Category Archives: Lutheranism

Luther – Merit & Love

“Love is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 3, Life in Christ, Section 1, Man’s Vocation Life in the Spirit, Chapter 1, The Dignity of the Human Person, Article 7, The Virtues, #1822

“…For love and a reflex movement of the mind are directly opposed to each other. In true love, as in true faith, a man moves away from his (false) self to find his (true) self. Reflexive faith, on the contrary, returns to the ego.

Since true Christian charity, or love, is primarily directed to God, it is love for God that is crippled most by the new kind of faith. Outside of pietistic movements, love for God or Christ has become widely unknown or is even expressly rejected in Protestantism. As early as 1518, Luther denied the possibility of contrition out of love for God.1 Melanchthon, the first dogmatician of Lutheranism, contended that a man suffering the accusations of his own conscience is unable to love God,2 and this view, laid down as it is in one of the Confessions of Lutheranism, has come to share in the authority that these books enjoy. Luther could say: “Love God in his creatures; He does not will that you love Him in his majesty.”3

This quotation shows that, though love for God loses its primacy, brotherly love is urged emphatically. When Luther speaks of love he almost invariably refers to love of one’s neighbor. We shall see, however, that the new orientation of his religion assigned to brotherly love a spiritual function and a theological position quite different from the place it holds in biblical and Catholic spirituality and doctrine. Love is not identical with good works, but is necessarily operative in them. Good or meritorious works are, by definition, works done out of love for God. Love is infused by the Holy Spirit, Who is the Spirit of freedom. Therefore, the Holy Spirit, love, freedom, and good works are inseparably interlinked. Faith is the basis of love…

…”Then “I do good works, love God, offer thanks, practice love of my neighbor. But this love or these works do not inform or adorn my faith but my faith informs and adorns my love.”16 The last quoted sentence implicitly polemicizes against the Catholic doctrine that the act of faith is perfected by being informed (pervaded or animated) by love.17 This doctrine is nothing but an expression of a biblical idea. In 1 Corinthians 13:1–3:7, ( Ed.  “…if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” – 1 Cor 13:2; Shema) St. Paul says that all proclamation, all faith, and all works are “nothing” without love; for it is love that believes and hopes…

…Luther has reversed the traditional doctrine. He teaches that it is not love that informs faith but faith that informs love…What he wants to emphasize is that love has no place in acts relevant to justification or in the spiritual life proper. Only after reflexive faith has been properly established can love and works be practiced…

…Now if faith, instead of being informed with love, has rather to inform love, what is the part that faith has to play in the just man’s good works? We have already mentioned Luther’s view about man’s obligation to assert that his works are pleasing to God (Chapter I, Section 3). Since the act of faith, in his opinion, amounts to performing an assertion, it is consistent that he could say, as he did in his early Protestant period, that the prime good work was faith itself.20 The assertion of the works’ agreeableness to God is the kind of faith that, according to him, is most intimately tied up with the practice of doing good works. For, as we showed above in Chapter I, assertion not merely accompanies, but even constitutes the goodness of, works. So we may comment that in Luther’s doctrine it is in its assertive aspect that faith is supposed to inform “love and works.”

But it need not be demonstrated at length that in this sort of religious practice there can be no question of love, least of all love for God. If a man, in dealing with another person, asserts that his action in relation to the other is pleasing to that person just because of his asserting that it is so, he is not realizing a true interpersonal relationship, and by no means can such behavior claim to be called love.

In Luther’s system, however, the practice of assertion and self-reflection has an important place, not only in the doctrine of faith, but also in connection with the topic of love and works. He teaches that if a man finds himself doing good works, he may take this as evidence that his faith is right, since true faith must actuate man to do good works.21 In a disputation held in 1543, Luther defended this thesis: “Love is a testimony of faith giving us assurance and enabling us to assert with certitude God’s favor. . . .”22 Here love is identified with works to the extent that one word—love—denotes both. It goes without saying that the love meant is mere philanthropy, not love for God…“I am in God’s favor.”… If he finds that he is doing such good works, he should take this as an occasion to assert his being in God’s favor a second time, in order to strengthen his certitude.23 Thus even the theology of love, after being reduced to a doctrine of love of one’s neighbor, culminates in encouraging the practices of self-reflection and assertion. Brotherly love is urged, but its theological meaning is entirely altered. Even love is not an outgoing movement from, but ultimately a return to, the believer’s ego.

Luther was not unaware of the fact that his doctrine was alien to Holy Scripture…

…Here it becomes most clear that in his instructions for the spiritual life, Luther has forgotten the most important thing: love for God.

…The Church urges the obligation that a man cooperate with God’s grace. Now this cooperation is coterminous with good works, which are actions flowing from love. Therefore, abiding by the biblical view of the interpenetration of the three theological virtues, the Church teaches that faith, hope, and charity are bestowed on man in conjunction and that without hope and charity, faith cannot lead to eternal life.33

In Luther’s system, hope is anticipated or absorbed by the certitude which he equated with faith. The distortion of the concept of faith involves a disfigurement of the notion of hope. We need not enter into Luther’s conception of hope.

It is love that presented the greatest problem to him. In assessing his polemics, we have to keep in mind that some late medieval nominalists had contended that man could, by his natural powers, love God above all things.34 Luther was only defending the Catholic position when he opposed this view.35 But after he had established his new theory of faith, he did not, unfortunately, confine himself to clarifying the doctrine of the Church concerning love as a gift of God.

His attack, in his Protestant period, was directed chiefly against the proposition that faith, in order to be justifying, must be informed with love.36 He argued that this proposition amounts to ascribing justification ultimately to love. Man, however, cannot have perfect love in this life and, consequently, justification would be impossible.

In another argumentation, Luther contends that if love has a part in justification then justification would not be a pure gift of grace but an achievement of man, wrought through the fulfilling of the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor. In short, justification would not be effected by grace and faith alone, but by the law, which would be contrary to St. Paul’s teaching.

The first argument leaves out of account the fact that, as Luther himself elsewhere admits,37 even faith—reflexive faith—is often enough too weak to achieve the salvific certitude. So the same objection that Luther leveled against the role of love in justification, could be raised against faith also.

The second argument acknowledges that faith is a gift of God, donum Dei, but forgets that the same is true of love. If, however, love is also a gift of God, then work done out of love for God is ultimately a gift of God, too. Moreover, Luther here equates good works—which are works done in the freedom of love—with works of the Law. This involves a capital misinterpretation of the New Testament. Luther himself, in his early career, had understood his Bible better, as we saw above in section one of this chapter. Finally, if faith consists, as Luther would have it, in asserting one’s own certitude of salvation, then it would be, though on the psychic level, a human achievement no less than any external “work.”

A third argument, defended in a disputation of 1543, acknowledges that both faith and love are gifts of God. But, here, love for God is totally left out of consideration, and love of one’s neighbor is again included among the works of the Law.38 Moreover, Luther argues here that love, being directed to human beings only, is prone to contracting acquisitive, “mercenary” habits. He seems to forget that a behavior which includes such habits is not charity, not Christian love at all.

The astounding weakness of, and the variations in, Luther’s arguments indicate that it cannot have been reasoning or sober exegetical effort which caused his stiff opposition to the doctrine that faith, in order to be living faith, must be informed with love….

…“We must be certain that we are holy.”40

The joint evidence of these two remarks reveals what is borne out by other statements as well, namely that Luther’s prime concern was to have at his disposal that certitude which he equated with faith and with salvation. Now there is a certitude inherent in a relationship of love also, but this is not manageable by, nor at the disposal of, either of the partners individually, since it resides in the interpersonal relationship. Hence, Luther deems it insufficient. And it is quite to the point when he argues, first, that only what he has apprehended or grasped in a concept is at the disposal of his mind; and, second, that such grasping or gripping can be performed only by the intellect, not by love…

…It must be emphasized that the idea of merit…is an essential part of the New Testament message, whose relinquishment amounts to a serious curtailment of the Gospel. Deeply imbued with the spirit of Scripture, St. Augustine has made it clear, and the Church has recognized it as her own doctrine, that “all our good merits are wrought through grace, so that God, in crowning our merits, is crowning nothing but His gifts.”43 The idea of merit is an indispensable expression of the interpersonality of God’s dealing with man. In rewarding man’s merit, God acknowledges that the goodness of man’s deeds flows from the depth of the created person, namely from charity which is primarily directed to God because it has been infused by God. Luther’s suppression of the idea of merit, on the contrary, is but another symptom of the depersonalization wrought by the reflexivity of his faith. If reward did not correspond to the worth of man’s deeds but merely followed it, with the goodness of man’s deeds remaining God’s exclusively, then God would not deal as Person with man as a person. Living interpersonality would be reduced to a dead mechanism. Man would be little different from a lifeless thing—or else the grace God bestows on him would not be a transforming power.

Luther’s second argument shows that he tries to make even the idea of reward subservient to his central tenet. He suggests that the biblical passages speaking of reward should not be taken to mean what they actually say. The hearer or reader of Scripture should interpret them as an encouragement or consolation assuring him “that his works are certainly pleasing to God.”44 Thus, even here, what matters for Luther is solely the believer’s certitude of being in God’s favor. And this again amounts to a depersonalization. Man would fail to respond as a person to God’s personal call if he used God’s promise to reward good actions as an occasion to assert the agreeableness of his works to God, and if he imagined that his deeds are pleasing to God if and when he asserts that they are so.

The twofold depersonalization comes close to a denial of an interrelationship between God and man. If God would not estimate man’s deeds as done by man but regard them as exclusively His own—that is to say, not as His gifts but as mere deposits—and if man would himself assert what he ought to leave to God’s judgment, then both God and man would act each for himself, without having personal regard to each other. On both parts there would be no freedom and no love, no freedom of love.”

-Hacker, Paul. Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion (p. 84-85, 88-93, 95-97, 99-100). Emmaus Academic. Kindle Edition.

LOVE,
Matthew

1 1, 321, 18.24.
2 Apologia Confessionis Augustanae, Art.III (De dilectione et impletione legis), no.7; Art.V (De poenitentia), no.34.
3 11, 185, 5.
16 40I, 275, 12.
17 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, 4, 3; “Caritas dicitur forma fidei, inquantum per caritatem actus fidei perficitur et formatur.” The Council of Trent has not dogmatized the term “informed with love” but has rejected Luther’s doctrine that love has no share in man’s justification. See Denzinger, no. 821.
20 6, 204, 25; 209, 33.
21 See above, Chapter III, Section 3, and Althaus, op.cit., 375.
22 39II, 248, 11. Cf. 40I, 577, 12.29.
23 10III, 225, 35.
33 Denzinger, nos. 800 and 821.
34 Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids, 1967), 153 and 155. 35 1, 224, 28; 225, 3.
36 40I, pp. 164ff; 225, 23; pp. 239ff; pp. 436ff; p. 606; 40II, pp. 34–39; pp. 79ff; 39II, pp. 191–193.
37 For example 25, 331, 27; 31II, 434, 20.
38 39II, p. 238. Theses 8, 12, and 16f.
40 39II, 192, 3.
43 Augustine, Letter 194, 5, 19; Sermo 131, 8; Tractatus in Joh. Ev. 3, 10; De trinitate 3, 10. Council of Trent: Denzinger, no. 810.
44 18, 695, 14.

Merit & righteousness – part 4 of 4, merit


-by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As a senior apologist, he has more than twenty years of experience defending and explaining the Catholic faith. Jimmy is a convert to Catholicism and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.)

“A subject which is misunderstood by Protestant apologists just as much as the Catholic view of righteousness is the Catholic view of merit. A lot of this is due to the connotations the term “merit” has in Protestant minds. Normally this is taken to be a synonym in Protestant vocabulary for “earn,” however as we will see this is nothing like what the term means in Catholic theology.

In fact, it has never been what the term meant. It has only gained that connotation from its usage in post-Reformation anti-Catholic polemics. From the very beginning the term was used differently. Thus in the second century the Latin term meritum was introduced as a translation of the Greek term for “reward.”[6] In fact, it was picked over another term (merces) precisely because it lacked the legalistic connotations of meritum. Thus a document released by the German conferences of Catholic and Lutheran bishops states: “[T]he dispute about merit also rests largely on a misunderstanding. The Tridentine fathers ask: How can anyone have doubts about the concept of merit, when Jesus himself talks about ‘reward’ and when, moreover, it is only a question here of acts that a Christian performs as member of Christ? . . . Many antitheses could be overcome if the misleading word ‘merit’ were simply to be viewed and thought about in connection with the true sense of the biblical term ‘wage’ or reward (cf., among other passages, Matt. 20:1-16; 5:12; John 4:36; 1 Cor. 3:8, 14; Col. 3:24). There are strong indications, incidentally—and a linguistic analysis could provide the evidence—that the language of the liturgy does not merely reflect the true meaning of the concept of merit stressed here, but—quite contrary to the Reformers’ fears—prefers to explain what was meant through the word meritum rather than through the term merces (reward), for the very reason that merit sounds less ‘materialistic’ than reward.”[7]

The term merces does in fact have very materialistic connotations. In fact, there is a joke among Latinists concerning Jesus’ statements in the Vulgate of Matthew 6, Receperunt mercedem suam which is jokingly translated “They have received their Mercedes”—the car brand name “Mercedes” being derived from merces.

Because meritum is simply the Latin translation of the theological term “reward,” this reveals to us a fundamental unity of the doctrine of merit and the doctrine of reward, a doctrine which even (most) Protestants acknowledge since the Bible uses the term. In fact, the Bible uses very “materialistic” terms in this regard. The three key terms for reward the New Testament uses—misthos, apodidomai, and misthapodosia mean respectively “wages,” “to deliver or pay off,” “payment of wages due.” It kind of puts a new feel on things when one brings this forward into English and one sees Jesus saying: “Rejoice and be glad, for your wages are great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).

“He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s wage, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s wage” (Matthew 10:41).

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your wage will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish” (Luke 6:35).

This kind of puts a different slant on it, and the New Testament is chocked full of this kind of “profit motive” language (see C. S. Lewis’ excellent essay, The Weight of Glory for a Protestant exposition of this point), though translations often obscure the fact. In fact, one may note that Protestant translations tend to translate misthos inconsistently, as “wage” whenever the context is worldly-economic and “reward” whenever it is something promised to believers by God.

Nevertheless, though the New Testament uses highly economic language in speaking of the believer’s rewards (e.g., “He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor,” 1Co. 3:8; “The Lord will repay everyone accord to his works,” Rom. 2:6), it does not in any way intend this language to be taken to mean that Christians earn their place before God.

Thus in Catholic theology, merit is in no way earning, but identical with the concept of reward. Brought about by God’s grace, acts which please God are done by Christians (Phil. 4:18, Col. 1:9-10, 1Th. 4:1, Heb. 13:16, 13:20-21) and God chooses to reward them (Rom. 2:6, 1 Cor. 3:8, 4:6, 2 Cor. 5:10, Gal. 6:6-10, Rev. 2:23, 22:12). These elements, God’s grace, the acts pleasing to God that they bring about, and the reward God chooses to give, are the key elements in the Catholic theology of merit, as we shall see.

The doctrine of merit is thus the same as the doctrine of rewards. To help Protestant readers grasp this and cut through the linguistic confusion experienced on this point because of the associations of the term “merit” in the Protestant vocabulary, they should try substituting “reward” or “rewardable action” or “to perform a rewardable action” for “merit” in what follows. This should cut through the confusion.

In the previous section, we discussed three senses of righteousness—legal, actual, behavioral.[5] In this section we will look at three forms of merit, which we will call congruous, condign, and strict.

In all three forms, there is a similarity between the action and the reward, and it is this similarity which makes it fitting for the reward to be given for that work, which is why the term “merit” is applied. In all cases of merit, an action merits its reward in the sense that the action is similar to the reward in a certain way and thus makes it fitting that the reward be given. The difference between the kinds of merit depends on the kind of similarity between the action and the reward and, correspondingly, it depends on the kind of fittingness there is that the action be given the reward.

Before looking at the three kinds of merit we are concerned with (congruent, condign, and strict), it is helpful to note two kinds that we are not concerned with.

The first of these is natural merit. Natural merit occurs when a person does an action that has natural value but not supernatural value, and which consequently deserves a natural reward. For example, if I do natural labor for an employer, that merits the paycheck I receive in return. Because I am only doing something with natural value (natural labor), the act deserves only a natural reward, such as money, not a supernatural reward, such as glory in heaven.

The only way for a natural task such as doing one’s job becomes supernaturally meritorious (and consequently receiving a supernatural reward), is if one does the natural task at least partly on the basis of the virtue of charity, or supernatural love. Charity is the principle of all supernatural merit, and the only thing God chooses to supernaturally reward. Thus if you give a cup of cold water to a thirsty person for a natural motive, such as to get him off your back or to assuage your guilt, then this will get no reward from God. However, if you perform the natural act partly from a supernatural motive, such as giving the thirsty person a cup of cold water because you supernaturally love him as a creature of God and wish to help him, then this is supernaturally meritorious and will receive a reward from God.

This principle lies behind Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount: “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-47)

Even the unregenerate (tax collectors and heathen) have natural love for those who do good to them, and so if we have only natural love for others, we will receive no reward from God (” . . . what reward have you”). God’s love is different, it is supernatural and embraces all people, regardless of whether they do good or not. Thus he sends rain and sun (blessings in an agricultural society) on both the righteous and the wicked, on both his friends and his enemies. Jesus tells us that to be sons of our Father (i.e., to behave as Christians), we must display this same supernatural love that the Father does, and that when we do this we will receive a reward from him.

The same principle lies behind Jesus’ statements in Matthew 6 concerning doing acts of righteousness in front of men. If we do an act of righteousness in front of men, we may be tempted to do it for purely natural motives (i.e., so they will praise us or think well of us), and thus it will receive no reward. The only way for the act to be rewarded is if it is done for supernatural motives—to please God out of love for him—and thus Jesus instructs us (using typical Hebrew hyperbolic language) that if we are going to be tempted to do acts of righteousness for natural motives we should avoid the temptation by doing them in such a way that only God will know about them.

In any event, natural merit is not of interest to us at present because it gains no supernatural reward. Only supernatural merit is of concern here.

The second kind of merit we are not concerned about in this paper is demerit—that is, the kind of merit which is accrued when an action has a negative value and so it is fitting for it to receive a negative reward. This can happen in both natural and supernatural merit, and thus it can be fitting for one to be punished naturally (by being put in jail, fined, spanked or whipped or caned, etc.), as well as being punished supernaturally (by losing the joy of fellowship with God, being denied the sacraments, being tortured in spirit in this life, or going to hell in the next). Demerit is not also not of interest here because we are concerned with the sense in which the term “merit” is objected to by Protestants.

Having said that, let us now look at the three forms of merit in which we are interested—congruent, condign, and strict.

Since we are here talking about supernatural merit, the most basic sort of similarity between the action and the reward is that it is a supernatural action and so makes fitting a supernatural reward. As we said before, the only kind of actions which God supernaturally rewards are those which have a supernatural motive—the virtue of charity, which God implants in our hearts and which it is completely impossible for us to produce ourselves. In fact, according to Catholic theology each new supernaturally motivated act we do requires God to give us a special, new grace (called an “actual grace”) in order to do it. The denial of this was the position known as semi-Pelagianism, which claimed that God gave us all the grace we need at the beginning of the Christian life and that we do not need to be sustained in salvation by new grace, a position which was infallibly condemned by the Church. Thus when supernatural merit occurs, God gives us the supernatural motive to perform the supernatural act to which he then gives a supernatural reward.

This is the principle behind Augustine’s statement: “What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace?—when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us” (Letters 194:5:19).

The basic principle of supernatural merit, therefore, the thing that makes it supernatural, is the grace which God gives to enable there to be a supernatural act in the first place, the only kind of act for which a supernatural reward is fitting.

But in some cases God has not promised a reward. A reward might be fitting, but it may not have been promised. To give a human analogy, if someone holds the door open for me while I have a load of books in my arms (a common event for me), it is fitting that I hold the door for them next time. However, I have not promised to do so, and all things being equal I am not strictly bound to do so. Thus it is fitting for me to hold the door for this person, but there is no strict obligation involved. This is, on a natural human level, what Catholics would call congruent merit.

Congruent merit occurs with respect to God when a person under the influence of actual grace does an action which pleases God but which he has not promised to reward. Some times God chooses to reward the act, sometimes not. For example, if we obey Jesus’ instruction to supernaturally love our enemies and pray for them; however, God has not promised that he will answer our prayers concerning them, and although he is pleased with the prayers we are offering out of supernatural love for them, he may not give them the blessing we are asking for them. It may simply not be God’s will for that to happen. The same is true of prayers for ourselves; even when we pray from supernatural charity we are likely only congruently meriting the thing we are asking for since God has not promised to give it.

The obvious next higher form of merit is one in which God has promised to reward the action. In this case when a person under the influence of actual graces performs the supernatural act, God is not only pleased by the act but he is guaranteed to reward it because he has promised to do so. This kind of merit is known in Catholic theology as condign merit.

One thing it is important to realize about condign merit is that, even though God has promised to reward the at, that does not mean that the act has an intrinsic value equal to the reward it is receiving. If I perform an act of charity and God gives me a heavenly reward in the next life by giving me an additional level of supernatural beatitude, the value of the act I perform in no way equals the value of the beatitude. There may be a proportionality that can be drawn between the amount of charity God’s grace has led me to exercise in this life and the amount of beatitude I get in the next life, but there is no equality between the two values.

The reasons that there is no equality and thus the intrinsic value of God’s rewards always immeasurably exceeds the intrinsic value of our merits is that, as Anselm pointed out in his Cur Deus Homo, the value of an act is proportional to the value of the person making it. Thus I, as a finite being, could never make the infinite atonement Christ did on the Cross (even if I was sinless and always had been). It took a Person of infinite value—the Son of God—to make an infinite satisfaction. Similarly, I, a finite creature, can never merit anything of infinite value, but the beatitude which God bestows upon us in the afterlife is of infinite value because it will be enjoyed for all eternity.

Thus the fundamental basis for all condign merit is God’s promise, not the intrinsic value of the human act, even when it is brought about by God’s grace. Without God’s promise we would have no claim on the beatitude God offers; however, under God’s grace we do indeed claim the promises of God, even though what he promises always infinitely outweighs what we have done by his grace.

If our actions were equal in value to his reward then what would have occurred would be referred to in modern Catholic parlance as strict merit. Strict merit is what would occur when someone gives to God something of equal intrinsic value to the reward he has promised to give. The trick is, only Christ is capable of doing this since only Christ is capable of doing things of infinite value for God. Other humans are totally incapable of this because we lack the infinite dignity of the Godhead supervening on our actions.

Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator” (CCC 2007).

The same themes have been stressed by Catholic theologians for ages, not only by St. Augustine and his famous axiom “when you crown our merits, you crown your own gifts,” but by theologians ever since.

In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “[W]here there is no simple right [to a thing], but only relative, there is no character of merit simply, but only relative . . . [as when] the child merits something from his father and the slave from his lord. Now it is clear that between God and man there is the greatest inequality, for they are infinitely apart, and all man’s good is from God. Hence there can be no justice of absolute equality between man and God, but only of a certain proportion, inasmuch as both operate after their own manner. Hence man’s merit with God only exists on the presupposition of the divine ordination” (Summa Theologiae Ia:114:1).

At the Council of Trent, when the mutual hostilities with Protestants were greatest, the Council fathers wrote: “Christ Jesus himself, as the head into the members [cf. Eph. 4:5] and as the vine into the branches [cf. John 15:5], continually infuses his virtue into the said justified [people], a virtue which always precedes their good works and which accompanies and follows them, and without which they could in no wise be pleasing or meritorious before God . . . [F]ar be it that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself and not in the Lord, whose bounty toward all amen is so great that He wishes the things that are His gifts to be their merits. And since in many things we all offend, each one of us ought to have before his eyes not only the mercy and goodness but also the severity and judgment [of God]; neither ought anyone to judge himself, even though he be not conscious of anything [1 Cor. 4:3-4]; because the whole life is to be examined and judged not by the judgment of man but of God, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts and then shall every man have praise from God . . . ” (Decree on Justification 16).

In the twentieth century, theologian Michael Schmaus writes, “In this connection, it must be remembered that man cannot make any valid claim on God. Since the ‘reward’ give by God always infinitely exceeds what is due man, the word ‘merit’ can only be used analogously. Because of God’s transcendence and the resultant inequality between God and man, merit in the strict sense of the word cannot occur in the relationship between God and man.”[8]

“We would not dare to hope that God would reward the actions of the justified man if he had not promised it; our hope is based on his word. At the same time, the reward is a grace . . . . What is meant [by merit and reward] is not an extrinsic, material repayment for the pain and trouble endured in the accomplishment of good works; it is rather the intrinsic fruit of the action itself.”[9]

“All of this does not, of course, mean that like all good things, the promise of a reward from God cannot be misunderstood and misused. There is a danger that the ill-instructed Christian may hope to gather merit as a basis for bargaining with God, to use his good works as a kind of pledge which God must at once redeem. Needless to say, notions of this sort are very far from the meaning of the scriptural texts and the Church’s teaching” . . . . [That God rewards our merits] “rests on his free decision: he has promised that he will do so, and he keeps his word. Except for this divine promise, no one could flatter himself that his good works would have such an effect.”[10]

And twentieth century theologian Ludwig Ott writes: “Merit is dependent on the free ordinance of God to reward with everlasting bliss the good works performed by His grace. On account of the infinite distance between Creator and creature, man cannot of himself make God his debtor, if God does not do so by His own free ordinance. That God has made such an ordinance, is clearly from His promise of eternal reward . . . . St. Augustine says: ‘The Lord has made Himself a debtor, not by receiving, but by promising. Man cannot say to Him, ‘give back what thou hast received’ but only, ‘Give what thou has promised'” (Enarr. in Ps. 83, 15).[11]

These quotes, stretching throughout history as they do, from Augustine through Aquinas and Trent and twentieth century theologians into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, show how false and foolish the idea is that the Catholic Church teaches that we earn our place before God. Only Christ as the infinite God-man, whose infinite dignity gives his every action infinite weight, is capable of earning anything before God. So while God’s grace does bring about in Christians actions which please God and which he chooses or even promises to reward, only Christ is capable of doing before God what Protestants mean by the term “merit.” Catholics only say Christians do what God rewards.”

Love & technical precision for the sake of clarity & peace & love,
Matthew

[6] Alister McGrath, Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 70.

[7] The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? Justification III.7.

[8] Schmaus, Dogma 6:138.

[9] ibid., 142.

[10] ibid., 143-4.

[11] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 4th. ed., 1960, (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1974), 247.

Merit & righteousness – part 3 of 4, moral realism


-by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As a senior apologist, he has more than twenty years of experience defending and explaining the Catholic faith. Jimmy is a convert to Catholicism and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.)

“Another reason why Protestants need to accept the language of objective guilt and innocence is that the Bible itself uses this kind of language. It often speaks of guilt and innocence in terms of objective properties, such as colors or cleanliness. Scripture speaks of our sins being “crimson like scarlet” (Isaiah 1:18), and the Psalmist says “wash me with hyssop and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7). It is also the kind of righteousness Scripture has in mind when it talks about our sins making us “unclean” or “filthy” and our forgiveness making us “pure” and “clean” before God. In these passages, guilt and innocence are conceived of as objectively real properties that cling to us just like colors and cleanliness.

So there is no reason why Protestants need to object to the metaphysical understanding of righteousness that Catholics use. In fact, many Protestants are uncomfortable with using purely legal language for justification and state quite adamantly that justification is not just a legal fiction. That God actually “constitutes” us in righteousness. The only difference on this point is that they do not use the metaphysical understanding of righteousness in order to explain what constituting in righteousness means. But there is no reason why they cannot do so and, as we have seen, there are positive reasons why they should. Thus for example Protestant authors such as Norman Geisler, who are more familiar with the principles of ontology, are willing to talk about actual righteousness being given in justification. Geisler, for example, uses the helpful terminology of speaking of legal righteousness as “extrinsic” righteousness and actual righteousness as “intrinsic righteousness.”

Catholics, for their part, have no trouble saying that a person is legally righteous before God when they are justified. If God constitutes a person in righteousness.  Furthermore, Catholics don’t need to have any problem with saying that our righteousness is brought about by a decree of God. The Catholic can be perfectly happy saying that when we are justified God declares us righteous and his declaration bring about what it says. He declares us righteous, and so our guilt is taken away and our righteousness is restored.

This is something for which there is good Biblical support for. God’s word is efficacious. It accomplishes what it says. In Genesis 1 God spoke and his word brought about the things that he spoke. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. He said, “Let the waters be divided from each other so that dry land may appear,” and they did. He said, “Let the waters teem with living creatures,” and they did. Furthermore, in Isaiah 55:11, God said, “[S]o shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (RSV).

God may sometimes choose to give graces which are incomplete, which do not of themselves bring about their target goal (see the essay, “Resisting and Cooperating With God“), but when God declares something to be so, it is so. God’s word is efficacious; it brings about what it says. So when God declares us righteous, we actually become righteous: we have our guilt taken away and our purity before God restored. This is true even if the righteousness that is being restored is the original righteousness which Adam lost for the whole human race.

Thus in Catholic theology the term “justification” is used to refer to the event by which we are given ontological or real righteousness. Coextensive with this, of course, is legal righteousness, for God will not treat anyone as unrighteous who is really righteous. Similarly, God will not treat as righteous anyone who is really unrighteous. As God declares in Scripture, ‘I will not justify the wicked” (Ex. 23:7)—His holiness prevents it. Thus for God to make someone legally righteous, He also must make them actually righteous; He must constitute them in righteousness. And for God to make someone actually righteous, He must correspondingly make them legally righteous.

So a Catholic need have no problems with the forensic/declaratory aspects of justification. God does indeed declare us righteous, and that is nothing with which a Catholic needs to quarrel. A Catholic also does not need to quarrel about which kind of righteousness is the cause and which is the effect, whether God declares a person legally righteous and that, by the miraculous creative power of his word, makes the person actually righteous, or whether God makes the person actually righteous and therefore declares the person legally righteous. This is a matter of indifference in Catholic theology.

Furthermore, when Catholics talk about progressive justification/sanctification, they are again thinking of God making us ontologically righteous. This is almost totally missed by Protestants when they compare the Catholic view of progressive justification to the Protestant idea of sanctification, which is in turn part of the basis on which they say Catholics confuse justification with sanctification. No, Catholics don’t. They recognize that growth in personal holiness (behavioral righteousness) is a separate and subsequent event to initial justification. The confusion is on the part of the Protestant who thinks Catholics are talking about growth in behavioral righteousness when they talk about progressive justification/sanctification. They aren’t. They’re talking about growth in actual righteousness.

This is sometimes a difficult concept for Protestants to grasp since they have heard so many sermons about righteousness being an all or nothing thing that they have trouble understanding the concept of how righteousness can grow. This is one of the things that keeps them boxed into a two-fold understanding of righteousness. However, the problem is solved when one grasps the concept of actual righteousness, which is not a one-dimensional but a two-dimensional concept.

The first dimension of actual righteousness is its level of purity, which we might refer to as the quality of the righteousness. When one becomes a Christian and is justified, one receives totally pure actual righteousness. There is no admixture of sin or unrighteousness in the righteousness God gives one. Thus in this sense one is made just as righteous as Christ, because the level of purity in Christ’s righteousness and ours is the same.

However, from this point of initial justification one’s righteousness begins to grow during the course of the Christian life. This is the hard part for Protestants to understand since they will ask, “But if we are already made totally pure, how can our righteousness grow from there?” The answer is where the second dimension of actual righteousness comes in. Righteousness does not continue to grow in the first dimension; once total purity has been received, it is not possible for righteousness to grow in that dimension. One cannot go beyond total purity in the quality of righteousness, so righteousness grows in its second dimension—its quantity.

Even though when we first came to God we were made totally righteous in the sense that we became totally pure, we have not yet done any good works, for these are made possible only by God’s grace after justification. The righteousness God have given us may be totally perfect in quality but it is not yet totally perfect in quantity. We may be just as righteous as Christ in the sense that the righteousness God has given us is just as pure as Christ’s, but it is not as extensive as Christ’s because we have not done as many good works as Christ. The tiny little good works we do in our lives—works wrought only by the grace God himself gives us—in no way compare to the huge, overwhelming, infinite good works of Christ, such as his death on the cross. So while we may have just as much righteousness as Christ in terms of its quality (total purity, by God’s grace), we do not have just as much righteousness as Christ in terms of its quantity.

It is in terms of the quantity of righteousness that rewards are given in heaven, and thus because Christ has a greater quantity of righteousness than we do, he also has a correspondingly greater reward. As Paul says: “[B]eing found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:8-10). And as the book of Hebrews declares: “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, . . . for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). And so “in everything he [has] the supremacy” (Col. 1:18).

This understanding of the three kinds of righteousness—legal, actual, and behavioral[4]—enables us to look back at the reasoning of the Protestant apologist we mentioned earlier and see where it goes wrong. One will recall that the apologist reasoned: “Catholics believe we are made righteous when we are initially justified, but they do not believe we are made legally righteous, so they must mean that we are made behaviorally righteous at initial justification.”

Obviously this is false since the Catholic is not boxed into a two-fold view of righteousness. It is natural for the Protestant to think this, since his own thoughts on righteousness are normally limited to legal and behavioral, but in fact that Catholic believes that in justification we are given actual righteousness (and in conjunction with it, legal righteousness, for the two are co-extensive, as well as being given the first stirrings of behavioral righteousness through regeneration). The apologist then reasoned: “They also believe that we grow in righteousness during progressive justification. This has to be growth in behavioral righteousness, because legal righteousness before God cannot grow; you are either legally righteous or you are not. Thus Catholics must mean by ‘progressive justification’ what I mean by ‘sanctification’—that is, growth in behavioral righteousness.”

This is also false because in progressive justification Catholics are again talking about actual righteousness, and actual righteousness does grow in quantity though not in quality.

“However, if it is possible to grow in behavioral righteousness after initial justification, that must mean the Catholic does not believe he was made completely righteous in initial justification.”

This is false because the Catholic does believe we are made completely righteous in terms of the quality of our righteousness (both actually and, consequently, legally) at justification. The growth that occurs later is a growth of quantity, not quality.

“Thus Catholics must believe they are made partially behaviorally righteous during initial justification and then they grow in righteousness during progressive justification, which I call sanctification. Thus they confuse justification and sanctification.”

If Catholics did believe initial justification is to be identified as the event where we are made partially behaviorally righteous, followed by later growth in behavioral righteousness, then they would indeed be confusing justification with the sanctification (as Protestants use the term “sanctification”), because this would merely make justification the first stage of behavioral sanctification. However, while there is a gift of partial behavioral righteousness at the time of justification (because of regeneration, which makes us spiritually alive and no longer dead in our sins, so that the power of sin is broken in our lives and we are no longer enslaved to it, though we do still have to battle it, cf. Romans 6), this gift of partial behavioral righteousness is not what justification consists in. In Catholic language, justification consists in God making us actually righteous (and 100% righteous in terms of quality), which is either brought about by God’s declaring us legally righteous or which brings about this legal declaration.

The confusion is thus not on the part of the Catholic. The Catholic is not confusing justification with sanctification—not confusing our initial reception by God and the growth in behavioral righteousness which follows—the confusion is on the part of the Protestant apologist who has not studied Catholic theology properly (and who probably has never read Catholic sources or has only scanned them looking for “ammo” to use against Catholics, rather than trying to enter into the Catholic thought-world and understand what Catholics really mean rather than what he has been told in sermons and lectures and radio program they mean), and who has thus confused his own understanding of sanctification with the Catholic understanding of both justification and sanctification.

Unfortunately, the misunderstanding the Protestant apologist has concerning these matters leads him into other confusions as well. For example, I have talked to, debated, and read numerous Protestant apologists who, because they are confused about the growth of righteousness, ask questions like, “If Catholics believe we are only made partially righteous in justification and you do good works after this to make this righteousness grow, how do you know when you have done enough good works to go to heaven? How many good works do you have to do?”

Protestants who say this at least have a leg up on those who think Catholics believe we must do good works in order to become justified—a position which was explicitly condemned at Trent, which taught “nothing that precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification” (Decree on Justification 8).Catholic theology teaches we do not do good works in order to be justified, but that we are justified in order to do good works, as Paul says: “[W]e are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Justification is the cause, not the consequence, of good works.

However, these Protestants are still confused about the fact that Catholics do not teach we are made only partially righteous in justification. The Church teaches that we are made totally righteous—we receive 100% pure righteousness—in justification. Thus Trent declares: “[I]n those who are born again God hates nothing, because there is no condemnation to those who are truly buried together with Christ by baptism unto death . . . but, putting off the old man and putting on the new one who is created according to God, are made innocent, immaculate, pure, guiltless and beloved of God, heirs indeed of God, joint heirs with Christ; so that there is nothing whatever to hinder their entrance into heaven” (Decree on Original Sin 5).

This one quote alone, even without the surrounding infrastructure of Catholic theology, from which the same thing could be deduced, shows how false, foolish, based on inadequate research, and motivated by a lack of comprehension of basic Catholic theological reasons is the whole, “How can you know when you have done enough?” line of argument. Nothing beyond one’s initial justification and regeneration is needed in order to go to heaven. In fact, this is one of the arguments in the Catholic case for infant baptism. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Since the earliest times, baptism has been administered to children, for it is a grace and a gift of God that does not presuppose any human merit; children are baptized in the faith of the Church. Entry into Christian life gives access to true freedom” (CCC 1282).

And also: “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God . . . [And thus] The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant baptism” (CCC 1250).

You don’t have to do a diddly-do-da thing after being justified by God in baptism in order to go to heaven. There is no magic level of works one needs to achieve in order to go to heaven. One is saved the moment one is initially justified. The only things one then does is good works because one loves God (the only kind which receive rewards) and not choose to cast out God’s grace by mortal sin. And even if one does cast it out by mortal sin, the only thing needed to get it back was the same thing needed to get it in the first place—repentance, faith, and sacrament, except the sacrament in this case is confession rather than baptism.

People try to make the Catholic message sound complex, but it’s really simple: “Repent, believe and be baptized; then if you commit mortal sin, repent, believe, and confess. Period.”—even a five year old child can understand that. All the exegesis and infrastructure of catholic soteriology I am giving in this work is strictly not necessary, any more than the exegesis and infrastructure found in Protestant soteriology books is either. From a Catholic perspective, repentance, faith, and baptism are just as easy to get across in an evangelistic appeal as they are for Protestants; in fact, they are easier since one doesn’t have to explain, “Okay, repentance and faith are necessary, but baptism isn’t, but it’s still really important, and so you need to do it, okay?” On the Catholic view, the message of the elements we have to preach is much simpler: Repent, believe, and in the saving waters, receive the righteousness of God.”

Love & technical precision for the sake of clarity & peace & love,
Matthew

[4] There is also a fourth kind of righteousness, historical righteousness, which is one’s track-record in terms of righteousness through history. Once historical righteousness has been lost through sin, it cannot be regained since God does not change history when he justifies us. This is something both Protestants and Catholics agree upon, and so this kind of righteousness we do not need to go into in this paper.

[5] Actual may be taken as the middle term between legal and behavioral, since behavioral unrighteous leads to actual unrighteousness, which leads to legal unrighteousness. Similarly, increased behavioral righteousness leads to increased actual righteousness, which leads to increased legal righteous (in the forensic recognition of the quantity of righteousness, though the quality of one’s legal righteousness remains unchanged).

Merit & righteousness – part 2 of 4, Righteousness


-by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As a senior apologist, he has more than twenty years of experience defending and explaining the Catholic faith. Jimmy is a convert to Catholicism and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.)

“One often hears Protestant apologists saying things like, “Catholics do not recognize justification as an event which happens to a person when he first comes to Christ because they confuse sanctification with justification.” This is false on two fronts.

To begin with, Catholics do not confuse the two, thinking there is only one phenomenon when there are really two. Catholics do use the terms “justification” and “sanctification” interchangeably, but they distinguish two (actually, more than two) senses in which these joint-terms can be applied.

First, they recognize what is called “initial justification,” (baptism) which is a single event that happens to a person once, at the beginning of the Christian life and by which one is given righteous before God. Second, they recognize what is called “progressive justification,” which occurs over the course of the Christian life and by which one grows in righteousness, and, eventually, upon death, every individual’s particular judgment by God Who alone can and does judge, hopefully leading to final salvation, accomplished after a lifetime of striving to do God’s will (sanctification).

The Protestant apologist, out of lack of familiarity with the Catholic position, usually jumps on this second phenomenon—progressive justification—and says, “Aha! You see! That’s sanctification! Catholics confuse justification with sanctification!”

But in fact no confusion is going on. Catholics recognize that there are two phenomena; that is why they have given them two different names—initial versus progressive justification. They are not confusing the two events, one instantaneous and one stretched out over time, nor are they confusing the terms; they use the terms consistently, one name for one event, another name for the other. They are simply using the terms differently than Protestants, but it is a logical fallacy of the first caliber to confusing a difference in the use of terms with a confusion in the use of terms.

But there is a second reason why the Protestant apologist’s assertion is false, and this one again springs from a lack of familiarity with the Catholic position, and it concerns the different senses in which the term “righteousness” can be used. Even the Protestants who get past the initial versus progressive issue tend to wrongly assume that what Catholics mean when they talk about progressive justification is what Protestants mean when they talk about sanctification. It isn’t, and the difference between the two turns on the meaning of the term “righteousness.”

For Protestants, the term “righteousness” tends to be used in one of two senses—legal and behavioral. Although they do not always express it in this manner, Protestants will say that in justification one is made legally righteous (i.e., is given legal righteousness by God), but in sanctification one is made behaviorally righteous (i.e., is given behavioral righteousness[2] by God, so that one behaves more righteously than one did before).

The misunderstanding Protestants get into when they look at the Catholic doctrines of initial justification(/sanctification) and progressive justification(/sanctification) is caused by the assumption that Catholic thought on these issues is dominated by the same legal vs. behavioral understanding of righteousness that Protestant thought is dominated by.

Thus the Protestant apologist often reasons to himself like this: “Catholics believe we are made righteous when we are initially justified, but they do not believe we are made legally righteous, so they must mean that we are made behaviorally righteous at initial justification. They also believe that we grow in righteousness during progressive justification. This has to be growth in behavioral righteousness, because legal righteousness before God cannot grow; you are either legally righteous or you are not. Thus Catholics must mean by ‘progressive justification’ what I mean by ‘sanctification’—that is, growth in behavioral righteousness. However, if it is possible to grow in behavioral righteousness after initial justification, that must mean the Catholic does not believe he was made completely righteous in initial justification. Thus Catholics must believe they are made partially behaviorally righteous during initial justification and then they grow in righteousness during progressive justification, which I call sanctification. Thus they confuse justification and sanctification.”

This is an elegant piece of reasoning, and except for a couple of qualifiers I would want thrown in[3], I would not fault it as a piece of logic. However, like all pieces of logic, its soundness is contingent on the truth of its premises, and the Protestant apologist’s piece of logic is based on a hugely, whoppingly false premise—the idea that Catholics are talking about legal and behavioral justification when they are talking about initial and progressive justification.

Because the Protestant’s thought world is dominated—so far as the idea of righteousness goes—by the concepts of legal and behavioral righteousness, he naturally assumes that when Catholic theologians are thinking about righteousness in the same sort of way. This is the false premise that causes the entire argument to go askew. Catholic thought in connection with the terms “justification” and “sanctification” is not dominated by the ideas of legal and behavioral righteousness. Instead, it focuses on a third kind of righteousness which may be called ontological or real righteousness.

Ontological or real righteousness is the quality which adheres to the soul when one does righteous acts. Its opposite, ontological or real unrighteousness, is the quality which adheres to the soul when one does unrighteous acts. Catholics conceive of guilt and innocence as objectively real properties which cling to our souls just like colors cling to the surface of objects. When we sin, we become guilty and our souls grow dark and dirty before God. But when we are justified, God purifies us and our souls become brilliant and clean before him. Guilt and innocence, righteousness and unrighteousness, are therefore conceived of as properties of our souls

Even though Protestants do not normally use this language to talk about justification, there is no reason why they cannot. In fact, the Catholic will point out that there are very good reasons for Protestants to accept the claim that when we are justified God removes one objectively real property of our souls and replaces it with another.

First, moral realism demands it. Protestants are firm believers in moral realism. Our actions are either right or wrong, good or bad, and they are that way objectively, regardless of how we feel about it. Protestants are the first to agree that moral relativism is a crock. If you commit a homosexual act, it is simply wrong and perverted, no matter what you think about it. It’s just wrong. Wrongness is an objectively real moral property that attaches itself to certain actions.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you intentionally commit a objectively wrong act, then you become objectively guilty. Guilt is therefore an objectively real moral property as well. The same goes for positive moral properties, like righteousness. If you intentionally perform an objectively righteous act then you become objectively righteous. Righteousness, like guilt, is an objective property just as guilt is, and it clings to your soul just in the same way that guilt does.”

Love & technical precision for the sake of clarity & peace & love,
Matthew

[2] One might also call behavioral righteousness “dispositional righteousness” since it is the change in dispositions that God gives one which produces the change in behavior.

[3] Such as a clarification of the sense in which one is either legally righteous or not-righteous before God, for Hitler was less legally righteous in front of God than the average sinner in the sense that Hitler had racked up more legal/moral crimes before God. However both Hitler and the average sinner are equally legally unrighteous before God in the sense that they lack the total legal righteousness of Christ. They are both equally lawbreakers, but they have not broken the law equally.

Merit & righteousness – part 1 of 4


-by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As a senior apologist, he has more than twenty years of experience defending and explaining the Catholic faith. Jimmy is a convert to Catholicism and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.)

“Two Catholic doctrines which are phenomenally confusing to Protestants are the Catholic understandings of righteousness and merit. The key reason for this—in fact, virtually the only reason for this—is the different ways in which the two key terms “righteousness” and “merit” are used in the two communities.

Often a given theological term may be used in several different technical senses, and when one sense is common in one community and another sense is common in a different community, terrible confusion and hostility can result.

For example, it is vitally important to distinguish the different senses in which the Greek term theos is used. For example, the term can refer to: (a) an idol, (b) one of the pagan gods, (c) the Christian God (that is, the Being who is three Persons in one Being), or (d) the Person of God the Father.

Now let us consider the statement in Greek, iesous estin theos, which we would normally translate in English as “Jesus is God”—a perfectly ordinary statement of Trinitarian faith. However, this reading of it presupposes that the term theos is being taken in the third sense mentioned above—that is, as a designation for the one Being we call God. If the term were taken in any of the other senses, disastrous understandings would result. Jesus would alternately be declared to be an idol, one of the pagan gods, or God the Father himself (i.e., Sabellianism).

Now imagine two communities of Christians, one of which had developed in such a way that it used the term theos exclusively as a reference to the one Being we call God and one of which had developed so that it used theos exclusively as a Personal name for the Father. If these two communities came into contact with each other, even though they both believed in the doctrine of the Trinity, would immediately be at each others throats, with one declaring “Jesus is God!” (meaning, “Jesus is the Being we call God”) and the other declaring “Jesus is not God!” (meaning, “Jesus is not the Person we call the Father”). Both statements would be equally orthodox in meaning, though not equally orthodox in expression.

In order to prevent this kind of misunderstanding from happening, the Church must prohibit certain expressions from being used (such as “Jesus is not God”) even though they can be given an orthodox reading.

This happened in the 1500s when the Protestant Reformers began to use the term “faith” in a novel way and began preaching salvation by “faith alone.” Throughout Church history the term “faith” has normally been used to mean “intellectual assent to the teachings of Christ” (hence the infidels are those who do not accept the teachings of Christ—Muslims, Jews, etc.[1]).

When the Protestants appeared proclaiming that “man is justified by faith alone” this would instantly be read by the ordinary man in the street as “man is justified by intellectual assent alone”—a position known as easy believism or antinomianism, which even (the good kind of) Protestants themselves reject (since they define faith in such a way that it includes the virtues of hope—trust in God for salvation—and charity—the principle which produces good works in the life of the justified Christian).

The Church was left with no choice but to prohibit the use of the phrase “faith alone.” It would have been grossly misunderstood by the common man (as the fact Protestantism has been plagued since its inception with a battle against internal antinomian factions). And, in fact, the formula “faith alone” is against the language used in the Bible, for while we regularly read in Scripture of justification “by faith”, the only time the phrase “faith alone” appears in Scripture it is explicitly rejected as a means of justification (Jas. 2:24). Even if Protestants can give this text a meaning which does not contradict their doctrine, this does nothing to change the fact that the formula faith alone goes directly against the language of Scripture, even if not against the doctrine of Scripture.

Once two sides of an argument perceive that the other side is using an unorthodox term in an orthodox sense, Scripture prohibits us from fighting about it. Paul orders Timothy concerning his flock: “Remind them of this, and charge them before the Lord to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2 Timothy 2:14).

And Paul describes the person who is quarrelsome about words, saying: “[H]e is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:4-5).

However, while Paul is adamant that we are not to engage in quarrels about words (so long as our meanings are the same), he equally insists that the community has a right to retain a normative use for given terms. In fact, he prefaces his description of the man obsessed with words by saying, “If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, etc.” (1 Timothy 6:3-4a).

With this as background on the necessity of distinguishing the different senses in which terms can be taken and on the necessity of a community having fixed meanings for the terms it uses, we can proceed to look at the confusion that exists in Protestant minds concerning the Catholic view of righteousness and merit.”

Love & technical precision for the sake of clarity & peace & love,
Matthew

[1] Infidels are those who have never embraced the Christian faith, as opposed to schismatics, who accept the teachings of Christ but have broken from union with the Church, and as opposed to heretics, who accept some but not all of the teachings of Christ, and as opposed to apostates who have once accepted the Christian faith and then totally repudiated their profession of faith.

Luther & Scripture

Ex Opere Operato “Ex opere operato is a Latin expression meaning “by the work worked.” It refers to the fact that the sacraments confer grace when the sign is validly effected — not as the result of activity on the part of the recipient but by the power and promise of God.  Neither is the sacrament ineffective by the minister being in mortal sin.  The minister, if in mortal sin, should not, however, be administering sacraments in the first place.

Now, to receive the fruits of the sacraments, you should be properly disposed. At least in adults, there must be a predispositional receptivity to receive the grace that is always available in a validly effected sacrament. This means reception of grace via the sacraments is not automatic. But the ex opere operato nature of the sacraments reminds us that, while a proper disposition is necessary to receive grace in the sacraments, it isn’t the cause of that grace.”  (Neither is the faith of the individual the cause of the grace.  It is the power of Christ and His work of Salvation that does.  Nor the lack of faith, to what ever degree, a cause of one’s damnation, as Luther states, and as he argued to Cardinal Cajetan.  Then wouldn’t we ALL be damned?  How much faith is enough faith?  Faith is the prerequisite of salvation, not its immediate and effectual cause.)

“Luther’s new doctrine, however, singles out one of the contents of the Gospel, namely the consoling promise of remission of sin, and he restricts the meaning of the word “gospel” to this promise.15 Modern existentialist Protestantism has formalized this doctrine, developing it into a peculiar kind of futurism.

Thus, for Luther the Gospel is the Word of Promise, especially the promise of remission of sin. This interpretation is immediately linked to an instruction for spiritual practice.

Faith, according to Luther, is acceptance of the Word of Promise,16 and this acceptance is the application of the promise to the believer’s self. Thus Luther’s term “Word of Promise” by implication connotes the reflexivity of faith. The term construes the Gospel as already including the reference to each hearer’s self so that the hearer does not believe the Gospel if he does not “assert with certitude” that he is saved. In this way Luther tries to give an objective foundation to the subjectivism of his doctrine of faith. …Luther’s doctrine binds the believer strictly to rely on the Word, while practicing “apprehensive faith.” (Faith, which in and of itself, is the cause of one’s salvation.17 The believer can appeal to the Gospel to vindicate his assertion. The reference to Scripture as an objective authority disposes of the objection that the assertion of one’s own forgiveness might be a delusion. Words of Scripture that are apt to support the objection are neutralized by the mental act which opposes the Gospel to (Church) Law (the entirety of the authority of the Church) and apprehends the Gospel as the object of faith proper. (Catholics believe the Church is an indispensable means to Salvation. The Church, meaning the Catholic Church, is the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in the world, as founded by Him. It is the Body of Christ. Catholics take this quite literally. 1 Cor 12:4-30. Therefore the Church is Holy, and not dispensable, but necessary. The Church does not exist to reflect the views of its members, but rather the views and teachings of its head and founder, Jesus Christ.  Extra ecclesiam nulla salus.
The grace necessary for salvation continues to come from Christ, through his Church. “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” (CCC 846))

2. LUTHER’S ARGUMENTS FROM SCRIPTURE

The Acta Augustana, which Luther composed after his encounter with Cardinal Cajetan, include the most elaborate attempt that Luther made to demonstrate the conformity of his new conception of faith with Scripture. Luther begins18 with pointing to Romans 1:17: “The righteous shall live by faith” and to Romans 4:3: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” These passages merely state that faith is the origin of justification, and Luther does not try to make them say more than this. He then quotes Hebrews 11:6: “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.” In commenting on this verse, Luther does not go beyond stressing that the believer must have faith in God’s bestowing grace in general, even in this life,19 with the believer’s case included but not singled out.

Then Luther proceeds to demonstrate the gist of his thesis: “He who desires to receive the sacrament (of penance) must of necessity believe that he will obtain grace.”20 In other words, grace is given if the receiver of the sacrament believes that it is given, and the gift is given through this very belief. Luther argues that this results from Matthew 16:19, from the sentence: “Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” He comments: “If, then, you go to the sacrament of penance without firmly believing that you are to be absolved in heaven, you are going to judgment and damnation, because you do not believe that Christ spoke the truth in saying, ‘Whatever you loose,’ etc., and thus you make Christ a liar by your doubt, which is a horrible sin.”21

This explanation is an instructive example of application of Luther’s hermeneutic principle. The Scripture passage is adjusted so as to bring out what Luther calls the word of promise. The passage speaks only of him who “looses” (Luther understands this to refer to sacramental remission of sins) and of the effects produced by this act in heaven, not of the person to whom the act relates. Luther, however, speaks of this person only. That the text presupposes faith, goes without saying; for in the Church all scriptural words require faith, but faith of a different kind from the one taught by Luther. But there is no hint in the text that this presupposed faith is the instrument of efficacy of the “loosing” (whether this word refers to remission of sins, as Luther would have it, or have a more comprehensive meaning, which is more probable). Rather, it is the apostle who is the efficient cause of the loosing, for on him Christ confers the power of “binding and loosing” in the passage quoted. In Luther’s interpretation, on the contrary, the function of the priest, who in the post-apostolic time takes the place of the apostle, dwindles to insignificance. Instead, the penitent’s conviction of receiving the grace of remission now becomes the proximate instrument of the reception of grace. The text says that the apostle’s loosing (in later times represented by the priest’s absolution) is, as such, efficacious in heaven. In other words, God ratifies, or is operative through, the agency of his minister. Luther simply ignores this content of the text and instead infers from it an idea which it does not convey or indicate, namely the dependence of the reception of grace on the belief in receiving it.

Luther then adduces further texts from the Synoptic Gospels, from St. John’s Gospel, and from the Epistle of St. James. In addition, he briefly hints at a few other passages. The texts from the Synoptics he apparently regarded as especially strong supports of his position. In discussing them he uses the terms fides specialis22 and fides particularis,23 which signify faith relating to a single case or to a present effect.24 These terms supply another characteristic of Luther’s new conception of faith. When this faith “seizes” salvation or grace (fides apprehensiva) by “asserting with certitude” (certo statuere) the believer’s forgiveness or state of grace or salvation in a reflex movement of the mind (fides reflexa), it is referring to a special, single situation (fides specialis, fides particularis). Theological existentialism, which rules out all religious realities except momentary events in which an individual’s “existence” is involved or engaged, is thus virtually preformed in Luther’s conception of faith, which wants to seize salvation by asserting it with reference to an individual person and to a particular situation.

(The author then goes into a litany of New Testament scriptural citations which Luther employs to support his  ideas of fides specialis and fides particularis.  These citations expressly depict grants of petitions.)

Luther argues that the same kind of faith which is meant in the texts quoted is required for effective reception of the Sacrament of Penance, namely faith regarding a present effect, which in the case of the sacrament is remission of sins. He contends that in addition to this faith no preparation or disposition must be required of the penitent,25 and that this kind of faith alone works grace. He who is without such faith will forfeit grace.

At first sight this argumentation looks overwhelming. Yet there is one objection at least which may presently emerge. The effect of the Sacrament of Penance is remission of sin; but none of the texts cited speaks of remission of sin. Is it admissible, is it in accordance with Scripture, to treat remission of sin in complete analogy to the granting of petitions to which those texts refer? To find an answer to this query, it is helpful to consider passages that do treat of remission of sin. The result is plain: Nowhere in Holy Scripture, neither in the Synoptics, nor in other writings of the New Testament, nor in the Old Testament, can any instance be found of a person obtaining remission of sin because of his firm belief in the sin being forgiven.”

-Hacker, Paul. Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion (p. 63-67). Emmaus Academic. Kindle Edition.

Love & truth,
Matthew

15 For example, 40II, 51, 1.15; 52, 4.22. Cf. Althaus, Die Theologie Martin Luthers, 18, pp. 680–693.
16 8, 323, 18; 39II, 264, 13; 40I, 426, 2.
17. Althaus, op.cit., 48 and 223. 17 10III, 423, 17; 40III, 50, 3. Althaus, op.cit., 48f., footnotes 3 and 4.
18 2, 13, 12–16, 3.
19 2, 13, 29.
20 2, 13, 23.
21 2, 13, 33.
22 2, 14, 16.
23 2, 15, 2.
24 2, 14, 2.23.
25 2, 14, 5.

Luther’s reflexive faith: “I am saved because I am certain I am.”

“Now reflexive faith, with its insistence on certitude of grace, is intrinsically contrary to the spirituality of the cross, which willingly accepts the trial of darkness.”

-Hacker, Paul. Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion (p. 54). Emmaus Academic. Kindle Edition.

“…it must be admitted, and modern research has left no doubt about the fact, that the 95 Theses were completely within the range of subjects open for discussion in the Church. In early 1518, Luther wrote his explanations and proofs of the Theses, the Resolutiones , which he sent not only to his more immediate superiors but also to the pope…

…especially of the Dominican Order, who resented Luther’s views as threatening the practice of selling indulgences. The Dominicans succeeded in inducing the Papal Auditor, Girolamo Ghinucci, to summon Luther to come to Rome. An interrogation was intended with hopes that he could be brought to recant. But then the political situation made a different procedure appear more advisable. Cardinal Cajetan, who was on a political mission in Germany at that time, was entrusted with the examination of Luther’s case. He was ordered to hear Luther and demand the recantation of him. This was a turn of events more favorable for Luther than anything that could possibly be expected in the utterly confused situation. Cajetan was one of the most erudite and clear-sighted theologians of his time…Cajetan clearly perceived the point where Luther was really in danger of lapsing into heresy. The Cardinal prepared himself most thoroughly for the hearing. The notes he wrote down while examining Luther’s writings are extant. Even a stiff anti-Catholic of our days, scrutinizing these notes, has found that Cajetan “understood Luther well,”37 and acknowledged an “admirable insight into the essential”38 as a distinctive feature of the Cardinal’s judgment. Cajetan also differed from other theologians in being quite aware that the doctrine of indulgences was far from being settled in all aspects. Therefore, when he met Luther in Augsburg in October 1518, he picked out only one aspect of that problem. Luther has said in a later letter39 that this aspect was not of ultimate importance to him and that, had he been tried only for this point, he would have been ready to recant. So we may confine ourselves to noting that this first point at issue ultimately involved a question about the spiritual power of the Church.

A second issue, however, was the decisive one for both Cajetan and Luther. This was Luther’s new concept of faith. While preparing himself for the hearing, Cajetan stated briefly Luther’s point, namely “that the sacraments bring damnation to the contrite person if he does not believe that he is being absolved.” Cajetan’s terse comment on this were the prophetical words: “This implies building a new Church (Hoc enim est novam Ecclesiam construere).”40 Luther, in his turn, composed a report on his encounter with Cajetan, known as the Acta Augustana. Here he recounts that the Cardinal criticized as “a new and erroneous theology” his view that it was the “indispensable condition” of justification that man “believe with certitude (certa fide) in his being justified, not doubting of his receiving grace.”41 Thus, Luther’s account and Cajetan’s preparatory notes perfectly agree as to what formed the chief issue. Twenty-eight years later, the Council of Trent declared the doctrine in question to be heretical, in stating: “If anyone says that a man is absolved from his sins and justified by his believing with certitude that he is being absolved and justified; or that no one is really justified unless he believe that he has been justified; and that through this faith alone justification and absolution are perfected: let him be anathema.”42 It is necessary today to recall this canon of the council because there are contemporary scholars who contend that Luther’s conception of faith is not contrary to the Catholic faith, or even assert that the Council of Trent did not “understand” the German Reformer.

Cajetan spoke to Luther not as a private opponent but in his official capacity as representative of the Roman Church, which is the center of unity of the Universal Church. One may describe it as a stroke of luck, but it was certainly providential, that the person whom Luther encountered was a bishop who had penetrated his thought more thoroughly than could possibly be expected of anyone else in Rome at that time. Yet Luther, unfortunately, thought that he was bound in conscience to resist the warning. This is the more amazing as he was here overriding principles which he himself had often proclaimed with great emphasis.”

-Hacker, Paul. Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion (p. 50-53). Emmaus Academic. Kindle Edition.

Love & truth,
Matthew

37 Gerhard Hennig, Cajetan und Luther (Stuttgart, 1966), p. 78
38 Hennig, op.cit., p. 49
39 WBr 1, no.110, p. 238, lines 73–76
40 Hennig, op.cit., 56. 41 2, 13, 6–10
42 Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, no.824

Luther on faith

“Hacker’s reading of Luther on faith is commendably uninfected by postmodern perspectivalism and the consequent skepticism about the attainability of any truth at all—whether theological, philosophical, or moral. His reading is also completely free from the subtle self-censoring encountered not infrequently in those circles that regard ecumenism not as a form of theology but rather as a form of ecclesial diplomacy. In refreshing contrast to the intellectually stifling etiquette of such ecumenical diplomacy, Hacker’s analysis and interrogation of Luther’s thought is motivated by an uncompromising quest for truth, a trait that makes the book refreshingly untimely—simultaneously old-fashioned and avant-garde.

Hacker’s study is penetrating, far-reaching, and unsparing, yet at the same time utterly objective (sachlich). The outcome is not a foreordained conclusion but rather the result of an extraordinary scholar’s penetrating analysis of Luther’s concept of faith. Luther did not embark on his teaching vocation in 1512 as a professor of Holy Scripture at the University of Wittenberg with this understanding of faith.7 Rather, his new concept of reflexive faith comes to form the very heart of what has later been called Luther’s “Reformation break through.” Hacker offers a precise description: “Luther . . . denotes the faith taught by him as ‘apprehensive faith’ in the sense of ‘seizing faith’ (fides apprehensiva). This means that the faith grasps not only the message of salvation but salvation itself or even Christ himself.”8 Why would Hacker designate this understanding of faith as “reflexive faith”? In order to account for his choice of terms, Hacker adduces a characteristic passage from a sermon Luther preached in Leipzig on June 29, 1519, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul: “If a man doubts and is not firmly convinced that he has a merciful God, he does not have him. As he believes, so he has. Therefore nobody can possibly know that he is in God’s grace and that God is propitious to him except through faith. If he believes it, he is blessed; if not, he is condemned. For such assurance and good conscience is the right . . . faith that God’s grace works in us.”9 Based on this and many similar passages in Luther’s sprawling oeuvre Hacker concludes: “According to [Luther], what properly justifies is not simply faith in God or Christ. Only the reflection, qualified by certitude, that God’s salvific deed is meant ‘for me’ works salvation, and this reflection brings about its effect infallibly.”10 Because Luther conceives of the apprehensive faith as something—quite paradoxically—essentially passive, as an undergoing, a suffering, it is only when it becomes reflexive that faith secures God’s gift of salvation to the individual believer. The complete “realization” of this “pro me,” this “for me” of the Gospel’s promissio (Verheissungswort) comes about by way of a “bending back” of the consciousness to the believing self. Without this reflexivity, justifying faith would be indistinguishable from what Luther dismisses as a testimonial belief in the facticity of certain events (fides historica). It is the very reflexive move that, according to Luther, applies the gospel promise effectively to the believer and thereby makes the faith justificatory, that is, salvific. Significantly and problematically, for Luther, reflexive faith and salvation do indeed coincide. Two theses proposed by Luther in a disputation “On Faith” in 1535 give witness to the consistency of Luther’s thought over the years from 1519 to 1535 and beyond on what is for him the absolutely crucial point about the faith that justifies: “It is that ‘For me’ or ‘For us’ which, if believed, constitutes this true faith and distinguishes it from any other sort of faith which only accepts that certain events did happen” (thesis 24). “This is the faith which alone justifies” (thesis 25).11

-Hacker, Paul (2017-09-22T23:58:59). Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion (Kindle Locations 121-154). Emmaus Academic. Kindle Edition.

Love & truth,
Matthew

8 Faith in Luther (Emmaus Academic, 2017), 10.
9 WA 2, p. 249, lines 5–11. (Hacker’s translation from the German, p. 10). It should give theologians pause for reflection that the atheist and materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), author of the influential The Essence of Christianity (1846), draws upon precisely this understanding of faith in Luther’s thought in order to draw the most radical anthropocentric consequences from it, namely to posit that the true essence of religion is exclusively anthropological. Two passages from his little known, but significant work Das Wesen des Glaubens im Sinne Luthers (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984) shall suffice as illustration: “Gott ist ein Wort, dessen Sinn nur der Mensch ist. Das Wesen des Glaubens im Sinne Luthers besteht daher in dem Glauben an Gott als ein sich wesentlich auf den Menschen beziehendes Wesen—in dem Glauben, daß Gott nicht ein für sich selbst oder gar wider uns, sondern vielmehr ein für uns seiendes, gutes und zwar uns Menschen gutes Wesen ist” (p.18). “Hierin haben wir den Sinn von den so oft von Luther ausgesprochenen Gedanken: ‘Wie Du glaubst, so geschieht Dir;’ ‘glaubst Du es, so hast Du es, glaubst Du es nicht, so ist es nicht; ‘glaubst Du z.B., daß Dir Gott gut ist, so ist er Dir
10 Faith in Luther (Emmaus Academic, 2017), 10.
11 “Die Thesen für die Promotionsdisputation von Hieronymus Weller und Nikolaus Medler” on the topic “Arbitramur hominem iustificari fide absque operibus legis.” WA 39 I, p. 46, lines 7–10. (Hacker’s translation from the Latin). The original reads: “24. Igitur illud, pro Me, seu pro Nobis, si creditur, facit istam veram fidem et secernit ab omni alia fide, quae res tantum gestas audit. 25. Haec est fides, quae sola nos iustificat sine lege et operibus per misericordiam Dei, in Christo exhibitam.”

.

Lies, Damned Lies, & anti-Catholic history…


Dr. Rodney Stark, PhD

Dr. Rodney Stark has written nearly 40 books on a wide range of topics, including a number of recent books on the history of Christianity, monotheism, Christianity in China, and the roots of modernity. This included the above book, Bearing False Witness, (Templeton Press, 2016), a bestseller on Amazon.com, addresses ten prevalent myths about the history of the Catholic Church history. After beginning as a newspaper reporter and spending time in the Army, Stark received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held appointments as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. He later was Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington; he has been at Baylor University since 2004. Stark is past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and he has won a number of national and international awards for distinguished scholarship. Raised as a Lutheran, he has identified himself as an agnostic but has, more recently, called himself an “independent Christian”.


-by Casey Chalk

“Ten years ago I was an AP European History teacher at a school in rural central Virginia. At the time I was a very sincere Reformed Protestant, and although I wanted to maintain academic objectivity in the classroom, I was still quite eager to teach the unit on the Protestant Reformation. We began with the status of the Catholic Church at the turn of the 16th century and its luxuriant and this-worldly Renaissance popes. One of the readings I distributed to my students was that of Johann Burchard’s account of the “Banquet of Chestnuts,” a particularly lurid account of papal sexual excesses supposedly involving former Cardinal Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. As I expected, the students were stunned to hear of churchmen involved in such devilish activities. Of course, they agreed, a religious reformation would be necessary to clean up this muck.

Except this account is found in only one source, was rejected as fallacious by many contemporary writers, and, as one Vatican researcher has noted, does not fit with what we know of the character of Alexander VI.1 And yet the reading — and other similar implicitly anti-Catholic information — appeared in a school textbook that has been assigned to thousands of American students. Indeed, misinformation regarding the history of the Catholic Church abounds across both popular and scholarly literature and media. This long-standing bias in opposition to Catholicism is what Baylor historian Rodney Stark seeks to illuminate in his work, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. This post will first evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Stark’s project, and then discuss a few of the anti-Catholic historical myths discussed by Stark.

Stark’s Aims

Readers will likely find the author’s background of particular interest: Dr. Stark is codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and honorary professor of Peking University in Beijing. A practicing Lutheran, he is also the author of the best-selling The Rise of Christianity. That a respected Lutheran historian would invest the energy to write what amounts to an apologetic against fraudulent anti-Catholic historical accounts — in the defense of history, he asserts — provides added justification to take this study seriously2 Stark explains:

“…In the course of writing several other books on medieval history as well as on early Christianity, I kept encountering serious distortions rooted in obvious anti-Catholicism — the authors often explicitly addressed their hatred of the Church.3”

Moreover, Stark frequently observed that these distortions, and often the “most malignant contributions to anti-Catholic history,” were attributable to “alienated Catholics,” including “seminary dropouts, former priests, or ex-nuns.”4 Those defecting from a particular group are usually treated with some degree of suspicion; yet in the case of anti-Catholic invective made by lapsed Catholics, it is “widely regarded as thereby of special reliability!”5 Moreover, this misinformation persists in spite of extensive historical research invalidating it. This paradigm exists, Stark argues, because these falsehoods are “mutually reinforcing” and so deeply intrinsic to the West’s common culture.

Indeed, our culture is so littered with references to erroneous slurs against the Catholic Church, having so powerfully entered our common lexicon, it would be difficult to evict them. Take the Spanish Inquisition, a topic Stark spends an entire chapter evaluating. That phrase, whatever its actual connection to a historical event, is commonly cited as a case of Catholic bigotry and particularly demonstrative of anti-Semitism. 6  The Crusades are likewise popularly viewed as an example of religious intolerance and European colonialism.7  Or consider the “Protestant Work Ethic,” that phrase coined by Max Weber to explain the rise of wealthy, capitalist societies in Northern Europe and the United States — and often contrasted with those “lazy” Southern European Catholic countries.8 All of these, and many more, Stark takes to task in this heavily-researched, well-documented examination of anti-Catholic bigotry underlying much of modern Western conceptions of history. Indeed, the book relies on hundreds of primary and secondary sources, with Stark’s most valued sources included in a text box found in every chapter highlighting those historians he views as most authoritative in studying the historical record, so that interested readers can examine the evidence for themselves.

Yet even with these strengths, Stark’s enterprise fails to answer a question fundamental to his own objectives: what, ultimately, determines our knowledge of the past? Are primary sources or the subsequent evaluations of historians and scholars more important? For example, early in the book, Stark notes:

“Sometimes I have done basic research needed to overturn one of these spurious anti-Catholic claims, and in those cases I document my findings so fully that anyone can check them. But, in most instances, I am simply reporting the prevailing view among qualified experts.”

This approach is evident in his very first chapter on supposed Catholic anti-Semitism. Here Stark notes that such esteemed scholars as Rosemary Ruether, Jules Isaac, and Robert T. Osborn have all charged the Church with responsibility for originating anti-Semitism. However, he then goes on to cite scholars such as Peter Schäfer (whom he notes has “impeccable credentials”), Israeli scholar Nachum T. Gidal, and Leon Poliakov (“one of the most respected contemporary historians of anti-Semitism”), whose combined research Stark cites to demonstrate the inaccuracy of the former historians’ anti-Semitic accusations. To his credit, Stark provides extensive examples of the latter academics’ research that make a strong case for the refutation of claims of an alleged intrinsic anti-Semitism in Catholic belief and practice. Furthermore, Stark does routinely note that some scholars are to be trusted and others distrusted because one set of academics rely on better evidence, or their evaluations make better sense of that data. Yet if we wind up evaluating the evidence rather than the scholars’ opinions, it seems largely irrelevant if the scholars are respected or not.

Presumably, Stark is citing historians and their credentials to prove to readers that his arguments have the backing of serious professional historians with less of an explicit bias than say, amateur, patently pro-Catholic writers. Nevertheless, respected scholars can be wrong, and amateur scholars can be right, or vice versa. Either way, evidence, not academic pedigree, needs to be the ultimate criteria upon which historical analysis rests. Indeed, the “prevailing view among qualified experts” may be false, as Stark himself demonstrates wherever he notes that earlier consensus among historians was biased and inaccurate. Moreover, if we rely on the majority opinion of scholars as the determinant for historical truth, Stark’s foundational argument that anti-Catholic historical narratives are untrue may be “disproved” by a future generation of scholars that picks them up once again.

All the same, as noted above, Stark rarely leaves the reader with only a “trust the experts” exhortation, instead consistently allowing the raw historical data to speak for itself, which in many cases does indeed validate the current historical consensus. Indeed, it is fair to presume that Stark believes primary sources to be the bedrock of the historical method, and that his citing of the expertise of secondary sources is only to support, and not ground his arguments.

False Suppositions of the Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition is one of the perennial favorites of anti-Catholic rhetoric. As Stark notes, the usual narrative goes something like this: for several centuries beginning in the late 1400s, the Spanish monarchy, in collusion with Church authorities, engaged in a dramatic witch-hunt of investigations, tortures, and executions to rid the country of all manner of dissidents — Jews and Muslims pretending to be Christians, but also “Protestants, witches, homosexuals, and other doctrinal and moral offenders.”9 Those leading the Inquisition supposedly engaged in “weekly mass burnings all across Spain.”10 A number of contemporary and later historical accounts — including those by Edgar Allen Poe and Fyodor Dostoyevsky — have enumerated the seemingly inexhaustible horrors dispensed on the Church’s many enemies, putting the number killed at the hands of the Inquisition at anywhere from 31,000 to 3 million! Stark evaluates these narratives and death counts:

“The standard account of the Spanish Inquisition is mostly a pack of lies, invented and spread by English and Dutch propagandists in the sixteenth century during their wars with Spain and repeated ever after by the malicious or misled historians eager to sustain “an image of Spain as a nation of fanatical bigots”…. [However], the new historians of the Inquisition have revealed that, in contrast with the secular courts all across Europe, the Spanish Inquisition was a consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment.”11

These more recent historians have discovered these revelations by examining the complete archives of Aragon and Castille’s Inquisitions, which together amount to the totality of the Spanish Inquisition. I will discuss several of the most common accusations levelled against the Catholic Inquisition, including its supposedly egregiously violent character, its alleged brutal use of torture, and its persecution of witches and Jews. When stacked against the historical evidence, and when evaluated in its historical context, what emerges is not a Catholic Church operating as the sine qua non of late Medieval and early Modern repression and violence, but a “consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment.”12

Let’s first examine the amount of violence conducted with the blessing of the Inquisition. During the 220-year period that marks the entire length of the Inquisition, Stark claims that about 2,200 people were executed,which amounts to about ten deaths per year.13 This number, drawn from the historical records of Aragon and Castile, is significantly lower than the numbers given by many contemporary authorities, including Microsoft’s Encarta, the Encyclopedia of Religious Freedom, or historians Simon Whitechapel and Sam Hunt, all of whom put the number at tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions! These popular accounts of the Inquisition give the impression that the Inquisition was the preeminent exemplar of religious persecution in this historical period. However, to take but one historically contemporaneous example, English king Henry VIII had many more thousands of religious dissidents executed during his reign. This comparison is not in any way to excuse the Inquisition for its complicity in these executions, but to refute any assertions that the Inquisition was either historically unique in its activities, or even the worst offender.14 This is because in the broader historical context of the Medieval and early Modern period, pertinacious heresy was viewed as a threat not just to religious unity, but to public order more broadly, which is why Catholic and Protestant rulers alike were eager to stamp out religious dissidents.

In common parlance, the term “Inquisition” is often associated with torture. One 19th century Protestant account of the Inquisition claimed that not even Satan could contrive a “more horrible” means of “torture and “blood” than those employed by Spanish inquisitors15  It is indeed a historical fact that the Inquisition applied torture to suspected dissidents. Yet according to Stark, in an era when torture was a ubiquitous form of punishment across the known world, the Church was a uniquely moderating force on its application. According to the dictates of Church law, torture was limited to a single session lasting no more than fifteen minutes, no danger to life or limb could be conducted, and no blood exacted.

Moreover, torture was rarely used, as inquisitors were skeptical of its efficacy and validity. Such restrictions did not exist in historically contemporary secular courts. Furthermore, the Inquisition performed torture at a comparatively infrequent rate when compared to those same secular courts: Thomas Madden, a prominent Medieval historian at St. Louis University, estimates that torture occurred in only about 2 percent of cases brought before the Inquisition. Moreover, Inquisition prisons were far more humane than their secular counterparts, as is evidenced by reports that criminals in Spain were known to purposefully blaspheme that they might be transferred to Inquisition-run prisons.16  Again, any comparison to secular practices of torture or imprisonment is not to excuse the Church for encouraging (or allowing) torture, but to demonstrate that the common perception of Church officials eagerly bent on exacting pain from suspected religious dissidents does not square with the historical data.

Moving on to witchcraft: was the Spanish Inquisition also a misogynist program implemented to target so-called witches, demonstrating the ignorance and malevolence of Catholic religious leaders? Hardly. The Inquisition endorsed barely any of the sixty-thousand witches executions estimated to have been performed across Europe during this time period. The Spanish Catholics were, once again, a moderating force against these pogroms, who based their judgments not on the ridiculous caricatures displayed in the familiar Monty Python skit, but on hard evidence. The Catholic authorities oftentimes intervened to prevent mobs and local authorities from lynching suspected witches. Even when the Inquisition did investigate alleged witches, the primary goal of the Inquisition was to achieve repentance on the part of religious dissenters, not brutalize or “make an example” of them, which explains why the few who were executed on such charges had typically already been convicted several times.17

Finally, what of the allegations that Catholic Spain forcibly converted the Iberian Peninsula’s Jewish population? For starters, Stark notes that for more than a millennia, there were more Jews in Spain than the rest of medieval Europe combined. This would hardly have been possible if the Jews were under constant persecution by the Catholic majority. Indeed, historians have found that whenever Jewish communities have harmonious relations with the majority religious community, they often convert in large numbers. This is exactly what we see in Catholic Spain. Beginning in the fourteenth century, tens of thousands of Jews were voluntarily baptized — conversions so sincere that within a few generations many of the prominent Catholics in Spain, to include senior hierarchy, were from converso families. However, the significant number of Jewish converts led to strife between “old” and “new” Christians, with many Spanish Jews accusing conversos of being “crypto-Jews.” The Spanish Inquisition sought — once again — to arrest such passions, but failed to prevent the kingdom’s ultimate expulsion of all Jews in 1492.18

As we examine the history of the Inquisition (vice its caricatures), what materializes is a Catholic Church that is largely unrecognizable from its common depictions in popular, contemporary media (or even most textbooks!). Indeed, in many cases Church authorities in the Iberian Peninsula were those most vocal in their attempts to restrain mob impulses and violence against religious dissidents.

Catholic Church v. Science, Redux Part…I’ve Lost Track

Another common complaint against the Church is its supposed long history of antagonism towards scientific learning and exploration. Be it papal injunctions against vaccinations, the Church’s hostility toward scientific theories deemed contrary to Catholic teaching, or recent Catholic disquiet about transhumanism, many critics view the Church as fundamentally opposed to scientific inquiry and progress. Yet such an accusation bears little resemblance to the historical record. Indeed, as Stark observes, most prominent leaders in the so-called “Scientific Revolution” were men of peculiar religious devotion, and a significant number were Catholic laymen or clergy.

For starters, it is worth addressing the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” perception of Medieval intellectualism, which even one current US presidential candidate has publicly cited. Those who reference this particular scholastic question frequently do so to demonstrate a supposed Medieval Catholic obsession with irrelevant minutiae, rather than philosophic or scientific questions that would benefit humanity. This paradigm, so the story goes, is what Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent Scientific Revolution sought to overthrow. Yet the scholastics were the ones who founded many of Europe’s most famous universities, and conceptualized and instructed the very experimental method that led to what we know today as Western empirical science. Certainly much of the scholastic’s interest lay in theology, yet even here many scholars, including the respected R.W. Southern, have proposed that it was scholastics’ very religious belief in a rational, human nature and an intelligible universe that created the foundation for the scientific discipline. This is in contrast to the Islamic world, where natural philosophy was viewed with deep suspicion and never gained ground with leading Muslim religious thinkers of the time. The universities established by the scholastic movement were thoroughly Medieval institutions (some already in place by the early twelfth century), yet, contra the typical narrative, they “esteemed innovation,” appropriated empirical methods, and employed some of the earliest examples of human dissection.19

The Scientific Revolution then is not so much a rejection of the Medieval enterprise, but in many ways its fulfillment. Stark’s survey of a number of early influences on the scientific method demonstrates the deep unity between piety and scientific innovation: Robert Grosseteste, Albert Magnus, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, Nicole d’Oresme, Nicholas of Cusa, and Nicolaus Copernicus were all men of varying degrees of religious faith. Copernicus is often presented as a prime example of a true “free thinker” suffering under the burden of Church antipathy towards science, who represents the beginning of that supposedly necessary break with the dark, religiously-dominant Medieval way of thinking. Yet, as Stark notes, “everything in Copernicus’s famous book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, is wrong, other than the placement of the sun in the center.” Rather, Copernicus contributed an important, yet small step towards modern scientific knowledge that built upon the work of many Catholic scientists who preceded him.20

The story of Galileo has likewise been dramatized and propagandized far out of proportion.21  Stark argues: “what got Galileo in trouble with the Church were not his scientific convictions nearly as much as his arrogant duplicity.”  An abbreviated version of this sordid tale can be summed up as follows: Galileo’s troubles resulted not so much from his free-thinking scientific rigor, but from purposefully antagonizing Pope Urban VIII, a man with whom he had previously developed a strong relationship. The pope, under increased pressure from Protestant Reformers and their charge that the Catholic Church was not faithful to Scripture, asked Galileo to include a prefatory statement in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems noting the limitations of science as an intellectual discipline. Galileo’s treatise instead openly mocked the pope. The grand irony is that much of Galileo’s research was incorrect, a reality commensurate with his reputation for claiming “false credit for inventions made by others… and to have conducted empirical research he probably did not really perform.” Even in the ruckus that followed this controversy, the pope sought to protect Galileo from extensive punishment.22 So much for Copernicus and Galileo.

Finally, and perhaps most innovatively, Stark performs a mathematical evaluation of the most well-known figures in the Scientific Revolution (52 people in all) and their diverse levels of piety. The numbers speak for themselves: 25% of these individuals were members of the clergy, including nine Catholics. Sixty percent were explicitly devout in their Protestant or Catholic beliefs; another 38% conventionally devout (meaning no evidence of skepticism, but no obvious signs of piety). Half of the individuals were Catholic, the other half Protestant. Only one of the 52 surveyed can be legitimately identified as a skeptic: the Englishman Edmund Halley, who was denied a professorship of Oxford because of his “atheism.”23  Stark, who is not alone in recognizing the ubiquitous faith of these foundational scientific thinkers, ultimately argues that science developed uniquely in medieval Europe precisely because such an enterprise was deemed “possible and desirable.” He cites English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, who assessed that “faith in the possibility of science…[is] derivative from medieval theology.”24

Conclusion

I have examined only two of the ten topics Stark addresses in this review of the historical data regarding a number of contentious issues pertaining to Catholic history. Readers will likely find all the chapters worthy of attention, including those on anti-Semitism (think “Hitler’s Pope”), the Dark Ages (did the Church seek to limit intellectual development?), slavery (how complicit was the Church in New World chattel slavery?), and Protestant Modernity (Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis mentioned above). Stark has done the Catholic Church a great service in presenting a thorough dismantling of many anti-Catholic narratives, as well as offering analysis as to how and why this happened (the answer, in Stark’s review of the history of historians, is overt anti-Catholic bigotry). Even those outside the parameters of the Catholic Church should welcome this study, as it enables us to move beyond the usual sniping characteristic of so many church history debates, and pursue a more thorough, historically faithful ecumenical dialogue.”

1. https://www.historytoday.com/alexander-lee/were-borgias-really-so-bad
2. Stark, Rodney. Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016), 7.
3. Stark, 5.
4. Stark, 3.
5. Stark, 4.
6. See the 23 August Washington Post opinion “So you’re a Jew and you’re starting college? Prepare for anti-Zionism.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/08/23/so-youre-a-jew-and-youre-starting-college-prepare-for-anti-zionism/
7. See the 1 August New York Times opinion “How Religion Can Lead to Violence.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/how-religion-can-lead-to-violence.html?_r=0
8. See the 29 August 2013 opinion in Slate, “Is the Protestant Work Ethic Real?” http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2013/08/29/is_the_protestant_work_ethic_real_a_new_study_claims_it_can_be_measured.html
9. Stark, 117.
10. Stark, 121.
11. Stark, 119.
12. Stark, 119.
13. Other recent historical estimates have offered similar numbers, including Garcia Carcel, who puts the number at approximately 3,000.
14. Stark, 121-122.
15. Stark, 122.
16. Stark, 122-123.
17. Stark, 123-126.
18. Stark, 128-133. The expulsion of the Jews in order to further the program of a united Spain may have been more a factor of the emergence of the modern notion of sovereignty than about Catholicism. Moreover, the Spanish Inquisition was different from other inquisitions (contemporary and previous) in that the Spanish Crown managed to bring it under unprecedented direct control of the crown. The infamous Tomas de Torquemada, for example, was placed as head over the combined Castille-Aragon inquisition directly by Ferdinand in 1483. Pope Sixtus IV had protested the previous year at the inquisition’s lack of due process in Aragon. This direct, temporal control indicates that the Spanish inquisition was just as much an instrument of the nation-state as it was of the Church. See C. C. Pecknold, Christianity & Politics: A Brief Guide to the History (Cascade, 2010), 75; and Edward Peters, Inquisition (University of California, 1988), 85-86.
19. Stark, 141-144.
20. Stark, 151. David Hart makes a similar, more detailed judgment on Copernicus in his book Atheist Delusions.
21. See, for examples, these articles from the Washington Post and The New York Times: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/horizon/sept98/galileo.htm; http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/31/world/after-350-years-vatican-says-galileo-was-right-it-moves.html.
22. Stark, 163-165.
23. Stark, 153-157.
24. Stark, 159.

Love & unity, Jn 17:21
Matthew

“Loss & Gain”, Reformed & something missing…


-please click on the image for greater detail

John Thayer Jensen was born in California in 1942 and raised in a non-religious home. At a time of emotional collapse in his life, John was influenced by several Evangelical Christians, subsequently leading to his committing his life to Christ in 1969. He eventually made his way into the Calvinist tradition, and joined a Reformed denomination in New Zealand. He converted to the Catholic faith during the Christmas season of 1995. He has a B.A. in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in linguistics from the University of Hawaii. He lives in New Zealand, where he works at the University of Auckland and plays the horn in a local orchestra. He is also the author of a Yapese Reference Grammar and a Yapese-English Dictionary.


-John Thayer Jensen (right) & his wife, Susan (left)

Introduction

8AM Mass this morning – Father gives us a homily that takes its departure from St Paul’s “thorn in the side” to reflect on our own sufferings and trials. His homily is personal and, at points, touching. He surmises that St Paul’s “thorn” may have been some physical defect, such as poor eyesight, or perhaps a tendency to a personal fault – anger, for instance. We ourselves have our “thorns.” We should remember that God’s grace is sufficient for us; that when we are weak, then we are strong. At the end, he reminds us that Christ had, also, His “thorns” – and Father gestures at his forehead to remind us of them. Not such a bad homily, after all, but aimed at sentiment rather than thought.

The music at this, as with most of our Masses, is negligible. The content of the hymns focuses on God’s unconditional love for us; calls us to be “instruments of peace.” We usually recite the Apostle’s rather than the Nicene Creed – perhaps the latter is too long. Our response to the prayers of the faithful is to chant a Maori version of “Lord, hear our prayer” – though of Maori speakers in the congregation of perhaps 200, there may be one at most.

At our Reformed church, of which we were one of the three founding families, the sermon – 40 minutes or so, by contrast with Father’s 15-minute homily – would have been systematic and Biblical; would have explicated the text of a passage chosen by the pastor; would have related it to Reformed theological themes. The singing was always of metrical psalms – for we wished to be Biblical.

In, therefore, the manner of worship in the two churches, there is a real contrast – though not one that allows me to say this or that is better. The ordinary parish Mass can be pretty lacking in many ways; the Reformed service, on the other hand, was often dry and tedious. Still, I am not a Catholic because of ‘bells and smells.’

At the Reformed Church, once every few months those of us who were communicant members would have attended an addition to the service to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

At Mass today, as every day, the liturgical rite to this point, the homily, the singing, are all, in a way, preface. Now the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar. Father prays over them, using the Church’s liturgy. “This is My Body;” “This is the chalice of My Blood.” We adore what is no longer bread and wine. We receive into our own bodies the Body and Blood of Christ.

Is it this, then, that is the reason why, 20 years after my reception into the Catholic Church, I am still a Catholic? Is this tremendous fact what compensates for the lack, in many parishes, of the “bells and smells” which some of my Protestant friends think drew me into the Church? Not exactly. Not precisely just this – the reception of Our Lord. Let me explain. Certainly it is the Eucharist that keeps me a Catholic – but it is not the Eucharist itself. I could, after all, be Orthodox. The Church – the Roman Catholic Church – assures me that the Orthodox Churches have a valid Eucharist. If I were to attend one of the dozen or so Orthodox Churches in Auckland, I would receive Him – His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity – and I would experience a much more satisfying, beautiful, and, not to put too fine a point on it, reverent liturgy. My Orthodox friend tells me of the Divine Liturgy at the Serbian Orthodox Church. It causes my heart to long for the beauty that the Catholic Church could achieve – and does, in some Auckland parishes – approach.

It is not the Eucharist by itself that keeps me a Catholic.

I have written elsewhere of how I became a Catholic. I have been asked by (sadly few) Protestant friends which doctrine or doctrines of the Catholic Church made me a Catholic. Which Reformed teachings did I think wrong; which correct in the Catholic Church? What issue made me a Catholic?

This, I think, is to ask the wrong question. It is to put the cart before the horse; to assume that I became (and remain) a Catholic for what, at bottom, must be ideological reasons.

I became a Catholic to join the Church.

Becoming Reformed

I became a Christian on the night of Saturday 27th December, 1969 – probably, actually, early on the Sunday morning. I was 27 years old. I had had no religious experience at all before the night when, under the influence of LSD, I experienced what may be called an intellectual vision. Though I was aware of only as much of Christ as any completely secular young American may absorb from the surrounding culture, that night I knew that Jesus and the Devil were present to me, and that I could choose. I chose Jesus.

I had chosen a Christ with almost no content. I was at the time virtually without a place in the world. I was in the process of being divorced. I had dropped out of University. I was using drugs regularly. Had this not been the case, I have no doubt I would not so readily have reached out to the Hand offered me – would have been skeptical about there being any Hand at all, or anyone to extend it. I was in the position of a drowning man. Candace’s (my future wife Susan’s sister) testimony to me of her own experience was my only Christian story.

The next day I knew that I must put some content into this tiniest flickering flame of faith. I had no sort of Christian background. Susan had been brought up Anglican, but when I met her, she was not actively attending church. If she had been, it is likely I would have attended Anglican (Episcopal) worship with her. During those first weeks of 1970, I heard radio advertisements for Prince of Peace Lutheran Church’s evening youth services (complete with electric guitars). Sue and I began attending. Pastor Norman Hammer baptised me on the 26th of July, 1970. By then I was no longer a Lutheran.

By that statement, I mean that by then I was already a non-Sacramentalist. I was – albeit not very consciously – in the evangelical camp. This came about because I was being catechised by some wonderful people connected with an organisation called Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru). Campus Crusade is non-denominational. I do not think they would have objected if people involved with them were Catholic. Nevertheless, at least in our group, the default assumptions were evangelical; indeed, were Baptist. At no point could I have said that anyone presented me with any doctrines other than that Jesus had died for our sins, the Holy Spirit was there to help us live as we ought, and that we ought to bring others to faith in Christ.

But when, sometime after my own baptism in the Lutheran Church – perhaps around the end of 1970 – I listened to the words Pastor Hammer said in baptising a child: something along the lines of ‘God, Who has regenerated you by water and the Spirit…’ – I was shocked. I had by then read a certain amount of Lutheran theology (including much of Luther), but a greater amount of Baptist (and dispensationalist) theology. I knew, I would have said, that baptismal regeneration -was wrong. It was a form of magic. We were born again by believing. By 1971 I had persuaded Susan that we must become Baptists. We joined International Baptist Church. We were married there on 20 May, 1972. We were still members of that church on 31 January, 1973, when we left Honolulu for my first post-University job lecturing in linguistics at the University of Auckland.

In Auckland, we joined Hillsboro Baptist Church. It was near the flat we lived in. It was Baptist. But by now I was already on my way into the Reformed Church.

From the morning that I turned to Christ, I read. I read voraciously. I read the Bible through – have done about once a year since. I already knew Greek, as my degrees are in linguistics. I taught myself Hebrew. I began reading Christian writers.

John Calvin

Being in a Lutheran Church at the start, I read Luther, and Lutheran authors: Helmut Thielicke is the one I best remember. But soon, from the Campus Crusade influence, I began reading others. I read Spurgeon. I read a lot of dispensationalist authors. I read many popular writers. I read Lewis Sperry Chafer’s multi-volume Systematic Theology. I was introduced to Calvin (by Spurgeon) and read the Institutes. And I read church history – Philip Schaff’s three-volume history, a number of other works. I cannot, at this time depth, remember the names of most of the writers whose books I read.

And, slowly, I was becoming convinced that the Baptists, excellent although they were, were inadequate. In particular, their theology seemed to me simplistic; and they were so extremely clearly a very recent innovation in the history of Christianity.

For I had some independent knowledge of Christianity through historical study. I knew, in particular, that traditional Christian worship had baptised infants. The Baptists argued, of course, that this was an error. It was difficult for me to believe that almost all Christians through most of history had been wrong on this point. And I knew, as well, that Christian worship had been more … well, formal! … through most of its history.

Amongst the authors I had been reading, I especially found the writings of R. J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Cornelius Van Til, and others in the Calvinist line convincing. Their theology was much more satisfying. I had become, by now, a Calvinist Christian. There were, of course, Calvinist Baptist churches in New Zealand. But there was a group called the Reformed Churches of New Zealand that was Calvinist, and baptised infants. The covenantal theology they taught to justify baptising infants convinced me. Sue and I began attending a Reformed Church. At the beginning of 1975 we joined the Avondale Reformed Church. When John, our first child, was born on 12 July, 1975, he was baptised there. When we left Auckland for me to work in the Education Department of the island of Yap, our official church membership remained with Avondale Reformed Church. We were members of Reformed Churches until 1995, when we left to become Catholics.

Being Reformed

I was excited about being Reformed – and I continued reading Reformed writers. I was reading van Til. Rushdoony had led me to him. Rushdoony led me also to Gary North, whose wife is Rushdoony’s daughter. And Gary North led me to Jim Jordan.

Jim Jordan was a Calvinist – at least I believe he would accept the label. However, by contrast with some more doctrinaire Calvinists, he was also interested in good thought wherever it could be found – whether amongst Protestant writers, or Orthodox, or Catholic. His own background had been Lutheran. He wrote exciting things. He seemed to think that we Calvinists had thrown out the liturgical baby when we had thrown out the legalistic bathwater of the Roman Church. He thought we ought to have Communion every Sunday. He thought baptized children should receive Communion. He thought the Reformed liturgy should look a lot like the Anglican – even, in some respects, the Catholic – liturgy.

We lived eight years in Yap. Our three other children – Helen, Eddie, and Adele – were born there. When, on our 12th wedding anniversary – 20 May, 1984 – we returned to Auckland, it was to start a Reformed Church – and I returned as an evangelist of Jim Jordan.

Reformed Church

Although my degrees are in linguistics, I have been involved in computer programming since my first year at University, in 1960. The computer was a tool for my linguistics. In Yap, in 1977, I had ordered my first personal computer. By 1980, I was doing more computing in aid of the Education Department’s needs than in relation to linguistics. And in 1980, two of my dearest friends – one now a Reformed minister – made an agreement with me, that if I moved to Pukekohe, a satellite town of Auckland, Richard would sponsor us as the nucleus of a Reformed Church. In 1983, based on my computing experience, I was offered a job as a programmer with the firm Ross then worked for in Auckland. Susan and I moved to Pukekohe. At the beginning of 1989 the Pukekohe Reformed Church was formally instituted.

I was Reformed – but I was also a disciple of Jim Jordan. I was sure that Jim was right about so much. One thing that he pressed was that communion should be a part of every Sunday’s worship. So I pressed my elders – and they agreed to move from a position of quarterly communion to bimonthly communion. Another matter that I was very hot about was the age of communion. Jim said that the qualification for receiving communion ought to be baptism. Baptism, not a certain age. But in our church in Pukekohe, to be a communicant member was to be able to vote in congregational matters. The age of Communion, said our elders, was ‘marriageable age.’

I became very upset about this. None of our children could commune. I wrote an angry letter to Session about the matter, accusing them of the ‘sin’ (my word) of withholding communion from the baptised. This event proved a turning-point in my growth. I was asked to meet with them. I was very angry. I was sure I was right and they were wrong. What they said to me had nothing to do with the question of who was right on the issue. What they did was to explain that Christ had established His Church as His agent in the world. It was up to the Church to spread the Gospel – and to govern the Kingdom. I had stated that I believed this, that I considered them, the elders of Pukekohe Reformed Church, my ‘rulers’ (Hebrews 13:17). If I wished to take the matter up, it could not begin with my accusing them of sin. It could be a matter for discussion.

In becoming members of a Reformed Church, we answer ‘I do’ to four questions in the Public Profession of Faith. The fourth is this:

“Do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?”

For the Reformed Churches of New Zealand belief in a visible Church was an essential. From a section of Church Government:

“The New Testament places a great deal of emphasis on the visible church, that is, on particular churches in each place where God is gathering His people together. The apostle Paul wrote Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians and the apostle John wrote letters to 7 churches in Asia Minor as dictated by Christ Himself. Our Lord Himself gave His church a procedure for dealing with sin in the congregation which makes clear that the church He is building comes to expression in visible congregations. The apostle Paul writes specific instruction to Timothy and Titus so that they might “know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).”

All of this makes clear that the visible church and how it is run (church government) is very important to our Lord. I may not have been completely Calvinistic; I was very definitely a churchman. I was shocked. I still thought I was right about the age of Communion. But I knew they were right about the Church. I wrote a statement retracting my intention to accuse them of sin. The matter itself rather faded out after that – but I was changed. I knew that they were right about the Church.

Something Missing

From 1975 I considered myself Reformed. Yet I felt a constant sense of something missing. I longed for … I knew not what. Although I had had no Christian upbringing at all, I had, in my imaginative life, an important exposure to Catholicism. As a teenager, I had read – and been deeply moved by – Sigrid Undset’s Lavransdatter. I have never been a keen reader of historical romances, but Kristin stuck with me. When I was at University, I found it in the library and read it again – and was so moved as to read also Undset’s The Master of Hestviken. That book gave me something I had never had before: a knowledge why Christianity made such a point of Jesus’s death. Olav, the ‘Master’ of Hestviken, hurrying home to his dying wife, is in an unconsecrated church – and meditates on the meaning of Christ’s Passion.1

Jesus thought He was God, dying for the sins of men!  I read this passage, and wept. I was staggered by such a conception.  It did not occur to me to wonder if this could be true.

Indeed, I do not know what content I might have put into a statement: ‘this man thinks he is God.’ I only knew that I was deeply moved by this idea, by the idea of this religion – and I identified this religion with Catholicism.

Until the night I became a Christian, I had little or no exposure to any religious ideas. Providentially, after my conversion, the writer I read and returned to time and time again with a real longing was C. S. Lewis.

But Lewis was not a Catholic.  Am I, perhaps, talking about Christianity in the ‘mere’ sense of Lewis’s “Mere Christianity?”

I do not think I am. The fact is that all of Lewis’s instincts are Catholic. His view of salvation as a ‘good infection’ (Mere Christianity) seems to me more akin to the idea of infused righteousness than that of the Reformed imputed righteousness. His writing is at odds with Calvinism at many points. I knew this, without really knowing how I knew it. All the 20 or so years I considered myself Reformed, I continued to read Lewis – but felt guilty doing so. I read him in secret. I would become unhappy about my Reformed worship in tears, at times – and would retire to my private office to read Lewis.

By 1991, I was thinking more and more about the Catholic-like practices: the Lord’s Supper as part of each Sunday church service, kneeling for prayer, a liturgy that more closely resembled what I thought of as Anglican but which was, really, Catholic. More accurately, my emotions were drawn more to these and similar things. Some songs that we sang before the service began – as I said above, we only used psalmody during the service itself – were translations of old Catholic hymns. One of my favourites was O Jesus Joy of Loving Hearts – a translation of St Bernard’s Jesu Dulcis Memoria.

Although this feeling is not the reason I became a Catholic – I could only become a Catholic because I believed it to be true – yet I think this emotional and instinctive feeling of missing is essential in explaining why, when I suddenly encountered the idea that Catholicism might be true, I was filled with a terrible fear – lest I be deceived – but with a great and deep joyous longing – that it might be true.

The Catholic Storm

In 1993, as part of my work as, by now, computer system administrator at the University of Auckland, I was connecting to the infant Internet. Today, the Internet is a part of everyone’s life. In 1993 it was my entry into a world I had not known existed. People from all around the world met together in this place. I discovered a Christian discussion group. There were people from all flavours of Christianity – including Catholics.

I had no conception of Catholics as … well, in truth, I had no conception of Catholics at all. My ideas were in fact simply imaginary stereotypes of one sort and another. There were Catholics here who seemed to understand the Christian faith – and to be convinced Catholics. I involved myself in one or another discussion – principally defending Catholics against Protestant misconceptions I knew not to be true.


Blessed John Henry Newman

Someone mentioned a Reformed minister who had become a Catholic. I was electrified. I had never heard of anyone becoming a Catholic. I knew of any number of examples of Catholics becoming Protestants. Who was this, I asked? The name Scott Hahn was given. Who was he? What did he write? My University library could have books of his.

‘No,’ someone said, books in the University library were unlikely. He had recorded tapes about his own conversion. If I was interested in books about Catholic converts, had I ever read Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua?

I had not. I had, however, heard of Newman. Newman was respectable in University circles, for he had written The Idea of a University, and University people read it, though I never had.

Francis Schaeffer had been an important early influence on me. In a taped talk of his that I had listened to, he had implied that Newman’s conversion to the Catholic Church had been dishonest. Newman had, Schaeffer had said, been exhausted by his struggles with liberalism. Newman, Schaeffer said, had wanted an infallible Church so that he would no longer need to work things out for himself. He had, in Schaeffer’s words, gone into the darkness of the Church and shut the door behind him.

I was terrified at being known to be seriously interested in Catholicism, but Newman was different. I thought of his writings as ‘serious literature.’ I went to the University library and got out Newman’s Apologia and his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. At about the same time I received, from one of the large number of kind, concerned persons in the Internet discussion group, a copy of Scott Hahn’s conversion tape, and one of Kimberley Hahn’s own story. I read both books in secret – I did not want my wife to know what I was doing! – and listened to the tapes, in my office, with earphones – instantly switching to the radio when Susan came in.

On 22nd September, 1993 – my 51st birthday – I knew I was in trouble. I had long since come to believe that many Catholic practices – such as communion as a part of every Church service – and some beliefs – such as Purgatory (which I had got from Lewis) were desirable and Biblical. As I finished reading Newman and listening to Hahn, I was horrified to find that I had come to think that the question was not what whether Reformed Christianity ought to bring back some Catholic practices and beliefs; the question was whether Jesus had in fact established a visible Kingdom on earth – and that that Kingdom might simply be the Catholic Church.

The ensuing ten months were the stormiest of my life. I have detailed something of what I experienced in the 1998 piece I referenced above. I re-read much of what I had read before in becoming, and being, Reformed. Many good people on the Internet sent me books, both for and against the Catholic Church. I consulted many on the Internet. I talked with the elder in our Reformed church who had been assigned as our family’s pastor. I talked (endlessly) with my family. I prayed. I prayed. I prayed.

Gradually, especially through reading Newman and other Catholic writers, I came to understand that the approach my Protestant – and a few Catholic – friends urged on me could not but fail. This approach was to compare the teachings of the Catholic Church with those of other Christian groups and to decide which taught the truth. In the nature of things, this could not succeed.

How was I to know which group taught the truth?
I was told I should consult the Bible. I should compare the teachings of the individual churches with what the Bible taught, and see which was most Biblical. But:
Why the Bible?
What books were the Bible?
What did the Bible teach?

The Bible is not, prima facie, a communication from God. As far back as 1985, in discussions with my Reformed pastor, I had been told that the truth and inspired character of the Bible had to be presupposed. I had to start with it; could not infer its nature from some other facts. If I did so, I was believing in myself, not in the Bible.

Further, in that same conversation, I had to presuppose the accuracy of the list of books in the Bible – in the Protestant Bible, forsooth! – in order to begin to think at all. Neither what the Bible was, nor what books constituted the Bible, were matters that could be proved from more fundamental premises. If I did so, I was believing in myself, not in God’s Word.

These considerations, nevertheless, were not of overwhelming practical importance. The contents of the Bible – at least the bulk of it, and, a decisive point, the New Testament – were agreed on by most Christians. I could start with the Bible in good company. The difficulty was with the teachings of the Bible.
For the Bible does not teach. The Bible records. People teach.

Some told me that the Sacraments were symbols only. Some told me that they were covenants that God made with me, but were not something independent of my faith in them. Some said that they were real things. For example, if I were baptised, God’s life was really made to exist in me, quite apart from my faith. Some said that there were two Sacraments, but I knew that most of Christians through most of history thought there were seven.

I was told that it was the clear teaching of Scripture that Baptism was a conscious testimony to the world of having been saved (and therefore should not be applied to infants). I was told that faith alone saved me – but that if my faith were alone – that is, did not show itself in works – that I had not truly believed.

The arguable nature of practically every Christian notion, from the very fundamental (the divinity of Christ; the personality of the Holy Spirit) to the smallest detail (must women cover their heads in Church?) cannot be doubted. All these issues are argued from the Bible. To discern the Church by its agreement with the Bible would be, in fact, to discern the Church by its agreement with my understanding of the Bible.

So I did what I had always done: I read. I re-read Van Til and Rushdoony; Luther and Calvin. I read many new books, books arguing for the truth of Catholicism and books arguing for its falsity. By June of 1994, nine months later, crisis came. I had read intensely. I had begun (in fear and trembling) attending weekday Masses at the University Newman Centre. I grew more and more terrified.

On a bus one sunny winter afternoon in June of 1994, I experienced fugue. It was not quite full loss of identity, but a terrifying state nonetheless. I had the dreadful conviction that God was determined that I must choose – and that He had determined that I would choose wrong, and be condemned for that choice. I got off the bus at a random stop. I thought I did not know where I was nor where I was going. I sat on a bench for perhaps an hour, simply trying to calm down.

In the event I did the only thing I could do: I rejected a malicious God, a God who was not only hidden but deliberately deceptive. I consciously refused to believe in such a God. If, I thought, I did my best to find the truth, either I would make the right decision, or God would lead me from there to the right decision. It was a turning point.

As it happened, Ronald Knox’s excellent book The Belief of Catholics was my freedom. Knox freed me, in particular, from the presuppositionalist trap. Speaking of the necessity of the use of ‘private judgement’ in approaching the Church, Knox says:

“Let me then, to avoid further ambiguity, give a list of certain leading doctrines which no Catholic, upon a moment’s reflection, could accept on the authority of the Church and on that ground alone.
The existence of God.
The fact that he has made a revelation to the world in Jesus Christ.
The Life (in its broad outlines), the Death, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The fact that our Lord founded a Church.
The fact that he bequeathed to that Church his own teaching office, with the guarantee (naturally) that it should not err in teaching.
The consequent intellectual duty of believing what the Church believes.”

That which I had begun to see in reading Newman Knox now made clear for me. Jesus left (again, in Knox’s words) not Christianity but Christendom. He left no writing; He left an authoritative body – His Body! He established a Kingdom. He fulfilled His holy people Israel, by incorporating them, with the Gentiles who would believe in His Name, into His own Body. This Body had an earthly as well as a Heavenly unity. This Body had come down to our own time. It was the Catholic Church. On a ‘plane from Wellington to Auckland at the end of July, 1994, I prayed: “Lord, I will never dot every ‘i’ or cross every ‘t.’ But I know enough to be certain that if You were to tell me I was to die tonight, I would want a priest. If You do not stop me, I am going to become a Catholic.

Coming Into Harbour

The ensuing seventeen months were characterised by frequent storms; a variety of obstacles had to be overcome. The article I referenced earlier describes this period in some detail. By late December, 1995,I had parted, in real tears and grief, with our Reformed minister, the elders, the congregation that we had been instrumental in establishing. Susan, my wife, and our four children, had all determined to enter the Catholic Church. We had gone through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). On the 23rd December, the day before we were to be received, the Diocese of San Francisco had judged my first marriage to be invalid (due to lack of due discretion).

That day – Saturday 23 December – we spent at the Sister’s house, making our retreat; making our first Confession (a terrifying, and, in the event, unspeakably good, experience). On Sunday morning – Christmas Eve – we affirmed:

“I believe and hold, what the Church believes and teaches.”

That confession contains, it seems to me, the essence of what it means to be a Catholic. It is not that I have sought the truth about this or that religious position, and then found that the Church agrees with me. The asymmetry of the Confession is precisely correct. It is the Church that teaches; I hold. The Church had accepted our Protestant Baptism as valid, so we were confirmed and received our first Communion. We were Catholics.

Looking Back

In 1848, Newman published Loss and Gain – his first publication after he was received into the Church on 9 October, 1845. In the novel, Charles Reding loses much – especially his family’s favor. In the event, the reader is told what he gained. An hour after his reception into the Church:

“[Charles] was … kneeling in the church of the Passionists before the Tabernacle, in the possession of a deep peace and serenity of mind, which he had not thought possible on earth. It was more like the stillness which almost sensibly affects the ears when a bell that has long been tolling stops, or when a vessel, after much tossing at sea, finds itself in harbor.”

I recall, with sadness, our Reformed pastor telling me, the night at the end of 1994 when I told him that I must become a Catholic, that this was yet another wild swing of my heart and mind; that within three years I would have left the Church; perhaps become a Muslim, or a Hindu. Newman, in the Apologia, concludes the history up to his reception, by writing:

“From the time that I became a Catholic, of course I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no changes to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment. I never have had one doubt. I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any difference of thought or of temper from what I had before. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.”

So it has been with me. In the almost twenty years since I became a Catholic, our lives have gone through many changes. Our children have all grown up, of course, and left home. One has left the Church – indeed, for a time, struggled with belief in God, though now he is a keen Evangelical Christian. Sue and I have seven grandchildren. We are members, now, and, indeed, for the last seventeen or eighteen years, of Opus Dei, an organisation which helps us to seek holiness and sanctification in daily life. It is as difficult for me to imagine not being a Catholic as it would be for me to imagine having had different parents than I have. In John’s Gospel, Andrew and hear John Baptist refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” They respond:

“And the two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned round, saw them following and said, ‘What do you want?’ They answered, ‘Rabbi’ – which means Teacher – ‘where do you live?’ He replied, ‘Come and see’; so they went and saw where he lived, and stayed with him that day. It was about the tenth hour” (John 1:38-39).”

I said above, at the end of the first section, that I had become a Catholic, not because the Church believes this or that doctrine, which I know on other grounds to be true. I became a Catholic to join the Church. I became a Catholic because that is where Jesus lives: in His Body, the Church; in the Eucharist, His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. I became a Catholic to join the Church.

1 ‘Meditates!’ What a bloodless word for what I experienced! For those interested, the passage is in the last chapter, chapter 15, of the second volume of the English translation of the work, beginning with the words “The snow crunched under their feet as they came outside.”

Love,
Matthew