Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Just another rant from the Red Romanist

Angels cap tip to the Pedantic Protestant both for my new tagline (I can't recall ever having laughed so hard at myself as when I read that) and for pointing out Steve Hays's series on the differences between Catholic and Protestant ideas of justification (Part I and Part II). By and large, I agree with the point of the series: that the ideas of justification in Catholic and Protestant theology are fundamentally irreconcilable. ISTM that we did about as well as we could do at Regensburg, and that wasn't good enough. But I think that it's also important to note that Regensburg did actually clear up a miscommunication on at least one point: whether God was the sole cause of the works that Catholics consider justifying. The answer to that question is "YES," God's grace is infallible at obtaining its intended effect to apply Christ's merits to a person. Note the statement of Regensburg: "By the Holy Spirit the human mind is moved toward God through Christ and this movement is through faith." The condition of whether grace is resisted or not is the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which moves and excites the will toward assent to grace (Trent on justification, Canons III-IV). Thus, the Father bestows Christ's merits by the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Spirit, while permitting grace to be resisted in those who lack such inspiration, thus condemning them by their own sin. While the will is active in the process of justification, it in no way thwarts God's ultimate sovereignty in the process regarding predestination and election.

For that reason, I must respectfully dissent from some statements made by Mr. Hays regarding the real differences between Catholics and Protestants. Again, I want to make clear that I agree with his statement that follows:

Nowadays it is fashionable to claim that the Reformation was based on a massive misunderstanding. You see, the Protestants weren’t conversant in the Catholic language-game. So both sides were speaking at cross-purposes. This claim disregards the obvious fact that, by definition, the first generation of Protestants were former Catholics. They received the same theological instruction as their Catholic opponents. Calvin may even have been a classmate of Ignatius Loyola at the Sorbonne. Luther was a professor of Catholic theology. Peter Martyr was an abbot. It is special pleading to claim that the Protestant Reformers wrote as outsiders to the Catholic tradition.

It is for that very reason, however, that I think we are obliged to learn from the Reformers themselves about what the remaining differences were after Regensburg. Thus, I proceed to some areas that require clarification. As Mr. Hays offered the series as an exposition of the respective positions, I trust that this effort will be seen as an effort to make sure that they are explained correctly.

Hays provides the following definition of justification:
Trent defines justification in terms of the remission of sin as well as the sanctification and renewal of the inner man, through the voluntary reception of a gracious action that transforms the state of the unjust into a condition of personal and actual rectitude, enabling them to become heirs of everlasting life (6.7).

This definition is true, but possibly misleading. The real question is what produces the voluntary reception of the gracious action, and that is based on the providential guidance of God and the Holy Spirit in a person's life before justification (6.6), which incorporates the order of voluntary causes as usual. At the point of justification itself, it is strictly a question of whether the person is or is not under the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The providential influence of the Holy Spirit before that point is, as always, an inordinately complex and mysterious process that is radically individual, incorporating the voluntary order of causes under the overarching will of God. Some ideas have been proposed (Thomism and Molinism, for example), but I doubt that we'll ever resolve that particular contradiction. We know only that, contra Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, it is not something that one can work to earn or deserve by performing natural works so as to solicit God's grace.

Even if the Tridentine position didn’t suffer from any positive errors, it would still be gravely defective for failing to articulate a positive and sharp-edged summary of the Pauline category of justification, in contradistinction to his category of sanctification. One would be at a loss to recover the Pauline doctrine from the Tridentine construct. So it is not a case of classing two soteric categories under one designation; rather, we would be unable to reconstruct the Pauline category from the Tridentine statement since it doesn’t preserve the essential elements of the original.

I cite this only to point out that this is one of the major points of difference. Catholics do not believe St. Paul draws this distinction between justification and sanctification, which is one of the fundamental differences in our respective understanding of Scripture. That contributes significantly to the interpretational differences in the letters of St. Paul and St. James that Hays mentions.

I'll now turn to some specific points that were raised to explain how misconceiving the Catholic position may create misunderstandings.

In section (i) on the Forensic nature of justification, Hays notes the following objection to the Catholic argument that dikaioo is causative:
But even if the verb were to carry a uniformly causal connotation, that would not settle the issue in favor of the Catholic claim. When Paul says that Christ was made sin for us (2 Cor 5:21), the verb (ποιεω) has a naturally causal import (“to do, make, bring about, produce, execute,” &c.), yet Paul doesn’t mean that Christ became a sinner!

The Catholic interpretation of this verse is that "sin" refers to a "sin offering," so that we are quite definite in saying that this has a causative sense (Christ obviously didn't crucify Himself). Indeed, a significant objection that Catholics have to imputed justification is that the use of this passage (and the similar "made a curse" in Galatians) to demonstrate the "reverse imputation" of sins to Christ either contravenes the natural sense of the verb or blasphemously retains it (so that Christ literally became a sinner). But incidentally, it doesn't seem to me that Catholics are arguing for infused righteousness based on the causal force of the verb itself, but rather by the fact that God Himself has pronounced the verdict (more on that below).

In section (v) on the solafideistic character of justification, Hays presents two Catholic arguments, both of which seem to be misunderstood. Hays introduces the first argument as follows:
One major rationale for justification by faith alone is that the merit principle is based on the principle of strict justice—where there’s an exact equality between deed and desert. But since our fallen deeds can never satisfy this inflexible standard, they properly merit punishment rather than reward. This is not an artificially high standard. Rather, it is nothing more or less than the standard intrinsic to the principle of merited reward or punishment. Strict justice doesn’t allow for any degree of declination.

Catholic theologians distinguish between strict merit, condign merit and congruent merit. Condign merit is a synergistic second-order merit obliging a commensurate reward, whereas congruent merit is more discretionary. Cf. Catholic Encyclopedia (CUA 1967), 10:202b-203a

The big problem here is that the first paragraph is entirely wrong from the Catholic perspective (or for that matter, from the logical perspective). The Catholic formulation of merit comes straight out of the Scriptural language of reward-punishment in the context of eternal life (see, e.g., Rom. 2:6-28, Matt. 25:46). Realizing that it is utterly impossible for God to ever have any sort of obligation to His creation (i.e., strict merit), Catholic theologians noted other areas in which merit was used outside of the context of obligation. One is the case of condign merit, in which a person completely voluntarily offers to give something to someone on a specified condition, described quite aptly by Mr. Hays thusly:
Of course, God can obligate himself by making a promise. In that sense we may have a claim on God. But a divine promise is strictly gratuitous. If God makes a promise, he “must” keep his promise, but that is owing to his own veracity, and not to our desert. Any proffered reward is still in the nature of a favor rather than a debt. Only Christ was in a position to earn a reward for his people.

Likewise, the notion of congruent merit arises in cases where people give a reward that is fitting but in no way obliged by action. It is strictly gratuitous; no rule or promise obligates it. One could count innumerable occasions on which someone is not strictly entitled to receive something, but gifts are fittingly given (birthdays, graduation, Christmas, etc., etc.). Obviously, one also could give gifts out of affection without some occasion, and even that would be congruent merit, fitting to the love the giver has for the receiver. The point of congruent merit is that it describes the merit of the receiver based on the regard of the giver, not on any concept of earned reward. In the cases of condign and congruent merit, the language of merit is rightly used without any question of strict justice between the giver and the receiver, so that the receiver "earns" the reward.

In that light, it becomes clear that Hays has listed objections that are unfounded:
a) Although is applied to the Scriptural doctrine of justification, it cannot be exegeted from the Scriptural doctrine of justification.

CC: I disagree. It is in our unwillingness to abandon the Scriptural language of reward and punishment that we look to a way to make that language meaningful.

b) It cannot be invoked to gloss the Tridentine formulation since the Tridentine Fathers refrained from drawing on such a distinction in their canons and decrees on justification, although it was available to them.

CC: I would argue that this would have been clearly understood by a Catholic theologian of the time, especially given that the "crowning His own merits" language had been in use from even before St. Augustine and the authoritative medieval work on the atonement (St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo) specifically ruled out the possibility of strict justice as a basis for salvation.

c) It falters on a fatal equivocation. The fact that Catholic theologians find it necessary to qualify the character of merit already betrays the extremity of their position. You can’t modify a concept by merely annexing an adjective to a noun (viz., extra virgin olive oil). The principle of merit cannot be modulated. To merit something, it must be owing to the subject in his own right. He must be personally deserving and his recompense must be commensurate with the claim. The same applies to demerit. Mercy and merit are contrary principles.

CC: If one assumes that the term "merit" is limited in application to strict justice, then it might be true that "[t]he principle of merit cannot be modulated." But that is true neither linguistically nor theologically, and in fact, if it were true, then Scripture would have spoken in nonsensical terms.

d) This sort of ethical hair-splitting is Pharisaical. It tries to jimmy open a few cracks in the solid front of Scripture in order to wedge in a little leeway for human merit. Paul could have introduces these qualifications if he wanted to.

CC: St. Paul wrote Romans 2, which strikes me as an adequate rebuttal to this assertion.

Similar problems can be noted in Hays's objections to the Catholic argument that imputed justification is a "legal fiction":

a) The only burden on a Protestant is to justify his exegesis, and not to justify the results of his exegesis. At that point the Catholic is taking issue with the propriety of God’s redemptive arrangements.

CC: Part of justifying one's exegesis is to make certain that one does not contradict what one knows of Scripture from elsewhere. The notion of a legal fiction in this instance is that it attacks God's own justice. The entire notion of "legal fiction" is that it is something superfluous if we could judge the cases truly on their merits; to say that God is using one would, from the Catholic perspective, be impugning God's ability to judge cases rightly.

b) The Catholic category of “quasi-merit” (=congruent merit) invites the characterization of a legal fiction. So the Catholic alternative is objectionable on its own grounds.

CC: On the contrary, it seems to be quite harmonious with both the ordinary use of language and the Scriptural use of language. Regardless, it's a tu quoque argument, not a response.

c) It seems as if Catholic theologians are trying to extract the doctrine of justification from the form of the word, reasoning that unless the subject declared to be righteous is, in fact righteous, God’s judgment would be at variance with the truth. But this is a semantic fallacy. Take another judicial term. We declare a defendant to be either innocent or guilty. Now “innocent” is a Latin derivative which literally means “harmless.” So is it a legal fiction to declare the defendant innocent when he may be a vicious and violent individual? But this is irrelevant to the truth of the verdict. “Innocent” is a technical term in jurisprudence. It simply means that the defendant is not guilty as charged. It says nothing about his personal character. It is only concerned with his legal standing. He may be a vicious and violent individual, but as long as he is not guilty of the specific offense for which he was charged, he is innocent in the eyes of the law.

CC: First, being an American lawyer, I have to point out that the finding is "not guilty," not "innocent," and the change was made for exactly the reason that the jury is technically not making a determination of guilt or innocence, but rather whether the person is certain to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Second, it's hypocritical for you to chastise Catholics for technical use of the theological term "merit" in a way contrary to its ordinary understanding (which I don't concede BTW) as Pharasaical and then to excuse the exact same type of usage for "innocent" based on the usage being technical. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the "legal fiction" involved in these terms "in the eyes of the law" is exactly because of that reasonable doubt. We as lawyers even acknowledge human fallibility in the maxim that guides the standard of proof: "Better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be condemned." If there were no doubt involved, such as when the judge is perfectly omniscient, then it would be a travesty of justice for the judge to declare a person not guilty of an offense when he was guilty. Indeed, even with our fallible means, it is perceived as unjust when someone perceived to be guilty goes free; imagine the much greater outrage if the jury could not plead human fallibility. So you've unintentionally hit on exactly the Catholic objection: to accuse God of resorting to a legal fiction is to impute either fallibility or dishonesty to God. As an omniscient and perfectly truthful judge, God literally cannot utter a judgment that is not objectively true, and the Scriptural witness to the truth of God's utterances is quite simply undeniable.

d) Justification by faith would only be fictitious if it pretended that the sinner were actually righteous. But what it means is that the good credit of Christ’s perfect righteousness is attributed to the sinner by virtue of the solidarity of Christ with his people in election and redemption. So it is not a groundless attribution. God justifies the sinner on just grounds—the merit of Christ (Rom 3:24-26).

CC: This is a valid objection, but it weakens the argument for imputed justification substantially. If sin is solely a matter of one's legal standing, that would make the person actually righteous, not righteous by imputation. On the other hand, if sin is ontological, then the judgement would either be false or the person would have to be made righteous. In either case, the person would be righteous in his own right, not by virtue of imputation.

e) Since it is God’s law that must be satisfied, shouldn’t he have the first and final say in how his law is to be honored? If God tells us that the terms of his broken law can be met on behalf of the elect by the vicarious merit of his Son, who is the Catholic to slander this as a legal fiction? Doesn’t the divine legislator appreciate the moral requirements of his law for man? The obligation of the law is an obligation to God? Isn’t God in a position to say how that obligation may be met? Doesn’t the divine lawmaker enjoy a measure of discretion in stipulating what form of recompense is appropriate? The Catholic charge is presumptuous in the extreme.

CC: Not at all. If the divine law says that a kinsman can voluntarily pay a price to redeem someone, that justice can be satisfied by either punishment or payment, then Christ's merciful sacrifice also satisfies justice (as St. Anselm argued). The point is that if salvation is a matter of legal standing, and the law says that payment sets someone free from the sentence, then the person is actually righteous (there's no need for imputation).

f) If alien righteousness were a legal fiction, then alien unrighteousness is also be a legal fiction. The Bible teaches a triple imputation: the demerit of Adam is imputed to his posterity, the demerit of his elect posterity is imputed to Christ, while the merit of Christ is imputed to the elect. So if the Protestant doctrine of justification were fallacious, that would further falsify original sin, and also invalidate the role of Christ as the sin-bearer for his people. Deny justification by faith and you’re committed to denying the Lamb of God, for sola fide and the Agnus Dei go hand in hand.

CC: This response fails against the Catholic argument for two reasons. First, original sin in Catholic theology is actual, not imputed. Second, we reject the idea that demerit is imputed to Christ in any respect; our interpretation of "made sin" and "made a curse" and "bore our sins in His body" is strictly that He was a sacrificial offering for those purposes, not that they counted in any way against Him. Consequently, Catholic theology uniformly rejects all three forms of imputation.

g) Trent’s attack on justification by faith treats theology as it were an exercise in creative writing. If you don’t like the way the story ends, you just rewrite it. But the Protestant theologian is not at liberty to write an alternative ending to revelation.

CC: Again, the objection is to self-contradictory interpretations of Scripture, not to some "outside standard."

h) When the Catholic charges sola fide with positing a fictitious merit, we can counter that the Catholic posits a fictitious God. What does it reveal about his doctrine of God when his doctrine of justification amounts to saying, in effect, “Look, Lord, I can never pay you back in full, but I can pay you 59¢ on the dollar if you will agree to write off the remainder of the debt”? Does this represent a serious conception of God? Doesn’t it reduce the object of faith to a toy God, a pet God, a pocket God—no better, really—than a glorified rabbit’s foot? The notion of a God who can be bought off by petty brides is typically pagan.

CC: But Catholic theology says no such thing. The notion of "merit" is rigorous in the sense that it is meant and bears no relationship to the account Mr. Hays gives here.

While the truth of this triple imputation is an article of faith secured by the authority of God’s word, I would add that there is nothing notably counter-intuitive about it.

CC: In fact, it is so intuitive that I wonder what the need is for contriving the entire scheme of imputation.

Regarding the solagratuitous aspect of grace, Hays notes the following:
The Augustinian tradition affirmed that justification was by grace alone. For this reason, ecumenists sometimes claim that both Rome and Geneva affirm the sola gratia character of justification. But this is misleading:

a) When Augustinians referred of the grace of justification, they meant infused grace. By contrast, the Lutheran and Reformed theologians define this grace in strictly forensic, vicarious and relational terms.

CC: I agree with this statement, but I'll note that it is entirely routine for people to view sola gratia and sola fide such that this would be an issue of sola fide rather than sola gratia. Thus, as a caveat in dealing with Protestants who state "Catholics believe in sola gratia," one should understand that this is intended to imply that good works in Catholic theology are caused solely and infallibly by grace.

b) The Augustinian tradition affirms the fully sovereign character of saving grace. However, that tradition was never codified in official dogmatic teaching. To the contrary, Rome has always struck a semi-Pelagian stance. As a consequence, then, both of (a) and (b), the comparison rests on an equivocation of terms.

CC: I find that difficult to believe, given the Canons of the Council of Orange.

I have one brief remark about the following:
ix) COORDINATED WITH SANCTIFICATION. Catholic theologians charge the Protestant doctrine with being antinomian. This calls for a couple of comments:

a) The very same accusation was leveled against Paul’s doctrine of justification (Rom 3:31-32; Gal 2:17). It is only because the Protestant version is true to the Pauline paradigm that it is even vulnerable to this charge.

CC: The Catholic argument would be that the charge would have been valid if St. Paul were actually teaching Protestantism. However, I think your response (b) is adequate to responding to that charge.

I still have to read through the synopsis of Trent itself. I likely will have a few things to say about that as well, but I hope that what I said so far is useful.