Thursday, June 23, 2005

Wrapping up

To complete the quite civil discussion I've recently had with Eric Svendsen on the Catholic concept of merit, I will offer the following response to Dr. Svendsen's latest comments. At this point, it appears that we are simply going over the same issues again, so I'll do my best to provide a recap and summary of what has already been discussed, rather than introducing new arguments. Also, I didn't realize that Dr. Svendsen's wife had recently had rotator cuff surgery (please join me in praying for her successful recovery), and I certainly don't want to take away from his time.

In his last comments, Dr. Svendsen noted:
1. The Reformers were scholastics as well, and they still rejected the merit part of RC theology. Indeed, Trent’s statements on merit were written against the Reformers view. Hence, your earlier attempt to suggest that we’re really saying the same thing in two different ways must be rejected on historical grounds.

My point was exactly that the Reformers differed with the Catholics on imputed justification, not sola gratia. That's a subtle point, but I think that the historical record bears it out. At any rate, I concur that studying the Reformers is useful for resolving the conflict; so is the study of the counter-Reformation era Catholic theologians.

2. None of the classic RC theologians cast it in this way. When Ott, for instance, discusses merit, none of your proposed nuances enters the picture.

Ott takes a great deal for granted in terms of theological understanding. I've had to correct Catholics on Ott before. Moreover, when studying the actual counter-Reformation theologians of the time, particularly Molina, Suarez, Banez, and John of St. Thomas, it becomes much clearer that the Catholics of the time speaking of "free will" and "cooperation" don't mean anything like what Arminians, for example, believe about free will. At any rate, the question is one that would bear intensive study (which I obviously can't reproduce here), but suffice it to say that I think there is good reason in the record for the conclusion.

3. Most importantly, even if you are correct, it doesn’t change the final outcome or the ramifications I brought forward. The recipient of grace in RCism still must produce good works in order to merit salvation, in order to increase justification, and in order to gain eternal life. Whether that “merit” is your definition or the common definition does not matter in the actual practice of the man who fears he may not have done enough in the end, and who therefore ends up trusting in his own efforts to gain eternal life. That’s a works-based salvation no matter how you slice it.

This is a reasonable position for you to take, and although I would entirely disagree about the Catholic fears at the end of life based on my own experience (having been near *many* of them, I've found that they were filled with hope and trust, not dread), it's a fair argument for you to make. The reason that I am making an effort to correct what I see as an error in your assessment of formal Catholic theology is that it does make a difference for other Protestants' views of Catholics. If people share your view that any human action being part of the ordinary dispensation of grace de facto negates sola gratia, then whether Catholics view these works as wholly the outworking of grace or not doesn't matter. However, there are many Protestants (including Calvin and Luther) who thought that the sacraments were the ordinary instruments of grace, and for those kinds of Protestants, it matters significantly whether Catholics view works as solely the outworking of grace.

There was one serious gaffe in Dr. Svendsen's later comments:
You were doing well all the way up to your Aquinas quote. It's never a good idea to explain a 16th-century belief by appealing to a belief held three centuries prior to that. As I mentioned in a prior comment, I do not believe there is some kind of organic unity of thought on this throughout the history of the RCC. Whatever Trent means by merit needs to be clarified by Trent or by other relevant literature of that era.

Considering the degree to which St. Thomas was quoted by both sides in this debate, including the particular passages on grace, that's simply illogical. There's no kind of "organic unity" required to cite an authority who was specifically acknowledged by the people writing at the time to be of paramount importance. Indeed, that's simply logical exegesis. One wouldn't think to interpret the beliefs of 1st century Jews without reference to the Old Testament, even though those documents were written centuries B.C.

To mention some salient points in Dr. Svendsen's last response:
The Roman Catholics have been insisting RCism really does hold to sola gratia. Is this because there is no human effort involved in attaining eternal life? Well, no. There is human effort involved, but that human effort is initiated and aided by God's grace.

Strictly speaking, it is wholly the outworking of God's grace (Trent Canons I-IV on justification).

So then the recipient of that grace need not worry about anything regarding his salvation since it is all of God's grace? Well, no. He needs to actively cooperate with that grace in order to "merit" eternal life (although we don't really mean "merit" in the strict meritorious sense of "earn"; however, if you don't do these works then you cannot "gain" the "reward" of eternal life--not to be confused with "earn," mind you).

Regarding active cooperation, the will is "moved and excited by God" to cooperate (Can. IV on justification), so even that is by God's grace. See also Can. III on the "prevenient inspiration of the Holy Spirit."

Regarding the definition of "merit," I refer to my own previous answer:
So while it is true to say that what the Catholic has been given truly *merits* the reward, in the same sense that a ticket that someone gave me merits admission to an event, it doesn't show that the person *earned* the reward. There's a connotation of "earning" in the use of the term "merit," but strictly speaking, that connotation is not the essence of merit, which addresses the actual value of something.

Svendsen concludes:
So then, it's merely an act of the human will? Well, no. He must do works to qualify for the attainment of eternal life; and those works primarily consist of observing the sacraments, but also include all acts of charity. But you're saying these works are all of God? Well, not technically. These works are accomplished by "truly his own works"--although these are not really his works but God's; on the other hand, be sure you are careful not to consider them God's works to the exclusion of the man's works, or you'll be in danger of placing yourself under the anathema of Trent.

Actually, the works are "all of God" in the sense of being wholly caused by "the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them" (Can. XI on justification). To be clear on this point, it is absolutely critical to construe the sense in which works and merits are truly the merits of one justified through careful exegesis, so I will reproduce Canon XXXII on justification here:

CANON XXXII.-If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,-if so be, however, that he depart in grace,-and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema.

What everyone leaves out of this interpretation is "whose living member he is." They are "the good merits of him that is justified" exactly and only in the sense that the person justified is acting as the living member of Christ, performing good works "through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ." In the context of this Canon and Canons I-IV, moreover given the interpretation of the Reformers at Regensburg and the counter-Reformation theologians, it is untenable to suppose that there is any room left for human effort in the formal doctrine.

Anyway, like I said, it's been a civil discussion, and I thank Dr. Svendsen for that. I hope it's been helpful for everyone involved.