Category Archives: United Methodism

Sola Scriptura is unbiblical


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

During his four-year tour, he became involved in ministry with various Assemblies of God communities. Immediately after his tour of duty, Tim enrolled in Jimmy Swaggart Bible College and became a youth minister in an Assembly of God community. During his final year in the Marines, however, Tim met a Marine who really knew his faith and challenged Tim to study Catholicism from Catholic and historical sources. That encounter sparked a two-year search for the truth. Tim was determined to prove Catholicism wrong, but he ended up studying his way to the last place he thought he would ever end up: the Catholic Church!

He converted to Catholicism in 1988 and spent the following six years in formation for the priesthood, earning a degree in philosophy from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pennsylvania. He then studied theology on a graduate level at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, for two years. Realizing that his calling was not to the priesthood, Tim left the seminary in 1994 and has been working in Catholic apologetics and evangelization ever since.

“Sola Scriptura was the central doctrine and foundation for all I believed when I was Protestant. On a popular level, it simply meant, “If a teaching isn’t explicit in the Bible, then we don’t accept it as doctrine!” And it seemed so simple. Unassailable. And yet, I do not recall ever hearing a detailed teaching explicating it. It was always a given. Unchallenged. Diving deeper into its meaning, especially when I was challenged to defend my Protestant faith against Catholicism, I found there to be no book specifically on the topic and no uniform understanding of this teaching among Protestant pastors.

Once I got past the superficial, I had to try to answer real questions like, what role does tradition play? How explicit does a doctrine have to be in Scripture before it can be called doctrine? How many times does it have to be mentioned in Scripture before it would be dogmatic? Where does Scripture tell us what is absolutely essential for us to believe as Christians? How do we know what the canon of Scripture is using the principle of sola scriptura? Who is authorized to write Scripture in the first place? When was the canon closed? Or, the best question of all: where is sola scriptura taught in the Bible? These questions and more were left virtually unanswered or left to the varying opinions of various Bible teachers.

The Protestant Response

In answer to this last question, “Where is sola scriptura taught in the Bible?” most Protestants will immediately respond as I did, by simply citing II Tm. 3:16:

All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

“How can it get any plainer than that? Doesn’t that say the Bible is all we need?” Question answered.

The fact is: II Timothy 3—or any other text of Scripture—does not even hint at sola scriptura. It says Scripture is inspired and necessary to equip “the man of God,” but never does it say Scripture alone is all anyone needs. We’ll come back to this text in particular later. But in my experience as a Protestant, it was my attempt to defend this bedrock teaching of Protestantism that led me to conclude: sola scriptura is 1) unreasonable 2) unbiblical and 3) unworkable.

Sola Scriptura is Unreasonable

When defending sola scriptura, the Protestant will predictably appeal to his sole authority—Scripture. This is a textbook example of the logical fallacy of circular reasoning which betrays an essential problem with the doctrine itself. One cannot prove the inspiration of a text from the text itself. The Book of Mormon, the Hindu Vedas, writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the Koran, and other books claim inspiration. This does not make them inspired. One must prove the point outside of the text itself to avoid the fallacy of circular reasoning.

Thus, the question remains: how do we know the various books of the Bible are inspired and therefore canonical? And remember: the Protestant must use the principle of sola scriptura in the process.

II Tim. 3:16 is not a valid response to the question. The problems are manifold. Beyond the fact of circular reasoning, for example, I would point out the fact that this verse says all Scripture is inspired tells us nothing of what the canon consists. Just recently, I was speaking with a Protestant inquirer about this issue and he saw my point. He then said words to the effect of, “I believe the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth as Jesus said in Jn. 16:13. The Holy Spirit guided the early Christians and helped them to gather the canon of Scripture and declare it to be the inspired word of God. God would not leave us without his word to guide us.”

That answer is much more Catholic than Protestant! Yes, Jn. 16:13 does say the Spirit will lead the apostles—and by allusion, the Church—into all truth. But this verse has nothing to say about sola scriptura. Nor does it say a word about the nature or number of books in the canon. Catholics certainly agree that the Holy Spirit guided the early Christians to canonize the Scriptures because the Catholic Church teaches that there is an authoritative Church guided by the Holy Spirit. The obvious problem is my Protestant friend did not use sola scriptura as his guiding principle to arrive at his conclusion. How does, for example, Jn. 16:13 tell us that Hebrews was written by an apostolic writer and that it is inspired of God? We would ultimately have to rely on the infallibility of whoever “the Holy Spirit” is guiding to canonize the Bible so that they could not mishear what the Spirit was saying about which books of the Bible are truly inspired.

In order to put this argument of my friend into perspective, can you imagine if a Catholic made a similar claim to demonstrate, say, Mary to be the Mother of God? “We believe the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth and guided the early Christians to declare this truth.” I can almost hear the response. “Show me in the Bible where Mary is the Mother of God! I don’t want to hear about God guiding the Church!” Wouldn’t the same question remain for the Protestant concerning the canon? “Show me in the Bible where the canon of Scripture is, what the criterion for the canon is, who can and cannot write Scripture, etc.”

Will the Circle be Unbroken?

The Protestant response at this point is often an attempt to use the same argument against the Catholic. “How do you know the Scriptures are inspired? Your reasoning is just as circular because you say the Church is infallible because the inspired Scriptures say so and then say the Scriptures are inspired and infallible because the Church says so!”

The Catholic Church’s position on inspiration is not circular. We do not say “the Church is infallible because the inspired Scriptures say so, and the Scriptures are inspired because the infallible Church says so.” That would be a kind of circular reasoning. The Church was established historically and functioned as the infallible spokesperson for the Lord decades before the New Testament was written. The Church is infallible because Jesus said so.

Having said that, it is true that we know the Scriptures to be inspired because the Church has told us so. That is also an historical fact. However, this is not circular reasoning. When the Catholic approaches Scripture, he or she begins with the Bible as an historical document, not as inspired. As any reputable historian will tell you, the New Testament is the most accurate and verifiable historical document in all of ancient history. To deny the substance of the historical documents recorded therein would be absurd. However, one cannot deduce from this that they are inspired. There are many accurate historical documents that are not inspired. However, the Scriptures do give us accurate historical information whether one holds to their inspiration or not. Further, this testimony of the Bible is backed up by hundreds of works by early Christians and non-Christian writers like Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Josephus, and more. It is on this basis that we can say it is an historical fact that Jesus lived, died, and was reported to be resurrected from the dead by over 500 eyewitnesses. Many of these eyewitnesses went to their deaths testifying to the veracity of the Christ-event (see Lk. 1:1-4, Jn. 21:18-19, 24-25, Acts 1:1-11, I Cr. 15:1-8).

Now, what do we find when we examine the historical record? Jesus Christ—as a matter of history–established a Church, not a book, to be the foundation of the Christian Faith (see Mt. 16:15-18; 18:15-18. Cf. Eph. 2:20; 3:10,20-21; 4:11-15; I Tm. 3:15; Hb. 13:7,17, etc.). He said of his Church, “He who hears you hears me and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk. 10:16). The many books that comprise what we call the Bible never tell us crucial truths such as the fact that they are inspired, who can and cannot be the human authors of them, who authored them at all, or, as I said before, what the canon of Scripture is in the first place. And this is just to name a few examples. What is very clear historically is that Jesus established a kingdom with a hierarchy and authority to speak for him (see Lk. 20:29-32, Mt. 10:40, 28:18-20). It was members of this Kingdom—the Church—that would write the Scripture, preserve its many texts and eventually canonize it. The Scriptures cannot write or canonize themselves. To put it simply, reason clearly rejects sola scriptura as a self-refuting principle because one cannot determine what the “scriptura” is using the principle of sola scriptura.

Sola Scriptura is Unbiblical

Let us now consider the most common text used by Protestants to “prove” sola scriptura, II Tm. 3:16, which I quoted above:

All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The problem with using this text as such is threefold: 1. Strictly speaking, it does not speak of the New Testament at all. 2. It does not claim Scripture to be the sole rule of faith for Christians. 3. The Bible teaches oral Tradition to be on a par with and just as necessary as the written Tradition, or Scripture.

1. What’s Old is Not New

Let us examine the context of the passage by reading the two preceding verses:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood (italics added) you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

In context, this passage does not refer to the New Testament at all. None of the New Testament books had been written when St. Timothy was a child! To claim this verse in order to authenticate a book, say, the book of Revelation, when it had most likely not even been written yet, is more than a stretch. That is going far beyond what the text actually claims.

2. The Trouble With Sola

As a Protestant, I was guilty of seeing more than one sola in Scripture that simply did not exist. The Bible clearly teaches justification by faith. And we Catholics believe it. However, we do not believe in justification by faith alone because, among many other reasons, the Bible says, we are “justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, emphasis added). Analogously, when the Bible says Scripture is inspired and profitable for “the man of God,” to be “equipped for every good work,” we Catholics believe it. However, the text of II Tim. 3:16 never says Scripture alone. There is no sola to be found here either! Even if we granted II Tm. 3:16 was talking about all of Scripture, it never claims Scripture to be the sole rule of faith. A rule of faith, to be sure! But not the sole rule of faith.

James 1:4 illustrates clearly the problem with Protestant exegesis of II Tim. 3:16:

And let steadfastness (patience) have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

If we apply the same principle of exegesis to this text that the Protestant does to II Tm. 3:16 we would have to say that all we need is patience to be perfected. We don’t need faith, hope, charity, the Church, baptism, etc.

Of course, any Christian would immediately say this is absurd. And of course it is. But James’s emphasis on the central importance of patience is even stronger than St. Paul’s emphasis on Scripture. The key is to see that there is not a sola to be found in either text. Sola patientia would be just as much an error as is sola scriptura.

3. The Tradition of God is the Word of God

Not only is the Bible silent when it comes to sola scriptura, but Scripture is remarkably plain in teaching oral Tradition to be just as much the word of God as is Scripture. In what most scholars believe was the first book written in the New Testament, St. Paul said:

And we also thank God… that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God… (I Thess. 2:13)

II Thess. 2:15 adds:

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions you have been taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

According to St. Paul, the spoken word from the apostles was just as much the word of God as was the later written word.

Sola Scriptura is Unworkable

When it comes to the tradition of Protestantism—sola scriptura—the silence of the text of Scripture is deafening. When it comes to the true authority of Scripture and Tradition, the Scriptures are clear. And when it comes to the teaching and governing authority of the Church, the biblical text is equally as clear:

If your brother sins against you go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone … But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you … If he refuses to listen … tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Mt. 18:15-17)

According to Scripture, the Church—not the Bible alone—is the final court of appeal for the people of God in matters of faith and discipline. But isn’t it also telling that since the Reformation of just ca. 480 years ago—a reformation claiming sola scriptura as its formal principle—there are now over 33,000 denominations that have derived from it?

For 1,500 years, Christianity saw just a few enduring schisms (the Monophysites, Nestorians, the Orthodox, and a very few others). Now in just 480 years we have this? I hardly think that when Jesus prophesied there would be “one shepherd and one fold” in Jn. 10:16, this is what he had in mind. It seems quite clear to me that not only is sola scriptura unreasonable and unbiblical, but it is unworkable. The proof is in the puddin’!”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Idols – Ex 20:4-6

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” –Ex 20:4-6

The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region (commonly referred to as the Amazon synod) met in Rome from 6 to 27 October 2019. Pope Francis announced on 15 October 2017 that it would work “to identify new paths for the evangelization of God’s people in that region”, specifically the indigenous peoples.

The Amazon basin, according to one Vatican report, covers some 6,000,000 km^2, with a population of 2.8 million divided among 400 tribes that speak some 240 languages belonging to 49 linguistic families. The Synod defines the region to include all or parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela and Suriname.

On Oct. 21, five statues were taken, apparently quite early in the morning, from the Carmelite Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, four blocks from St. Peter’s Basilica. They were thrown off a nearby bridge into the Tiber River. These events have been a source of much controversy in the Church.

In a Universal Church, especially one that spans the globe, just like in any society, some Catholics do weird things; depending on what side of weird you may be standing on from the viewpoint of the other doing weird things from your point of view, being human.  They may be misunderstood, culturally, or not, or they may be wrong, or somewhere in between.  Welcome to being human.  Love one another.  Even if they throw your artwork off a bridge.  -cf Jn 13:34-35


-pachamama statue in Santa Maria in Traspontina

-Amazon synod participants bow in tree planting ceremony, Vatican gardens

Catholics ONLY WORSHIP GOD!!!!!!!! – dulia, hyperdulia, honor, veneration vs latria, adoration, worship

CCC 2132 “The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, “the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,” and “whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.” The honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone:

Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.”


-by Karlo Broussard

THE PROTESTANT CHALLENGE: How can the Catholic Church approve of religious statues when the Bible forbids having graven images?

Catholics are known for putting statues and images in their churches and using them in their private devotions. The Catechism affirms such devotions, calling the “honor paid to sacred images” a “respectful veneration” (2132).

But, for many Protestants this is problematic, biblically speaking. God commands in Exodus 20:4-5,

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.

God says, “No graven images,” but yet the Catholic Church has images all over the place. God says, “Don’t bow down to images,” but the Catholic Church encourages such acts of piety. These Catholic practices contradict God’s word.

MEETING THE CHALLENGE

1. In these verses, God can’t be condemning religious statues and images, because elsewhere he explicitly commands making them.

Consider, for example, the two gold cherubim (cast sculptures of angels) that God commanded to be put on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Exod. 25:18-20). God also instructed that cherubim be woven into the curtains of the tabernacle (Exod. 26:1).

When God gave instructions for building the temple during the reign of King Solomon, he commanded that two fifteen-foot tall cherubim statues be placed in the holy of holies (1 Kings 6:23-28) and that “figures of cherubim” be carved into the walls and doors of the temple (1 Kings 6:29). Later, in 1 Kings 9:3, we read that God approved of such things, saying to Solomon, “I have consecrated this house which you have built, and put My name there forever; My eyes and My heart will be there for all time.” God’s blessing on the temple is certain evidence that He doesn’t oppose having statues and sacred images in places of worship.

Another example where God commanded the making of a statue is Numbers 21:6-9. The Israelites were suffering from venomous snakebites; in order to heal them, God instructed Moses to construct a bronze serpent and set it on a pole so that those who were bitten could look upon it and be healed (Num. 21:6-9). God did later command that the bronze serpent be destroyed, but only because the Israelites started worshiping it as a god (2 Kings 18:4).

2.  What God’s commandment forbids is the making of idols.

The context bears this out. Consider the prohibition that precedes it: “You shall have no other gods before me” (v.3).

Then after the passage in question, we read, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” Given this contextual prohibition of idolatry, it’s reasonable to conclude that God’s command not to make “graven images” refers to making images to be worshiped as deities, or idols.

Accordingly, we note that every time the Hebrew word for “graven images” (pesel) is used in the Old Testament it’s used in reference to idols or the images of idols. For example, the prophet Isaiah warns, “All who make idols [pesel] are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame.” Other examples include, but are not limited to, Isaiah 40:19; 44:9, 17; 45:20, Jeremiah 10:14; 51:17, and Habakkuk 2:18).

Since making idols is what this commandment forbids, the Catholic custom of using statues and images for religious purposes doesn’t contradict it, because Catholics don’t use statues and sacred images as idols. The whole of paragraph 2132 (referenced above) states the following:

The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, “the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,” and “whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.” The honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone.

Catholics don’t treat statues, or the people whom the statues represent, as gods. As such, the biblical prohibition of idolatry doesn’t apply.

This challenge from modern Evangelicals shows that there’s nothing new under the sun. The Catholic Church dealt with this sort of objection all the way back in the eighth century when it condemned the heresy of iconoclasm at the Second Council of Nicaea (787).

Iconoclasm was the belief that all religious images are superstitious. In response to this heresy, the council declared that religious images were worthy veneration and that any respect shown to a religious image is really respect given to the person it represents.

In having images or statues of Jesus, angels, Mary, and the saints in its places of worship, the Catholic Church is following the Old Testament precedent of incorporating images of heavenly inhabitants that serve as reminders of Who is present with us when we approach God in liturgical worship.

The representations of the cherubim in the Old Testament served as reminders that they were heavenly inhabitants present with God. Since humans have been admitted into heaven (Rev. 5:8; Rev. 6:9; 7:14-17), it’s reasonable to employ representations of them, too.

What about pious acts directed to the statues, such as bowing? Doesn’t Exodus 20:4 prohibit “bowing” before graven images? Well, the Bible forbids bowing before idols. It doesn’t forbid the physical act of bowing before something or someone when that something or someone is not an idol.

For example, Solomon was not guilty of idolatry when he bowed before his mother in 1 Kings 2:19. It was simply a gesture of honor given her as queen mother. Jesus Himself says in Revelation 3:9 that He will make “those of the synagogue of Satan” “bow down” before the feet of the Christians in Philadelphia. If bowing before another were, in and of itself, an act of worship, Jesus would be causing idolatry. But that’s absurd.

So, pious acts and postures can be legitimate when directed to the person that a statue or picture represents if the action is not used as a sign of the adoration or worship that is due to God alone. And such honor for the saints is their due because of what God has done for them. Jesus says, “If any one serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:26). The saints in heaven, who our statues represent, have served and do continue to serve Jesus. As such, the Father honors them. And if the Father honors them, we can too.

COUNTER-CHALLENGE: Are all religious images idols? How can you know?

AFTERTHOUGHT: Among some Christian communities, the commandment not to make “graven images” is listed as the second of the Ten Commandments. This differs from the Catholic numbering of the Ten Commandments. But seeing the prohibition to make “graven images” as part of God’s overall prohibition of idolatry provides an explanation for why the Catholic Church doesn’t consider it a separate commandment.”

Love,
Matthew

Rosary: does the Bible really condemn repetitious prayer?

THE PROTESTANT CHALLENGE: How can the Catholic Church teach that the rosary is a legitimate prayer when the Bible forbids repetitious prayer?

The rosary is a popular Catholic devotion that the Catechism endorses as a “form of piety” that expresses the “religious sense of the Christian people” (1674).  [It is a prayer form that developed for the illiterate, ordinary people as only clerics were taught to read and write.  Those same clerics were required to recite the Liturgy of the Hours, which is a formalized way of singing the Psalm twenty-four hours a day, praising God for time, which is a holy gift from God.  Since ordinary people could not read the books for this form of prayer, the rosary developed, so they could say the simple prayers they had memorized in imitation.] But for many Protestants, the rosary, with its repetition of the Hail Mary (Lk 1:46-55) prayer, contradicts Jesus’ command to “Use no vain repetitions as the heathens do” (Matt. 6:7; KJV). It would seem that the Catholic practice of praying the rosary is a direct violation of Jesus’ command.

MEETING THE CHALLENGE

1. Jesus wasn’t condemning prayers that involve repetition, but rather the idea that the quantity of prayer determines its efficacy.

The Greek word translated “vain repetition” is battalogeō, which can mean to speak in a stammering way, saying the same words over and over again without thinking. But it can also mean “to use many words, to speak for a long time.” So it can connote either mindless repetition or quantity.

Which meaning does Jesus have in mind?

The context reveals that Jesus has the quantity of prayers in mind. For example, Jesus says in verse 7, “For they [the Gentiles] think that they will be heard for their many words,” as if their many words could wear down the gods in order to get what they wanted. This is the mentality of prayer that Jesus is telling his disciples to avoid—the mentality that sheer volume of words ensures that God hears us.

This explains why Jesus says in verse 8, “Don’t be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” The implication is that it’s futile to think a bunch of words is needed for God to hear a prayer, because he already knows it.

So, Jesus is not concerned with repetition simply. He’s concerned with the idea that simply multiplying words makes prayers efficacious.

2. The rosary is not meant to gain favors from God due to the amount of prayers repeated.

According to the Catechism, the rosary is an “epitome of the whole gospel” (971). It is meant to focus our hearts and minds on the mysteries of Christ’s life, mysteries such as his conception in Mary’s womb at the Annunciation, his birth in Bethlehem, his baptism and preaching ministry, his glorious resurrection, and his ascension into heaven.

Meditating on these mysteries is meant to give us a deeper knowledge of Christ and draw us into a deeper communion with him, so that we can be more conformed to him. And we include Mary in that meditation because her soul “magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). The rosary, therefore, is a way to meditate on Christ in order to foster a greater love for him. The repetition of prayers serves that meditation—and that’s a biblical thing.

3. The Bible affirms prayers that involve repetition.

We can start with Jesus Himself. Notice that right after Jesus condemns the “vain repetitions” of the Gentiles, he commands the apostles, “Pray like this…Our Father who art in heaven.” Does Jesus intend for us to only say it once? Are we forbidden to repeat the Lord’s Prayer? Most Protestants have said it many times; perhaps they say it more than once a day.

Another example is Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father…remove this cup…not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Mark tells us that Jesus prayed this multiple times: “And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words” (14:39). Surely, Jesus wouldn’t be violating his own command not to pray with “vain repetitions.”

We also have an example from the “four living creatures” (angels) that John sees in heaven: “Day and night they never cease to sing, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty” (Rev. 4:8). If any prayer involves repetition, it’s this one!

The Psalms even give us forms of prayer that involve repetition. Consider, for example, Psalm 136. Its refrain, “for his steadfast love endures forever,” occurs twenty-six times. Must we say that the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Trinity) who inspired the Psalmist to write this, is at odds with Jesus (the second person of the Trinity)?

Since the Bible affirms prayers that involve repetition, we can conclude that the repetition in the rosary does not violate Christ’s words.

COUNTER-CHALLENGE: Why should we think that a condemnation of useless repetition is a condemnation of any repetition? Couldn’t there be repetitious prayer that is heartfelt and helps us love God more?

[Editor: Ps 51:1]

AFTERTHOUGHT: One of the benefits of praying the rosary is that it protects us from focusing our prayer too much on what we want and need. Praying for our needs is a good thing, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we pray about. The rosary helps us to focus on what should be the first object of prayer: Jesus.

Love,
Matthew

The Protestant Challenge

Oral Torah


-by Karlo Broussard

Q. What is the Protestant challenge that you meet in your new book?

Karlo: In Mark 7:9-13, Jesus chastises the Pharisees for holding to traditions that entail a rejection of God’s commandment and make void God’s Word. Many Protestants claim several Catholic beliefs fall under this condemnation, because they think such beliefs contradict the Bible.

The challenge usually takes the form, “How can the Catholic Church teach X, when the Bible says Y?” For example, how can the Catholic Church teach that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth when the Bible says that Jesus had brothers (Matt. 13:55)? Or how can the Catholic Church teach that works have a role to play in our salvation when the Bible says in Romans 3:28 that “we are justified by faith and not by works of the law?”

It’s this sort of challenge that I meet in the book, covering fifty of the most common challenges that Protestants make.

Q. Is this challenge the only Protestant challenge? Or, are there other kinds of challenges? If so, how do they differ from this one?

Karlo: The challenge that I meet in my book is not the only challenge. Any Catholic who talks religion with Protestants has at some time been challenged with the question, “Where’s that in the Bible?”

Much of Catholic apologetics, especially since its revival in the late eighties, has centered on answering that question, offering positive arguments for the biblical basis of Catholic doctrine. But, since Catholics don’t operate on the principle of sola scriptura, we don’t believe that every Christian truth has to be explicitly found in Scripture. We also appeal to truths revealed by God and preserved outside of the Bible in Sacred Tradition.

For example, Protestants may ask, “Where is Mary’s bodily assumption in the Bible?” But a Catholic can simply reply, “I don’t need to justify it with Scripture, since I can accept it on the basis that it’s a part of Sacred Tradition as infallibly defined by Pope Pius XII” (Munificentissimus Deus, 1950).

Of course, a Protestant is not going to find the above response persuasive (and it would open up other debates about Christian teaching authority). But at least he can’t charge a Catholic with incoherence in his belief.

The kind of Protestant challenge that I address, however, does charge a Catholic with incoherence. And this is the kind of challenge that a Catholic must meet, because whatever the Church teaches, even if derived principally from Sacred Tradition and not the Bible, can’t contradict the Bible. Scripture and Tradition are two streams of revelation that flow from the same source, God.

Our task as Catholics, therefore, is to show that Catholic teaching doesn’t contradict those Bible passages that some Protestants think pose a threat to it. The purpose of this book is to help the reader fulfill this task.

Q. What are some of the main Catholic beliefs that our Protestant friends challenge us on that you show don’t contradict the Bible?

Karlo: I examine fifty challenges that cover a variety of beliefs concerning Church authority, Scripture and Tradition, salvation, the sacraments, Mary and the saints, eschatology (study of the last things), and Catholic life and practice.

So, for example, with regard to Church authority, I defend the Catholic belief that Jesus established his Church with a hierarchy with Peter at the head. With regard to Scripture and Tradition, I defend the Catholic belief that a Christian must accept and honor “both Scripture and Tradition” (CCC 82), because the Church “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone” (82).

On the topic of salvation, I meet challenges to the Catholic belief that salvation and justification are not one-time events of the past but have different stages, and that good works play an essential role when it comes to the ongoing and final stages.

The sacraments that I defend include Baptism, the Eucharist, Confession, the Priesthood, and Marriage.

The challenged beliefs about Mary are the familiar ones: her perpetual virginity, her sinlessness, and her Queenship. The main belief about the saints that I deal with is the intercession of the saints.

With regard to eschatology, I tackle challenges that deal with Purgatory and the Catholic view of the end times in relation to Protestant views on the Rapture and the millennium in Revelation.

Finally, I meet challenges made against the Catholic practices of clerical celibacy, abstinence from meat on Fridays during Lent, calling priests father, praying the rosary, moderate use of wine, and Catholic statues.

Q. Can you explain a little bit about what the reader should expect when they read each chapter?

Karlo: Each chapter begins with a brief statement of the Catholic belief, usually derived from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Then, the Protestant challenge to the belief is explained.

The section where I meet the challenge usually consists of two to three ways in which one can show the Catholic belief doesn’t contradict the Bible. Also, some of the responses require that I give positive biblical evidence for the belief. And this, of course, equips the reader with what’s needed to answer the other Protestant challenge, “Where’s that in the Bible?”

After learning how to meet the challenge, the reader is given a “Catholic Counter,” which is a brief question that a Catholic can ask a Protestant as a sort of counter challenge. We can’t always be on the defensive. We have to learn to challenge our Protestant friends’ beliefs as well.

Q. What is the ultimate goal for this book? In other words, what do you hope it will accomplish for the person who reads it?

Karlo: My hope is that the reader will become more efficient in their conversations with Protestants. Also, I hope the book will strengthen the reader’s own faith, helping him or her know that in embracing Catholic teaching he or she is not “making void the word of God through [his or her] tradition” (Mark 7:13).

Love,
Matthew

Revelation 22:18-19

“Catholic Bibles are bigger than Protestant ones. The Catechism teaches that the canon of Scripture includes “forty-six books for the Old Testament (forty-five if we count Jeremiah and Lamentations as one) and twenty-seven for the New” (120). Although Protestants agree with Catholics on the books that make up the New Testament, there are seven books in the Catholic Old Testament canon that they reject: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. They also reject portions of the books of Daniel and Esther. Catholics refer to these seven books as the deuterocanonical (second-canon) books and Protestants call them the Apocrypha.

You may run across a Protestant who rejects the deuterocanonical books because he thinks the Catholic Church added these books, in violation of John’s prohibition to add to the Bible:

“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Rev. 22:18-19).

John says not to add to Scripture, yet the Catholic Church literally added seven whole books and more!

Reply:

1. If we granted for argument’s sake that John here is referring to the entire canon of Scripture, then Protestants would be guilty for removing the deuterocanonicals.

If we suppose that John is talking about the biblical canon (the list of all the books that make up the Bible) in Revelation 22:18-19, then the challenge becomes a two-edged sword. A Protestant may argue that the Catholic Church added books to the Bible, but a Catholic can just as easily argue that the Protestant community took some books away.

The seven books found in the Catholic Old Testament that are not found in the Protestant Old Testament were widely held as Scripture all throughout Christian history, and it was not until the Protestant Reformation that their canonicity was called into question and rejected on a major scale.

Prior to the Reformation, some individuals did question the canonicity of these books, but for the most part Christians as a whole accepted them. Numerous fourth and fifth-century Church councils authoritatively declared them to be inspired: the Synod of Rome (A.D. 382), Council of Hippo (393), Third Council of Carthage (397), and Sixth Council of Carthage (419). Protestant scholar J.N.D. Kelly affirms the major consensus on these books in the early Church: “For the great majority, however, the deuterocanonical writings ranked as Scripture in the fullest sense.”

Such historical evidence makes this challenge difficult for a Protestant. If Revelation 22:18-19 refers to the canon, then the prohibition of “taking away” from it is just as strong as the prohibition of adding to it. So how can Protestants reject seven books from the Bible when Revelation 22:18-19 forbids it?
2. This passage is not even discussing the canon of Scripture but merely the book of Revelation.

These verses, however, don’t even refer to the entire Bible. The Greek word use here for book, biblion, can mean “small book” or “scroll.” In the ancient world, it was impossible to fit the entire Bible on a single scroll. The books of the Bible were originally individual compositions, such as an individual scroll, and the biblical canon as we know it was a collection of individual scrolls, a library of books. That’s why they’re called the “books” (plural) of the Bible. These books would not be put into a single volume until centuries later.

Therefore, it makes most sense to read the phrase “book of this prophecy” as referring to the scroll in which John is recording his prophecy, namely, the book of Revelation. As such, John’s instruction not to add or remove anything refers to the book he was writing—Revelation—and not the future canon of Scripture (which wouldn’t be authoritatively settled for centuries after).

A similar instruction is given is Deuteronomy 4:2, where Moses says, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it; that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” Moses wasn’t referring to the whole Old Testament canon; otherwise we would have to side with the Sadducees and reject every Old Testament book outside the Pentateuch. He was merely prohibiting adding or taking away from the “statutes and the ordinances” that constitute the Mosaic Law.

Since we now know that John was not giving instructions concerning the biblical canon, but instructions governing the book of Revelation (don’t add to the prophetic text of Revelation and don’t take away from it), it becomes clear that Revelation 22:18-19 doesn’t undermine the Catholic canon, regardless of whether the Catholic Church added books to the biblical canon or Protestants subtracted from it. Of course, we must not add to or subtract from the canon of Scripture. But that is not what John is talking about in this passage.

Reply: How could John be referring to the entire biblical canon in Revelation 22:18-19 when the canon wouldn’t be settled for another several hundred years?

Consider: Your Protestant friend might argue that because the New Testament doesn’t quote any of the deuterocanonical books we have good reason to exclude them from the canon of Scripture. This is common among some Protestants. But this logic would demand that we also exclude from the canon Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Obadiah, Zephaniah, Judges, 1 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Lamentations, Nahum, Joshua, Obadiah, and Zephaniah, since the New Testament doesn’t quote any of these. I don’t think your Protestant friend wants to make his biblical canon any smaller!”

Love,
Matthew

Methodist keeps discovering the Catholic Church: Part 2 of 2


-please click on the image for greater detail


-by Kim Coulter, Kim Coulter and her husband, Dan, have nine children. She has been Catholic for 42 years. Kim and Dan are members of the Holy Family Institute, which is a secular institute for the consecration of married life, to advance the Gospel through social media, for the conversion of the world. The institute was established by Blessed James Alberione, who is also the founder of the Society of Saint Paul.

“The Lord still honored me with a great man, my husband, Dan. We were married in 1977. Just a few months before that, I had become Catholic. At the time, there was no such thing as the RCIA program (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). I just met with a priest friend, skimmed through a book, and came on board. Dan was my sponsor. I was confirmed, had a first confession, and entered the Church in just a few months. The priest told me that I was more Catholic than many souls sitting in the pews. How wrong he was!

When Dan and I married, four priests attended the wedding. We only let two concelebrate the Mass because I thought my Protestant family would be overwhelmed. I was Catholic; I did not believe in the Real Presence; I did not have a relationship with Mary; I wasn’t even sure if I believed in the devil; my husband and I were practicing birth control. But … outwardly we looked like the ideal couple.

But God’s grace is amazing! After our first daughter’s birth, I had a pregnancy that ended in a miscarriage at 20 weeks. I had suffered lots of bleeding. I delivered that little stillborn boy, then had an infection that landed me in the hospital for a week with antibiotics. If they hadn’t caught the infection in time, I would have died. The nurse on duty noticed that we were Catholic and baptized our little one. I was so out of it that I didn’t even ask for the body of our son, to have him buried. But through little Nathan, God saved my life, allowing me time to make the journey all the way home to Him.

Dan became involved with a Christian businessmen’s group. They met for breakfast once a month. He would tell me that he was most interested in how these men made money! Gradually, however, they influenced Dan’s prayer and faith life.

The businessmen’s group connections also included the men reaching out to our family. We were invited as a couple to charismatic meetings. That is where the Holy Spirit is invited to take an active role with the participants. Dan loved it; he liked to pray in new ways. But I hated it. I can remember yelling at him that he could pray as he wanted on his own time, but if we were alone in our home, I forbade it.

I was both attracted and repelled by our Catholic friends who were involved in charismatic prayer. I would ask them questions like: Can you turn that prayer off and on? Do you know what you are praying? How did this start?

You see, I was truly afraid of this charismatic stuff. I had never faced or confessed a certain serious sin. I didn’t use confession to totally reveal myself and come clean with God. Even though priests are forbidden to treat anyone differently because of the sins he or she confesses, I was convinced that the priest would hate me and know too much about me. Growing up Methodist, you could decide for yourself what parts of the official faith you would believe. No one challenged you. I took this attitude into my Catholic life. The Holy Spirit seemed too powerful and pervasive to let into my life. Still, I was aching inside to find total love.

Dan and I were invited to make a Life in the Spirit retreat over a weekend. I am still not sure why we went. The couple who had invited us insisted on driving. They told me later that they were afraid I would back out. Most of the retreat was just like the Search program. I even thought that I could have given the talks. But I wasn’t used to thinking about the divine power of the Holy Spirit. Remember my fear; I really was just a sinner who appeared good on the outside.

At the end of the retreat, a deacon prayed over each of us individually. (He read my name tag wrong and called me Karen. I thought I was safe — wrong name!) Something very strange happened. I started to cry and could not stop. It was as if the emotions were not mine; I had no control over them. I remember wondering if God could somehow be crying over me. The next morning, I prayed and read my Bible. The Scripture came alive for me and I had spiritual songs in my heart. Everything seemed new and fresh.

But I am not a quick learner! So the dear Holy Spirit had to work with me over a lengthy period of time. I spent about two years on a very private retreat with Him. Finally, I began to see my sins and really repent. I began to seek forgiveness and change my ways. My husband and I found NFP (Natural Family Planning) and stopped all our contraception. Now, the Holy Spirit was always with me.

Following this preliminary conversion, two pivotal spiritual events occurred. The young daughter of a church friend gave me a book on Eucharistic miracles. I didn’t even get through the foreword before I was deeply convicted of receiving the Eucharist unworthily. I called up our parish priest and asked him to hear my confession immediately. I sobbed through that confession, and I walked out a new creation. I believed! Suddenly, I was going to Mass as often as I could. I just wanted to receive Jesus. I had been given that greatest of gifts — faith — and knew Jesus was present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the form of that small Eucharistic host. I needed Him!

The second event that happened was that, one day during prayer, the Holy Spirit introduced me to Mary. I fell in love with her. I badly needed a motherly role model. I did not want to be like my earthly mother, because of my terrible high school years and the devastating divorce. I did not want any member of my immediate family to experience that anguish. Mary became my stability, my anchor. She showed me how to love my children. I needed to learn from her so that they would not be wounded as I had been.

Those two really pivotal events occurred, aimed at how I was supposed to live my life. One day early on, the Holy Spirit showed me a brick wall during my prayer time. I was on one side of the wall, and my mother was on the other side. I told the Lord, “You know, Lord, she put those bricks up over many years and hurt me very much.” The Holy Spirit asked me if I had fingerprints on any of those bricks. “Well, yes, Lord, you know I put up just a couple of those bricks.”

I had spent my time trying to distance myself from my mother, protecting myself, as I supposed. I knew, without God telling me directly, that I had to repent of any bricks I had put up. So I invited my mom to lunch. I couldn’t even get through the whole lunch. I just felt prompted to start talking. I told my mom about the wall that was between us. I said my fingerprints were on some of the bricks. I asked her forgiveness. I wish I could say that she softened and owned up to her sins against me. That did not happen then, nor any day afterwards. She just said that she didn’t know how to love me. But I was again new and fresh. I could love her! I still work hard at my relationship with her and pray for her ongoing conversion.

My final little story was the most important one for how I was to be a wife to my husband. My parents’ divorce had left me deeply wounded. I wanted to make sure that my marriage did not end up like theirs. Consequently, I became highly manipulative of my husband. I demanded flowers and gifts, I demanded the he talk a certain way to me. I did not see this as manipulation, but more like an insurance policy. I needed to feel that I was unconditionally loved. But instead of bringing peace to our marriage, these “teaching moments” of mine usually brought fights. I started to talk to the Lord about it. In my prayer, I saw a tree. And there I was, screaming at the tree: “GROW! GROW!” It was the most ridiculous scene. The Holy Spirit eventually showed me that I was screaming at the tree, and the tree was my husband, Dan. I couldn’t make the tree grow by yelling at it. God took care of that growth. My job was to add fertilizer every once in a while. You know, like kind words of love. That was it! I learned over time to stop manipulating Dan. When his acts of love were free and unexpected, they became much more valuable to me than when I had demanded them. Doesn’t that sound more like unconditional love?

I had repeated “conversion moments”; they happened over and over! Conversion never stops. We can always go deeper and further into the heart of Jesus. Dan and I both read books on the saints and apologetics. We got involved in all kinds of service and Christian groups over the years. At last, our Catholic faith and worship became the very heart and soul of our marriage and family.

Dan and I have had such an exciting adventure with God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We have nine children, and all of them are practicing Catholics. Our son Zachary is an ordained priest for the Youngstown diocese. He just had his first year anniversary. Our daughter Eva is entering her second year of Novitiate with the Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. God willing, she will receive her habit and make her first vows next August. Four of our children are married, and grandbabies 14 and 15 are due next year.

Dan and I are members of the Holy Family Institute, a secular institute approved by Rome. Through the Society of Saint Paul, we were consecrated by becoming postulants, novices, and taking temporary and finally perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for our married state in life. Our lives have been offered up for the salvation of the world through all forms of the media and as reparation for the harm the media have had on human souls everywhere in the world.

My story is about ongoing conversion. Our God never gives up. He keeps going after His lost sheep, even when they are sitting in the pews every Sunday right beside us. He didn’t give up on me, and He won’t give up on you! Just open the door and He will transform your life.”

Love,
Matthew

Methodist keeps discovering the Catholic Church: Part 1 of 2


-by Kim Coulter, Kim Coulter and her husband, Dan, have nine children. She has been Catholic for 42 years. Kim and Dan are members of the Holy Family Institute, which is a secular institute for the consecration of married life, to advance the Gospel through social media, for the conversion of the world. The institute was established by Blessed James Alberione, who is also the founder of the Society of Saint Paul.

“I can hardly believe that I have been Catholic for 42 years! It is easy for me to remember when I became Catholic, because I did it just months before I was married. But to be more specific, I have become more and more Catholic through gradual and ongoing conversion.

I have always wondered if there aren’t more folks like me, who needed a continual touch of grace in their lives over a longer period of time in order to become truly Catholic. My story is a journey that I am still on today. God willing, I will continue on it until the day I die and meet my Jesus face to face.

I was the second child of four, born into a strongly religious United Methodist family. At one time, my father had considered becoming a minister. Instead, he skipped college for marriage and family life. My father was a telephone repairman, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. I had a good childhood until my high school years. Then my world fell apart.

My mom went to work part time at a department store. She became very disconnected with family life, even missing one of my birthdays completely — no cake or presents, not even a remembrance. We came to learn that she was interested in life outside of her marriage. My parents experienced extreme marital problems that ended in their divorce when I was a senior in high school. It wasn’t an amicable divorce; it was bitter and divisive. I can remember police knocking on our door during one of my parents’ fights. I also remember my father following my mom to see where she went after work. This seemed to me to be outside of all that was normal. Where was God? Hadn’t we gone to church every Sunday? Didn’t He love us?

I had always believed in God; I loved Jesus. I even escaped from the chaos of those years by becoming a camp counselor at a Methodist summer camp. But I could not escape the feeling of being abandoned by my parents and the deep pain of wondering why God didn’t intervene. I prayed constantly for God to fix my parents, especially my mom. It never happened. As a teen, I just couldn’t grasp that the Lord’s intervention has to be welcomed by the soul for His grace to be effective.

Growing up as a Methodist meant kind of picking and choosing what you could believe. Sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it? I didn’t want to think about the devil when my parents were feuding. I even told someone at our church that I didn’t believe in the devil at all; the reply I received was that it was no problem if I didn’t believe. Even today, you can go to a Methodist church that is highly pro-life, while a second one down the street teaches that abortion can be OK in some circumstances. That wasn’t the way that John Wesley had outlined things from the beginning. Our perverse culture has influenced many churches in this manner.

One day, during my freshman year of college, a high school friend invited me to attend a Catholic retreat called Search. It was a weekend retreat that introduced Jesus as a friend to the participants, sort of Jesus 101. I attended that weekend retreat and loved it!

Later, I worked on a Search weekend as a team member. Eventually, I was asked as a non-Catholic to join the commission that ran the program. There were many non-Catholics making the retreat, and I was supposed to be their eyes and ears, looking out for their interests. I even met my future husband there. It was a wonderful two years of serving the Lord in a new way and avoiding what was happening to my parents and siblings.

I must mention that, as good as the Search program was, the secular culture had its malicious influence there, too. It was the 1970s, after all. Drugs, open sexual activity and relativism were all on the menu at my college campus. We assimilated “Jesus as our best friend” right into our sinful life. Here I was, a non-Catholic, attending many Catholic Masses. I had lots of priest friends, and I received Jesus in the Eucharist sacrilegiously many, many times. No, I didn’t believe in the Real Presence. It was the seventies, and they just gave Jesus to me anyway.”

Love,
Matthew

Luther – Merit & Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE,
Matthew

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

Merit & righteousness – part 4 of 4, merit


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Schmaus, Dogma 6:138.

[9] ibid., 142.

[10] ibid., 143-4.

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

Merit & righteousness – part 3 of 4, moral realism


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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