabling us through the grace of the indwelling Spirit of Christ to become worthy of eternal life.

The two aspects of Catholicism which Evangelicals most often claim are a hindrance to a personal relationship with Christ, ritual and hierarchy, have become for me a tremendous help in developing that relationship.

The sacrament of the Eucharist has created in me a deep awareness of my dependence on the grace of God. Genuflecting at Mass moves me to bow before Christ’s authority in all areas of my life, an experience which reflects the Catholic principle that bodily acts can influence the soul’s disposition.

The hierarchical elements of the Church have helped me draw nearer to Christ. Going to confession humbles me and helps uproot sinful tendencies from my heart. Obedience to the teachings and authority of the bishops and the Pope has helped free me from bondage to my own interpretations as the measure of truth. I believe my capacity to receive Christ has been deepened through this obedience. After all, Jesus said that whoever receives His messengers receives Him (Matt. 10:40).

Even though I value these spiritual benefits more than any other benefit, it was the intellectual struggles I went through which sealed my burnout and paved the way for my turning toward Catholicism. While in Crusade I spent much time in personal evangelism. As I shared my faith with other college students, intellectual objections to Christianity were hurled at me.

Being convinced that Christianity is not an irrational religion, I strove to find answers. I consulted commentaries and the writings of various Evangelicals to find solutions. Gradually, I began to find these answers inadequate and became disillusioned with Evangelical thought, wondering if my relationship with Christ was being maintained at the expense of truth.

The first category of intellectual difficulties comprised biblical passages which conflicted with Evangelical theology. For example, in preaching that we are justified by faith alone, I often encountered the objection that James, in the second chapter of his epistle, clearly states we are not justified by faith alone.

Evangelical commentators offered explanations of how this passage could agree with the Protestant interpretation of Paul’s doctrine of justification. I never found these interpretations satisfactory. I had the uneasy feeling that the passage was being explained away rather than explained.

Jesus’ emphasis on the role of works in salvation further disturbed me, while Paul himself never uses the phrase “faith alone.” In fact, the only time “faith alone” or “faith only” is used in Scripture is by James, and he conclusively rejects the concept: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Schaeffer’s influence prevented me from finding a solution to this problem so long as I remained a committed Evangelical.

Many other passages I encountered seemed to conflict with the broad outline of Evangelical theology and spirituality. This left me with a feeling of unease, yet I was hopeful that by trying to be more objective I could develop a more accurate understanding of biblical theology and spirituality. I was never able to do this while an Evangelical.

As I realize now, the narrow confines of Protestant theology had constricted my ability to penetrate deep into the teachings of Scripture. Ironically, after I began to read Catholic writers, especially the Church Fathers and medieval writers, Scripture began to make more sense to me.

Catholic thought opened Scripture up to me in a way Evangelical thought never could. From my Bible study I knew many Bible verses, but as I now realize their rich meanings typically eluded me. The truly decisive intellectual problem for me centered around the second pillar of Evangelicalism, the doctrine of sola scriptura, the Bible as the sole authority of faith and practice. This problem would involve me in epistemology, the study of how we can have knowledge at all.

Several specific issues gradually wore away my belief in sola scriptura. First, in my Baptist days I became interested in evangelizing Catholics, even acquiring materials from Mission to Catholics for this purpose. Seeking to find and expose the errors in the Catholic view of tradition and Church authority, I studied passages of Scripture used by Evangelicals in their polemic against the Church. Ultimately I found these arguments wanting.

Evangelicals argue that the injunction in Revelation 22:18-19 against adding anything to the “words of the prophecy of this book” secured sola scriptura and precluded Catholic tradition. But this “book of prophecy” refers only to the book of Revelation. This book was written as an individual book, not as the last section of an already-compiled New Testament.

Furthermore, I encountered passages of Scripture which positively suggested the Catholic view. In John 16:13-15 Jesus tells his apostles that the Spirit will guide them into “all truth.” This presented a dilemma for me. If we allowed that this promise extended beyond the eleven apostles then present, the Catholic understanding of Tradition and the infallibility of the magisterium would become reasonable. If the promise applied only to those present and to no one else, then many of the New Testament writers, such as Paul, could not have been inspired.

One could reply that the original apostles could pass on the grace of this spiritual guidance to others, but this implies successors to the apostles—and that is precisely the Catholic position.

It is not enough to say, as some Evangelicals do, that the apostles, such as Peter, merely approved what non-apostles, such as Mark, had written. If Mark’s Gospel was only “approved” by Peter, then that Gospel is only accurate, not inspired. For it to be inspired, the grace of the Spirit described in John 16 must have been passed on to Mark so he too would be inspired. Furthermore, this Evangelical argument concedes that it required the authority of the Church, with the apostles as its spokesmen, to determine what should be included in Scripture.

The challenge of secularism and atheism, from which Christianity had originally rescued me, still haunted me. I decided as I finished my studies in English to pursue a second major in philosophy, hoping to work through the philosophical challenges I had encountered while evangelizing. My studies began with epistemology.

Exposed to the scourges of positivism and Humean empiricism, I sought a foundation for response in the thought of Carl F. H. Henry, a leading Evangelical thinker. He did not help much; conceding much ground to empiricism, he argues that reason cannot prove the existence of God. Instead, all theology must be based on a single presupposition: the living God revealed in his Word. Henry presupposes the truth of (Evangelical) Christianity and proceeds to show the flaws of every other system of thought.

This question-begging not only failed to convince me, but it also showed the impoverishment of sola scriptura. Henry claimed his theory of knowledge was the biblical view, but it really stems from Descartes and post-Cartesian philosophy. It became apparent that in practice even Evangelicals don’t follow sola scriptura.

I had some familiarity with the historical defense of the authority of Scripture proposed by John Warwick Montgomery, an important Evangelical theologian opposed to presuppositionalism. In his view, we become convinced by historical evidence that Christ is the Son of God and that he spoke of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. This historical approach suggested Catholicism rather than Evangelicalism.

In the next phase on my studies I began investigating the thought of philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, and Heidegger. These writers exhibited a depth of thought and, yes, spirituality I never had found as an Evangelical. Although I could not give up my love for Christ, I was taken captive by philosophy. Two parallel processes began. On the one hand, I moved in the direction of the liberal experience-based theology which originated with Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century. In this approach, theology is essentially reflection on personal experiences.

On the other hand, while doing research for my master’s, I began studying writings of the Church Fathers and medieval theologians and mystics. I was struck by the sublimity of their reflections on the Incarnation and the Trinity, for these doctrines–or rather the realities they express–were an integral part of Catholic spirituality, not simply doctrines that must be reluctantly defended, mere intellectual liabilities. I fell in love with these central Christian truths, but they were undermined by the man-centered spirituality of the liberal theology I had embraced.

Liberation from this new spiritual mire came though Catholic thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, who had confronted philosophy and transformed it in the light of Christian revelation rather than retreating into an anti-intellectual ghetto. In doing this they were following the example of the apostle Paul, who exhorted us to bring every thought captive to Christ and who in his own preaching, as in Acts 17:28 and in his epistle to the Colossians, made use of Greek thought to communicate the gospel. This philosophical tradition helped me rediscover the reasonableness of the Christian faith and thus fulfilled the expectations raised by Schaeffer.

The final moment of my liberation from man-centered spirituality came with my discovery of Thomist realism, an alternative to empiricism and idealism. Three books especially helpful here were Ten Philosophical Mistakes by Mortimer Adler, Three Reformers by Jacques Maritain, and Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper. Realism allows us to reach beyond our sense impressions, unlike empiricism, and to be receptive to reality outside ourselves, unlike idealism. The receptivity of Catholic philosophy fully supports the receptivity of genuine Christian spirituality. Catholic philosophy and spirituality, I found, form an integral unity.

My spiritual and intellectual journey has taken me into Catholicism, where I have found the true and highest mysticism, in which there are no limitations to the depth of the loving relationship we can have with Christ, a relationship which allows us to live in accord with truth and rationality. Although I have only begun to grasp the riches of Catholic spirituality, I have no doubt that in finding Catholicism I found Christ in a more profound way than ever before in my Christian experience.”

Love,
Matthew

John Calvin’s total depravity. Why does evil exist?


-by Tim Staples, Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian televangelists. Soon after, Tim joined the Marine Corps.

“In John Calvin’s magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, he presents a view of man that is very much like Luther’s but contrary to what we find in the pages of Sacred Scripture. Calvin used texts such as Genesis 6:5—“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”—and Romans 3:10ff—“None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one ”—to prove that man is utterly depraved through the fall of Adam and Eve.

Calvin’s conclusion from these texts and others was to say, “The will is so utterly vitiated and corrupted in every part as to produce nothing but evil” (Institutes, bk. II, ch. II, para. 26).

What say we?

The context of the texts Calvin used actually demonstrates the opposite of his claim. For example, if we read forward just four verses in Genesis 6, we find: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. . . . Noah was a righteous [“just”] man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:8-9). While we Catholics agree that God’s grace or “favor” was essential for Noah to be truly “just” before God, nevertheless Noah was truly just, according to the text.

As far as the quote from Romans is concerned, the greater context of the entire epistle must be understood. One of the central themes of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is the fact that it is through “the goodness of God” that we are led to repent (cf. Romans 2:4), to be justified (Romans 5:1-2), and persevere in the faith (cf. Romans 11:22). It is solely because of God’s grace that we become truly just:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2).

Further,

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death . . . in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:2,4).

Notice the emphasis on the fact that man is made truly just so much so that he can fulfill “the just requirement of the law.” It doesn’t get any more just, or righteous, than that!

Thus, Romans 3:10ff simply does not teach total depravity in a Calvinist sense. It cannot when the context is understood.

Moreover, if we examine the verses where St. Paul paints his picture of the wicked who have “turned aside” and “done wrong,” we find he actually quotes Psalm 14:3. The next two verses of this Psalm explain who these “evil ones” are:

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord? There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous.

The Psalmist clearly refers to both evildoers and the righteous.

These and other passages from Romans tell us that Christ came to make us just, not that there are absolutely none who are just. We must stress again that it is because of the justice of Christ communicated to the faithful that their actions and, indeed, they themselves are truly made just. But they indeed are truly made just.

Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does right (Gr., ho poion tein dikaiousunein/ὁ ποιῶν τὴν δικαιοσύνην—“the one doing justice”) is righteous (Gr., dikaios estin/δίκαιός ἐστιν—“is just”) as He is righteous (Gr., kathos ekeinos dikaios estin/καθὼς ἐκεῖνος δίκαιός ἐστιν—“as He is just”). -1 Jn 3:7

Scripture couldn’t be clearer that the faithful are made truly just in their being and in their actions through the grace of Christ.

The problem magnified

More grave problems arise when we begin to follow the path Calvin lays for us with his first principle. Even when considering the unregenerate, Calvin is wrong about total depravity, because Scripture tells us even those outside of the law can “do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15).

Though Catholics agree with Calvinists that grace is necessary even for those who are ignorant of the law in order for them to be just before God—in other words, this text is not saying these pagans can be justified apart from grace—the text does infer that nature is not totally depraved, because man can clearly act justly on a natural level and by nature.

But an even more grave error comes to the fore when we consider his notion of the depravity of the just.

“Depravity of the just?” Yes. That was not a typo. According to John Calvin, even those who have been justified by Christ “cannot perform one work which, if judged on its own merits, is not deserving of condemnation” (Institutes, bk. III, ch. 9, para. 9). What a far cry this is from “he that acts justly is just” (I John 3:7) or the plain words of the Psalmist, who uses similar words as found in Genesis with regard to Abraham being justified by faith: “[Abraham] believed the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). In the Psalms we read: “Then Phineas stood up and interposed, and the plague was stayed. And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation” (Ps. 106:30-31).

Clearly, Phineas was justified by his works and not only by faith. In other words, Phineas’s works are truly “just as he is just,” to use the words of I John 3:7.

There are a multitude of biblical texts that come to mind at this point, but here are only three:

“For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned”? (Matt. 12:37).

“By works a man is justified and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24).

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).

These texts do not even come close to saying all of these works were “worthy of condemnation.” They say just the opposite!

We should be clear here: All “good works” man performs that contribute to his salvation are first and foremost God’s gifts, which, along with his cooperation, truly make him just and worthy to “walk with [Christ] in white; for [he is] worthy” (Rev. 3:4) by God’s grace and mercy. But we cannot escape the biblical fact that these works are truly just and they are truly the fruit of the just man himself.

Understanding the strange

When John Calvin says man is utterly dependent upon God for every single just thought in his mind (cf. Institutes, bk. II, ch. II, para. 27), Catholics will happily agree. And they would be correct: We do agree. However, appearances can be deceiving, because there is meaning beneath those words that Catholics cannot agree with.

With Calvin, there is no sense of grace aiding and empowering our wills as St. Augustine taught and the Catholic Church teaches. For Calvin, being “dependent upon God” means our free cooperation or free will has no part to play. God does not merely empower our wills; He operates them.

In the end, this may well be the most disturbing idea stemming from Calvin’s notion of total depravity: Man is essentially God’s puppet, a notion that led to Calvin attributing both the good and the evil actions of man to God.

And mind you, Calvin rejects and ridicules the Catholic notion of God merely permitting evil and working all things together for good. In his words:

Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting, because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that He directs their malice to whatever end He pleases” (Institutes, bk. I, ch. XVIII, para. 1).

Evildoers do not commit acts of depravity in spite of the command of God, but because of the command of God, according to Calvin (ibid., para. 4)!

Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 3:6 are used to teach that there is no evil that occurs that is not “impelled” by God’s positive command (ibid., para. 2).

God is the author of all those things that, according to these objectors, happen only by his inactive permission. He testifies that he creates light and darkness, forms good and evil (Is. [45:7]); that no evil happens which he hath not done (Amos [3:6]) (ibid., para. 3).

As Catholics we understand, as St. Paul teaches, “[S]ince they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Rom. 1:28). This means God may well remove grace that is rejected. He may also hold back grace as well, but this is, as St. Augustine said, God’s “just judgment.”

But according to Calvin’s unbiblical teaching, God does not give grace in the first place and then “impels” men to act sinfully. As quoted above, according to Calvin, God causes evil. And we are not talking about physical evil here; we are talking about moral evil. That is categorically absurd! God cannot “do” or “impel” moral evil because He is infinitely and absolutely good.

God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:8, Numbers 23:19); “He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13) or act contrary to His nature. If God’s nature is one of love and pure being, it is absurd to say that He can “do” evil, which is by nature a lack of some perfection that ought to be present in a given nature. In fact, James 1:13 tells us that God not only cannot cause this kind of evil, He cannot even tempt anyone with evil. That is contrary to His nature.

The bottom line

When Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 3:6 say God “creates evil” and “does evil,” this must be seen only in a sense in which it does not contradict God’s nature and what is clearly revealed to us about God in Scripture. God can directly cause physical evil, such as the ten plagues he released against Egypt in Exodus. But this was an act of justice, which was morally upright and justified.

We can also say that God permits evil in view of the fact that He chose to create us with freedom. But even there, God permits evil only in view of His promise to bring good out of that evil, as is most profoundly demonstrated through the greatest evil in the history of the world: the Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through this greatest evil God brings about the greatest good: the redemption of the world. God did not kill Christ, nor did he “impel” anyone to kill Christ.

But by virtue of His Omnipotence, He brings good out of the evil acts committed.”


-by Fr. David Meconi, SJ

“There is a certain convenience in the Calvinistic tendency to consider oneself “totally depraved.” If this were truly one’s condition, one would never need to ask forgiveness for any particular sin. There is no specific sin to name and no specific sin to avoid next time. There is no need to grow in self-knowledge, no rush to ask for the grace to overcome any one vice, no circumstance or moment to talk about and pray over the next day. If everything is a grave sin, then somehow nothing is a grave sin. As a result, even the sincerest followers of Jesus need never admit (or confess) anything particular. Moreover, our Savior’s own words—“Therefore, he who delivered me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11b)—would prove false. Even Christ’s warning that Sodom’s sin was more tolerable than the rejection he encountered at Capernaum (Matt. 11:22-24) would ring untrue.

But this way of looking at sin is not in Sacred Scripture nor is it the way any of Christ’s ancient Church approached sinful humanity’s need for grace. The apostles and Gospel authors understood well that some sins are clearly graver than others. For instance, John gives us an insight into how to navigate our way when looking at our own brokenness:

If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal (1 John 5:16-17).

The Latin here for a mortal sin is mortalis, and the great Christian Tradition has named the contrary to that scriptural warrant venialis, a common word meaning “not deadly” or even “pardonable,” that which is much lighter than mortalis. As such, the distinction between mortal and venial sin is not some medieval invention but a 2,000-year-old apostolic warrant by which Christ inspires us to take note of our sins and find the appropriate response in Him.”

Love,
Matthew

Salvation

“Why do I need to be saved?

We all need to be saved because of sin. That’s what we need to be saved from.

People today sometimes hesitate to use the word sin. For some people, this word is a reminder of a religious upbringing that they would rather forget. For others, it’s a strong word—one that can come across as intimidating. But regardless of how we feel about the word, the reality of sin is all around us.

We all know this. It doesn’t matter whether one is religious or secular, liberal or conservative. All human beings have an innate recognition that something is wrong with the world, that people do things that they should not, and that we ourselves do wrong.

It doesn’t matter who you are: Think about the things in this world that make you angry—things like cruelty, injustice, and indifference to the suffering of others. Every one of us can become morally outraged when we encounter these things in their pure, unadulterated forms.

We also have an inner sense—our conscience—that is meant to warn us when we are about to do something wrong, or that makes us feel ashamed when we have done wrong.

Regardless of what you call it, sin is a reality that is in the world and within us as well.

We also sense that sin must have consequences. If there is justice in the world, then ultimately, people can’t simply get away with doing wrong.

It’s easy to sense this when we consider evil written large—horrible conflicts that have killed millions, examples of genocide, or cases of ethnic cleansing. The people who cause these things simply cannot be allowed to get away with them! If there is justice in the world then they must somehow—someday—be called to account.

Yet we know that there are people who committed horrible crimes and seemed to get away with them entirely. Others may have suffered ome consequences for what they did, but nowhere near enough, given the horrors they committed. Dictators, terrorists, and mass murderers—without repenting or being sorry in the least for what they have done— have either died peacefully in bed or suffered only a fraction of what they did to others.

This shows us that justice is not always done in this life. Yet our hearts tell us that there should be justice in the world. And so there is, but not always in this life. Christianity holds that, while villains may get away with their deeds for a time, they will ultimately have to stand before their Creator and be accountable to him for what they have done.

This opens up a new perspective. Thus far we have been looking at evil in terms of wrongs done by one person against another. But when we consider our sins with respect to God, we see that there is another dimension.

Everything we have—every ability, talent, and aptitude—is a gift from God, and that means that every time we sin, we misuse one of God’s gifts. Sin thus involves an offense against God, a failure to love him and honor him by using his gifts properly.

Because our sins aren’t just against our fellow men, but against our infinitely good, all-holy, and eternal Creator, they carry a special gravity—one that can have eternal consequences. This adds a special urgency to our need for salvation.

When our consciences tell us that we have done wrong, and when our sense of justice tells us that we will be held accountable for what we have done, we naturally desire mercy. Our hearts call out for it. This is true both when we think of the wrongs we have done against other people and when we realize that they are offenses against God. Fortunately, in both cases, mercy—or salvation from the consequences of our sins—is available.

The human heart thus contains powerful intuitions that form the backdrop to the drama of salvation—the intuitions that sin is real, that there is justice and so sin has consequences in this life or the next, and that mercy or salvation is available for those who repent.

The Christian faith acknowledges these intuitions of the heart and the realities they point to. It recognizes the realities of sin, justice, and salvation—and the importance they have for all of us.”

Love,
Matthew

Justification


– detail from the “Last Judgment”, by Giotti, Cappella Scrovegni, 1306, Fresco, 1000 x 840 cm, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, please click on the image for greater detail.

The chapel is entered from the west, the side on which the sun goes down. In accordance with an old tradition, the entrance wall of the chapel is filled by the depiction of the Last Judgment. This scene is as complex and crowded as the frescoes on the side walls are concentrated and reduced to essentials. This large painting occupies the entire west wall across several registers. The three-light windows of the façade also had to be incorporated into the composition.

This extensive depiction of the Last Judgment is dominated by the large Christ in Majesty at its centre. The twelve apostles sit to His left and to His right. Here the two levels divide: the heavenly host appears above, people plunge into the maw of hell below, or are led by angels towards heaven.

The way this large fresco is divided into registers is traditional. But if we look at Giotto’s invention in detail, then his novel attempts at visualizing different spheres, as well as abstract beliefs, become particularly apparent. In the center of the representation, Christ is enthroned as supreme Judge in a rainbow-colored mandorla. The deep, radiant gold background, the style of painting, and the delicate substance give the impression that the heavens have opened in order to reveal the powerful, extremely solidly modeled figure of Christ. Different levels are likewise alluded to when the choirs of angels disappear behind the real window, or when the celestial watch in the upper area of the picture rolls back the firmament, behind which the golden-red doors of the heavenly Jerusalem shine forth. The black and red maw of hell, which seems to anticipate Dante’s “Inferno”, is different again in its impact.


-by Jimmy Akin

“On October 31, 1999, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a historic document known as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JD). This document, the fruit of almost thirty years of ecumenical dialogue, without a doubt will be widely misinterpreted in both the secular and religious press. This article is intended to help the reader understand the most important things that the document does and does not say, so that he may better sift through the inevitable misrepresentations.

How We Got Where We Are

For many years after the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics frequently portrayed the other side in the least favorable light. Too often, neither side was interested in giving the other side a sympathetic hearing. To the extent they read the works of the other party at all it was to look for theological ammunition.

Today there is a growing willingness among theologians and scholars on both sides to give a more nuanced reading to each other’s theology. One of the good fruits this openness has borne is progress on the subject of justification. Among Protestant groups, the Lutheran view of justification has always been closest to the Catholic view in many respects. (For example, Luther taught the necessity of baptism for justification, the practice of infant baptism, and the possibility of losing one’s salvation.)

As scholars from the two communities read each other’s writings, it became clear that the two sides were not as far apart on justification as had been imagined. Some apparent disputes were due to differences of emphasis rather than contradictions of belief.

Since 1972, several Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical statements on justification have been released by local groups, and the degree of agreement has been such that the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation decided to explore the possibility of issuing a joint declaration on the subject. Beginning in 1994, representatives of the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation drafted and circulated the proposed text for such a joint declaration. It was finalized in 1997, and the Lutheran World Federation approved it unanimously on June 16, 1998.

Then came a surprise: The Holy See announced that it would be releasing a document titled Response of the Catholic Church to the Joint Declaration of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification (Response). When this document was released a few days later on June 25, it did not endorse the Joint Declaration as it stood but expressed a number of reservations and indicated that certain points needed to be clarified.

This was an embarrassment. The drafting of the Joint Declaration had been a years-long process, and the text had already been finalized. The concerns that were announced on June 25 should have been brought up and the corresponding clarifications given before the Lutherans went out on a limb by voting to approve the declaration.

Though the Lutherans were taken aback by the Holy See’s sudden reticence, they summoned admirable tact to discuss the requested clarifications. The result was the drafting of an Annex to the Joint Declaration (Annex), which the two parties released the following year on June 11, together with the announcement that the formal signing of the Joint Declaration would take place October 31, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany.

Despite the embarrassing nature of the incident leading to the Annex, it demonstrates that the Joint Declaration is not the product of false ecumenism. The fact that the Holy See was willing to pursue a last-minute course of action so painful to both sides, and not proceed until clarifications were made, shows that the Holy See was determined that the document accurately reflect Catholic teaching.

The Big Picture

The Joint Declaration expresses its general conclusion a number of times, but perhaps most clearly when it says:

“The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this Declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics. In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification described in paragraphs 19 to 39 are acceptable. Therefore the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their difference open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding basic truths. . . .

“Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration [emphasis added] does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration” (JD 40-41).

In the 1500s the Council of Trent was faced with a bewildering array of mutually contradictory Protestant ideas on justification. What the Council did was to condemn the gravest errors, regardless of which Protestant or group of Protestants was advocating them. As a result, the condemnations issued by Trent did not, as a body, apply to any one Protestant or school of Protestantism.

Thus Trent never intended some of its condemnations to apply to Lutherans. The dialogue that has taken place since Trent has revealed that additional condemnations-which do condemn doctrinal errors regarding justification-do not apply to the teachings of Lutherans, at least not the Lutherans signing the Joint Declaration.

One of the most important sections in the Joint Declaration is titled “Explicating the Common Understanding of Justification.” This is the “meat” of the document when it comes to clarifying contentious issues, and it is divided into seven parts: (1) Human Powerlessness and Sin in Relation to Justification, (2) Justification as Forgiveness of Sins and Making Righteous, (3) Justification by Faith and through Grace, (4) The Justified as Sinner, (5) Law and Gospel, (6) Assurance of Salvation, and (7) The Good Works of the Justified. Let’s look at each of these.

1. Human Powerlessness and Sin in Relation to Justification

Lutherans have often used language suggesting not only that humans are powerless to seek justification without God’s grace (something with which Catholics agree), but that humans are unable in any way to cooperate with God’s grace, which they must receive in a “merely passive” manner. When Catholics have failed to go along with this extreme language, Lutherans have seen it as a denial of man’s inability to seek justification without God’s grace.

The Joint Declaration rectifies this misunderstanding, stating:

“We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation . . . for as sinners they stand under God’s judgment and are incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities. Justification takes place solely by God’s grace. . . . When Catholics say that persons ‘cooperate’ in preparing for and accepting justification . . . they see such personal consent as itself an effect of grace, not as an action arising from innate human abilities” (JD 19-20).

Unfortunately, this section went on to use the Lutheran “merely passive” description of man with respect to justification (n. 21) without fully explaining it. The Response of the Holy See asked that this be further clarified. Consequently, the Annex to the Joint Declaration affirmed that “The working of God’s grace does not exclude human action: God effects everything, the willing and the achievement, therefore we are called to strive (cf. Phil. 2:12 ff)” (Annex, 2C).

2. Justification as Forgiveness of Sins and Making Righteous

A subject of perennial disagreement has been the nature of justification. Lutherans have frequently characterized it as only a forgiveness of sins, while the Church insists that it is more than this. The Joint Declaration states:

“We confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin’s enslaving power and imparts the gift of new life in Christ. When persons come by faith to share in Christ, God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love. These two.aspects of God’s gracious action are not to be separated. . . .

“When Lutherans emphasize that the righteousness of Christ is our righteousness, their intention is above all to insist that the sinner is granted righteousness before God in Christ through the declaration of forgiveness and that only in union with Christ is one’s life renewed. When they stress that God’s grace is forgiving love (‘the favor of God’), they do not thereby deny the renewal of the Christian’s life” (JD 22-23).

This description of justification as both forgiveness of sins and inward renewal reflects Trent’s statement that justification “is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man” (DJ 7).

Some Catholics have been concerned that this section of the Joint Declaration does not mention what Trent called the “formal cause” of justification, which refers to the kind of righteousness one receives in justification. According to Trent (DJ 7, can. 11), there is a single formal cause of justification, which consists of sanctifying grace (cf. L. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 251-252). But the nature of sanctifying grace has not been finally determined. According to the common view (the Thomistic one), sanctifying grace is a quality God gives the soul and that always accompanies but is nevertheless distinct from the virtue of charity. The less common view (that of Scotists) holds that sanctifying grace and charity are the same thing.

The Joint Declaration does not raise this discussion. It is content to say that in justification God no longer imputes sin (i.e., he forgives or remits it) and that he creates charity in the believer. To construe the omission of the term “sanctifying grace” in favor of the term “charity” as an endorsement of the Scotist view would be a misreading of the document. It is not intended to settle questions that are still open for Catholics, much less intended to endorse the less common of two views.

3. Justification by Faith and through Grace

Two key Protestant slogans are “justification by grace alone” and “justification by faith alone.” (These do not contradict each other since they are speaking on different levels of what causes justification.)

Catholics have never had trouble affirming the first slogan, though Protestants commonly believe they do. But both Catholics and Lutherans often have wrongly thought that Catholics must reject the second slogan.

This confusion is based on a misreading of canon 9 of Trent’s Decree on Justification, which rejects the proposition that “the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will” (emphasis added).

As a careful reading of this canon shows, not every use of the formula “faith alone” is rejected, but only those that mean “nothing else is required,” etc. If one acknowledges that things besides the theological virtue of faith are required, then one’s use of the “faith alone” formula does not fall under the condemnation of Trent.

The classic Catholic alternative to saying that we are saved “by faith alone” is to say that we are saved by “faith, hope, and charity.” It is, however, possible for these two formulas to be equivalent in meaning.

Charity-the supernatural love of God-is what ultimately unites the soul to God. It therefore is recognized as the “form” of the virtues, the thing which binds them together and gives them their fullest meaning. Catholic theologians have historically talked about virtues like faith and hope being “formed” or “unformed” based on whether they are united with charity.

St. Paul tells us that charity “believes all things, hopes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Thus, if you have “formed faith,” you have not only faith, but hope and charity. This is why the two formulas-“faith alone” and “faith, hope, and charity”-can be equivalent. If you assert that we are justified by “faith alone”-and by that you mean formed faith-then there is no problem from the Catholic perspective. The phrase is not being used in a way that falls under Trent’s condemnation.

Different Protestants mean different things when they use the “faith alone” slogan. Some (rank antinomians) really do mean that one is justified by intellectual belief alone, without hope or charity. Others (many American Evangelicals) appear to believe one is justified by faith plus hope, which is trust in God for salvation. Many others (including the Lutherans signing the Joint Declaration) believe that charity, the principle behind good works, always accompanies faith, and so believe in justification by formed faith.

This is the sense reflected in the Joint Declaration, which states that “justifying faith . . . includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works” (JD 25).

It is this understanding that also lies behind statements in the Joint Declaration such as: “We confess together that persons are justified by faith in the gospel ‘apart from works prescribed by the law’ (Rom. 3:28)” (JD, 31).

However, it should be pointed out that the “faith alone” formula is unbiblical language. The phrase “faith alone” (pisteus monon) appears in the New Testament only once-in James 2:24-where it is rejected. For those who use this language, though, it can be given an acceptable meaning.

4. The Justified as Sinner

The section of the Joint Declaration that most concerned the Holy See was not, as some might have thought, the part dealing with justification by grace and faith. Rather, it was this section, which deals with the classic Lutheran expression that man is “at once righteous and a sinner” (simul justus et peccator).

The Holy See was concerned to uphold the Catholic teaching that “in baptism everything that is really sin is taken away, and so, in those who are born anew there is nothing that is hateful to God. It follows that the concupiscence that remains in the baptized is not, properly speaking, sin” (Response, Clarification 1).

This goes back to a dispute at the time of the Protestant breakaway, when Lutherans wished to say that the concupiscence (disordered desire) that remains in the individual after justification still has the character of sin. The Catholic Church has always taught that concupiscence “has never [been] understood to be called sin in the sense that it is truly and properly sin in those born again, but in the sense that it is from sin and inclines to sin” (Trent, Decree on Original Sin 5).

The Annex to the Joint Declaration responds by conceding that “it can be recognized from a Lutheran perspective that [concupiscent] desire can become the opening through which sin attacks” (Annex, 2B). This is fine. Concupiscence is a vulnerability that leads to sin but is not the sin itself.

Because concupiscence leads to sin, “we would be wrong were we to say that we are without sin (1 John 1:8-10, cf. JD 28). ‘All of us make many mistakes’ (Jas. 3:2). . . . This recalls to us the persisting danger that comes from the power of sin and its action in Christians. To this extent, Lutherans and Catholics can together understand the Christian as simul justus et peccator, despite their different approaches to this subject as expressed in JD 29-30″ (Annex, 2A).

5. Law and Gospel

Lutherans historically have drawn a sharp distinction between law and gospel, to the point that in Lutheran theology these seem to become abstract philosophical ideas. This is not the way the terms are used in Scripture. When the Bible refers to “the Law” it almost always means the Torah, the Law of Moses, which includes not only legal demands but promises God’s grace. Similarly, when the Bible speaks about “the gospel” it does not envision a set of unconditional promises. Salvation in Christ is conditional; it requires repentance and faith.

Lutherans have at times used language that suggests that Christ is only a Savior to be believed in, not also as a Lawgiver to be obeyed. To correct this, the Joint Declaration contains the affirmation: “We also confess that God’s commandments retain their validity for the justified and that Christ has by his teaching and example expressed God’s will, which is a standard for the conduct of the justified also” (JD 31).

Lutherans are sometimes suspicious of Catholic discussions of Christ as Lawgiver, thinking that this may reduce Christ to being just another Moses who brings demands rather than salvation. To address this concern, the Joint Declaration affirms: “Because the law as a way to salvation has been fulfilled and overcome through the gospel, Catholics can say that Christ is not a lawgiver in the manner of Moses. When Catholics emphasize that the righteous are bound to observe God’s commandments, they do not thereby deny that through Jesus Christ God has mercifully promised to his children the grace of eternal life” (JD 33).

6. Assurance of Salvation

This is one of the most misunderstood subjects relating to justification. Both sides have been needlessly polarized on the question of what kind of assurance one can have regarding salvation.

Too often, Lutherans have made it sound as if you can have absolute assurance that you will be saved. But they will admit that, due to the fallen nature of the human intellect and our capacity for self-deception (not to mention the possibility of falling from grace, which Lutherans acknowledge), you cannot have infallible certitude regarding salvation.

Too often Catholics have made it sound as if it is not possible to have any assurance of salvation. This is based on a misreading of the Council of Trent. The council stated only that one cannot “know with the certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error” (DJ 9; emphasis added) and that one cannot know “with an absolute and infallible certainty, [that he will] have that great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation” (DJ, can. 16; emphasis added).

So the two sides are really in agreement-assurance is possible, but not infallible assurance (barring special revelation). Thus the Joint Declaration affirms: “We confess together that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God.

In spite of their own weakness and the manifold threats to their faith, on the strength of Christ’s death and resurrection they can build on the effective promise of God’s grace in Word and Sacrament and so be sure of this grace. . . . In trust in God’s promise [believers] are assured of their salvation, but are never secure looking at themselves. . . . No one may doubt God’s mercy and Christ’s merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings” (JD 34-36).

7. The Good Works of the Justified

Lutherans have been suspicious for a long time that the Church’s discussion of good works means that one must do good works in order to enter a state of justification. This has never been the case. In fact, in Catholic teaching, one is not capable of doing supernaturally good works outside of a state of justification because one does not have the virtue of charity in one’s soul-the thing that makes good works good. Consequently, the Council of Trent taught “none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification” (DJ 8).

The Joint Declaration thus stresses that good works are a consequence of entering a state of justification, not the cause of entering it:

“We confess together that good works-a Christian life lived in faith, hope, and love-follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. . . .

“When Catholics affirm the ‘meritorious’ character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace” (JD 37-38).

Important Cautions

The text of the Joint Declaration contains a number of important cautions to prevent the meaning and significance of the document from being misunderstood.

Neither side is retracting its position, going back on its history, or “caving in.” “This Joint Declaration rests on the conviction that . . . the churches neither take the condemnations [of the sixteenth century] lightly nor do they disavow their own past ” (JD 7).

The document does not cover all of the doctrine of justification. “The present Joint Declaration . . . does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations” (JD 5).

The Catholic Church’s condemnations of the Reformation era were not wrong. “Nothing is . . . taken away from the seriousness of the condemnations related to the doctrine of justification. . . . They remain for us ‘salutary warnings’ to which we must attend in our teaching and practice” (JD 42).

The document does not cover all disagreements between Catholics and Lutherans. “There are still questions of varying importance which need further clarification. These include, among other topics, the relationship between the Word of God and church doctrine, as well as ecclesiology, authority in the church, ministry, the sacraments, and the relation between justification and social ethics” (JD 43).

Due to the remaining differences, the two sides still cannot unite. “Doctrinal condemnations were put forward both in the Lutheran Confessions and by the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Trent. These condemnations are still valid today and thus have a church-dividing effect” (JD 1).

This declaration applies only to Catholics and Lutherans: This is so obvious, the document does not explicitly point it out. It is, however, important to understand that the Holy See is not saying that any and all Protestant views on justification share the same status as the ones described in the Joint Declaration. The Lutherans are the closest on justification in many respects, but others aren’t nearly as close.

Consequences for Apologetics

The Joint Declaration has great ecumenical significance, but it is a watershed as well in the history of Catholic-Protestant apologetics.

It will be unnecessary now for Catholic apologists to maintain a confrontational stance on this topic when the Church is taking a different tack. This is especially true concerning the seven topics from section 4 of the Joint Declaration, including the touchy subject of the “faith alone” formula. Catholics who insist on being confrontational on these issues will increasingly find themselves facing the rejoinder, “How can you say that when your own Church says something different?”

Consequently, it is better for the apologist to be conciliatory on justification. This will have a number of positive effects. It will keep our language in conformity with the language of the Church. It will force us to learn the Church’s theology of justification in greater depth, rather than simply repeating stock formulas. And, most importantly, it will make our message more appealing to Protestants who might be interested in converting.”

Love & unity,
Matthew

Once saved, always saved? 3


– detail from the “Last Judgment”, by Giotti, Cappella Scrovegni, 1306, Fresco, 1000 x 840 cm, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, please click on the image for greater detail.

The chapel is entered from the west, the side on which the sun goes down. In accordance with an old tradition, the entrance wall of the chapel is filled by the depiction of the Last Judgment. This scene is as complex and crowded as the frescoes on the side walls are concentrated and reduced to essentials. This large painting occupies the entire west wall across several registers. The three-light windows of the façade also had to be incorporated into the composition.

This extensive depiction of the Last Judgment is dominated by the large Christ in Majesty at its centre. The twelve apostles sit to His left and to His right. Here the two levels divide: the heavenly host appears above, people plunge into the maw of hell below, or are led by angels towards heaven.

The way this large fresco is divided into registers is traditional. But if we look at Giotto’s invention in detail, then his novel attempts at visualizing different spheres, as well as abstract beliefs, become particularly apparent. In the center of the representation, Christ is enthroned as supreme Judge in a rainbow-colored mandorla. The deep, radiant gold background, the style of painting, and the delicate substance give the impression that the heavens have opened in order to reveal the powerful, extremely solidly modeled figure of Christ. Different levels are likewise alluded to when the choirs of angels disappear behind the real window, or when the celestial watch in the upper area of the picture rolls back the firmament, behind which the golden-red doors of the heavenly Jerusalem shine forth. The black and red maw of hell, which seems to anticipate Dante’s “Inferno”, is different again in its impact.


-by Tim Staples, Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian televangelists. Soon after, Tim joined the Marine Corps.

“Some 1,600 years ago, St. Augustine wrote:

“In that one [Adam], as the apostles says, all have sinned. Let, then, the damnable source be rebuked, that from the mortification of rebuke may spring the will of regeneration—if, indeed, he who is rebuked is a child of promise,—in order that, by the noise of the rebuke sounding and lashing from without. . . . God may by his hidden inspiration work in him from within to will also. If, however, being already regenerate and justified, he relapses of his own will into an evil life, assuredly he cannot say, “I have not received,” because of his own free choice to evil he has lost the grace of God that he had received (On Rebuke and Grace, ch. 9).”

The word “IF” is the most important little word in human discourse. St. John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity” (emphasis added). Notice, St. John includes himself in that “we”!

What happens if we refuse to confess our sins? Will God forgive them anyway? Not according to Scripture (see Matthew 5:14, 12:31-32; I John 1:9, etc.). And the Bible is unequivocable that no sin can enter into heaven (see Habrews 1:13, Revelation 21:8-9, 27).

St. John goes on to say:

“As for you, let that which you have heard from the beginning abide in you. If that abide in you, which you have heard from the beginning, you also shall abide in the Son, and in the Father (I John 2:24, emphasis added).”

We are not talking about a few isolated examples of our salvation being contingent upon our actions. There are “if” and various other forms of contingency clauses throughout the New Testament used in the context of our salvation. Colossians 1:22-23:

“And you, whereas you were . . . enemies . . . now he has reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unspotted, and blameless before him: If you continue in the faith, grounded and settled and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard.”

I Corinthians 15:1-2:

“Now I make known unto you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you have received, and wherein you stand; By which you are saved, if you hold fast after what manner I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain.”

But did they really know him?

In the discussion of the perseverance of the saints, it is inevitable that the point will be made that whenever the Scripture talks about people falling away from grace and from God, the people “falling away” never really knew Christ to start with. Let’s take a look at two texts that are usually used in this regard.

I John 2:19:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.

“You see?” a Protestant will say. “If they were truly Christians, ‘born again,’ and if they really knew Jesus, they would endure until the end. God will not allow anything else.”

That is certainly going beyond what is actually written here. The text doesn’t say they were never with the Lord. St. John may just be saying these folks who left Christ bodily had already departed from him in their hearts some time before. That would be a more literal rendering of the words of the text.

Matthew 7:21-23:

Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.”

“You see?” the Protestant will say. “Jesus plainly says; he never knew them! They were never Christians to begin with!”

I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said that Christ here was saying he never knew the people that these had become, not that he never knew them at all. This is analogous to a woman who leaves her husband after years of marriage and says, “I never knew you!” It is not that she never loved her husband nor is she saying she never had an intimate relationship with her husband. She does not know the man with whom she is parting ways. This is certainly a valid interpretation of this text.

However, my take on this text is different. I like to point out here that Jesus said many people. He did not say all people. The same could be said of I John 2:19 as well. There will be “many people” who will be lost who never even heard of Jesus at all, or those who were indifferent to Christ and certainly never “prophesied in [his] name” or “cast out demons in [his] name.” For the Calvinist, this text at very best tells us only that some people who parade around and proclaim the name of Christ are not true and obedient believers.

The bottom line is this: Scripture may well indicate that many who will be lost will have never known the Lord. That is to be expected. But Scripture also indicates to us that there are at least some who will have known Christ and then fall away from him. II Peter 2:20-22 is an example of this:

“For if, flying from the pollutions of the world, through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they be again entangled in them and overcome: their latter state is become worse than the former. . . . For, that of the true proverb has happened to them: The dog is returned to his vomit: and, the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire.”

This text hardly needs comment. The Greek word here for “knowledge” is epignosei. Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament explains the importance of this word: “[A]n opinion can be correct [or possess the aleitheia, or “truth”], but only the ginoskon has the certainty that he grasps the aleitheia” (truth). Moreover, “It relates to the knowledge acquired in experiences both good and bad” (vol. 1, 690.).

And when we consider the persons in the text have “escaped the pollutions of the world” through this “experiential knowledge” of Jesus, we would have to conclude that only a personal relationship with the Lord could have the effect that is being described.

And note the image Peter uses in verse 22: the sow that had been washed in water. Water is the symbol St. Peter uses for baptism in I Peter 3:20-21. The connection seems obvious. The sow that was cleansed, representing the person cleansed from sin, returns to the mud as the penitent may return to his sin later in life. His “last state has become worse . . . than the first” (II Peter 2:20).

Moreover, when we back up in the text to II Peter 1:2-4 to establish an even better context, we note how Peter begins his epistle with a description of Christians:

“Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge [the Greek word is epignosei, the same word used in 2:20] of God, and of Jesus our Lord . . . that . . . ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped [the Greek word for having escaped is “apophugontes“, the same word used in 2:20] the corruption that is in the world [Greek: en to kosmo, the same word used in a different form in 2:20] through lust.

The same words used to describe what Christians have been freed from in chapter 1 are used to describe the person in chapter 2 just before he goes back to his old state and ends worse than he was before he ever knew Jesus. I don’t see how St. Peter could be any clearer on this point.

The Bible really is clear

There are literally scores of biblical texts we could use to demonstrate the fallacy of “once saved, always saved.” But for lack of space, I’ll list a dozen.

1. In Matthew 6:15 Jesus tells us “if you do not forgive men, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your offenses.” I don’t care how “born again” you are or how many experiences you may have had, if you don’t forgive others, you will not be forgiven, according to the text. And there will be no people in heaven God refuses to forgive (see Revelation 21:27; Hab. 1:13)!

2. Galatians 5:4 says Christians can “fall from grace.” You have to be in a state of grace in order to fall from it.

3. In John 15:1-6, Jesus uses the metaphor of a vine and branches for himself (the vine) and Christians (the branches). And yet, he would then say if a Christian “does not abide” in the vine, he will be “cast forth as a branch . . . gathered, [and] thrown into the fire” (v. 6).

4. Romans 11:18-22 tells us we can be “cut off” from Christ and be lost. Verse 22 says, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.”

5. Revelation 22:18-19 warns us that God can “take away [our] share in the tree of [eternal] life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

6-10. The sacred text assures us over and over again that if we commit certain sins and we do not repent of them, we will not go to heaven (see Matthew 5:44-45, 10:32-33; Ephesians 5:3-5; I Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 21:6-8). It makes no sense, if we are justified by faith alone, that what we do would be so plainly said to be the cause of eternal damnation.

11-12. Hebrews 12:14-16 tells us we can “sell [our] birthright,” or our “inheritance” in the image of Esau. And both Hebrews 12:14 and Romans 8:14-17 teach our “inheritance” to be eternal life.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Once saved, always saved? 2


– detail from the “Last Judgment”, by Giotti, Cappella Scrovegni, 1306, Fresco, 1000 x 840 cm, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, please click on the image for greater detail.

The chapel is entered from the west, the side on which the sun goes down. In accordance with an old tradition, the entrance wall of the chapel is filled by the depiction of the Last Judgment. This scene is as complex and crowded as the frescoes on the side walls are concentrated and reduced to essentials. This large painting occupies the entire west wall across several registers. The three-light windows of the façade also had to be incorporated into the composition.

This extensive depiction of the Last Judgment is dominated by the large Christ in Majesty at its centre. The twelve apostles sit to His left and to His right. Here the two levels divide: the heavenly host appears above, people plunge into the maw of hell below, or are led by angels towards heaven.

The way this large fresco is divided into registers is traditional. But if we look at Giotto’s invention in detail, then his novel attempts at visualizing different spheres, as well as abstract beliefs, become particularly apparent. In the center of the representation, Christ is enthroned as supreme Judge in a rainbow-colored mandorla. The deep, radiant gold background, the style of painting, and the delicate substance give the impression that the heavens have opened in order to reveal the powerful, extremely solidly modeled figure of Christ. Different levels are likewise alluded to when the choirs of angels disappear behind the real window, or when the celestial watch in the upper area of the picture rolls back the firmament, behind which the golden-red doors of the heavenly Jerusalem shine forth. The black and red maw of hell, which seems to anticipate Dante’s “Inferno”, is different again in its impact.


-by Tim Staples, Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian televangelists. Soon after, Tim joined the Marine Corps.

“The reformed “Westminster Confession,” ratified in 1647, gives us a pithy statement that sums up well what is meant by “the perseverance of the saints,” or “once saved, always saved,” the fifth and final of the five points of Calvinism’s TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints):

God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified, and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure; and in that condition they have not usually the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance (Westminster Confession, ch. XI, “Of Justification,” para. V).

So true believers can never fall from the state of justification. Yet their sins need to be forgiven or else they can “fall under God’s fatherly displeasure.” But they would still go to heaven, even if they die in this state of “God’s fatherly displeasure.” So, are the sins already forgiven—before they are forgiven again when they are confessed? Or are they really “forgiven” when they are confessed?

The answer for Calvinists is “Yes—and, no.” James White, a Calvinist apologist writes:

This remission of all sins is not limited to past sins only, but to all sins, past, present, and future. . . . The problem with accepting this fact is easy to see: how can we speak of sins being forgiven when they haven’t even been committed as yet? And why do we read that we as believers are to confess our sins? Yet, on the other hand, it seems far more difficult to understand how Christ’s death is insufficient to bring about full pardon of all sins, but has to be “re-applied” repeatedly (The God Who Justifies: A Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of Justification, 98-99).

I don’t find it hard in the least to understand how Christ’s sacrifice has to be “re-applied” to our lives “repeatedly.” And this doesn’t mean it is “insufficient to bring about full pardon of all sins,” either.

First of all, I John 2:2 plainly reveals the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice: “[Jesus Christ] is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also the sins of the whole world.”

But what White and Calvinists in general do not understand is, yes, the blood of Christ must be applied to our lives repeatedly through faith and obedience to the word of God:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:7-9).

According to St. John, the fact that the blood of Christ must be “re-applied” to our lives “again and again” does not mean it is “insufficient.” It simply means that the objectively all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ must be applied subjectively to each of the faithful through his willing cooperation.

Among the errors we could consider at this point, perhaps the central misstep is found in Mr. White’s assertion that all sins are forgiven, “past, present, and future.” Not only does the Bible not teach this but on the very next page of Mr. White’s book he quotes the famous Calvinist theologian, Charles Hodge:

So that it would perhaps be a more correct statement to say that in justification the believer receives the promise that God will not deal with him according to his transgressions, rather than to say that sins are forgiven before they are committed (The God Who Justifies, 100).

So which is it? Are all sins forgiven, or are they just “not dealt with?” And this is not to mention that no proponent of either of these two scenarios has ever given a coherent accounting for I John 1:8-9: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Why do our sins have to be forgiven if they have already been forgiven?

For the Catholic it’s simple. We believe that we must confess our sins in order to be forgiven of them, as the Bible says. And if we refuse to confess our sins, then we will not be forgiven.

The more difficult texts

There are two crucial texts that we must deal with in order to understand and be able to respond to this notion of “once saved, always saved” from a Reformed perspective: Romans 4:8 and I John 5:13. These are not the only two, but they are perhaps the most important.

Romans 4:7-8: “Blessed are those who iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”

In Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 3, ch. 11, John Calvin begins his section on “Justification by Faith,” and this is one of the first texts he uses. Charles Hodge, quoted above, was referring to this text when he claimed that God “will not deal with [the justified] according to his [future] transgressions.” So, then, according to Hodge, the “forgiveness” of I John 1:9, is not really forgiveness. St. John really means God just doesn’t deal with the Christian’s sins?

I think the text of St. John speaks for itself. But is this what St. Paul is saying in Romans 4? If, for example, a man who is justified commits adultery, he is as just after committing this sin as he was before?

Actually, Romans chapter 4 says nothing of the sort. In 4:7-8, St. Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2—a psalm of David written in the context of his having confessed his infamous sins of murder and adultery. The reason God “would not reckon” David’s sins against him was because David had confessed his sin and been forgiven! Psalm 32:5 says:

I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.

This text does not even come close to saying David’s sins were forgiven (or they are not reckoned as sin) before they were confessed! According to the inspired author, David “acknowledged [his] sin,” and “then [God forgave] the guilt of [his] sin.”

St. Paul makes clear to Christians that God doesn’t simply “not deal with” their sins:

But immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:3-7).

St. Paul here eliminates any possibility of getting around the fact that if believers commit these sins and do not repent, they will not go to heaven. Yet, according to John Calvin and the Westminster Confession, these sins that St. Paul says will exclude someone from the kingdom of heaven will not do so if that someone is a Christian. That is why, again, according to the Westminster Confession, these sins will only bring about God’s “fatherly displeasure” in a temporal sense.

I John 5:13: “These things I write to you, that you may know you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God” (emphasis added).

Rooted in this text and others, the Westminster Confession claims that believers can have

. . . an infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God (Westminster Confession, ch. XVIII, ”Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation,” para. 2).

The fact is: one cannot have infallible certainty without an infallible teacher. None of the authors of the Calvinist creeds—or Calvin himself—ever claimed the charism of infallibility. A thinking person would then have a real problem with the Calvinist use of the term infallible in the first place. The truth of this supposed “certainty” would be closer to the “burning in the bosom” of a Mormon, then true “infallible” certainty.

But what about I John 5:13 and the claim that we may know that we have eternal life?

The Greek word for knowledge (from the verb oida) in I John 5:13 does not necessarily mean an absolute certainty is being expressed.[1] We use the verb to know similarly in English. For example, I may say, “I know I am going to get an A on my Greek exam tomorrow.” Does that mean I have metaphysical certainty of this? No! I may in fact get a B or worse. Ever freeze up during an exam? What I mean and what the verb to know can be used to mean is that I have confident assurance of an A, because I have studied and know the material thoroughly.

The next two verses after I John 5:13 demonstrate this to be the usage of oida in I John 5:13:

And we have this confidence in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us, and if he hears us we know [again, a derivative of oida] that what we have asked him for is ours.

Do we have absolute certainty that we will receive everything we ask of the Lord? No. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” I John 3:22 says, “And whatsoever we ask, we shall receive of him: because we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” We cannot be absolutely certain that we have not “cherished iniquity” in our hearts or done a thing or two that has displeased the Lord.

But most importantly, we must acknowledge that God is sovereign. In the end, we must trust God as his children that he will grant what is best for us. Sometimes what we just know is best for us isn’t. Or, as the unrighteous discover at the last judgment, according to Matthew 25:41-46, what they just knew was just for them actually was not. “Lord, when . . . ?”

[1] Another example of this usage of “knowledge” is found in Acts 20:25. Here St. Paul says to the elders of Miletus, Ephesus, and other areas of Greece and Asia Minor: “I know that all you among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom will see my face no more.” And yet, we know he was both later, during his imprisonment in Rome, hopeful that he would return there (see Philo. 1:10,22; Phil. 2:24, 1:1-2, 13-14), and that he actually did return because in his last inspired letter he writes of a later visit to Miletus where he left Trophimus there ill (II Tim. 4:20). Trophimus continued with him after the earlier trip where St. Paul made his statement that he “knew” he would never return or see them again (see Acts 20:4, 21:9).”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Is justification ongoing?


– detail from the “Last Judgment”, by Giotti, Cappella Scrovegni, 1306, Fresco, 1000 x 840 cm, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, please click on the image for greater detail.

The chapel is entered from the west, the side on which the sun goes down. In accordance with an old tradition, the entrance wall of the chapel is filled by the depiction of the Last Judgment. This scene is as complex and crowded as the frescoes on the side walls are concentrated and reduced to essentials. This large painting occupies the entire west wall across several registers. The three-light windows of the façade also had to be incorporated into the composition.

This extensive depiction of the Last Judgment is dominated by the large Christ in Majesty at its centre. The twelve apostles sit to His left and to His right. Here the two levels divide: the heavenly host appears above, people plunge into the maw of hell below, or are led by angels towards heaven.

The way this large fresco is divided into registers is traditional. But if we look at Giotto’s invention in detail, then his novel attempts at visualizing different spheres, as well as abstract beliefs, become particularly apparent. In the center of the representation, Christ is enthroned as supreme Judge in a rainbow-colored mandorla. The deep, radiant gold background, the style of painting, and the delicate substance give the impression that the heavens have opened in order to reveal the powerful, extremely solidly modeled figure of Christ. Different levels are likewise alluded to when the choirs of angels disappear behind the real window, or when the celestial watch in the upper area of the picture rolls back the firmament, behind which the golden-red doors of the heavenly Jerusalem shine forth. The black and red maw of hell, which seems to anticipate Dante’s “Inferno”, is different again in its impact.


-by Mark Brumley

“Romans 5:1 (“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ”) is often cited in defense of the Reformed view that justification is a once for all declaration by God; justification can neither be increased nor lost. Paul’s use of the aorist tense in Greek (“we have been justified”) supposedly demonstrates that justification is exclusively a “past, completed act” which confers a state of justification unalterable by a subsequent act of the believer.

Why won’t this argument work? Because the aorist doesn’t function the way the Reformed argument presupposes.

Although the Bible speaks in Romans 5:1 of justification as a “past, completed act,” this doesn’t mean it can’t be altered, for better or worse, by what we do. To say an act has been completed needn’t imply that no further development or change is possible.

Consider the biblical teaching about sanctification. (Most proponents of the Reformed position see justification and sanctification as two distinct things; Catholics see them as complementary ways of talking about the same thing—being “in Christ”).

Paul speaks of sanctification as a “past, completed act”—in the aorist tense—in 1 Corinthians 6:11. He tells his readers, “You have been washed, you have been sanctified, you have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God.” At the same time, Scripture teaches sanctification or holiness is something into which we can grow.

In 2 Corinthians 7:1 Paul says we should “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit and strive for perfect holiness out of fear of God.” The writer to the Hebrews exhorts us to consider our trials as discipline from our heavenly Father, “in order that we share his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). We’re advised to “strive for that sanctity without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb.12:14).

If sanctification means to make holy, then Christians are progressively sanctified or made holy as they strive, by the grace of God, to attain “that sanctity without which no one will see the Lord.” Christians can also fall into sin and impurity—into “unsanctity.” This is the point of Paul’s repeated warnings to believers not to return to the sinful lifestyles they left behind (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:16-21; Eph. 5:3-5):

“It is God’s will that you should be holy; that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you” (1 Thess. 4:3-7).

Sanctification, then, is both a “past, completed action” and something which believers can increase or from which they can fall away through sin. This leads us to ask, “If Paul’s use of the aorist with respect to sanctification doesn’t preclude progress or regress, why should it do so with respect to justification?”

To this advocates of the Reformed view reply, “Because the gratuitousness of justification would be undone. If we could increase our justification or righteousness through our obedience, even through grace-empowered obedience, this would contradict Paul’s teaching that we’re ‘justified by faith apart from works of the Law’” (Rom. 3:28).

This answer neglects three key points: (1) In Romans 3:28 Paul is speaking of initial justification rather than righteousness in the ongoing life of the believer; (2) when he speaks of the works of the Law, Paul is concerned with Mosaic observances such as circumcision, not acts of Christian obedience; (3) human cooperation doesn’t undermine the gratuitousness of God’s work in us, but can be an expression of it. Consider each point in turn.

Our works of obedience as Christians don’t earn our initial justification. How could they, since such deeds follow and flow from it? The Council of Trent says as much when it observes that “we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification” (Session Six, Chapter VIII).

At the same time, works of Christian obedience contribute something if the term justification is used to refer not merely to our initial justification, but to our growth in righteousness as regenerated children of God. This is the justification to which James refers when he writes that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

When Paul contrasts faith with works, it’s clear from the context (Romans 3:1; 4:9-12) he means works of the Mosaic Law—ritual prescriptions such as circumcision given to identify one as a Jew, to convict of sin, and to point to the Redeemer who would remit sin. This is different from works of Christian obedience which lead to righteousness (Rom. 6:16). With respect to the latter, even faith itself can be spoken of as obedience (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).

If the gratuitousness of sanctification isn’t undermined by its capacity for increase through obedience or loss through disobedience, why should justification be? Only by assuming that justification is unalterable—an assumption grammatical arguments about the aorist tense will not uphold—could we conclude that increasing or decreasing in justification is, per se, incompatible with justification by grace.

Works of obedience which contribute to our sanctification are as much the result of grace as is our faith. This is why Paul can say, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work” (Phil. 2:12). As Augustine puts it, “When God rewards our merits, he rewards his own gifts to us.”

Although sanctification is a more dramatic refutation of the Reformed position regarding justification and the aorist tense, there are other biblical examples which could be cited, each equally deadly to the thesis. Space doesn’t permit us to examine each of these; let’s consider just two poignant cases.

In John 11:14 Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus has died. The word used in this passage is apethanen—the third person, singular, second aorist active, indicative form of apothnesko (“I die”). Lazarus’s death was certainly a “past, completed act,” yet his condition wasn’t unalterable. After all, Jesus raised him from the dead (John 11:43-44).

In 2 Peter 2:20 the first pope mentions lapsed Christians who, “having escaped the defilement of the world through a full knowledge of the Lord and savior Jesus Christ,” return to their old sinful ways. The word for “having escaped” is apophugontes. This is the second aorist, active, participial, nominative, plural, masculine form of apopheugo (“I flee from” or “I escape”).

If use of the aorist automatically means an unchangeable “past, completed act,” then those having lapsed would have been incapable of falling away at all. A “past, completed act”—in this case, having “escaped the defilement of the world”—is changed by subsequent apostasy.

Of course staunch advocates of the Reformed position, holding as they do the doctrine “once saved, always saved,” contend these lapsi were never truly Christians in the first place. Yet the text indicates otherwise, for it describes these people as having “escaped the defilement of the world through a full knowledge of the Lord and savior Jesus Christ.” Surely only true believers could be described as possessing “a full knowledge of the Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

Even granting (but not conceding) that Peter isn’t talking about authentic believers who have lapsed, the grammatical point regarding the use of the aorist in the passage still stands. People who once escaped the defilement of the world, regardless of whether this means they were true Christians or not, are said to have returned to it. There’s nothing in the aorist tense which prevents them from having done so.

Back to Romans 5:1. Even though Paul refers to believers as those who “have been justified through faith,” his use of the aorist doesn’t rule out a change in the state of justification by subsequent behavior, any more than other biblical uses of the aorist preclude a “past, completed” state of affairs from being altered by subsequent events.

Nothing we do as believers after our initial justification can change the fact that “we have been justified through faith” at some time in the past, but this doesn’t mean we can’t our alter justification in the present, whether by increasing it through “working out” our salvation (Phil. 2:12) or by forfeiting it through sin (1 Cor. 6:7-10; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:1-5).”

Love & truth,
Matthew