Category Archives: Protestantism

Bibliolatry


-by Steve Weidenkopf

“In his 1929 book Survivals and New Arrivals, Hilaire Belloc examined the forces attacking the Catholic Church and its role in society. He put them into two chief categories: “survivals,” those “old forms of attack” that continue to be used by the Church’s enemies but are, in the main, on their way out; and “new arrivals,” the newer forms of attack that focus primarily on the Church’s moral teachings rather than its theological doctrines.

Among the “survivals” was a holdover from Protestantism Belloc termed the “biblical attack.” Its key element, he wrote, is “Bibliolatry”—elevating the Bible to the level of an idol. It is Bibliolatry that is the root of the myth that the Church locked and chained Bibles in medieval churches to prevent the laity from reading them. The implication of this myth is that if medieval people had been able to read the Bible for themselves, they would have recognized that the Catholic Church’s teachings are false and would have sought to free themselves from the yoke of Rome.

The notion that the Church restricts access to Scripture to control its interpretation comes from the Saxon monk-turned-revolutionary Martin Luther. Luther published three famous treatises in 1520 in response to the bull of Pope Leo X (r. 1513–1521), Exsurge Domine, that condemned many of Luther’s teachings.

In An Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther exhorted Emperor Charles V and the German nobility to reject papal authority and establish a national German Church in opposition to Rome. He argued that Rome had built three “walls” around itself to maintain its hold on Catholics. He identified these walls as the following false teachings:

1) that the spiritual power is greater than temporal power;

2) that only the pope can authentically interpret Scripture; and

3) that only the pope can call an ecumenical council.

He warned the German nobility that they must be aware “that in this matter we are not dealing with men but with the princes of hell.”

To Luther, the belief that the pope is the only interpreter of Scripture (which is not in fact Church teaching but rather Luther’s erroneous understanding of it) was “an outrageous fable” and is not rooted in the only authoritative source of divine revelation that Luther recognized, Scripture itself. Instead, he put forth the idea that all Christians should be able to interpret Scripture for themselves, a doctrine that would lead to a multitude of rival Protestant denominations.

It is widely believed that, to facilitate the lay reading of Scripture, Luther was first to translate the Bible into German. He was not. The first Bible in the German vernacular was produced [Ed.  by the Catholic Church] in the eighth century at the monastery of Monse. By the fifteenth century, there were 36,000 German manuscript bibles in circulation, and a complete printed Bible in the German vernacular appeared in 1529, five years before Luther’s translation was published. In short, the Church made Scripture accessible to laymen long before Luther and the Reformation did.  [Ed.  The Catholic Church does not have a problem with the Bible in the vernacular.  It has an issue with bad translations and the sufficient education to appreciate in context what one is reading.]

There is, in fact, a sense in which the Bible is the product of the Catholic Church, as it was the bishops of the Church who decided which books circulating in the fourth century would be considered canonical. Indeed, the Church took great pains throughout its history to guard, defend, and preserve Scripture. Pope St. Damasus I (r. 366–383) first took up the task of publishing a vernacular version of Scripture, and he employed his brilliant yet irascible secretary St. Jerome (342–420) to accomplish the task. Jerome learned Greek and Hebrew to properly translate the word of God into the vernacular Latin.

His translation, which became known as the Vulgate, was not well received in North Africa, where a riot erupted over his version of the book of Jonah. Widespread acceptance of the Vulgate in the Church took time. Perhaps part of the resistance can be attributed to the long memory of the Church. Jerome’s new translation came less than a hundred years after Diocletian initiated the Great Persecution. One of his edicts mandated the surrender of all copies of the sacred writings, an event so destructive that its memory remained with the Church long after the persecution ended. The Church maintained a great respect and love for the sacred word, as evidenced by the efforts of monks to preserve it.

The sixth century was witness to the activity of a uniquely saintly man who renounced his worldly life to become a hermit. His reputation for holiness attracted many followers, and soon thereafter St Benedict of Nursia (480-543 AD) founded a monastery at Monte Cassino. Benedict’s vision for his monks was rooted in the idea that monasticism was a “school of divine service” in which the monk committed himself to a life of obedience focused on a routine of work, prayer, study, and self-denial. Benedict’s monks preserved and maintained Western civilization through their painstaking work of copying ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts, as well as devoting time to copying and illustrating Scripture.

Working in the scriptoriums of Benedictine monasteries in the Middle Ages was not easy. It took nearly a year to copy a Bible manuscript. The process was laborious and wearisome; as one monk recorded, “He who does not know how to write imagines it to be no labor; but though three fingers only hold the pen, the whole body goes weary.” Any copying work the monk did not finish during the day had to be completed at night, even in the cold winter months.

Bibles were not only copied but richly and beautifully illuminated with elaborate images. Bible illumination began in the fifth century with Irish monks who painstakingly prepared the skins of calves, sheep, or goats into vellum that was used for the manuscripts. The famous Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript, copied and illuminated in the eighth century, was the work of one scribe who used 130 calfskins and took five years to complete the work. The amount of labor that went into each copy of the Bible led to preventing their theft either by locking them in containers or chaining them to desks. In other words, these were security measures, not efforts to keep Scripture from the faithful.

Indeed, protecting an expensive Bible by securing it allowed greater, not lesser, access to it. Moreover, the Bible was usually placed in a public area of a church so those who could read could peruse its pages. The first mention of this protective policy occurs in the mid eleventh century in the catalogue of St. Peter’s Monastery in Weissenburg, Alsace, where it was recorded that four Psalters were chained in the church. Moreover, the practice was not exclusive to the Catholic Church: Protestants also utilized the well-known security measure, as evidenced by the chaining of the Great Bible (also known as the Chained Bible) published by command of King Henry VIII of England in 1539.

The Real Story

The Protestant principle of sola scriptura led to the myth that the Catholic Church kept the word of God from the faithful to maintain its authority; the chaining of bibles in medieval churches was seen as evidence of this. It also led to the false claim that Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German was the first such vernacular edition; in fact, there had been many vernacular editions preceding Luther’s, including St. Jerome’s Vulgate.

It was the Church that, far from suppressing the Bible, determined the canon of its books and then preserved and authoritatively interpreted the written word of God throughout its history. Catholic monks painstakingly preserved the sacred writings and beautifully illustrated them throughout the medieval period. These priceless manuscripts were chained or locked up in churches not to prevent their use but to protect against theft, thus allowing greater access to them, which was standard practice in both Catholic and Protestant churches until the printing press enabled mass production of bibles.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Calvin’s reprobation & free will


-The Doctrine of Predestination explained in a Question and Answer Format from a 1589/1594 Geneva Bible, please click on the image for greater clarity

In Christianity, the doctrine that God unilaterally predestines some persons to heaven and some to hell originated with St Augustine of Hippo during the Pelagian controversy in 412 AD. Exactly the time the Catholic Church stopped adopting the teachings of Augustine as doctrine.

Pelagius and his followers taught that people are not born with original sin and can choose to be good or evil. The controversy caused Augustine to radically reinterpret the teachings of the apostle Paul, arguing that faith is a free gift from God rather than something humans can choose. Noting that not all will hear or respond to God’s offered covenant, Augustine considered that “the more general care of God for the world becomes particularised in God’s care for the elect”. He explicitly defended God’s justice in sending newborn and stillborn babies to hell although they had no personal sin. (Limbo, merely a theological idea, not a doctrine, was a Catholic “we don’t know” answer.  Realizing the necessity of baptism for salvation, but also the innocence other than original sin, but no personal sin, seems out of line logically with God’s infinite mercy and love and also His infinite Justice.  Sending the personally innocent to Hell cannot be logical or just.  Truth cannot contradict truth.)

John Calvin taught the latter part of “double predestination” had leaving the remainder of humanity to receive eternal damnation for all their sins, even their original sin. Calvin wrote the foundational work on this topic, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1539), while living in Strasbourg after his expulsion from Geneva and consulting regularly with the Reformed theologian Martin Bucer. Calvin’s belief in the uncompromised “sovereignty of God” spawned his doctrines of providence and predestination. For the world, without providence it would be “unlivable”. For individuals, without predestination “no one would be saved”.

Calvin did not accept the concept of free will, God’s superabundant gift of grace and salvation through Jesus Christ to all, if only for the asking; understanding due to free will and original sin, causing a darkness of the will, soul, and mind, that some would reject this superabundant free gift of eternal life.

Calvinists(Presbyterians) emphasize the active nature of God’s decree to choose those foreordained to eternal wrath, yet at the same time the passive nature of that foreordination.  God gives His grace to the elect, and not to the reprobate, leaving them to themselves, and their ultimate, inevitable damnation. So, you could unwittingly be tempted to argue that there really is no difference between free will and the doctrine of reprobation, but, ahem, as they say, and truly so, the devil is in the details.

This is possible because most Calvinists(Presbyterians) hold to an Infralapsarian, the Calvinist theological discipline of the logical order of God’s decrees, view of God’s decree. In that view, God, before Creation, in His mind, first decreed that the Fall would take place, before decreeing election and reprobation. So God actively chooses whom to condemn, the reprobate, but because He knows they will have a sinful nature, the way He foreordains them is to simply let them be – this is sometimes called “preterition.”

Therefore, this foreordination to wrath is passive in nature (unlike God’s active predestination of His elect where He needs to overcome their sinful nature). So, in order to make reprobation line up with free will you have to do some logical gymnastics and hoops, which Calvinism intentionally makes you do, to come out somewhere near a fruitless effort to seem like free will, tadah; but, it’s really not.

Calvinists hold that even if their scheme is characterized as a form of determinism, it is one which insists upon the free agency and moral responsibility of the individual. How, this editor does not know.

Additionally, Calvinists(Presbyterians) hold that the will is in bondage to sin and therefore unable to actualize its true freedom. Hence, an individual whose will is enslaved to sin cannot choose to serve God. Since Calvinists(Presbyterians) further hold that salvation is by grace apart from good works (sola gratia) and since they view making a choice to trust God (free will/faith) as an action or work, they maintain that the act of choosing cannot be the difference between salvation and damnation, as in the Arminian scheme. Rather, God must first free the individual from his enslavement to sin to a greater degree than in Arminianism, and then the regenerated heart naturally chooses the good. This work by God is sometimes called irresistible, in the sense that grace enables a person to freely cooperate, being set free from the desire to do the opposite, so that cooperation is not the cause of salvation but the other way around.  God saves the elect by fiat of grace to them only and personally, without personal choice or knowledge of the elect, and they cooperate with Him.


-by Karlo Broussard

“John Calvin is famous for teaching that God doesn’t just permit moral evil, but he positively directs sinners to sin. Of “wicked” and “obstinate” men, Calvin claimed that

“[God] bends them to execute His judgments, just as if they carried their orders engraven on their minds. And hence it appears that they are impelled by the sure appointment of God (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 1, Ch. 18, sec. 3; emphasis added).”

Notice that for Calvin sinners don’t sin merely because God allows them to do so (His permissive will). Rather, he “impels” or “bends” (forces) them to sin.

But is it even possible for God to cause someone to sin?

Consider that if God were to move us to sin he would be turning us away from him, away from our ultimate end or goal, “for man sins through wandering away from [God] who is his last end” (Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 3.162). In other words, God would be moving us to not love Him, and if so, He would fail to will the divine goodness more than any other good (cf. Summa Theologiae I:19:9). And this failure would be due either to a lack of knowledge that He is the supreme good, or a failure in due attraction to Himself as the supreme good.

But God can’t possibly fail in knowledge that He’s the supreme good because He’s omniscient. Nor can He fail to be attracted to Himself as the highest good, for that would entail a desire for some good outside the order of reason, which is impossible because He’s perfectly good.

In fact, God can’t fail in any sense. Failure necessarily entails unactualized potential. But God is traditionally understood to be pure actuality, or pure existence itself, the very notion of which excludes the idea of unactualized potential. Therefore, God can’t fail lest He cease being God.

Since God moving us to sin would entail a failure on God’s part, and God can’t fail, it follows that God can’t move us to sin.

Now, someone may just reject this classical notion of God in order to keep the idea that God moves us to sin. But then there’s not much value in a deity that’s finite and subject to defect. This position undermines the very divine sovereignty that folks like Calvin seek to preserve in asserting that God moves us to sin.

The desire to preserve God’s sovereignty is laudable. But there’s another way to preserve it that doesn’t require us to give up divine perfection.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that God gives some people the assistance of grace that leads them to glory in heaven (an assistance that doesn’t violate human freedom), while He permits others to fall into sin, the consequence of which is deprivation of further graces ordered to salvation (SCG 3.163). And since this is all “ordered from eternity by His wisdom,” so Aquinas reasons, “it follows of necessity that the aforesaid distinction among men has been ordered by God from eternity.”

The preordination of some to be moved to their last end is called predestination. The permissive decree to not uphold someone in the good and allow that person to sin is called reprobation. On this account, both predestination and reprobation belong to God’s providence.

Nothing is lost. God’s nature as pure actuality is preserved because there’s no unrealized potential. He remains the source of all good because those who attain final glory do so because of God’s grace. God’s sovereignty is preserved because not even sin escapes his divine plan, since from all eternity He wills to permit it. Nor is God’s innocence lost because He doesn’t move us to do evil.

Now, someone might object: “This account doesn’t protect divine innocence any more than Calvin’s system, since God could have given the grace to prevent someone from sinning if He wanted to do so.”

First of all, God is not bound in justice to give us what is not our due. In the words of Rev. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, “It is natural [Ed. according God’s will, the natural law, natural revelation] that what is defectible should sometimes fail.”

As finite creatures made in God’s image who are given the gift of freedom, our final end is in Him—not in ourselves. We must therefore direct ourselves to our final end by an act of free will, in collaboration with God’s grace. But that entails the possibility to sin. So, for God to preserve us from sin by grace would be for Him to give us something over and above what’s due to us as finite rational beings. And since God is not bound in justice to himself to give us what’s not due to our nature, it follows that God is not unjust for permitting us to sin.

Now, this doesn’t mean those whom God permits to fall into sin don’t have a chance at salvation. Aquinas teaches that God “for his part, is prepared to give graces to all” (SCG 3.159). He quotes 1 Timothy 2:4 for biblical support: “[God]…desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And how does He do this?

“The common and wonted course of justification is that God moves the soul interiorly and that man is converted to God, first by an imperfect conversion, that it may afterwards become perfect (ST I-II:113:10).”

God gives to all the grace that leads to an imperfect conversion, and because this grace has the potential to lead to further good acts meritorious of salvation, there’s a real chance at salvation: “the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (Gaudium et Spes 22).

With regard to the grace needed to perform more-perfect acts, like a more perfect act of conversion, God only withholds it if man resists the order that the first grace has to the more perfect act. Again, Aquinas writes,

“But those alone are deprived of grace, who place in themselves an obstacle to grace: thus he who shuts his eyes while the sun is shining is to be blamed if an accident occurs, although he is unable to see unless the sun’s light enable him to do so (SCG 3.159).”

This allows Aquinas to conclude that “God does not cause grace not to be supplied to someone; rather, those not supplied with grace offer an obstacle to grace” (De Malo q. III, a. 1, ad 8).

God does permit us to sin, but this doesn’t count against God’s goodness because He’s not bound in justice to Himself to prevent us from sinning.  [Ed. His knowledge that we will sin, and that some will be damned, and even whom, does not prevent, or interrupt our free will.  Knowing something does not effect or alter or change or impel a result of the consequence of free will. cf Augustine.  Also, God knows every combination that can happen, so, in that way, God is omniscient.  When we think of God knows the future, we fail in understanding and imagination that as only one possible thread existing preemptive and future.]

As to why God doesn’t rescue every man from sin, and allows some to fall into it, it’s a mystery. As Aquinas says, it “has no reason, except the divine will” (ST I:23:5 ad 3).

So, for anyone who wants to hold to the idea that God moves us to sin, as Calvin believed, he must hold an idea of God as a finite being who is subject to error. The view articulated by Aquinas doesn’t require this of us. It preserves God’s perfection and his divine sovereignty by allowing both predestination and reprobation to be part of God’s providence without having to say God moves us to sin.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

The Black Death & the Protestant Revolution

“The arrival of the Black Death in Christendom — perhaps the most destructive pandemic in world history, which killed, by very reliable estimates, about half the population of Europe. In some areas the death toll may have been as high as 80 percent.

“It was a visitation upon a scale so enormous as to strike a blow at medieval society which might have dissolved it — and nearly did dissolve it. . . . In some places towns and villages sank never to rise again. . . . You may trace its effects even today in the half-finished buildings which were stopped dead and their completion never undertaken.”22

It’s no wonder many Catholics believed that Pestilence, the first of St. John’s Four Horsemen, had made his prophesied appearance (see Rev. 6).

One of the cruelest ironies about the Black Death is the way it contributed so heavily to the deterioration of the clergy. In what way? Imagine the workload for a priest: confessions, last rites, comfort to survivors, and Christian burial (when possible) from sunup to sundown for weeks, months, years on end. And though science did not yet know what caused the Black Death, everyone knew very well by common sense alone that whoever spent time around the plague usually died from it sooner or later. So the clergy who took the sacraments into the plague zones were spiritually akin to the firemen who ran toward the Twin Towers on 9/11 while everyone else was running away. The faithful bishop, the loyal priest, the dutiful deacon all ministered as long as they could, and then died. The cowards and deserters fled and survived — to become practically the whole clergy in the post plague years. No wonder the fifteenth century was such a dumpster fire.

As a direct result of this factor, the Faith itself got lost somewhere along the way — or adulterated, at any rate, by a nasty tincture of superstition. The plague shut down churches and monasteries, all the places where the real Christian Faith was meant to be taught (and had been for a long time, despite individual lapses).

Many of the clergy ordained to replace the fallen became “Mass priests” — priests, that is, who literally did nothing but recite the Mass because they had no training and did not know how to preach. Deprived of solid doctrine this way, the laity took on bad doctrines, often spread by teachers who were simply ignorant. Sub-Christian notions crept back in and distorted Catholic teaching.

The Church’s perfectly sound traditions about the correct use of sacramentals, for instance, were allowed to mix with leftovers from Europe’s recently dead pagan past. Sacred medals became charms; relics were confused with rabbit’s feet. In a disaster area like this, with no time to spare for jumping through moral or theological hoops, quick cures were needed — so the Church became a source for magic pills, not spiritual salvation. Doctors and theologians kept the true teaching on the books, to be sure, but popular extravagances happened far away from the universities. “For instance,” as Belloc writes,

the doctrine of the Invocation of Saints is clear; but towards the end of the Middle Ages you get men robbing one shrine to enrich another. The doctrine of the use of Masses is clear, and especially their use for the benefit of the souls in Purgatory; but the superstition that a Mass in this place was efficacious, and in that was not — the superstition which confuses mechanical repetition with spiritual force grew as the Middle Ages declined.23

Somewhat akin to this are the many fantastic legends about the saints and the early Church that grew up during these years, based, in many cases, on few, if any, historical facts. Most of them were perhaps harmless — saints who never existed, shrines built at the sites of miracles that never happened — harmless, that is, until they came to be confused with the actual tenets of the Faith. Laypeople lost the ability to distinguish between actual Sacred Tradition and tradition with a small t (i.e., just old, oft-repeated stories, many times nothing but wives’ tales). Worse, both sets of ideas came to be held with the same tenacity — leaving the Resurrection of Our Blessed Lord in the same category with St. George’s dragon.

And then, a few decades later, when some Lollard or Lutheran came along, bringing proofs against the “Donation of Constantine” or the “False Decretals,” many a vulnerable papist joined the Protestants in their Bible-only beliefs, convinced that they had now seen the folly of “man-made” Christianity.

When the Black Death began to subside in the late 1300s, some measure of order was restored. Why, afterward, weren’t efforts made to sort through these fables and false documents? There were — but only after the Protestant revolt. Before then, there was simply too little incentive to overcome the inertia. And here, of course, is where the bad shepherds returned big time. Too much money was being generated by this point, money the Church had come to depend on. The best example is the most famous: the sale of indulgences, against which Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses.”

-Bennett, Rod. Bad Shepherds: The Dark Years in Which the Faithful Thrived While Bishops Did the Devil’s Work . (c) 2018 Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition. Location: 874-913

Love,
Matthew

22 Hilaire Belloc, The Crisis of Civilization (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 1992), 89.
23 Ibid., 81.

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

Bad Shepherds: Jan Hus

The use of force, punishment, threat and fear are necessary for the keeping of order and the maintenance of right laws in action. But in a healthy state of affairs, much the greater part in the strength of authority is moral. Men obey because they think they ought to obey; because they feel that the authority which governs them has a right to do so. As moral authority weakens, those who exercise authority tend to fall back upon physical restraint, punishment, and the irrational fear of consequences as a method of administration. That is what happened towards the end of the Middle Ages. Force alone was used against heresy in every form, and not only against heresy but even against grumblings at the powers of the clergy. . . . Everywhere attacked and losing [their] moral sanctions, the officers of the Church fell back with increasing severity and frequency upon restraint by fear. This evil, the association of violence and horrible punishment with the maintenance of orthodoxy, grew rapidly throughout the end of the decline; and nothing did more to provoke the violent outburst to follow, in which the unity of Christendom was broken asunder.26

Jan Hus was a Czech priest who served as rector of Charles University in Prague at the turn of the fifteenth century. Actual Protestantism was still more than a hundred years off, but Hus, who lived and died a Catholic, gradually became interested in the writings of John Wycliffe. Clergy mortality from the Black Death had been especially high in England, and Wycliffe, the master of Balliol College, had seen all the worst men in Oxfordshire rise to the Catholic episcopate. His simmering fury over the whole thing began expressing itself in books that eventually reached Bohemia.

Unlike his teacher, Hus did not respond to the scandals by attacking the dogma of transubstantiation (which, after all, does depend on a validly ordained priesthood). But he did begin to share Wycliffe’s Donatist beliefs that the Catholic clergy had relinquished all its prerogatives through sin and simony.

Hus’s remedy?

The Church ought to sell off the entirety of her property and make the whole clergy take a vow of abject poverty. Indulgences and the like must be banned, and the Bible must become Christianity’s sole guidebook. In 1377, Hus published his ideas, which quickly earned the condemnation of Pope Gregory XI. A few years later, Innocent VII censured Hus and forbade any further broadsides against the clergy. By 1409, Hus’s sympathetic archbishop was forced to stop protecting him. Another new pope was elected, antipope Alexander V, and Hus decided to appeal to him directly, offering to explain his teachings in person. He was rebuffed. In 1412, his followers burned the papal bulls that had been issued against Hus. Three of them were taken and beheaded. King Wenceslaus of Bohemia tried to intervene and almost got into hot water himself with Gregory XII.

Finally, Jan Hus was sent to trial. Yet another antipope, John XXIII, chose a committee of bishops to adjudicate the matter. Hus’s condemnation took place on June 5, 1415. He was held for another seventy-three days and then burned alive, the same punishment Wycliffe underwent some twenty years earlier. Before being consigned to the flames, he prayed the Jesus Prayer and forgave his enemies. He was undoubtedly a heretic — as some in our times have become through shock and dismay — but when he said that indulgences had become a colossal fraud, that the monasteries were rotten with idleness and sexual sin, and that the bishops, for the most part, were in it for the money, Jan Hus told the God’s honest truth.

…The killing of Hus, in other words, resulted from a perfect storm of all three of our fourteenth-century catastrophes. (Great Western Schism/Avignon Papacy/Babylonian Captivity, Black Death, & Hundred Years’ War)

Love,
Matthew

26 Belloc, The Crisis of Civilization, 86.

Bad Shepherds: The Reformation

(The editor highly recommends reading the posts “Sin (Parts 1-4)” as a preface.)

….Spiritual goods merited by the saints are stored up with God as in a treasury (treasury of merit). These treasures, under certain circumstances, can be applied to the needs of other Church members still on earth — and the pope, as successor of Peter, holds the keys. What kinds of needs are we talking about? The need, for instance, to have the sufferings brought about by our own sins and follies lessened.

…an indulgence can be granted only to a living, baptized Christian believer. It’s of no use for keeping someone out of hell, for that issue is settled only by graces earned by Christ Himself applied directly to the believing soul in baptism. Post-baptismal sin, too, is absolved not by an indulgence but by confession. The indulgences offered by the Church were (and still are) useful for mitigating troubles in time — temporal chastisement here on earth during the struggle for sanctification and, if necessary, in the purging that comes to a saved soul immediately after death.

…the idea that an indulgence obtained by a living believer might, on his own authority, be transferred to a third party (a deceased loved one in purgatory, for example) was a theory sometimes entertained but never actually taught by the Church. Pope Leo X, again, certainly understood all this — but he also knew that these fine distinctions, during those troubled times, were well over the heads of the Catholic masses.

Even so, he sent out his authorized sellers. Johann Tetzel, for example, was a German Dominican friar engaged to preach the great indulgence of 1517, a campaign undertaken (ostensibly) to help finance the construction of the largest church building on earth, the new St. Peter’s going up in Rome. Tetzel had been at this kind of work for some time already, having been commissioned by Pope Leo (while he was still Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici) to boost the Jubilee Indulgence more than a decade earlier. He had achieved great results. Tetzel was valued as a rousing street preacher, somebody who could “fill a hat” like practically no one else — but his technique was highly suspect. Later charges that he preached “indulgence” in our modern sense are slanderous, anachronistic nonsense. Indulgentia (a Latin word that may be rendered as “a kindness going forward”) was not, as so many Protestants have charged, a bribe offered to God by the impenitent, so that He might “go easy” or “look the other way” during the commission of future sins. And Tetzel probably did not use the silly advertising jingle so often associated with his name: “As soon as the coin in the coffer clinks, the soul from purgatory springs!” But he definitely promoted the same idea in subtler language. “The assertion,” as Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor writes,

“that he put forward indulgences as being not only a remission of the temporal punishment of sin, but as a remission of its guilt, is as unfounded as is that other accusation against him, that he sold the forgiveness of sin for money, without even any mention of contrition and confession, or that, for payment, he absolved from sins which might be committed in the future. . . . About indulgences for the living, Tetzel always taught pure doctrine. . . . The case was very different, however, with indulgences for the dead. About these there is no doubt that Tetzel did, according to what he considered his authoritative instructions, proclaim as Christian doctrine that nothing but an offering of money was required to gain the indulgence for the dead, without there being any question of contrition or confession. He also taught, in accordance with the opinion then held, that an indulgence could be applied to any given soul with unfailing effect. Starting from this assumption, there is no doubt that his doctrine was virtually that of the well-known drastic proverb.”24

When Tetzel arrived at Wittenberg in Saxony, word of his message reached Martin Luther, who was an important teacher of theology at the Catholic university there. The ordinary people who attended the rallies, Luther claimed (and there’s no real reason to disbelieve him), came away from Tetzel’s preaching convinced that they could free their loved ones from purgatory purely for a price. Luther wrote to his bishop, Albert of Brandenburg, to protest. And here’s where things got dicey. Tetzel had received his license to preach in the pope’s name via this selfsame archbishop of Brandenburg, who had, as it happens, arranged with Leo in advance to send him about half the money raised, for the construction project in Rome — and to keep the other half himself to pay off the deep debts he incurred while obtaining his appointment to the archbishopric. This the ordinary people did not know. And Albert himself, once he received the letter, went after Luther, the whistle-blower.

Luther probably didn’t know about this bad shepherd’s abuse either; there’s no specific mention of it, at any rate, in the Ninety-Five Theses, which focus almost entirely on theology. We know about it today, however, and it highlights like nothing else one of the major reasons the clergy were so resistant to reform during these crucial years. They were convinced that the Church needed the money to continue. The popes had, for decades, given their sanction to similar transactions quite openly, and in exchange for a fee. Even secular rulers had a hand in perpetuating the festering mess because large indulgence rallies like Tetzel’s generated money for local economies like a big football championship — merchants, innkeepers, and the like, and burgomasters, city councilmen, and so forth often received a cut from “civic-minded” groups. The whole thing stank like a garbage dump.

Luther wasn’t the only one who cried foul about the theology. His later opponent Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, sent to reclaim Luther for the Faith in 1518, had been protesting the same irresponsible preaching for years — and Cajetan definitely did know where the money went: “Preachers,” he said,

“speak in the name of the Church only so long as they proclaim the doctrine of Christ and His Church; but if, for purposes of their own, they teach that about which they know nothing, and which is only their own imagination, they must not be accepted as mouthpieces of the Church. No one must be surprised if such as these fall into error.”25

To put it bluntly, an indulgence preacher who kept it simple (“As soon as the coin in the coffer clinks . . .”) ginned up cash a lot faster than a careful theologian, and so Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show was suffered to continue.

None of this should, of course, be taken as a defense for Martin Luther’s later revolution. The apostles established a Church with “one Lord, one Faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5), which no man is justified in sundering, no matter how many Judases stain her offices or how infuriating their offenses. Benedict Arnold, in other words, is no less a traitor if America really did have crimes of her own to atone for and abuses (such as slavery) as yet unreformed.

But not just any old stick is good enough to beat Martin Luther with; and the abuse he overreacted to was no less an abuse because his own later crimes were also great. It does not seem to have occurred to Pope Leo, after all, that he might easily have paid off St. Peter’s to the glory of God by liquidating his own luxuries and those of his equally profligate Curia. That same Leo once said (if the legend is true), “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.”

Love,
Matthew

24 Ludwig von Pastor, The History of the Popes, from the Close of the Middle Ages, ed. Ralph Francis Kerr (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1908), 7.
25 Ibid., 7.

Luther – Merit & Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE,
Matthew

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

Merit & righteousness – part 4 of 4, merit


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Schmaus, Dogma 6:138.

[9] ibid., 142.

[10] ibid., 143-4.

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

Merit & righteousness – part 3 of 4, moral realism


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merit & righteousness – part 2 of 4, Righteousness


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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