Monday, June 20, 2005

Selective quotation

Dr. Paul Owen has once again been saying reasonable things about Catholicism, echoing opinions which are entirely common among Protestant scholars (viz., that Catholic theology is defective, but not defective in the sense of actually contradicting sola gratia or to the extent of not being a saving Gospel per se.). And Evangelical polemicist Dr. Eric Svendsen has continued berating Dr. Owen as if Owen here some kind of naive moron for doing so. Now, obviously, I disagree with Dr. Owen, but it is respectful disagreement, because he at least understands what the Catholic position is and represents it fairly. Dr. Svendsen, on the other hand, can't seem to display even a modicum of fairness when it comes to Catholicism.

Svendsen says:
You see, "grace" in the Roman Catholic system means something like: "one merits his salvation through his works; but so that we are not accused of teaching we are saved by works, we'll introduce a complex but completely unbiblical distinction between 'condign merit' and 'congruous merit'; that way we can have our grace-works cake and eat it too."

In support of this assertion, he cites the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia for a definition of "merit":
By merit (meritum) in general is understood that property of a good work which entitles the doer to receive a reward (prœmium, merces) from him in whose service the work is done. By antonomasia, the word has come to designate also the good work itself, in so far as it deserves a reward from the person in whose service it was performed.

And then quotes the following analysis:
If we analyse the definition given above, it becomes evident that the property of merit can be found only in works that are positively good. . . . Thus the good workman certainly deserves the reward of his labour, and the thief deserves the punishment of his crime. From this it naturally follows that merit and reward, demerit and punishment, bear to each other the relation of deed and return; they are correlative terms of which one postulates the other. Reward is due to merit, and the reward is in proportion to the merit. . . .

OK, so this sets up the situation as if God owes man something based on his own good works. So then, when Svendsen provides the following quote, we can all clearly see that Catholics think that God owes men something when they do certain works, albeit enabled to do so by grace:

If, however, salutary acts can in virtue of the Divine justice give the right to an eternal reward, this is possible only because they themselves have their root in gratuitous grace, and consequently are of their very nature dependent ultimately on grace, as the Council of Trent emphatically declares (Sess. VI, cap. xvi, in Denzinger, 10th ed., Freiburg, 1908, n. 810): "the Lord . . . whose bounty towards all men is so great, that He will have the things, which are His own gifts, be their merits."

Oh, what clear blasphemy and deceit! God owes such men something out of His Divine Justice if they perform these works?! They can bind God by their own free choices?! Where is the Divine Sovereignty?!?!

Sounds pretty awful, until you read the stuff that Dr. Svendsen didn't quote about the difference in merit where God is concerned, which would completely destroy the position that God ever owes human beings anything:

In the theological sense, a supernatural merit can only be a salutary act (actus salutaris), to which God in consequence of his infallible promise owes a supernatural reward, consisting ultimately in eternal life, which is the beatific vision in heaven.
In applying these notions of merit to man's relation to
God it is especially necessary to keep in mind the fundamental truth that the virtue of justice cannot be brought forward as the basis of a real title for a Divine reward either in the natural or in the supernatural order. The simple reason is that God, being self-existent, absolutely independent, and sovereign, can be in no respect bound in justice with regard to his creatures. Properly speaking, man possesses nothing of his own; all that he has and all that he does is a gift of God, and, since God is infinitely self-sufficient, there is no advantage or benefit which man can by his services confer upon Him. Hence on the part of God there can only be question of a gratuitous promise of reward for certain good works. For such works He owes the promised reward, not in justice or equity, but solely because He has freely bound himself, i.e., because of His own attributes of veracity and fidelity. It is on this ground alone that we can speak of Divine justice at all, and apply the principle: Do ut des (cf. St. Augustine, Serm. clviii, c. ii, in P. L., XXXVIII, 863).

In other words, salvation is strictly a matter of God's own declaration about God's own gifts, not in the least determined by anything of our own. Indeed, by Catholic lights, such a suggestion is contradicted in its entirety by the Council of Orange. This becomes even more clear in the specific discussion of merit in the context of satisfaction and salvation [my emphasis in bold]:

Christian faith teaches us that the Incarnate Son of God by His death on the cross has in our stead fully satisfied God's anger at our sins, and thereby effected a reconciliation between the world and its Creator. Not, however, as though nothing were now left to be done by man, or as though he were now restored to the state of original innocence, whether he wills it or not; on the contrary, God and Christ demand of him that he make the fruits of the Sacrifice of the Cross his own by personal exertion and co-operation with grace, by justifying faith and the reception of baptism. It is a defined article of the Catholic Faith that man before, in, and after justification derives his whole capability of meriting and satisfying, as well as his actual merits and satisfactions, solely from the infinite treasure of merits which Christ gained for us on the Cross (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. VI, cap. xvi; Sess. XIV, cap. viii).

Now, of course, if one were ignorant of what co-operation means in Catholic theology, one could make the ridiculous assertion at this point that "personal exertion and co-operation" means something of one's self that one contributes to salvation independently of grace. But of course, neither Molinism nor Thomism nor the yet more nuanced understanding of de Lubac (see, e.g., Augustinianism and Modern Theology) suggests such a thing. But assuming that one has actually bothered to study Catholic theology in any depth, this dispenses entirely with the ridiculous notion of Catholicism as "merit theology," as if God can be obligated by divine justice to pay something to His creation (contra Mormonism and the like). Thus, far from being "unbiblical," the distinction between condign and congruous merit exactly preserves the notion that a sovereign God cannot be bound by strict justice to his own creation.

Does that deny imputed justification, in the sense of the righteousness of Christ being counted in toto to the believer? Absolutely, no question about it, which is where the vast majority of modern Protestants locate the error of "Romanism." Does it deny sola fide? Not in principle (unless you want to condemn most Reformers' view of baptismal regeneration), but most Protestants would say that the denial of imputed justification implicitly has that effect. These are respectful and responsible disagreements that I can readily understand, and I will accept that kind of reasonable disagreement all day and all night. But Catholic theology does not deny sola gratia, and the assertion that we are attempting to disingenuously mask such a denial is preposterous.

In fact, in perhaps the most ironic twist of this entire discussion, Catholics believe that we are saved by works in exactly the same way that Dr. Svendsen does (Svendsen says, I myself have gone on record stating that we are ultimately saved by works.... Works are a necessary part of ongoing sanctification after one has been declared righteous; and if any man who claims Christ does not have them, he should seriously question his own salvation.). According to Svendsen, the only difference drawn between Svendsen's view and the Catholic view is that "[Svendsen is] careful to distinguish between justification (the specific entry point at which we gain right standing before God) and salvation (the broader umbrella term under which a lot of other things fall, including justification)." But to be consistent with that distinction, he has to condemn the Reformers' view of baptismal regeneration just as surely as that of Catholicism. In fact, one wonders if he hasn't already given up the game on imputed justification by this admission, because he is arguing that sanctification is essential for salvation.

UPDATE -- In light of the conversation that I have had with Dr. Svendsen in the comments section of that thread, I am compelled to retract my previous assertion that his stance is irrational, because it appears to me that he is quite sincerely trying to understand the position. In this case, I would prefer to charitably place fault on the expositor, acknowledging that what appears clear may not be clear to the unfamiliar, and it is ordinarily unfair to berate one's audience for explaining things in an obtuse manner. That doesn't say that my reasons for holding that Catholics actually uphold sola gratia have become any less serious, but I do not question that Dr. Svendsen is sincere in saying that he does not understand how I (or Dr. Owen, for that matter) take that view from Catholic statements of dogma, which means I ought to find a better way to explain it.