Category Archives: United Methodism

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 four & finis, 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 three, 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 two, 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 one


-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’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

Henry Flood – from Methodist, to Evangelical, to Anglican, to Catholic

“My journey to Rome was a lengthy one, consuming two-thirds of a normal lifetime. I traveled nearly every highway and byway of Methodism, Southern Methodism, United Methodism, and many forms of Evangelicalism. From Methodism my spiritual journey led me to the via media of Anglicanism, across the Newman Bridge and finally, with the help of a devoted cradle Catholic wife of 25 years, Nilde, my friend Gloria, and the ever-present Virgin Mary, my journey to Catholicism was complete at the age of 65.

The Early Years

As the son of a conservative Methodist minister growing up in a staunchly evangelical environment in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s in South Carolina, Catholicism was unimaginable. Culturally, you just never thought about Catholics or what they believed.

In my younger years (1956 to 1963), my father’s ministry was new, vibrant, and exciting. I enjoyed my childhood faith so much that I was confirmed at age nine, although the usual age among Methodists was 12.

Then came the social and civil rights revolution in the Deep South.  These were difficult times socially and “the ordeal of change” caused great social and religious stress as I approached my early teen years. Not wishing to buy into the social gospel message sweeping through the Methodist and other mainline churches, my father left  the relative security of the Methodist Church to become a Southern Methodist minister.

In my mid to late teens, I began to feel some discomfort with the more fundamentalist viewpoints which tended not to be open to inquiry and reflection. We were Bible-believing Christians, with an Evangelical but not fundamentalist outlook.

Two examples come quickly to mind.  The first was the “Bible wars.” I grew up with the King James Bible(KJV) but had some familiarity with the Good News Bible (GNB) and the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Many Southern and Independent Methodist Churches rejected all versions of the Bible except the KJV. In their view, these other Bibles were not the Word of God; they were manufactured by liberals who used modern language to change the word of God. But in my reading of The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? by F.F. Bruce, I saw that such views were both illogical and untrue.

The second area of discomfort distinguishing fundamentalism from evangelicalism was the contempt for intellectual inquiry — especially questioning. If Christianity was merely a collection of set propositions, then what was to distinguish it from philosophy?  Bible and other religious reading was very important to me, and I read widely from the tenth grade forward. Such inquiry caused many questions and sometimes brought me into conflict with the viewpoints held by my father.

A Teen’s Question about Mary

One of my earliest inquiries around the young age of 15 concerned Mary. As a Bible reader, I noticed that there were passages of Scripture that mentioned Mary outside of the Christmas narrative. My recollections were that, when Mary was mentioned, it only addressed her role in giving birth to Jesus. During my Southern Methodist years, Mary only came out of the closet at Christmas time and then quickly returned to her dusty place with the artificial Christmas tree. Rarely, if ever, was Mary discussed except in anti-Catholic terms.

When I did inquire about the other Marian verses in the Bible, my early attempts to do so provoked one of three responses: stone-faced silence, anger, or an invitation to visit some liberal or Catholic group of idol worshipers. I wondered about Mary’s role beyond just giving birth to Jesus. My first serious theological question concerned the Incarnation. Jesus came and dwelt among us. I felt that Mary was more than just a vessel. Why did God choose Mary? She must have been a very special person. It seemed to me that you could not really talk about the Incarnation and ignore Mary’s words in the Annunciation (see Luke 1:26-35). In those years, Mary was just there, latent in the back- ground, but providentially there.

The Search for a Credible Christianity

One of my father’s last churches was in a suburb of Jacksonville, Florida. It was an “Independent Southern Methodist Church” — a church even more conservative than my experiences with the Southern Methodist church.

Although I ended up assisting my father during his last three months and even filling in for him in my early 20’s, such fundamentalism was bewildering to me. It seemed to have little to offer, and the blatant racism present among some of the church membership was likewise unsettling.

When I was 22, our family moved back to Folly Beach, South Carolina, a slender barrier island twelve miles south of Charleston where I had spent much of my childhood and high school years.  I had interrupted my college education while living in Jacksonville, Florida but resumed it after returning to Charleston. My chief desire at this time was to have a credible, non-fundamentalist faith that could engage both mind and heart.

The “New Evangelical” authors fed my intellect and made Christianity believable to me.  They gave me reasons to believe that were theologically and intellectually more convincing than what fundamentalism offered. C.S. Lewis demonstrated that deep learning and Christianity were compatible with each other. Donald Bloesch made reason and spirit come alive for me. Bernard Ramm introduced me to a serious reading of theology and to Karl Barth. F.F. Bruce made Bible history and theology interesting. His works,  The Canon of Scripture and  The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? opened many other vistas of Bible history and scriptural development. I encountered there the concept of oral tradition.

Some Dormant Years

Around this time, I met Rev. Earnest Dugan, a Methodist minister who ran a mission similar to those you might see in the Salvation Army. He engaged my mind while stressing the need for service to others. His sermons were inspiring and his explanation of Scripture was intellectually and spiritually rewarding.

Pastor Dugan presided over my marriage to a young lady who was Episcopalian, although I don’t recall ever visiting her church. We were married at the Folly Beach United Methodist Church in 1976. My new wife and I soon moved to new employment in southern Delaware. She worked in an allied health occupation while I did grants and governmental relations. We both drifted away from religious practice. It just happened, and I cannot really explain why.  Those were religiously dormant years for both of us. It was a difficult marriage, and six years later it ended. Being suddenly divorced and single was difficult.

The Potter’s House

I was newly living in Washington, D.C. and attending graduate school. As I worked my way through earning my Master’s degree in Legal Studies, I found myself involved on the fringes of urban ministry, helping poor people. One of my hangouts was the Potter’s House coffeehouse, a ministry of the Church of the Savior, located on Columbia Road in the heart of the Adams Morgan neighborhood.

The Potter’s House was much more than a coffeehouse. It was a religious bookstore, a place of lively local entertainment, and seekers of every description — even agnostics and atheists — gathered there to share and talk.  The Potter’s House re-connected me to religious reading, talking, and reflection. It fed my heart and mind.

The Potter’s House was the gateway to my religious renewal, serious intellectual engagement with theology, and reaching out to others with a sense of service that goes with a lived faith. I read my first Catholic book there,  The Wounded Healer by the noted Dutch Catholic Henri Nouwen.  This was followed by his book Reaching Out. I strongly identified with Nouwen’s pastoral theology and focus on serving others.

The Episcopal Experience

In Washington D.C., I found a much more open religious environment. A work colleague introduced me to the Falls Church Episcopal — the historic church of George Washington in Falls Church, Virginia, a city just west of metropolitan Washington, D.C. I had earlier read Robert Webber’s little book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail.  Through Robert Webber and the witness of a friend, I discovered that one could be Evangelical and liturgical at the same time. At this time, in the mid-1980’s, Falls Church Episcopal was presided over by Rev. Dr. John Yates, a charismatic Evangelical with a decidedly Anglican focus. I fell in love with liturgical Christianity as found in the Book of Common Prayer.

I recall with fondness my visits to the Episcopal National Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in northwest Washington, D.C.  The music and liturgy was astoundingly beautiful. It was not long, though, before I discovered that there were many ways of being Episcopalian and that there was a tension between traditionalists and modernists contending for the heart and soul of the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church leadership nationally and in many of its parishes in Washington were of a decidedly liberal bent. I found that, in many of these parishes, you could believe almost anything and still be Episcopalian.  The church of John Yates held a minority position in that respect. Most troubling to me was the open talk of blessing gay relationships and ordaining gay women and men into the priesthood.

I found these theological events deeply troubling. How was it that a bishop such as John Shelby Spong could denounce key Christian beliefs reflected in the historical Episcopalian creeds and remain an Episcopalian in good standing? My thought began to be centered on what constitutes a real church. When does a church cease to be a church of the Creed? As I watched in horror this undermining of the Episcopal and other mainline churches, my question was, What should I do? Where can I go? Where is authentic belief and worship to be found?

A friendship and the Sacred Heart Years

My next steps on the journey were eight years of courtship and eventual marriage to a cradle Catholic named Nilde whom I met at  The Potter’s House in 1982. Our long friendship and courtship enabled us to safely talk and share. We read and talked together about life and especially about our respective faiths. I was the intellectual one; Nilde was more spiritual. We gravitated towards each other in the Potter’s House friendship. Every week we met at the same little table to read, talk, and enjoy the quiet piano lounge music.

My every Friday coffeehouse friend introduced me to the inside of a Catholic church, the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in northwest Washington. It was strange yet beautiful, a bit bewildering to my then Protestant sensibilities. Statutes of Mary were everywhere. She was beautiful, but the Rosary made no sense to me. Devotion to the Rosary would come some twenty years later.

During this time, John Paul II was in the prime of his papacy.  The “Catholic moment,” so to speak, had arrived, as Richard John Neuhaus and numerous others became Catholic converts, drawing many into the Catholic orbit — including me.

Week after week, I found myself in Nilde’s company at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. It was, and still is, run by a group of Capuchin Franciscans.  They received me openly, never asking me much about my faith.  They just fed me with friendship and fellowship.

Those I remember most were Brother Eric, who later became Father Eric, and Father Don, who is now Bishop of Mendi in Papua, New Guinea. We spent countless hours talking about faith and Catholicism. Catholic belief and practice seemed overwhelming to me at  first. I often wondered if I could be good enough to be Catholic; intellect and heart were not in line with each other at this time. But I kept going there, and no one pushed me away.

Nilde and I did urban ministry and youth ministry together at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. Soon we found ourselves in charge of thirty to forty young people of largely Central American heritage. Many of these young boys and girls were sent here for safety during the Central American wars of the 1980’s. Some had relatives, but for many the Church became their caretakers, their mothers and their fathers. Nilde and I became their “Padrinos,” although we ourselves did not have children.  Thirty of these youth formed half of our wedding party when Nilde and I married in October of 1990. I loved the Central American culture. I too was away from my South Carolina family, so these young people became my family.

Our devotion to Central Americans extended beyond the Washington, D.C. experiences. Nilde sponsored a young Honduran girl of eight in the early 1980’s. Over time, I became involved in the care packages we sent to Maria, and Nilde, with her mother, visited Maria in 1987. After our marriage, I became much more involved with Maria and her little community.  The Honduran people are uniformly poor but deeply spiritual.

Having no children of our own, Maria, and eventually her two children, became our foster family from afar. Over thirty years, we made eight trips to Honduras. We adopted Maria’s little community of fifty houses, known as Rancho Alegre.  Through fundraising, we brought electricity to their little village in the year 2000. We also reached out to the churches of her community and its 250 residents with medicines and other works of charity.

In the Fall of 2015, we had the good fortune of helping to re-build the church of our foster daughter at Rancho Alegre through receipt of a $6,000 foundation grant.  at church was re-dedicated this year on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The Ratzinger Encounter

The next important step along the road to Catholicism was my accidental discovery of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in a second-hand Washington bookstore. Washington was a hotbed of religious controversy in the 1980’s. Hans Kung had been declared to no longer be a Catholic theologian and Father Curran was dismissed from his teaching position at Catholic University. I remembered that Joseph Ratzinger had something to do with this.  The Ratzinger Report caught my attention, and it was only fifty cents.

Unknown to the cardinal, we became intellectual friends after reading this and another tome entitled  The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger, also purchased in that same Second Story Books for a mere two dollars.  The issue then and now revolved around what makes a church authentic and true, as distinguished from a social club or debating society. His book Called to Communion, a series of short essays on ecclesiology, was important for me.  These essays addressed the critical question of what it means to be a Church.

Ratzinger was Christ-centered in his theology and demonstrated an extraordinary command of scriptural interpretation — something that any serious Anglican evangelical could appreciate.

One of the most unforgettable moments of my life occurred when Nilde and I were in Rome on a religious tour in 2007.  The highlight of our visit to the Vatican was a chance to greet Pope Benedict during a Wednesday audience in 2007.

Mary once Again

Remembering my earlier focus on the Incarnation, I began to inquire anew about Mary.  The first explicitly Marian book I read was Mary for All Christians by the Anglican theologian, John Macquarrie. He confirmed my earlier suppositions. Mary made sense, at least from an Anglican and ecumenical perspective. My suspicions were confirmed that Mary belonged to the economy of salvation.  Theological appreciation, though, was far from constituting Catholic devotion.

Mary’s influence grew gradually. Ratzinger’s Daughter Zion, a small book of essays on Mary, convinced me that Mary must be important in any Christian church, Catholic or otherwise. I also read Our Lady and the Church by Hugo Rahner and Mary for Todayby Hans Urs von Balthasar. These works impelled me to undertake a deeper, extended study of Mary and Marian doctrine in Catholic and ecumenical perspectives, eventually leading to my writing  The Virgin Mary — A Resource Guide for Laypersons.

Good Enough to be Catholic?

So why wasn’t I Catholic yet?  The short answer to this question might be found in a quotation from the philosopher Renan, who said, “No one has a religion until they have lost it.”

That quote embodies my forty-year journey to a faith that is credible to both heart and mind.

A Christianity that engages the heart but denigrates the mind is deficient. I felt uneasy. In order for Christianity to be credible, it has to offer something more than fire insurance. I had lost my fundamentalism and visited varieties of Evangelicalism, then the American Episcopal Church — only to discover that what I thought was an authentic church was in fact something else.

At the same time, I was wary of exchanging Protestant fundamentalism for Catholic fundamentalism. Father Francis Sullivan, S.J. helped me to understand that, despite a “Deposit of Faith,” our knowledge is partial.  There are open questions whose resolution may only emerge gradually.  That was reassuring.

I have a special affinity to Cardinal Dulles, who wrote of his conversion in 1946: “The only sufficient cause for any conversion, is, of course, divine grace, for which man can give no ex- planation.” But we both agreed that one can describe how God influences or acts through others to impact our will.

For nearly thirty years, I was a fellow traveler within the Catholic orbit.  Through deep reading and participation as an interloping “guest,” I simply ceased to be Protestant. Like Cardinal Newman, I read myself into a Catholic mindset.

But I could not fully own my Catholicism.  There were barriers. My former wife could not be located, so I could not proceed with the annulment process and pursue being received into the Catholic Church. And I constantly wondered if I was “good enough” to be Catholic. It is surprising how such a doubt can be a barrier for someone considering becoming Catholic.

Seeking a New Spiritual Home

We loved Washington, D.C., but changes in life are inevitable. Nilde and I moved to Miami in 1993 so she could be with her parents during their final years, because Nilde was an only child. At first, we attended Saint Dominic’s Catholic Church in Miami, since that was where Nilde’s parents lived. It was also Nilde’s parish church growing up. We went there every weekend because I began singing in a local restaurant near their home every Saturday. Singing from the American song book was a carry- over from my Washington days, having spent countless hours in Washington’s piano lounges. After visiting several Catholic parishes closer to our home in Aventura, Florida, we eventually found a permanent home at St. Matthew Catholic Church.

Mary for a Third Time

Following Nilde’s recovery from spinal cancer and regaining her ability to walk in 2007, we began volunteering for Memorial Regional Hospital and became members of the Legion of Mary.

Our devotion to Mary grew steadily, and I enjoyed the supportive fellowship of my Legion of Mary friends. As my devotion to Mary increased, I wondered where she was leading me.

At the Legion of Mary, I found a special apostolic partner in Gloria Ippolito. Providence joined us together in a ministry of faith and reaching out to others — especially at funeral wakes.

But my journey was not quite over.  There was my former marriage still to be dealt with.

After years of searching, I did locate my former wife.  The process moved quickly throughout 2014, and the marriage was declared null on May 5, 2015. I went through RCIA a second time.

Now I  finally felt that I could own my Catholicism.  The reality is that Mary brought me home, offering me the fullest expression of Christian truth — the Catholic Church. And my wife, Nilde, was enduringly important too. She was my Monica who prayed constantly for her famous intellectual son, Augustine.

The riddle of my forty years of wandering and deep reading was answered. All that study suddenly came into focus one September day in 2014. I was asked by our Legion of Mary president to give a talk, a study reflection, at the regional Legion of Mary meeting.  The topic was John the Baptist. As I pored through the mass of materials I had gathered, I asked Mary for help. What was the message for me? What was the message for my audience of fifty to seventy other Legion members?

One of the amazing things I discovered was that John the Baptist was the patron saint of my birthplace, Charleston, South Carolina.  The mission of John the Baptist was simply to declare the word, to make straight the ways of the Lord and announce that salvation was coming. John the Baptist is now my Patron Saint too.

Mary gave me one more affirmation through a special Providence of God. June 5, 2015 marked the ten-year anniversary of my mother’s passing. While planning for a Pilgrim Virgin Visit ceremony in my home to mark this occasion, I ran across something I thought had been lost forever. It was a beautiful icon prayer card of Our Lady of Joyful Hope and Our Lady of South Carolina.  The prayer card and the story behind its creation recalled the motto of my home state: “While I breathe, I hope.” I had often quoted this state motto as I awaited what I hoped would be a blessing of my marriage to Nilde and full reception into the Catholic Church. How incredible were the graces of Mary throughout this long journey!

My formal reception into the Catholic Church and convalidation of my marriage to Nilde Martinez took place on June 29, 2015 on the Feasts of Saints Peter and Paul. My confirmation took place at the Cathedral of Saint Mary in Miami, Florida.

A Second Call

I  am determined not to refuse a second calling to declare the word.  That day in September of 2014 was a seminal moment. Mary and John the Baptist have called me to truly declare the word. I had been doing this increasingly through the delivery of short devotions and presiding at funeral wakes. Each time I did these things I felt affirmed by the Holy Spirit to keep doing them.

This affirmation led me to think about what I should really be doing. During some of my trips to Honduras, I discovered people in remote areas of Honduras who did not have regular access to a parish church and the sacraments.  The Honduran Catholic Church filled in these gaps with Delegates of the Word, something similar to deacons when priests were not available. Delegates of the Word.  That concept resonated with me.

I needed a platform to host my writing, speaking, and special works of charity, so I created the Delegates of the Word organization to be the means for doing my apostolic work.  Through this organization, I am reaching out to others by writing, speaking, and teaching in whatever venue that might be open. I do not know where this will lead, but at a minimum, Delegates of the Word can serve as a means for me to unpack forty years of constant Catholic and ecumenical study for laypersons and anyone else who might care to listen.

Was the Journey Worth it?

Non-Catholics might wonder, what really made you Catholic? What about your Evangelical and Anglican heritage? I think it would be accurate to say that I read and studied myself into the Catholic Church.

The second factor has to do with ecclesiology. What is a true Church as distinguished from a club or a debating society? What I discovered was that the Catholic Church has the fullest expression of cumulative truth contained within its history, tradition, worship, and theology. As Thomas Howard said, the Catholic Church is “Evangelical plus.” Authority and ecclesiology are linked together.

Intellectually, Benedict XVI and many of the theological giants of the Ressourcement movement that ushered in Vatican II informed my mind and spirit. It is especially true of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henry de Lubac, and the Jesuit theologian Francis Sullivan.

Long before becoming officially Catholic, Mary was there as a tiny mustard seed in my consciousness. She was the cause of my first serious theological question. Over time, she gradually grew larger, and through my eight years of Legion of Mary affiliation, she, Nilde, and my apostolic friend, Gloria, led me through the final journey.”

Love,
Matthew

The Fullness of Grace

Catholics believe we are justified by God’s grace. Christ has redeemed the whole world. We must freely choose, free will, to cooperate in that redemption. It’s that word “cooperate” that’s the rub here. Protestantism, I generalize, begins with Sola Fide, salvation through faith, alone, although none of the Five Solas are found in the Bible, aka Sola Scriptura. It’s that word “alone” that’s the rub here. Since belief in “faith alone” implies all one need do is declare “I believe!”, and one is “saved”, and grace is part of the package deal. One and done.

However, back to that word “cooperate”, Catholics feel that while that’s an awesome start, throw in Baptism, by necessity, and you’re rolling, but out of the pure joy of the prospect of salvation, you MUST, not optional, act. James 2:14-26. Catholics are never “assured” of salvation, and surely NEVER from anything we DO, that would be the heresy of Pelagianism. And, to say we were assured of salvation simply by saying “I believe!”, that would be presumption, a form of the sin of pride, by which Satan fell, presuming a declaration/decision belonging to God alone at the time of our particular judgment. We have reasonable confidence in the fact the saints are in Heaven, hence the ask for miracles in canonization as a sign of this fact.

To the Catholic mind you cannot just go on living your life as if nothing had happened or slip back into sin or immorality just because you said “I believe!”. You must, through His grace, ask for grace. ALL is grace!!!! ALL!!! It is free. It is granted to those who ask. Mt 7:7. Through grace, asked for & received, I cannot explain it, but try it, sincerely. (I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I know I am, over and over again. And, we’re not just taking natural phenomena and calling it “grace”. It’s subtle, but I do believe, from personal witness, it exists and is effective.) That through God’s unmerited favor, we will be able to live holy and holier lives as God commands. We are wounded by Original Sin, so this is NOT going to be easy!!! But, it is possible, Jesus commands it. Mt 5:20. Never through our own efforts, but by His unmerited favor, grace, which makes all of this possible. Praise Him!!!


-by Br John Paul Kern, OP

“Do Catholics and Protestants both believe that we are saved by God’s grace?

Yes! And today many Christians are realizing that this is an essential point of Christian unity.

In 1999, the Catholic Church and Lutheran leaders signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, proclaiming together that “all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation” (JDDF, 19).

In 2006, Methodist leaders affirmed that this statement “corresponds to Methodist doctrine.” This summer, on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, leaders of the Reformed communities also accepted this common explanation of justification by grace.

What does this groundbreaking agreement between the Catholic Church and Protestant leaders mean?

After many years of harsh rhetoric and, often, misunderstandings, the Catholic Church and several large Protestant communities have been able to acknowledge together, publicly, that we both believe that Christians are saved by grace. Acknowledging such common ground is an important step toward a fuller Christian unity.

However, many Protestants remain skeptical that the Catholic Church affirms the priority of God’s grace in man’s justification, which Luther called the “first and chief article” of Christian faith (Smalcald Articles, II.1). Additionally, the Joint Declaration itself openly acknowledges and describes differences in the way that Catholics and Protestants understand how we are saved by grace.

Unfortunately, many Catholics and Protestants alike are unfamiliar with both the Catholic doctrine of justification by grace and the teachings of the Protestant Reformers. Therefore, let us explore what we share in common as well as where we differ regarding “the Gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), to better appreciate this beautiful, saving truth in its fullness.

Common Ground: The Primacy of God’s Grace in Man’s Salvation

God, Who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)… For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph 2:4–5, 8–9)

St. Paul knew from his own conversion that salvation in Jesus Christ comes through God’s gift of grace. Therefore, he strongly emphasized this central Gospel truth throughout his writings.

Having also undergone a radical conversion by God’s grace, St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) famously rejected the error of Pelagius, who claimed man could save himself apart from grace.

The Catholic Church later employed St. Augustine’s teachings to refute “semi-Pelagianism”—the claim that man can earn the grace of justification by his own efforts—at the Second Council of Orange (529), and she continues to honor St. Augustine as the Doctor Gratiae (Teacher of Grace).

A thousand years later, Protestant theologians in the 16th century articulated their doctrine of justification sola gratia (by grace alone), which also emphasized the priority of grace.

When the Catholic Church promulgated her official response at the Ecumenical Council of Trent (1546–1563), she strongly reaffirmed the primacy of God’s grace. Once again, she explicitly rejected Pelagianism—the claim “that man may be justified before God by his own works… without the grace of God”—and Semi-Pelagianism.

Thus, the Catholic Church in the 16th century authoritatively agreed with the Protestant Reformers regarding the priority of grace in salvation. However, she was concerned that the Protestant doctrine of sola gratia greatly reduced the scope and power of the grace of justification by emphasizing God’s forgiveness apart from the effects of grace on man.

Therefore, the Catholic Church emphasized, and continues to emphasize, that God’s grace of justification cannot be understood in its fullness apart from:

  1. the role of grace in God’s entire plan for mankind;
  2. a radical transformation, renewal, and rebirth of the human person; and
  3. God’s elevation of man to partake of the divine nature and participate in divine life.

1. Grace is a Fundamental Part of God’s Entire Plan for Humanity

For Protestant Reformers, such as Luther, the central question was justification: how can a sinful person be justified before God? This is extremely important. However, a singular emphasis on this question often leads Protestants to view grace solely through the lens of “solving the problem” of justification.

Catholics, on the other hand, understand God’s grace not only as a merciful response to man’s miserable, fallen state after sin but also as a generous gift that God freely and lovingly chose to bestow upon Adam and Eve from the moment of their creation. The Catholic faith teaches that God created man in a state of grace, which allowed him to enjoy an intimate friendship with God, knowing and loving God in a way that would not have been possible without God’s grace.

After the sinful Fall, God’s grace restores man to a state of friendship with God and grants the forgiveness of sin. The Catholic Church teaches that God’s prevenient (prior) grace prepares, disposes, and moves man to freely receive the grace of justification, which communicates to man the righteousness of Christ. From beginning to end, it is grace that saves.

Starting at the moment of justification, Christian life is animated by sanctifying grace, which allows Christians to grow in holiness throughout their lives. Sanctifying grace includes the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the heart of the Christian life (1 Cor 13:13), and the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isa 11:2). Christians who follow the Holy Spirit through the gifts enjoy the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23), the highest of which are the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–12).

Finally, the life of grace reaches its full fruition in the glory of heaven. It is not by man’s natural powers that he is capable of beholding the beatific vision of God but only by God’s gift of the light of glory, which is also a grace.

2. God’s Grace Has the Power to Actually Transform a Human Person

According to the Protestant Reformers, justification by grace is extrinsic to man. That is, justification describes man’s standing before God, in a sort of legal fashion, rather than the actual state of man himself. According to Luther, for example, man is justified when God graciously looks at Christ’s merit, which covers but does not destroy man’s sin, and imputes (credits) to us the “alien righteousness” of Christ, declaring us righteous by a judicial act though we remain sinners in reality. Thus, grace is simply the “undeserved favor” of God’s merciful judgment, which renders us “not guilty.”

In contrast, the Catholic faith teaches that while the wounds due to original sin still affect Christians, the grace of justification does not merely cover sin but destroys it, regenerates man to spiritual life (Jn 3:3; Titus 3:4-7), and restores his friendship with God.

Scripture recounts Jesus forgiving sins (Mk 2:1-12), casting out evil (Lk 11:14), healing (Mt 8:1-4), and raising people from the dead (Jn 11:40-44), all of which serve as powerful images for what God accomplishes in the human soul through the grace of justification.

God’s declarations match reality. God spoke the universe into being by saying, “let there be…” (Gen 1). Similarly, when God declares a person to be just and righteous, he simultaneously and actually makes that person just and righteous by the power of his grace, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

The grace of justification communicates the righteousness of Christ to man and has the power to actually transform man into the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). The Christian is reborn to a new life of grace infused by the Holy Spirit and is given a new heart (Ez 36:26–28), a new mind (1 Cor 2:16), and a new “nature” in Christ (Eph 4:22–24).

St. Paul explains, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). Thus, Christians transformed by grace have “put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:9–10).

Therefore, “justification… is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man [2 Cor 4:16] through the voluntary reception of the grace… whereby man who was unjust becomes just [Rom 3:23-24], and who was an enemy becomes a friend [Jn 15:15], so that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting” (Trent, Decree on Justification, Ch. 7).

God justifies a person by an infusion of grace, which brings about a transformation of the soul from a state of sin and injustice to a state of grace, justice, and righteousness. This conversion includes a movement of the intellect toward God in faith and a movement of the will to love God and to hate sin, and it simultaneously results in the forgiveness of sin (Summa Theologica I-II, q. 113, a. 6).

Thus, in his work of justification, God’s undeserved favor actively bestows upon us the gift of grace, which has the power to actually transform us and make us righteous with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

3. By Grace We Partake of the Divine Nature and Participate in Divine Life

The Protestant Reformers also do not emphasize what is, perhaps, the most amazing thing about grace: that God’s grace elevates Christians to share in God’s Trinitarian life of love. Luther asserted that even “the just sin in every good work” (Denzinger, 771), and “every work of the just is worthy of damnation… if it be considered as it really is” (Möhler, “Symbolik,” 22). For Calvin, even Christian acts of charity “are always defiled by impurity” (Institutes, III, 18, 5).

In contrast, St. Peter wrote, “his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness… that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:3–4).

From the very beginning, “God… freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life” (CCC 1). That is, God created us to partake, by grace, in his own divine nature and to share in the divine life of Trinitarian love (1 Jn 4:7-16)—a life that is far above and beyond what is possible by human nature alone.

Even after original sin, God’s grace restores us from spiritual death to new life in Christ (Rom 6:4). Grace allows us to share in God’s own Trinitarian life as “adopted sons” in the Son (Gal 4:4–6) and as “children of God” (Jn 1:12–13) so that through, with, and in Jesus Christ, by the indwelling and power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), we may call God “Our Father” (Mt 6:9).

By grace, we are truly united to Christ as his members (1 Cor 12:12–27), and the life of the divine vine runs through us as branches (Jn 15:1–11), so that with St. Paul we may proclaim that it is now “Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). As God’s children in Christ, we cooperate with God’s grace to bear the spiritual fruit of good works (Jn 15:16–17; Eph 2:10), which glorify God.

This supernatural life of grace, which begins on earth, blossoms into the life of glory in heaven. There, the gift of faith will be transformed into sight as we behold God face-to-face (1 Cor 13:12). Our hope will be fulfilled as we possess God, our eternal inheritance and reward, celebrating the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9). Yet love, the core of the Christian life, will continue, perfected, in heaven as we experience the fullness of joy praising God for all eternity (1 Cor 13:8). Thus, the life of grace will be crowned and fulfilled in eternal life.

By grace, even now, we can share in God’s life of love and, in imitation of Jesus Christ, perform the works of our Father (Jn 4:34). Let us cry out “Abba! Father!” in praise of him whose merciful love offers us, by the saving work of his Son, through the Holy Spirit, this amazing gift of grace!”

Love, & always begging for His grace,
Matthew

Questions from friends…


-by Trent Horn

Questions From Friends

When I was considering joining the Catholic Church I sat down with some of my non-Catholic friends to see if they could talk me out of my decision. They were Christians, but they didn’t consider themselves to be “Protestants.” Instead, they called themselves Evangelicals or just “Christ-followers.” Regardless, their response to my decision to become Catholic surprised me.

One of the girls said, “As long as Catholics believe in Jesus then I don’t think it’s a big deal.” Another chimed in, “I mean, we’re never going to know which church is the right church or even if there is such a thing, so why worry?”

That answer didn’t satisfy me so I asked them, “Don’t you wonder if one of the churches that exists today can be traced back to the Church Jesus founded? Don’t you wonder which church Jesus wants us to join?”

The First Christians

My question was met with a collective shrug and a simple recommendation that I just “believe in Jesus,” but that wasn’t good enough for me. How did my Evangelical friends know we only have to believe in Jesus to be saved? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Do we have to be baptized to believe in Jesus? Do we have to receive Communion? If I stop believing in Jesus will I lose my salvation?

I wanted the answers to these questions so I decided to study what the very first Christians believed. These were the believers who lived just after the apostles. If there was one church I wanted to belong to, it was their church.

In the time of the apostles believers were called “Christians,” but the Church was not called “the Christian Church.” It was simply referred to as “the Church,” as is evident in Luke’s description of what Paul and Barnabas did in the city of Antioch. He said, “For a whole year they met with the Church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

A few decades later St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to Christians who lived six hundred miles away, in the coastal city of Smyrna (located in modern Turkey). He said, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

An Old Baby Photo

“How can today’s Catholic Church with all of its traditions and rituals be the same the humble Church we read about in the New Testament?” It’s a good question, but it’s sort of like asking, “How can that fully grown man be the same little boy whose diaper had to be changed decades earlier?” In both cases the body being described grew and developed over time without becoming a different kind of being.

The man, for example, has many things he did not have as a baby (like a beard he needs to shave). But he also has many of the same things he did have as a baby. This includes the same DNA that guides his growth and gives him features like “his father’s nose,” which can be seen in his old baby photos. In the same way, the Catholic Church, which St. Paul calls the Body of Christ (Eph. 5:23), has the same “DNA” as the Church of the first century: the word of God. This word is transmitted both through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and you can see its effect in one of the Church’s “old baby photos.”

One particular “photo” comes from the second century, when St. Justin Martyr wrote about how when Christians gathered to worship, they “offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place.” After that, they “salute one another with a kiss,” the presider at the service takes bread and wine and does the following:

[He] gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.

Justin’s description corresponds to the prayers of the faithful, the exchange of peace, the offering of bread and wine, and the “great amen” that are still said at Catholic services today. Justin goes on to say that the bread and wine at Mass are not mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but are instead “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” This doctrine, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is one the Catholic Church still teaches and defends.

Here are some other examples of what the first Christians believed. Can you see the resemblance to what Catholics believe today in these other “baby photos”?

  • Submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ.—St. Ignatius A.D. 110.
  • Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life.—Tertullian, A.D. 203.
  •  The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants.—Origen, A.D. 248.
  • Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner.—St Cyprian, A.D. 251.

Why We Believe: The Catholic Church

  • Jesus established a Church built on the apostles that included a hierarchy, or sacred order, that included deacons, priests, and bishops.
  • Only the Catholic Church can trace its authority back to the apostles and their immediate successors.
  • The Catholic Church has maintained in her current teachings the ancient doctrines of Christ, the apostles, and the early Church.”

Love,
Matthew

Bible study: Acts of the Apostles


-“Saint Paul”, Bartolomeo Montagna, ~1431 AD


-by Casey Chalk

“Ecumenical Bible studies: they are often demonstrations of the best and worst of Christian dialogue. In their most beneficial form, they offer opportunities for members of various Christian traditions, be they Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, or various strands of Evangelicalism, to share their own rich understandings and applications of Biblical literature. Alternatively, they can devolve into unprofitable contests of “name that Scripture verse” to support some particular doctrine — justification by grace through faith alone, Petrine primacy, infant baptism, you name it. A tendency among those Christians eager to “keep the peace” in a setting featuring divergent theological beliefs and practices is to try to find common ground, lowest common denominators, and “non-negotiables.” Such attempts can themselves be profitable, though at times the result is a conversation lacking any theological depth, the participants so frightened of controversy and of offending one another that folks reduce themselves to “this is how this Scripture verse speaks to me” comments. Better than nothing, I suppose, though certainly less than what we are called to do as Christians when approaching Holy Scripture. It’s hard to imagine St. Paul walking into a synagogue in Corinth and declaring in firm confidence to the Jews present: “You may have your own interpretations of the Torah, which may be equally true, but let me tell you what this Scripture means to me!” Is there any way for Christians of different theological stripes to bridge the gap? In this post I will propose an alternative way to read and discuss Scripture that I think offers opportunity for more fruitful exchanges between Christians.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in ecumenical Bible studies is that individuals from different traditions have certain “voices” speaking to them when they sit down to read Scripture, and it’s not that we are all schizophrenics. What I mean is that no one really sits down to read their Bible in a vacuum, as if one could really isolate their reading in such a way that it was just that person, the Holy Spirit, and the text. Rather, we read Scripture with all manner of unavoidable influences: what others have told us about the text, what we have read others say about the text, what influence the text may have had on our lives (presuming we’ve read it before), what associations we have with certain words or ideas in the text, and so on. Truly, there’s no such thing as “me and my Bible” — it’s me, my middle-school youth group leader, my first “Teen Bible,” the pastor at my church, Christian radio, that course I took in college, what my significant other believes, and on and on.

To take a more doctrinal view, some Protestants will be reading their Bibles in light of doctrines prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism (say, Rick Warren or Philip Yancey), Reformed thought (say, John Piper or R.C. Sproul), or even the “emergent church” movement (think Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz or William P. Young’s The Shack). Catholics, on the other hand, will read their Bibles in light of popular Catholic thinkers like Scott Hahn or Bishop Robert Barron, and probably with various Magisterial teachings from Church councils or papal doctrinal statements floating around in the background, as well. None of these influences, I would argue, can be easily put aside in an ecumenical Bible study, because their mark on our thoughts and practices runs deep. But neither can members of different traditions just accept an opposing position, as if an evangelical would say, “fine, I’ll just put my opinions on hold for the next hour-and-a-half and act as if whatever the Pope says is true.” We do indeed need some “common ground” beyond just picking up the Bible and starting to read it together, and it needs to be more than just some overly-deferential and vapid validation of everyone’s opinions. Since the New Testament, and particularly Paul’s letters, are one of the more popular texts for Bible studies, I want to focus my attention there. In this case, I propose that reading Paul in light of another New Testament text, the Book of Acts, can reap ecumenical dividends.1

Why Acts?

Using Acts as an interpretive “lodestar” can be an effective tool for ecumenical dialogue because it itself is something everyone at the table should already agree on: it’s Scripture! There shouldn’t be any Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox asserting their defiance to the book, as if it represents some subtle means of asserting one’s particular theological tradition over the conversation. In addition to this fairly obvious point, I can identify at least three other good reasons why Acts can be an interpretive lodestar — meaning, just as certain stars in the sky, like Polaris, can serve as a guide the course of a ship, so Acts can serve as a guide or reference point for reading Paul.

The first is that Acts is history, specifically, the history of the early Church during part of the Apostolic age. Generally speaking, reading a history of a particular era shines light on the “primary texts” of that era, helping contextualize and make sense of that historical period. Consider this example: let’s say you want to learn about the American Civil War. There are many great collections of letters, diaries, and memoirs regarding this historical period: Elijah Hunt Rhodes, Sam Watkins, Mary Chestnut, etc. You could certainly pick up one of them and just start reading. But will much of the text make sense to you, especially if you have little knowledge of that period? If your goal is to answer certain broad contextual questions regarding the Civil War, like “what were its causes?,” “who were the most important people?”, “what were the most important events”?, and “how and why did it end?”, these texts will not provide a systematic or thorough answer. Indeed, they weren’t intended to, because they were occasional, meaning written in reaction to a certain occasion. Elijah Hunt Rhodes, an enlisted soldier in the Union Army, didn’t intend his journal to be a history — he was simply recording his own personal experiences. In order to have a history in the modern sense, one needs a book (or books) written by someone who has read scores of primary and secondary sources, interviewed people, and visited important sites. You need a general history.

The Book of Acts is, in a sense, exactly that kind of general history. It is an overview of the major events and themes of the early Church, beginning with Jesus’ ascension into heaven around A.D. 33, and ending when St. Paul was imprisoned in Rome (probably around A.D. 60). Of course, for us as twenty-first century readers, Acts is itself a primary source of information about the early Apostolic Church, but it would not be too much of a stretch to call it a type of “secondary source,” or maybe more accurately a “proto-secondary source.” The author, St. Luke, very explicitly says in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke that his research is a compilation of information based on eyewitness testimony. If we read Acts first, and read Paul’s letters (or any other letters in the New Testament, for that matter), in light of what we know about the Church in Acts, we are sure to reap interpretive rewards.

A second reason to understand Acts as a general history is an argument from literature. Consider this analogy: if you wanted to know about Jane Austen and her literary corpus, reading all of her literature would give you quite a few details about her: her own life, and the major themes and ideas of her writing. But it would still be incomplete, because reading Austen’s work doesn’t tell you a lot of important things about her, information that would illuminate much of her books. If you were to read other works by authors who have done research on Austen, or who have sought to compile a biography of her life, you would be able to grasp more fully what she is trying to accomplish in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.

St. Paul’s letters are themselves a genre of literature, what scholars often call epistles, a type of formal letter. If you want to understand St. Paul, his life, the themes and doctrines that defined his theological understanding, you could read only the thirteen letters ascribed to him. Yet this would be woefully incomplete, especially given that the Book of Acts contains so many details about his life and teachings. Indeed, in addition to his conversion story (related three separate times!) and his missionary activity, Acts features several sermons of St. Paul, giving an additional important aspect to interpreting his teaching. Moreover, St. Paul is the main character of the second half of Acts, so much so that he is mentioned 131 times in the entire book. If you know Acts, you will better know St. Paul.

Finally and somewhat obviously is the organization of the New Testament itself. One may know that the books of New Testament are not listed in chronological order. In chronological order, the first book of the New Testament would likely be the Gospels of Matthew or Mark, or possibly Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Then would be most of Paul’s epistles, followed by the Gospel of Luke, then Acts, possibly some more epistles, and finally the Gospel of John and Revelation. Yet in our our Bibles, we have Acts coming right after the Gospels, before any of Paul’s epistles, the other epistles, or Revelation. Why?

Remember that the New Testament canon did not arrive in the early Church overnight, nor was it easily agreed upon by all Christians. The books of the New Testament were written over a period of around 50 or 60 years, and many churches didn’t have access to all of those books for centuries. The earliest lists of New Testament books we have are from the latter half of the second century A.D. — this includes the Muratorian Canon and a list provided by St. Irenaeus of Lyon. No body of Christians (at least that we know of in the historical record) weighed in on an authoritative list of the New Testament until the four century. When these councils did vote on the content of the New Testament, they placed Acts directly after the four Gospels. This seems to have been a reasonable decision, given that the Gospels tell the life of Jesus and His Apostles up through the resurrection and ascension, and Acts picks up the story from the ascension. Possibly a bit more curiously, these Church councils separated Acts from the Gospel of Luke, which most scholars recognize was written by the same author, given the similarity of language and themes. In between the two books the councils placed the last of the Gospels, John, written almost certainly last, and also almost certainly after Acts. Why do this? Possibly because the council wanted to declare to readers: “first, know the story of Jesus; then,, know the story of the early Church; and once you know those stories, know the epistles of Paul and others.” Acts appears where it does in the New Testament because the Church in the fourth century believed it important for people to read it before reading St. Paul’s own works.

A Few Questions to Explore

I’d like to briefly move from theory to application. Bible studies often feed upon group questions for discussion. I’ll propose a few here, with the overarching theme of asking what happens if one reads St. Paul’s letters (or other Apostolic letters, for that matter) in light of Acts. I’ll also offer a few of my own reflections as I’ve sought to read St. Paul using Acts as my lodestar.

Question 1: What were the most important issues facing the early Church as recorded in the Book of Acts? Once you’ve named two or three, consider how those issues are addressed in St. Paul’s letters.

I would argue that apart from the persecution of Christians by Jewish and Roman authorities, the most pressing question facing the early Church was this: who is in the Church, and what do they have to do to be part of it? More specifically, is the Church only for Jews? If Gentiles are allowed in, do they in any sense have to become Jews? Note that the first recorded conflict in the early Church is between Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking Jews over the distribution of food to widows from their respective communities (Acts 6:1). This cultural-linguistic division becomes more pronounced when some Church leaders start sharing the Gospel with non-Jews, including an Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40), and a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10: 1-48). Moreover, the centurion’s conversion is so controversial that when St. Peter returns to the Church in Jerusalem he is forced to defend himself against certain Jewish Christians (called “the circumcision party”), who question the decision to baptize a Roman pagan. This conflict becomes an overwhelming tidal wave by Acts 15, when certain Christian men assert that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

The greatest controversy within the early Church seems to localize on this particular question: do Gentiles who convert to Christianity need to become Jews by being circumcised and accepting Jewish dietary laws? The Church determines in Acts 15 that no, they do not, but the question continues to dog the Church: St. Paul tells us in Galatians 2:11-21 that St. Peter, coming under the influence of the same “circumcision party,” had separated himself from Gentile believers in Antioch, for which St. Paul publicly reprimanded him. This is actually the only mention we have within the New Testament of one Apostle publicly rebuking another.

What I’ve described above suggests that this was the predominant controversy of the early Church, encompassing the entirety of the historical period during which St. Paul’s letters were written. We should thus ask ourselves how the issues cited in the Pauline epistles (including his discussion of “faith v. works”) appear when viewed as part of this particular conflict over the status of Gentile Christians.2

Question 2: How did the Apostles pursue evangelism toward Jews and Gentiles in the days of the early Church? What was necessary to become a Christian? Do we see those priorities identified in St. Paul’s letters? Is there continuity or discontinuity in St. Paul in comparison to Acts?

St. Peter gives the first sermon of the early Church, recorded in the second chapter of Acts. When his audience asks him what is necessary for them to be saved, his response is that they repent, be baptized, and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The theme of baptism is consistent throughout the conversion stories of the early Church, repeated in Acts 8:13, 38-40; 10:44-48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; and 19:5, among others. Baptism, it would appear, is an essential feature of the missionary efforts of the Church. Moreover, baptism seems to be intimately united to the gift of the Holy Spirit, as if the sacrament in some sense actually serves as the mode by which new Christians receive the third person of the Trinity. Baptism also plays a dominant role in St. Paul’s theology, and is often united to discussion of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5, 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 6:11, 10:2; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 2:5-6, 5:26; Colossians 2:11-12; Titus 3:5-7, etc.).

Question 3: What is the Church according to Acts? How does the Church resolve crises and conflicts? How does that compare to what St. Paul says about the Church?

The Apostles, unsurprisingly, are central to the leadership of the early Church. Indeed, Acts is largely a story of just a few key leaders: St. Peter, St. John, St. James, and St. Paul. St. Peter and St. Paul loom the largest. As noted above, the debate over the place of Gentiles within the nascent Church seems to reach its apex in Acts 15, when we read that “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). This is in a sense the very first council of the Church, with the most important leaders, including St. Peter and St. Paul, present. Indeed, it is St. Peter who seems to give the “keynote address,” while St. James confirms St. Peter’s judgment. The council, apparently representing “the whole Church,” then sends a letter to the church in Antioch with its determination and various commands, while apparently claiming to act with the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28).

The role of the Church is also central to St. Paul’s letters, emphasizing the importance of its unity (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; Ephesians 4:1-6), its holiness (1 Corinthians 6:1, 16:1; Ephesians 5:25-27), its universality or catholicity (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 3:8-10), and its apostolicity (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2). Indeed, St. Paul’s ecclesiology is so high, he declares the household of God, the “church of the living God,” to be the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).3

Conclusion

Disagreements between Protestants, Catholics, and other Christian communions over the interpretation of Scripture are inevitable. In settings like Bible studies, however, we too often try to gloss over the differences as if they weren’t there, or as if discussing them will weaken our fellowship. This only needs to be the case if we aren’t capable of respectfully listening to and considering an interpretation or belief different from our own, or of communicating our own position with humility and charity. Yet through prayer and the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome our own weaknesses, and find far richer ecumenical dialogue in the process. Reading the letters of the New Testament through the lens of Acts presents one opportunity for such conversation. We will likely disagree over such issues as the role of faith and works in salvation, or the how and when of baptism, or the exact nature of Church authority. Yet rather than returning to our usual mode of defensive apologetics or proof-texting, we might all benefit from a careful study of Paul in the context of Acts. We might be surprised what we find.”

Love, & Christian charity,
Matthew

1. I am indebted here to Fr. Sebastian Carnazzo, a professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, who provided this methodology in his New Testament course.
2. Helpful analysis of this question can be found in N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) and N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
3. Taylor R. Marshall, The Catholic Perspective on Paul (Dallas, TX: Saint John Press, 2010), 35-46.