Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Hays on Trent

Thanks to Steve Hays for a thoughtful reply. I regret to disappoint him by saying that I am a nobody in the Catholic apologetic community, so he's probably lost points by interacting with me instead of, e.g., Dave Armstrong or Art Sippo, who have a much larger following. But I think my audience might be conducive to the discussion he wants to have, so here goes. For the most part, I don't have a great deal of disagreement, since the point was to clarify rather than contend. I begin with the following:

i) Prejean seems to be using The Conference of Ratisbon to gloss the Tridentine doctrine of justification. Taken by itself, and Prejean offers no supporting argument, this commits the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. The fact that this Conference preceded Trent does not imply that Trent formally codifies or ratifies any of the formulations floated at Regensburg. In fact, the Church of Rome generally prefers to conduct interfaith dialogue at an informal level since that does not officially commit it to whatever the dialogue-partners happen to agree on. Even at an Ecumenical Council, there are preliminary debates over one bishop’s draft language and another bishop’s draft language. What is actually finalized is frequently a linguistic and theological compromise which differs from either. Prejean needs to offer a separate argument showing, by direct historical evidence, that the Tridentine Fathers did, in fact, make use of Regensburg in their preliminary deliberations and/or final formulations.

ii) Was there “miscommunication” on this point? If there was miscommunication, then it must be a case of mutual miscommunication, for Trent anathematizes a number of theological propositions which it clearly identifies with Protestant theology. In some instances, at least, it accepts the Protestant characterization of Catholic doctrine as accurate for purposes of reaffirming traditional Catholic doctrine in the teeth of the contrary Protestant positions. So the thesis of “miscommunication” can only be underwritten at the cost of attributing error to Trent.

CC: I'm not sure that it would be fair to characterize my position as an "argument" proper; I was essentially stating why it wouldn't be crazy to think that Regensburg fairly reflected the true state of Catholic theology at the time. Could that be wrong? Sure, it could be, and similarly, the theology of merit coming from St. Augustine and St. Anselm might not have been reflected in Trent. The point was to elucidate why I don't find Hays's argument from the use of the term "merit" to refer exclusively to strict justice all that convincing, and those are all pieces of evidence that tend to reduce the probability of that conclusions. Similarly, I don't think the idea that Regensburg was a relatively typical example of Catholic theology on justification is all that controversial, or at least, it's not the sort of claim that one would be unreasonable to accept as a default absent evidence to the contrary. If it is, then one wouldn't even expect to find evidence or clarifications on that subject in deliberations, because it would have simply been taken for granted. In the end, these are all judgments of probability, so the notion that one doesn't have an airtight demonstration of a conclusion doesn't particularly bother me. I'm content to let the reader decide.

Regarding the condemnations of Trent being directed to Protestant theology, keep in mind a few things. First, Protestant theology wasn't anything like a monolith at the time. There were Protestant groups ranging all the way to flaming antinomianism (condemned by the Magisterial Reformers, of course), and Trent was aimed at all of them. Second, Trent also condemned probable (or even possible) misinterpretations of Protestant theology in several instances. Third, infallibility only applies to what the council actually condemned, not how well it identified the group it was trying to condemn or even how well that condemnation accomplished its intent. Like badly drafted laws, what ends up written may convey the intent poorly or not at all (in fact, the action of the Holy Spirit could have been to thwart the council from condemning something that it oughtn't have), so while intent and circumstances are relevant, they aren't entirely dispositive. Suffice it to say that I think your conclusions in (ii) are stronger than is warranted.

iii) But let us assume, for the sake of argument, Prejean’s own interpretation. From a Reformed standpoint, the key distinction is that saving grace is qualitative, not quantitative. To quantify grace by saying that grace is resistible for some, but not for others, or that grace is resistible at one stage of the process but irresistible at another phase, is beside the point as far as Reformed theology is concerned. For we still end up with synergism rather than monergism. When all is said and done, man remains a free variable in the economy of salvation.

CC: Certainly, this is a real point of difference. From the Catholic perspective, there isn't a logical conflict entailed between the work of salvation being wholly of grace and truly free, so we don't bother with the question, although there has been speculation about the exact causal mechanism (Thomism, Molinism, Augustinianism, etc.).

iv) By the same token, Reformed theology doesn’t regard justification as a “process.” That’s the point. Justification is a divine act, not a historical process. Sanctification is a process.

v) True, the will is active in the sense that justification is contingent on faith, and faith is a human mental act. But Reformed theology would say that the object of grace is passive in regeneration, and that faith is a reflexive result of regeneration. So you still have no synergism.

CC: You state the differences admirably.

vi) What does it means to say that the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Spirit, moves and excites the will “toward” assent to grace. Does it always and actually secure such assent, or does it merely move the will “toward” assent, without necessarily securing its assent?

CC: It always secures God's intent for the moving. It may be that God moves the will toward assent, knowing that there will be resistance and it will not succeed, hence condemning the person by the person's own will. In other words, the operation of free will never thwarts God's sovereignty.

vii) This form of words also suggests a transitional state when the will neither giving nor withholding assent, but in a neutral state short of either assent or nonassent. From a psychological standpoint, Prejean has postulated a highly artificial state of mind—something that isn’t quite “A” or “non-A.” Sounds like psychobabble to me.

CC: Sounds like St. Maximus's Christology to me. I've never been a big fan of Aristotle's "prime mover" anyway, which is, incidentally, why I thought it extremely odd that you saw free will as a response to fatalism, rather than fatalism as invention of Greek philosophy.

viii) And while Prejean speaks of “prevenient grace,” the actually imagery is not of the will moving from grace to faith, but moving towards a state of grace. Human assent is not a direct result of grace. Rather, the will must consent to grace in order to assent to grace. Grace is not the cause of the state of grace, but the consequence or end-result of human assent.

CC: Actually, it's the cause, instrument, and result (end state) in the Catholic view, but I agree that this is a major difference.

ix) Finally, perhaps Prejean can explain how the old categories of predestination and election, in which “permitting” grace can be resisted by those who, due to their non-elect status, lack “prevenient grace,” is consistent with the paradigm-shift from exclusive to inclusive ecclesiocentrism in Vatican II and post-Vatican II theology.

CC: I don't believe that there was ever a general statement about the election of pagans who did not actively reject Christianity. The possibility of God's grace as late in life as one's deathbed has always been cherished in the Christian faith, and it is a long-standing part of the tradition that the exercise of natural virtue and reception of truth helps to dispose one toward receiving grace even if it is not capable in and of itself of guaranteeing salvation. In other words, it's always been the case that what we would ordinarily consider "good people" were capable of being saved by Christ outside of the ordinary course. BTW, the non-elect wouldn't necessarily lack prevenient grace in an absolute sense; they might fall away through their sin later in the process of their own justification. Remember that for a Catholic, grace is a more or less constant state; it's not something that's given at one time.

Prejean might object that my appeals to the Reformed standpoint simply beg the question in favor of Reformed theology. If so, I’d reply that:
i) We can’t begin to say who is right or wrong in the conflict with Rome until we are clear on the differences.

ii) In my essay I offered an exegetical defense of the Reformed doctrine of justification. And I’ve posted a number of other essays, by others, and me defending Reformed theology from Scripture. So I’m not simply assuming the truth of the Reformed faith without benefit of argument.


With all due respect to the Reformers, my primary obligation is to learn from Scripture, and to learn from the Reformers insofar as they learn from Scripture.

CC: No disagreement there. My point is that strictly as a matter of exegeting what Trent was saying, it's not ridiculous to take into account what the Reformers said, or to think it likely that they understood what Trent meant.

No, the real question from a Reformed standpoint is whether the grace of God is efficacious or not.

From a Reformed, and Pauline, standpoint that is not good enough. Note the restriction to “natural” works.

No, the question is whether “any” works of the law can solicit or earn or deserve God’s gracious favor. The Reformed answer emphatically in the negative.

CC: If the question is whether the grace of God is efficacious, then there is no question that it is; the dispute is simply over the mechanism by which it is efficacious. The notion that a person could somehow surprise God by resisting what He intended to be efficacious grace is absurd; if grace is resisted, it follows inexorably that God never intended for it to succeed. If that's the problem, then I don't see a cognizable difference in the positions. What you say about works seems to relate to sola fide by my understanding: whether justification can or cannot involve works. ISTM that the question is what grace does, how it works, rather than whether it is God's unilateral action.


Prejean is confuses imputation with identity (“So that Christ literally became a sinner”). The whole point of imputation is that it involves a relation between two parties, and not strict identity.

CC: Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. My point is that we deny BOTH that Christ literally became a sinner (which some people actually do believe, unfortunately) AND that sin was counted against Christ in any way, legally or otherwise. We deny both imputation and identity.

As to the Catholic interpretation of 2 Cor 5:21, there are weighty objections to Prejean’s identification of “sin” with “sin offering” in this verse

CC: There are definitely objections. At this point, I'm only reporting what the Catholic view is. Ditto Hays's response to the argument that the reward-punishment approach in Paul does not imply merit at all and the later argument that reward and punishment aren't symmetrical in Scripture (it may be true, but right now, we're just stating the Catholic belief).

Unless I’ve missed something, Trent, of itself, never draws a formal distinction between condign and congruent merit. This distinction is a makeshift apologetic ploy to take the sting out of the notion that we merit God’s grace. So Prejean needs to defend the category of congruent or quasi-merit as an authoritative gloss on Tridentine usage.

Prejean offers no pre-Tridentine precedent for this usage. At most, he comes up with some pre-Tridentine precedent for some possibly analogous ideas in Augustine and Anselm.

CC: But realistically, Hays hasn't provided sufficient evidence that his position ought to be the default either. He's essentially arguing that merit ought to be construed in the language of strict justice absent some indication of special usage. I happen to reject that argument for several reasons, including that the ordinary use of language doesn't bear that argument out, that there had been repeated acknowledgments in influential texts (I could cite St. Thomas Aquinas in addition to the ones I mentioned) that strict justice can never apply with respect to God, and that the cardinals at Regensburg didn't view justification in this way. I could commission someone to translate from Latin some obscure medieval theology texts and whatnot, but I think I've done my job in articulating an ordinary reason for differing from Hays's conclusion. In good faith, I think he has to concede at least that the disagreement is reasonable.

But not all tradition is Sacred Tradition. The purpose of an ecumenical council is, in some measure, to sort out mere tradition from Sacred Tradition.

One cannot, willy-nilly, pluck something out of church tradition which was never formally ratified at an Ecumenical Council and assume, with no further ado, that this supplies the interpretive grid. There are no controls on such an appeal.

CC: I'm just talking straight historical exegesis here, and I'm not plucking it "willy-nilly": Anselm, Augustine, and Aquinas were well known as the classic texts on the subject. Infallibility, tradition, and "interpretive grid" are a whole 'nother can of worms, and for that question, whether there are "controls on such an appeal" doesn't even strike me as being relevant. There's no reason to expect that there will be some standard outside tradition that you can apply to judge tradition, but that's a long, long discussion and I don't want to get into that now.

If this preunderstanding is essential to the meaning of Trent, why didn’t the Tridentine Fathers make that explicit? And in the absence of hard evidence, how does Prejean know that this was an unspoken assumption of their canons and decrees? How do you document an unspoken assumption?

CC: I would think that there are some ordinary standards that historians use for this sort of thing: the ubiquity of certain references, the historical climate, etc. Again, I don't think what I've said is unreasonable in any respect.

I’d add that we’re often admonished by Catholic writers that the preunderstanding of a conciliar degree is not normative—indeed, may even be a culture-bound mistake. The only thing that’s binding are the formal definitions.

CC: True, and what is not often added is "as those formal definitions are interpreted in the context of tradition." That's why it's de facto useless to attempt to demonstrate a contradiction between later and earlier interpretations of magisterial documents; unless the later interpretation is simply so insane that it cannot even possibly be supported by the wording of the original (and what are the odds of that?), then there's no contradiction. It's like the equivalent of the "rational basis" test in constitutional law; it requires so little that it's hard to even imagine a violation. Infallibility is a rule of preservation for tradition, not a guideline for epistemic certainty.


The bone of contention is not with Scriptural language, but with unscriptural inferences from Scriptural language.

CC: OK, then we don't think that they are unscriptural inferences; we think that they are reasonable inferences. Again, just stating the difference for the moment.

Even on its own grounds, where does what we know of Scripture from elsewhere contradict the principle of imputation? Where does Scripture say or imply otherwise?

If the Catholic analogy is sound, then God making an objectively false declaration would make him a flawed judge (like a human). I think that God as the "just judge" has ample Scriptural warrant, so if we have rightly defined what a perfectly just judge is, then the contradiction is shown.

All that Prejean has done here is to interpolate what he regards as a necessary condition of just judgment. That is not a condition he can find actually stated in the text of Scripture. He merely assumes that it must be so. Notice that there is absolutely no actual exegesis to back up his claim. So he’s begging the question.

CC: This argument proves too much. If taken to an extreme, it wouldn't let one take one's experience about what a term like "judge" means into account, which would render translation impossible. Hays provided the example of the "legal fiction" of someone being declared "innocent;" I replied that if we resort to our actual experience of the courtroom for interpreting the courtroom analogy, then the judge resorting to a "legal fiction" if he were omniscient and the facts did not match the declaration would be considered a travesty of justice. This is exactly the Catholic argument: that if we let our ordinary legal understanding inform the legal terminology of Scripture, God declaring something falsely would be unjust. The question of how much we allow out ordinary experience to inform interpretation is a valid one, but it's hardly begging the question to make an assertion from experience that one could reasonably think bears on a Scriptural image.

This is a very confused statement. What is the contrast between actual sin and ontological sin? If it’s actual, it’s personal. That makes it ontological.I don’t know what he means by “solely a matter of one’s legal standing.”

In Reformed theology, sin has two sides to it: (i) subjective corruption and (ii) objective guilt. Sanctification answers to (i) while justification answers to (ii).

To say that we are guilty in our own right does not imply that we are righteous in our own right. These are not convertible propositions.

A Christian is actually or ontologically sinful. What he is not is actually or ontologically righteous. Sin has degrees—righteousness does not, not in terms of being right with God. The standard of divine acquittal is perfect righteousness, not partial righteousness.

Actually, it’s the Catholic position which is a falsehood. For it makes partial, personal righteousness deputize for actual and absolute righteousness. These are hardly commensurate.

CC: And these are all differences in the Reformed and Catholic positions, most of which were lined out at Trent. Obviously, we think that people can be ontologically righteous in degrees without being perfectly righteous, and we think the "standard of divine acquittal" as you put it is strictly whether the debt to divine justice for your sins has been paid on your behalf. Such a person is acquitted, righteous.

This is confused on two grounds:
i) It fails to distinguish between subjective corruption and objective guilt. A payment may acquit you, but it doesn’t make you actually righteous. Indeed, it assumes that you are actually unrighteous, which is why you must make restitution in the first place.
ii) It fails to distinguish between first and second-party manumission. If a second party redeems the debt, then that, by definition, involves a vicarious satisfaction of the debt. The debtor didn’t pay it himself. He is not actually just. Rather, the action of the kinsman redeemer is imputed to his account. That’s the whole point of penal substitution.

CC: I don't think it's confusion; I think it's simply a difference. Remember, Catholic theology does not recognize a distinction between justification and sanctification; what you call "subjective" and "objective" (a little confusing for me; I would see both as objective) are cleansed simultaneously (you are declared righteous, and you are righteous). What I was saying above is that the vicariousness of the satisfaction is irrelevant; free is free from the legal perspective regardless of who pays the tab. The person is no longer guilty; his debt to justice is paid.

<< : 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. >>

Sola gratia is the general principle, of which sola fide is a special case. We are justified by faith alone because, in Pauline theology (and elsewhere), we are saved by grace alone; and since we’re sinful, our own works cannot solicit or merit God’s favor. And faith is faith in another, the resignation of all spiritual self-confidence, as we trust solely in the sole and sufficient merit of Christ for salvation.

Fair enough. You have been duly warned that others disagree.


To my knowledge, these were never ratified at an Ecumenical Council. This was just a local council.

As a general Western council with papal approval (a plenary council), it might as well be ecumenical from my perspective. The only reason it isn't technically an ecumenical council is that the East and West were still in union at a time, but it isn't any less binding on me than the post-schism Western councils.