Justified by … what?

Here is what Jesus says.

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36-37, RSV2CE)

Nothing is said here about sola fide. Instead Jesus says we will be justified (or not) based upon our words.

Let us be generous and concede that this passage does not eliminate the necessity of faith. But another thing it flatly doesn’t do is teach justification by faith alone. What we do and say matters for our eternal destiny, even for Christians.

How to become a child of God

Here is what the Lord Jesus says about the way that one becomes a child of God:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45, RSV2CE; emphasis added)

The phrase so that is an adverbial particle that expresses purpose in Greek, as is indicated by the English above: in order to be a son of God you must love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. He does not say “so that you can remain a son of God” nor “so that you can show you are a son of God, but rather so that you may be a son of God.

Obviously this passage does not play well with the Protestant idea of sola fide. There is nothing about faith in this passage, and certainly nothing about faith alone. As we have said before, this doesn’t mean that faith is irrelevant: that would be an argument from silence. But we can say that our works are associated with our justification before God in some way, because that is just what is said in the passage above. It does not seem that one can reasonably say that Christ is talking about something that happens after justification, because the language of the passage refers to purpose and not to result.

Reconciliation and the Visible Church

The CCC says in §1445:

Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.

Reconciliation with God and with the Church go together. You can’t have one without the other. Why is that? The answer, I think, is to be found in the Incarnation, and particularly in the doctrine that the Church is the Body of Christ. There is no controversy associated with the idea that the Church is Christ’s Body; it is repeatedly proclaimed to be true many times in the New Testament, as for example in Ephesians 5:29-30:

A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because we are parts of his Body. (NJB; emphasis added)

This being the case, it ought to be obvious why exactly reconciliation with the one cannot be separated from reconciliation with the other: In Christ, the Son of God has taken on a human nature forever. Consequently reconciliation and union with the one necessitates the same with the other.

This seems relatively uncontroversial for anyone who accepts the orthodox dogmas of the Incarnation. But it becomes a bit more interesting when we ask exactly how one is reconciled with God and the Church? Jesus tells us:

If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained. (John 20:23, NJB)

In short, reconciliation with both God and the Church is accomplished through one and the same act: the priestly sacrament of penance, confession or reconciliation. But this fact demands a follow up: who is empowered to perform the sacrament? The same passage from John’s gospel answers this question as well: the priests of Christ’s Church have the authority from Him to perform this sacrament.

If this is the case then it goes without saying that Christians and those who want to be Christian must be able to identify His Church, and this implies that His Church must be visible. All this is a long way of saying that reconciliation with Christ and His Church — as the Catechism says are mutually necessary — makes the Protestant doctrine of the invisible church rationally impossible. Why? Because if the Christian (or prospective Christian) is unable to identify where the Church actually is, he has no certain access to the reconciliation that Christ promises in John 20. The Protestant may object that he may confess to God directly, but that act only accomplishes half of what the Church says is necessary and half of what seems logically required by the Incarnation: reconciliation with the Church is no less necessary than reconciliation with God. They go together. But the idea of the invisible church offers the Christian no certainty about that reconciliation. This being the case, it seems clear that the Protestant doctrine does not pass the smell test.

Thwarting God’s Will

Presbyterians and other Reformed folk like to use the acronym TULIP as a thumbnail for certain views they hold which are at least somewhat unique among Protestants (at least when held together). The I refers to their belief in Irresistible grace, according to which the Elect are inevitably compelled (not, perhaps, a word they would apply, but I think that it fits) to receive the grace of God and consequently are absolutely assured of salvation.

When we consider the pages of Scripture, however, the picture is considerably more blurry.

All the people who heard him, and the tax collectors too, acknowledged God’s saving justice by accepting baptism from John; but by refusing baptism from him the Pharisees and the lawyers thwarted God’s plan for them. (Luke 7:29-30, NJB; emphasis added)

How can God’s plan for their redemption be thwarted by them if the I in the TULIP is true? I submit that the Reformed schema is a poor explanation for passages like the one above, as well as this one:

today you must make up your minds whom you do mean to serve, whether the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now living. As regards my family and me, we shall serve Yahweh. (Joshua 24:15, NJB; emphasis added)

There are quite a few passages like the latter, and they are difficult enough, but Luke 7:29-30 presents quite a different problem, because there we see men who are said to thwart God’s plan. How can this be reconciled with the Reformed schema? I do not see how it can.

But it is not as though the Reformed are entirely wrong with respect to predestination, something that the Catholic Church likewise affirms. The Church also affirms human free will, however. It would, after all, be unjust to be condemned for actions over which one has no genuine control. How can these two be reconciled? In the end, we may simply have to say that it is a mystery which we receive by faith because God has revealed both to be true.

St. Thomas Aquinas offers one way of integrating the two, in the Summa Theologiae and the Summa contra Gentiles. He proposes that God’s providence is worked out in accordance with the natures of His creatures, not contrary to them. So rather than compelling us, Aquinas would say, God works out His purposes for men by means of their free wills. How exactly that can be remains a mystery still (at least to me), but it makes sense that God works with the natures of His creations, rather than working against them, to achieve His purposes.

Ezekiel and sola fide

We return once again today to our relentless (tedious?) series on biblical passages that present problems for the Protestant (especially Reformed) view of justification by faith alone. By way of overview: there are many passages that either flatly contradict or which do not seem terribly amenable to a sola fide interpretation. We are far from done yet, but the series may be found here. My hope with respect to these posts is to persuade the reader that the Protestant sola fide view is mistaken; I would be satisfied with the more modest end that the reader agrees with me that the Protestant view is scripturally problematic at the very best.

In today’s episode we shall take a look at a longish passage, Ezekiel 33:10-20:

“And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?’ Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness; and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that he has committed he shall die. Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him; he has done what is lawful and right, he shall surely live.

“Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just’; when it is their own way that is not just. When the righteous turns from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, he shall die for it. And when the wicked turns from his wickedness, and does what is lawful and right, he shall live by it. Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.” (RSV2CE)

There is quite a bit here, so for ease of reference I’ll offer my remarks in a bullet list.

  • As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked… At least some of the Reformed say that those who are “reprobated” go to hell because it pleased God to fulfill His will in this way. They will explain this by claiming that it pleases God to do this according to His “decretive will” but that according to His “permissive will” He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. They make this distinction in order to save the appearances, for unless they do so their monergistic notions of salvation break down (“monergistic” refers to their claim that our salvation is 100% completed by God, without any human cooperation whatsoever). This approach is problematic, inasmuch as it contradicts the dogma of divine simplicity (which even at least some Reformed accept) to suggest that there are two competing, conflicting wills in God. It likewise creates an opportunity for the objector to say things like “no good God would allow so much suffering in the world; therefore there is no God.” A second problem it creates is that the Reformed man interprets this verse in Ezekiel according to verses of his preference so as to attempt to maintain the coherence of his theology. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture is not illegitimate in itself, of course, but why would we not let God’s own explicit declaration here in Ezekiel guide our interpretation of other related passages? He says that He has no pleasure in the death of sinners. Why does He allow it? Because free will is fundamental to our human nature as rational beings. Yes, He loves us, but He does not compel our love in return (which would be a contradiction anyway: there is no genuine love by a rational creature where that so-called love is compelled).
  • …turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? First, this part of the passage reaffirms what He has already said: He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, so God urges them to repent. Second, it reaffirms the fact that we have been created with free will. Paraphrasing Aquinas on this subject: God’s providence governs all that occurs in creation, but it does so according to the nature of things. We have free will, and so God’s will for us is achieved by means of our free will. If we have free will but God “manages” it then we cannot be genuinely responsible for our own actions and it would be unjust (as St. Augustine says) to punish us for evil or to reward us for good. The greatness of God’s providential authority extends at least as far as achieving His purposes without breaking or contradicting the natures of created things.
  • The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness: This contradicts the Reformed doctrine of “total depravity,” according to which there are no righteous people whatsoever. Therefore this Reformed notion is incorrect. Alternatively the Reformed man might attempt to avoid this difficulty by saying that the righteous in view here are the elect, but that only opens two other lines of criticism: first, that approach would mean that (according to this passage from Ezekiel) the elect may lose their salvation; and secondly that the reprobate (the wicked in this passage, according to this argument) can actually attain salvation. Both of these outcomes are impossible according to the Reformed. So there seems to be no way that the Reformed can salvage their system of doctrine in the face of this passage from Ezekiel. At any rate I can think of no way to do so. For what it is worth, God apparently wants to drive this point home, because He goes over it so thoroughly: the righteous may “blow it” and wind up in hell, while the wicked may repent and enter into God’s presence in heaven.

In any case, this passage seems to do quite a number upon the Protestant doctrines of sola fide and assurance: throughout these verses the emphasis is that one’s standing before God is measured by what he does. The righteous may fall; the fallen may rise; in both cases the measure is the same: his works.

Knowing God

We must love God in order to be saved. It is inconceivable that those who are utterly indifferent towards Him or who genuinely hate Him will meet with His favor on Judgment Day. But in order to love God, we must know Him. The better we know Him, the better we will be able to love Him. Likewise, the better we love Him the better we shall know Him. Knowledge and love of God reinforce and strengthen each other.

In Jeremiah 22:15-16, God tells us one element of what it means to know Him. Addressing Jehoiakim king of Judah through the prophet Jeremiah, He says this about Jehoiakim’s love for the external trappings of royalty (his “passion for cedar” to build a palace for himself) as compared to his father Josiah’s example:

Are you more of a king because of your passion for cedar? Did your father go hungry or thirsty? But he did what is just and upright, so all went well for him. He used to examine the cases of poor and needy, then all went well. Is not that what it means to know me? Yahweh demands. (NJB; emphasis added)

One thing which shows that we know God is our concern for justice for the poor—for the common good, not just for the wealthy. The inference we are forced to draw from what God says here is that if we neglect the poor and needy, if their claims for justice are not met, then we do not know God. But if we do not know Him we cannot possibly love Him. And if we do not love Him it is absurd to pretend that we are justified before Him.

In short: this brief passage from Jeremiah betrays once again that the Protestant’s notion of sola fide is false. What we do in this life does matter. We cannot pretend to have faith in a God we do not even know, and we are told that we don’t know Him if we do not behave in certain ways (in this case—and likewise in the Epistle of St. James, by the way—by caring for and giving justice to the poor). How then is it possible for the Protestant’s justification by faith alone to be correct? I do not see how. To the contrary: we must have faith and we must show that we know and love Him by what we do.

Musings on an idiom

Internet Catholic and Protestant pugilists have had plenty of “fun” for a long time quarreling about Matthew 16:18:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (RSV2CE)

I am not going to sit here and tell you that anything that I have to say here will settle the arguments. That would be silly of me. What I am going to present, though, is something that I cannot recall having seen discussed elsewhere before. I do not pretend to any innovation in what I am offering here; I am pretty sure that someone must have made this observation before. After all, New Testament has been studied for two millennia or so. :-) The most I will say is that I have not seen it before, which surely says more about me than what the history of biblical studies actually holds.

Let us compare part of Mt. 16:18 with the following from the Gospel of St. John:

 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51, RSV2CE)

This verse is a subject of controversy as well, but I do not think that the disputes about it dwell much on what I shall say here. The thing that I find interesting is the use of the demonstrative this in the two passages: this rock and this bread. What I would like to observe is that the usage of this construction in the two verses is basically identical, and that this fact ought to tell us something about how to interpret it. This is a case, as it were, of letting Scripture interpret Scripture. Let me explain.

In John 6:51 it is very obvious what this bread is referring to: it is referring back to the “living bread” mentioned earlier in the sentence. My suggestion is that the usage in Matthew 16:18 is the same: “this rock” refers back to the “rock” mentioned earlier in the sentence. The semantic significance of this in Matthew seems obvious: Peter really is the rock Jesus identifies as the one on which He will build His Church.

Obviously it cannot be as simple as that. There is a tiny bit of complication in the Greek gender endings of the two usages of rock: Petros vs. Petra. I have three replies to that. First off, given the comparable construction in John 6:51 (where the meaning is pretty obvious), it seems unnecessary to suppose that the Lord is injecting a new and previously undisclosed secret referent into the sentence in Matthew. More than unnecessary: it seems like special pleading to avoid something the interpreter does not wish to see. Secondly, as many have said, the gender difference between the two nouns seems like a non-starter given the fact that Petra is feminine and consequently cannot serve as Simon’s new name. So it only makes sense that the genders do not match. But that opens up the old can of worms that I am unable to resolve better than others, so I will not belabor the point here. Lastly, I think we have good reason for believing that Petros and Petra are Greek translations of something that was actually said in Aramaic (where, if memory serves, the gender issue does not exist). Why? Because that is what he is called by St. Paul repeatedly, and it is also said of him in John 1:42. So we have two external witnesses to the name having been given in Aramaic. Given these facts, I do not think that there is a genuine gender difference intended in Matthew 16:18 but rather one necessitated by translation.

My notion about the this (noun) construction in John 6:51 and Mt. 16:18 may not satisfy everyone, but it seems to me to support the Catholic belief that Peter is the Rock of the latter passage.

The Catechism and what really matters

Why did the Catholic Church produce a catechism of several hundred pages’ worth of information? What is the point of that? Is anyone going to remember everything that it says? Of course not. There is way too much there for that to be a practical goal. So let us acknowledge one thing from the outset of this post: the purpose of the Catechism is not to enable Catholics (or anyone else) to stuff their heads with a bunch of facts and ideas. Those facts and ideas are of course valuable, but the book is entirely impractical for the chore of pouring that much information into people’s heads.

Why do it, then? This is not the first time the Church has done it, either. One of the fruits of the Council of Trent was another catechism of — yes — several hundred pages.

So, if the Church does this, and it isn’t for the purpose of memorizing everything in the book, why then do they do it? Despite the fact that millions of laymen have read/are reading the Catechism, it’s worth pointing out that we are not the primary audience intended for either the Catechism of the Council of Trent or for the current Catechism of the Catholic Church. For the earlier catechism, the intended audience consisted of pastors:

Hence, before we proceed to develop in detail the various parts of this summary of doctrine, our purpose requires that we premise a few observations which the pastor should consider and bear in mind in order to know to what end, as it were, all his plans and labours and efforts are to be directed, and how this desired end may be more easily attained.

(Roman Catechism, Introduction)

We see the same thing with the new Catechism:

This work is intended primarily for those responsible for catechesis: first of all the bishops, as teachers of the faith and pastors of the Church. It is offered to them as an instrument in fulfilling their responsibility of teaching the People of God. Through the bishops, it is addressed to redactors of catechisms, to priests, and to catechists. It will also be useful reading for all other Christian faithful.

(CCC §12)

So these big fat books were not written with you and me in mind as the primary audience. We can benefit from them, but they weren’t written for us. Rather, they were written for those who would teach us: our pastors and bishops and other teachers. In other words, bishop and pastors are expected to use the catechism as a handbook or guide for teaching their flocks.

There is one other thing that we should know about the catechisms’ purpose. It is repeated over and over (presumably so that our teachers can get this one idea wedged in their noggins, and ditto for us if we read them):

Knowledge Of Christ

The first thing is ever to recollect that all Christian knowledge is reduced to one single head, or rather, to use the words of the Apostle, this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. A teacher in the Church should, therefore, use his best endeavours that the faithful earnestly desire to know Jesus Christ, and him crucified, that they be firmly convinced, and with the most heartfelt piety and devotion believe, that there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved, for he is the propitiation for our sins.

(Roman Catechism, Introduction; emphasis added)

The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.

(CCC §25, emphasis added; see also §§23-24)

Catechesis aims at putting “people … in communion … with Jesus Christ: only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.”

(CCC §426; ellipses in original; emphasis added)

In short, as they tell us repeatedly, the purpose of the Catechism (both the first and the current one) is to help our pastors and bishops teach us to love God in Jesus Christ, to help us to be “in communion” with Him, to be in relationship with the living God. We cannot love what we do not know. It is impossible. The Catechism’s purpose is to teach us about our Lord, then, so that we can love Him. Why so much information, then? Well, really, we can’t even say that several hundred pages of text even scratches the surface! After all, God is infinite: no matter how much we know about Him, no matter how well we know and love Him, we are finite and therefore will always find more to know and love in God! It is not a question of dry facts I can plug up my brain with; it is a question of coming to know my Savior better and better every time my priest instructs me from it and every time I read the Catechism myself, because it teaches me about Him, and about what He has done for me, and about how I can love Him better. I miss the point entirely if I suppose that those several hundred pages are jam-packed with trivia, so that I can show how much (or how little) I know about Catholic doctrine. That is not their purpose. No. Their purpose is to put us into communion with Christ. They are intended to help us love God. St. Paul wrote:

And though I have the power of prophecy, to penetrate all mysteries and knowledge, and though I have all the faith necessary to move mountains—if I am without love, I am nothing. (1 Cor. 13:2, NJB; emphasis added)

Knowledge without love of God is worthless. It is nothing, as St. Paul insists. And this fact ought to affect how we approach the Catechism. It is not hundreds of pages of tedium. It is not a tome of mere facts. Its purpose (and ours, when we read it) is to assist us in entering into living communion with the living God.

Not by faith alone

Martin Luther famously had doubts about the canonicity of the epistle of St. James. This is because St. James rather clearly affirms that faith without works is dead faith, so that Luther’s notion of sola fide can only be maintained by means of some exegetical gymnastics. But James is not the only book of the Bible that should have troubled him. He should have been troubled by Jeremiah too.

I, Yahweh, search the heart, test the motives, to give each person what his conduct and his actions deserve. (17:10, NJB)

I can’t think of many—if any—passages of Scripture that are as unambiguous as this in associating both faith and works with our eternal reward. It is not enough to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and it is not enough to have good motives if they do not match your actions. The two go together, just as St. James said.

What God says in this verse from Jeremiah is a matter of simple justice: people receiving their due. If they have done good, then they are rewarded; if not, they are punished. Thus this verse contradicts not only the Protestant’s sola fide; it also refutes the Protestant mistake of supposing that God does not reward us according to our deeds.