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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Justification by faith: the real issue?

It's common for Protestants to claim that justification by faith is the single major issue separating Protestants from Catholics. Coming from a Wesleyan background, this has never loomed as large for me. Sure, I was taught that Catholics thought they were "saved by works," but when I came to understand what the Catholic Church actually taught (as opposed to what many Catholics may believe or have believed), I couldn't see that it was such a big deal. I had always been taught that justification involved actually being changed and not simply imputation (my tradition used "justification" pretty much synonymously with "regeneration"--at least that's the impression I got growing up). I was dubious about the whole notion of imputation, and even if it was true I couldn't see how something that abstruse could be the point on which the Church stood or fell. The living presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart--that was what I had always been taught was the main thing, and nothing I have learned in adulthood has persuaded me differently.

However, as I've been involved (on both sides!) in Protestant-Catholic discussions over the years, it's become clear to me that there is some significant difference regarding justification, not only between Lutherans or Calvinists and Baptists and Catholics, but between _all_ evangelically minded Protestants and Catholics. Unquestionably Protestants and Catholics alike experience God's grace. But evangelical Protestants have a particular way of speaking about grace that enables them to testify to it in a way rare among Catholics. And for all the faults of evangelicalism, this way of speaking about grace and salvation clearly speaks to many ordinary people in a way that Catholicism doesn't. Whatever explanations and excuses and qualifications we may make, the fact remains that thousands, maybe millions of people have failed to hear the message of grace in Catholicism and have heard it in evangelicalism. Believing as I do that to break communion with Rome is always tragic (whether or not it can be justified), I think it's important to understand why this happens rather than explaining it away. Poor catechesis may explain a lot. But then one has to ask why Catholicism so routinely fails in this particular department? The people who don't seem to have understood free grace are far more numerous than the people who didn't understand transubstantiation or the Church's moral teachings (numerous as those are these days).

For a while now I've been mulling on a possible answer. It isn't something that I hear stressed a lot in discussions of justification, at least not in quite these terms. I think the key difference between all evangelical Protestant theologies (I'm using "evangelical Protestant" with deliberate looseness--feel free to pin me down!) and Catholicism is the Catholic belief in sola fide. Not, of course, that faith can save on its own, but that it can exist on its own. Protestants generally deny this. At least, orthodox Protestants (another loose term) deny that the "faith" that can exist without charity is the same thing as the faith that saves. We furthermore deny that this loveless faith, this faith of demons, is a supernatural gift. Rather, we see it as just another opinion about religious matters, no more a gift of God than any true opinion is. A true opinion about God has more importance and dignity than a true opinion about onion soup, but they are both human opinions. The faith that God gives, the faith that is supernatural, is faith that transforms the soul and causes us to bring forth good works through love.

It is, of course, common to say that Catholics and Protestants define faith differently, and that this leads to a lot of misunderstanding. Or more polemical Protestants may say that "Rome" has no conception of what faith really is, and this is the root of its horrible errors (this is basically what Luther himself said). I'm saying more than the first statement and less than the second. Certainly this disagreement is a matter of definitions. Christians experience the grace of God no matter how they define it, and a matter on which so many wise and holy people are found on both sides cannot be one of the essentials of the Faith. And yet it may be important.

Catholics, it seems to me, think of saving faith as a composite act: first you believe (which is a gift of God) that God is God and that the things proposed by the Church for belief are true. But this faith remains dead unless it has added to it (which again is only possible by God's gracious gift) the infused habitus of charity, which lives only as long as you persevere in cooperating with the grace of God working in you. Thus, when Catholics are exhorted to believe, they are exhorted to accept truths intellectually (though, as St. Thomas said, this requires an act of the will which gives the certainty of knowledge propositions that on a natural level have only the nature of opinions). They are then exhorted to do certain things in order to make and keep that faith "living."

This division is one of the things to which Luther objected most profoundly. And I think he was right (though not in the vitriol with which he condemned the Catholic position). The real issue is not so much imputation vs. infusion, or exactly in what sense human beings can be considered to cooperate with God's grace (on both of which points I am in more sympathy with the Catholic view than with Luther). To me, the profound insight of the Reformation (with regard to soteriology) was that living faith is a single and simple act. (Simple in the technical philosophical sense: uncompounded, non-composite, irreducible.) It is not "belief in everything God has revealed" plus charity. Or more precisely, this way of defining it may be correct in a sense, but it is pastorally and psychologically false, because it divides what must (in our experience if not in our theology) remain utterly indivisible.

I don't buy the idea (even though Aquinas taught it) that there are certain doctrines you can only believe by a special gift of God. Human beings can believe just about any theoretical proposition, if circumstances favor credulity. But to place one's whole trust in Christ's grace and love (to quote the 1979 Episcopalian baptismal liturgy); to accept the searing, transforming, renewing power of grace; to throw oneself on God's mercy as a forgiven sinner and at the same time rejoice in the dignity of being a son or daughter of the King of Heaven; this is only possible by a grace that perfects our nature.

That means that evangelicals can proclaim the grace of God with a clarity and simplicity that traditional Catholic doctrine makes impossible. (Or at least normally so: I take Pontificator's point that many Catholic saints, such as St. Therese of Lisieux, have expressed this simplicity of faith. But post-Tridentine doctrine does not make this easy.) It isn't that Catholics don't experience the same thing Protestants do. Indeed, Catholics have spiritual resources at their disposal of a richness and depth that far surpass those normally available to Protestants. But these resources are of use only if you have gotten the basic message. And the indisputable fact is that very many Catholics simply don't. The simplest and most reasonable explanation is that something in Catholic doctrine obscures the message of grace. It doesn't deny it, but it makes it harder for many Catholics to grasp. When faith and charity are separated out and you are told that faith can exist without charity, but charity must be added to faith, it is harder to experience just what the phrase "believe on Jesus Christ and you will be saved" means. Furthermore, it is easier to be at least somewhat complacent about a faith that does _not_ work by charity. After all, you have _part_ of the formula. You just need to work on the charity part--and that is only a good confession away. Hence the indisputable reality of widespread antinomianism among Catholics, which goes straight against the stereotype of anxious Catholics trying to work out their own salvation. Perhaps antinominanism is too strong. I don't mean that Catholics think (as the more heretical Baptists do think) that you can be saved while clinging wilfully to serious sin. But it seems hard to question the fact that traditional Catholic societies contain large numbers of people who see themselves as devout Catholics while also admitting that they are probably not in a state of grace much of the time. On a cultural level there are certain advantages to this (it allows for a heavy permeation of the culture with Christianity even if most people are not willing to try seriously to live a holy life). And it's certainly better than a genuine antinomianism that doesn't recognize the seriousness of sin. But it's hardly surprising that to people used to that kind of culture, the message of evangelical Protestantism often seems like a light in the darkness, because (if it is not the genuinely heretical version taught by some Baptists and quasi-Baptists) it teaches the necessity of a habitually holy life. By denying any spiritual value to faith that does not work by love, it forces people to make a stark choice: either they are not really Christians at all, or their lives must habitually show the fruit of living faith. (This should, of course, be a matter for self-examination, and even then one should be reticent to make final judgments. Catholicism is absolutely right that we have no business trying to figure out someone else's state of soul, and some forms of evangelicalism have gone horribly wrong here.)

This, I think, is at the core of all the fights over justification. Is faith essentially assent to what God has revealed, to which charity must be added? Or is it a single, living, simple act, consisting of a total reliance on the grace and love of God in Christ, overflowing into the love of God and neighbor? I believe that Scripture, as a whole, teaches the latter, and that the recovery of this understanding was one of the few genuinely positive aspects of the Reformation.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Pope Benedict and ecumenism

For non-Catholics, perhaps the most interesting part of World Youth Day was Pope Benedict's address to an ecumenical meeting on Friday, in which he laid out more fully than anywhere else so far his plans for furthering Christian unity. It's not that much of a plan, really. Indeed, if I read him correctly, he doesn't put a lot of stock in schemes and programs and agendas. He affirms that we mustn't pursue ecumenism at the expense of truth, which is to be expected (and quite right, of course). And he reaffirms that the unity of the Church subsists in communion with Rome, "without the possibility of ever being lost." Again, however dubious we non-Catholics may find this, it was only to be expected.

Then comes the interesting part:

We cannot “bring about” unity by our powers alone. We can only obtain unity as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, spiritual ecumenism – prayer, conversion and the sanctification of life – constitute the heart of the ecumenical movement (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, 8; Ut Unum Sint, 15ff., 21, etc.). It could be said that the best form of ecumenism consists in living in accordance with the Gospel. I see good reason for optimism in the fact that today a kind of “network” of spiritual links is developing between Catholics and Christians from the different Churches and ecclesial Communities: each individual commits himself to prayer, to the examination of his own life, to the purification of memory, to the openness of charity.
Of course a number of issues remain for those of us who belong to separated "ecclesial communities." What about the means of grace of which we are deprived? What about the struggle of living in ecclesial communities whose orthodoxy we cannot trust (even on those matters believed in common by the Reformers and the sixteenth-century Papacy)? In a sense, Benedict's recommendations sound alarmingly "pietistic." Is it really just a matter of individual piety?

That of course is not what he's saying. The individual piety for which he calls must be placed at the service of (and be nourished by) both the "ecclesial communities" to which we belong and the universal Church toward which we yearn (whether or not that Church already subsists in any existing body). What I think he is saying is what a number of my Catholic friends (including at least two priests) have been saying to me in different ways for years. The search for unity can easily become a matter of programs and theories. At the heart of our quest for unity is a quest for union with the living Christ. And for most of us, as lay Christians with little or no power to bring about grand schemes of union, it is only as our own spiritual life deepens that we can contribute to the unity of the Church.

And, as I suggested in last week's post, there are means of grace that are at our disposal as Protestants that might not be available (or not as readily available) in communion with Rome. "Spiritual ecumenism" surely involves using those means of grace to the utmost and making them available to Christians of other traditions. If, as Pope Benedict affirms, each tradition has gifts to offer, then perhaps the best thing we Catholic-minded Protestants can do is to develop those gifts within our own traditions and offer them to the universal Church.

Of course I have no way of knowing what the Pope would say to someone like me, who has come within a hairsbreadth of conversion to Catholicism and still struggles with the possibility that this is what God is calling me to do. Perhaps he would say that for someone who has felt that tug, "spiritual ecumenism" needs to include a trip through RCIA. But I think I can claim some support from the Pope's words for the views I expressed in my previous post. The conversion for which the Pope calls is clearly not, at least not primarily, a conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. It is, as any evangelical would insist, a conversion to Christ. And the Pope is quite stunningly sanguine that this will bring about unity among Christians. He is furthermore encouraging the development of the gifts peculiar to our respective traditions. And as I argued in "The Case for Protestantism," this may not practically be possible in the context of an individual "conversion to Catholicism."

Pontificator has written a very kind and thought-provoking response to my previous post. He recognizes that indeed conversion to Catholicism involves a "radical humility," but he considers this to be necessary given the fundamental flaws in the "DNA" of Protestantism. My argument, though, was precisely that all Christian bodies have Catholicity in their DNA. By virtue of baptism, by virtue of our submission to Holy Scripture, by virtue of our claim to be members of Christ's Body, we (that is, all Christian churches) have a Catholic DNA that supersedes all the sins and heresies of which we are guilty. Our identity as members of the Body is more fundamental than our identity as divided Christians. That is the affirmation that makes ecumenism possible.

Pontificator raises two other issues that deserve separate treatment. One of them is the objective validity of Protestant sacraments. I've held forth on this in the comments section of Pontifications, but I should probably write about it here as well. The other is justification by faith. I don't have any disagreement with what Pontificator writes, and I think that my brief comments may have misled him as to exactly what I was criticizing. I will lay out my views in more detail in a subsequent post.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The case for Protestantism

First of all, I'm sorry I've been away from the blog for so long. I worked for two weeks at a summer program at Duke University, the "Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation." I strongly recommend this program, by the way, to any of you who know (or are) intelligent, serious Christian young people who will be either rising juniors or rising seniors (in high school) next summer. I've also been trying to finish up the dissertation (at last!) and have agreed with my advisor on a target date for the defense (as soon after Oct. 15 as we can get the committee together). So it's been quite a full summer.

In my last post, I outlined the case for the "breakdown of Protestantism." In this one, I'd like to sketch a case _for_ Protestantism--specifically, for why those of us who are currently Protestants are justified in remaining so. I am not trying to persuade Catholics or Orthodox to become Protestants (God forbid!). I am not even trying to persuade Protestants not to become Catholic or Orthodox. I am trying to outline a rationale by which those of us who are not convinced that we should leave Protestantism can nonetheless be faithful to our vision of the unity of the Church, and can hold ourselves accountable to the Universal Church throughout space and time.

I've said in previous blogs that I think the norm for all of us should be faithfulness to the tradition in which we were raised. This is the normal way in which human beings reach truth--not because every tradition is equally true, but because as a rule we are only able to challenge our traditions if we submit ourselves to their discipline.

All religions contain what Justin Martyr called the "seminal Word" (logos spermatikos). As a Christian, I believe that submission to the discipline of the Logos in non-Christian religions naturally and ultimately leads people to Christ (this is not a judgment on the fate of those who do not get there in this life). Christians are able to respect those who, like the Tartar king in Chaucer's Squire's Tale, "keep the law to which they are sworn," while believing that faithfulness to the seeds of truth in that "law" ultimately tends to lead such people beyond it.

So obviously when Muslims come to the point where they recognize Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, they are no longer Muslims. When Hindus come to accept the uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnation of God, they are no longer Hindus. When Buddhists accept that personal union with God in Christ is the ultimate goal of human beings (rather than a penultimate end for those not yet ready for nirvana), they are no longer Buddhists. These other religions are, in fact, other religions. Whatever points of contact they have with Christianity, they propose other ends for human existence than those proposed by Christianity. Conversion is therefore (we Christians must affirm) the ultimate goal which we desire for members of other religions, however much we may respect their faithfulness to the "law to which they are sworn."

The various traditions of Trinitarian Christianity are, however, _not_ different religions. Whatever their differences, they all propose that the ultimate end of human beings is union with the Triune God through the revelation of that God in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. The particular things they claim for themselves, and the particular doctrines they espouse, are (by their own hearty confession) subordinate to that ultimate goal. Furthermore, whatever the peculiarities of their reading of history, they all claim that Jesus Christ has been confessed for the past two thousand years, and that Christians today are part of that continuing story and claim unity with all who have truly called on Christ throughout space and time.

That means that (to take a tradition with which I strongly disagree) a Baptist who becomes convinced that baptism confers grace and that paedobaptism (however undesirable) is valid is not in the same position as the Muslim or Hindu who comes to believe in Christianity. While this person's belief is in contrast with the historic beliefs of his tradition, that tradition holds as one of its central principles that no human tradition has ultimate authority. Therefore, in a sense the Baptist is becoming more fully a Baptist by rejecting the errors of his tradition.

But enough of hypothetical cases. I am myself a scion of the holiness movement. My great-great-uncle and my great-grandfather left the Methodist Episcopal Church because they believed that it was apostate and that all true Christians should "come out" from existing denominations to form a holy community faithful to Christ. My grandparents, in turn, left the church in which they had grown up in order to minister to Christians who were outside that community. I grew up in what amounted to a house church, steeped in Scripture and in a piety focused on personal dedication to Christ. I was told over and over that we should be simply "Christians" rather than giving our loyalty to any human tradition. I was taught that we should seek for an experience of the Holy Spirit that led to our total consecration to God and hence to freedom from sin.

I now believe that much that I was taught was wrong. Our belief in the "invisible Church" led us to downplay the importance of actual, organized Christian communities. More seriously, our commitment to entire sanctification and "keeping ourselves unspotted from the world" led us to look down on the flawed and worldly Christians who make up practically every actual Christian community. Our belief that the Church had historically compromised with the world led us to despise much of the tradition of Christianity (especially since Constantine), hence insulating ourselves from the challenges posed by that tradition.

I have had to reject much of what I was taught. And yet I have only been able to do this because I was trying to be faithful to the things that I was taught were absolutely central. I was taught that above everything else I should follow Jesus Christ. I find that this leads me to treat with respect every manifestation of the Christian tradition in history, however compromised with the world it might be. I was taught that the pursuit of holiness is the only thing that really matters; I have found that the sacramental and liturgical traditions of Christianity kindle in me the desire for holiness. I was taught that the Church should be countercultural and challenge the world; I find that the Roman Communion often does so more effectively than Protestantism.

None of this is, on the face of it, incompatible with conversion to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Such converts (especially to Catholicism) often claim that they have simply come into the fullness of what they were always taught. But from my perspective this is true only in a highly theoretical sense. Allegedly all the good things of Protestantism are implicitly possible in Catholicism (leaving Orthodoxy aside for the moment). But that is not the practical reality I find. I find that the traditions of Wesleyan Protestantism foster holiness and Christian faithfulness in ways that the structures and traditions of the Roman Communion do not (the reverse is also true). The priesthood of all believers (with a consequent tendency toward democracy in church polity), the evangelical conception of saving faith as an inseparable unit (as opposed to the Catholic compound of faith and charity), the vernacular hymn-singing tradition, and the stress on the study of Scripture as a central means of grace are all valuable aspects of Protestantism to me. Perhaps everything true in them can be reconciled with Catholicism (this is more obviously true of the latter two items than the former two). But for a convert to do so implies that one is converting to a tradition in order to change it.

Conversion, by its very name, implies a radical change of heart. It implies that one's priorities have been radically reoriented, however much continuity one may experience. It requires a radical humility toward the tradition one is accepting. That is not to say that the convert has nothing to offer from her former tradition--but all such offerings must be made humbly and tentatively, subject to the new rules by which one is playing. This requires an act of ultimate trust in the integrity of the tradition to which one is converting.

It is this act of trust which I have so far found impossible in the case of Catholicism. Because it is precisely the central elements of my Wesleyan tradition that have led me toward Catholicism, I am only capable of considering conversion to Catholicism _if_ those elements can be preserved within Catholicism. I would therefore be coming in with a set of mental qualifications. I can accept the hierarchical priesthood _if_ it does not violate the underlying primacy of the universal baptismal priesthood. If I found that in practice the ministerial priesthood did not serve the universal priesthood, I would be compelled to question it. I can accept the equality of Scripture and Tradition _if_ it does not make me regard Scripture with less reverence or see it as a less central means of grace than I have heretofore done. I can possibly accept the doctrine of unformed faith if it still allows me to place my trust in Jesus Christ with the same confidence and simplicity that my evangelical tradition has taught me to do.

On the face of it, judging from the behavior of the average Catholic and the life of the average Catholic congregation, it looks as if all these things would be very difficult. Not impossible, but working uphill at every step, against the inertia of centuries and against many of the cultural and devotional patterns that have become ingrained in Catholicism. I see many converts who are doing just that. I wish them well, but I'm not sure it's an enterprise I should embark on.

In conversion stories (or stories about switching traditions, which in many cases should not be called conversion) one often finds a pattern like this: the convert tried for some time to practise his newly discovered truths within the confines of his own tradition, only to decide that this somehow violated the integrity of that tradition. But one has to question this. If the practices or beliefs in question were matters of personal taste (even if they were genuinely superior in ways that are theologically and devotionally significant), then the "conversion" or shifting of allegiance was (however understandable) frivolous and ultimately indefensible. I may prefer Gregorian chant to praise choruses, but does that justify my abandoning one group of Christians for another?

But if the newly discovered beliefs or practices _are_ necessary to a fuller incorporation in the mystery of Christ, then surely talk of respect for one's old tradition is rather disingenuous. As I said earlier, all Christian traditions claim before all else to be faithful to Christ and the Word of God. If this faithfulness involves abandonment of praise choruses for Gregorian chant, or institution of weekly communion, or adoption of prayer for the dead, then so be it. Methodists (to take the tradition I will probably embrace if I remain Protestant) claim that being Christian is more important than being Methodist. Why not take them at their word? That is to show true respect for a tradition--to challenge it to be more fully what it claims to be, rather than stuffing its good points into a metaphysical suitcase and packing oneself off to an allegedly fuller tradition (which one nonetheless finds the need to improve in myriad ways).

In this post and the previous one I've tried to outline the two sides of the dilemma that confronts me. I have no doubt that Protestantism cannot function as an autonomous expression of Christianity. What I do not know is whether it has so completely broken down that I am obligated to abandon it, or whether (as I've been suggesting) faithfulness to my own heritage and to the Universal Church requires me to remain within my tradition (a tricky point for me owing to my nondenominational upbringing) and try to coax it toward greater faithfulness (even as I submit to its disciplines and hear the voice of the Universal Church through it, however distorted by local traditions and the poisonous heritage of schism).

By posting this I am of course asking for arguments on both sides, and yet I'm tired of the whole struggle, which has gone on for ten years now. I'm less and less confident in the possibility of big answers. I think grace comes to us through the cracks in our paradigms rather than through the harmony of a grand, consistent system. A hymn here and a prayer there, the taste of God's blood in the winecup and the handclasp of an old WWII veteran whose hair has fallen out from chemo--these mean more and more to me, and confident answers mean less and less. All I ask is enough certainty to enable me to live with faithfulness and joy, enough confidence to keep me from continually second-guessing my motives (and I will tend to do this do this no matter which path I take--I can make an excellent case that either remaining Protestant or becoming Catholic is fundamentally selfish and cowardly).

I welcome your arguments and comments, but I crave your prayers.