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.

Just say No to football

This is the reason I am no longer a fan of professional American football. It is one thing to be ignorant of the potential risks associated with an activity; it is another thing entirely to actively suppress for twenty years the fact that your employees are at a much higher risk of suffering life-long brain injury.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Lords of Football are pushing for an 18-game season and weekly Thursday night games, both of which will put their employees at even greater risk of injury through fatigue. So once again we see that the league is less concerned about player health and safety than about making the Big Bucks.

I have been a Denver fan for more than 30 years. I bleed orange (and I have had plenty of opportunities to shed that blood in their various championship game debacles), but I can no longer in good conscience support an enterprise whose owners have a two-decade history of actively suppressing evidence of danger and real harm to their employees.

To make matters worse, the Broncos have been caught twice at cheating the salary cap. One time might be excused as a mistake; two violations in three years make a pattern. My favorite team has cheated. I feel tainted in rooting for them: “Let’s hear it for the cheaters!” is not exactly the kind of slogan I want to rally around.

Duty and Justice

Yet another Old Testament passage which presents difficulties for the Protestant view of sola fide (for Reformed Protestants, at any rate) comes up at the end of Ecclesiastes:

To sum up the whole matter: fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the duty of everyone. For God will call all our deeds to judgement, all that is hidden, be it good or bad. [12:13-14; NJB]

The obvious problem is that our passage informs us that God will judge all our deeds. This is not consistent with the Protestant’s sola fide. That may not be a problem for those Protestants who believe that Israel was saved by a different means or covenant than Christians, but it absolutely is a problem for the Reformed, for they say that Israel was saved in the same way that we are. Thus we must infer that on the Reformed view Israel was saved by faith alone just as Christians are. And therein lays the problem.

The idea that God judges us according to our works is inconsistent with sola fide. It is not at all clear that this inconsistency can be overcome in a coherent way; at any rate, I know of no way to do so. If God judges our deeds, then it seems clear that our eternal destiny is contingent in some manner upon what we have done and not solely on whether we have faith. The Reformed are clearly mistaken.

This becomes even more clear when we contemplate the fact that the passage says fearing God and keeping His commandments is our duty. Let us consider a thought experiment. Suppose I am in the army and my CO orders me to fly to the moon by flapping my arms, and to do so immediately. I of course am unable to comply, and so my CO has me arrested and court martialed. For purposes of this illustration let us suppose that my CO isn’t disciplined for this himself but rather that his charges are taken seriously by the military court.

The question is: would it in any way be just for me to be convicted for insubordination (or whatever the appropriate military offense for disobeying a superior officer is called)? The answer is and must be and can only be a resounding NO. Why? Because my CO has ordered me to do something that is obviously impossible. There would be no justice in my conviction on such charges; there could only be injustice (we shall likewise assume that I respond to my CO in a lawful and respectful way with respect to his impossible orders).

What is the point of this digression? The author of Ecclesiastes (presumably Solomon) declares that our duty is to fear God and keep His commandments. If God commanded something that was impossible for us to do, would He be just in condemning us for failure? No, He would not. There is no justice in condemning people for failing to do what they are incapable of doing. So the point of this little digression is that Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 exposes the error of the Reformed doctrine of “total depravity.” According to the Reformed (as we have previously seen), we are incapable of doing good. Therefore if God condemns us for our failure to do what we cannot do, He would be unjust. The Reformed view is fundamentally broken because it requires God to be unjust, which is impossible.

Sola Fide Hide and Seek in Psalm 62

Today we have yet another entry in our increasingly long list of Bible passages that just plain do not fit the Protestant idea of sola fide:

Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: Strength belongs to God, to you, Lord, faithful love; and you repay everyone as their deeds deserve. (Ps. 62:11-12, NJB)

It is worth conceding that this may not present a problem for Protestants who deny that Old Testament believers were saved in the same way that we are: by faith in the (coming) Messiah. But for the Reformed, who do say that OT salvation worked the same as for us, this passage presents a problem. Once again it speaks of how our deeds will be the measuring stick by which our heavenly reward is measured. On the Reformed Protestant view this is impossible, really: if Israel was saved by faith alone in the coming Messiah, then this Psalm completely misrepresents things. It speaks of repayment and getting what our deeds deserve, not of a paradise attained by faith alone. I know of no way to make the two fit together. The Reformed view is mistaken.

Big Circumstance(s)

I like this snip from St. Francis de Sales:

But would you know, Philothea, which are the best abjections, I tell you plainly, that those are the most profitable to our souls, and most acceptable to God, which befall us by accident, or by our condition of life, because we have not chosen them ourselves, but receive them as sent from God, whose choice is always better than our own. (Introduction to the Devout Life, III.6)

It is easy to go easy on ourselves when we have to suffer some difficulty or trouble of our own choosing. But when they come upon us out of the blue or because of who and what we are, it is much less fun. Our saint says that nevertheless the patient endurance of the latter is more pleasing to God when we receive them as sent by Him. Why? Because He knows best what we need. He is in the business of making saints of us, if we will let Him, and He knows exactly what we need in order to achieve that end.


I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. (John 15:1-2)

Whatever else one wants to say about these verses, I think we may reliably insist that they make hash of the Protestant view of sola fide. First we have branches which are in Jesus. There is no distinction here between branches that bear fruit and those that don’t. Both are clearly assumed to be in Jesus, and really if any doubt about this fact existed it would have far more to do with the branches that do bear fruit (because they are not explicitly declared to be “in Jesus”). What does it mean to be in Jesus? I would say that it obviously means that the person in question is a genuine believer. Does it make any sense on the Protestant’s terms to say that a person of any stripe could be in Jesus and yet go to hell? To ask the question is to answer it, isn’t it? So we really must say that all the branches in this passage are genuine Spirit-filled Christians.

Once that point is conceded (and I do not see how it can be reasonably avoided) the trouble begins for the Protestant, and especially for the Reformed Protestant. In the first place, a judgment is made about them based upon their fruitfulness. Those that are unfruitful get taken away. The implication seems pretty obvious from here: we are judged based on what we do. If we bear no fruit, God removes us from the True Vine. The consequences seem equally obvious for the Protestant’s sola fide: if we are judged based upon the fruit we produce then we are certainly not getting to heaven based solely on Luther and Calvin’s justification by faith alone. It isn’t possible.

Secondly, this passage drives a Mack truck through the Calvinist notion of “perseverance of the saints” (according to which “the Elect” are assured of going to heaven). There is no rational way, so far as I can tell or imagine, to say that the fruitless branches are in Christ in a way that differs from the fruitful ones in this passage. The only distinction made between the two has to do with their fruitfulness. Consequently it seems quite obvious here that any Christian could be pruned away for fruitlessness; any Christian could lose his salvation. But if this is so, then the Reformed doctrine of perseverance of the saints is just plain false.

Lastly, I think it is worth observing that even the fruitful branches get pruned. Even when we are doing good, and seeking to love God and neighbor just as we should, God trims us back in order to make us even more fruitful for Him and for His kingdom. In other words, we should expect to suffer in this life. This is just what Scripture teaches us in a variety of places; we will content ourselves with one or two examples:

Jesus said, ‘In truth I tell you, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land—and persecutions too—now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.’ (Mark 10:29-30; emphasis added)

My dear friends, do not be taken aback at the testing by fire which is taking place among you, as though something strange were happening to you; but in so far as you share in the sufferings of Christ, be glad, so that you may enjoy a much greater gladness when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for bearing Christ’s name, blessed are you, for on you rests the Spirit of God, the Spirit of glory. None of you should ever deserve to suffer for being a murderer, a thief, a criminal or an informer; but if any one of you should suffer for being a Christian, then there must be no shame but thanksgiving to God for bearing this name. (1 Peter 4:12-16; emphasis added)

Suffering is something that we should expect as Christians, as St. Peter hints in 1 Peter 4:18: “If it is hard for the upright to be saved, what will happen to the wicked and to sinners?” (emphasis added) And Hebrews 12:5b-6: “My son, do not scorn correction from the Lord, do not resent his training, for the Lord trains those he loves, and chastises every son he accepts.” This is the pruning of which Jesus speaks in John 15. When we are fruitful for God, we should not be surprised to experience suffering or pruning, permitted by our Lord so that we may be still more fruitful for Him.

Does this sound like fun? Well, not to me. It sounds downright intimidating, to be honest. But this is the nature of the Christian life. We are Christ’s Body, and He suffered horribly in His Body; we should not expect to be exempt. We can expect that God will reward our pains suffered in Christ, though (see Mark 10 above, for starters). May God grant us grace to suffer patiently as our Lord suffered patiently for us.

No begging at the table

Aristotle has this to say about question-begging with respect to the allegedly self-evident:

[W]henever a man tries to prove what is not self-evident by means of itself, then he begs the original question. (Prior Analytics, II.16)

For a theological example, we could point at the Protestant perspective on the canon. Some of them (I read this in a seminary textbook; sorry, I do not remember the name) are so blunt as to say that Scripture and the canon are “self-authenticating.” I am not making this up. They are not bothered, evidently, by the fact that the claim to be God’s Word does not entail the truthfulness of the claim. Others are less bold, recognizing that self-authentication is a dead-end road. RC Sproul instead makes the much less grandiose claim to “a fallible collection of infallible books.” I am thinking, though, that this is not a sword he would want to fall on.

A fallible collection of infallible books is a contradiction in terms. The actual substance of Sproul’s claim is that the Bible is infallible, but the canon might not be. But if the canon of Scripture is fallible, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that any particular book or books in the canon are infallible. Fallibility necessarily implies the possibility of being 100% wrong, and so Sproul’s claim demolishes any possibility of confidence in the notion that the Bible is God’s Word. In short, he is either hoping that no one thinks very carefully about his claim, or he is begging the question by assuming that the fallible collection managed somehow to include all and only the divinely-inspired Word of God. In any case, he most certainly has not resolved Protestantism’s problems with respect to the canon of Scripture.

The Woman of Revelation 12

A contentious subject betwixt Protestants and Catholics focuses on the identity of the Woman of Revelation 12:

1 Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, robed with the sun, standing on the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant, and in labour, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth. 3 Then a second sign appeared in the sky: there was a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and each of the seven heads crowned with a coronet. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars from the sky and hurled them to the ground, and the dragon stopped in front of the woman as she was at the point of giving birth, so that it could eat the child as soon as it was born. 5 The woman was delivered of a boy, the son who was to rule all the nations with an iron sceptre, and the child was taken straight up to God and to his throne, 6 while the woman escaped into the desert, where God had prepared a place for her to be looked after for twelve hundred and sixty days. … As soon as the dragon found himself hurled down to the earth, he sprang in pursuit of the woman, the mother of the male child, 14 but she was given a pair of the great eagle’s wings to fly away from the serpent into the desert, to the place where she was to be looked after for a time, two times and half a time. 15 So the serpent vomited water from his mouth, like a river, after the woman, to sweep her away in the current, 16 but the earth came to her rescue; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river spewed from the dragon’s mouth. 17 Then the dragon was enraged with the woman and went away to make war on the rest of her children, who obey God’s commandments and have in themselves the witness of Jesus. [NJB]

I have heard at least three different explanations of this difficult passage, but I do not think that any of them is just obviously better than the others beyond any doubt whatsoever. I have heard her described as the nation of Israel and her son as the Messiah. The thing that does not work for this view is that the son quite obviously is the Messiah (verse 5 with Psalm 2), but He was not taken up directly to heaven upon birth and Israel did not escape into the desert either at the time of His birth nor even later at his resurrection or ascension. Furthermore, it seems a bit much to say that Israel as a nation gave birth to the Christ Child when it was clearly the Virgin Mary.

A second possibility is that the Woman is Christ’s Church. This has the benefit of making sense of verse 17, but beyond that makes very little sense to me: how can the Church give birth to her Lord? Is that not completely backwards? So this has never convinced me, so far as I can recall.

A third possibility is one that I never considered until after I became Catholic, and then it seemed blindingly obvious: the Woman is Mary, the Blessed Virgin, Mother of the Messiah and according to Catholic tradition the mother of the Church as well.

Pope Francis has this to say (I think that this book is from his days as archbishop in Buenos Aires):

JESUS ESTABLISHES THE CHURCH, and he establishes us within the Church. The mystery of the Church is closely united to the mystery of Mary, mother of God and mother of the Church. Mary brings us forth and cares for us, and the Church does also. Mary helps us grow, and the Church does also. And at the hour of death, the priest bids us farewell in the name of the Church and leaves us in the arms of Mary. She is “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Apoc 12: 1). That is the Church and that is the modest Virgin that our faithful people venerate. That is why in speaking of the Church we need to feel the same devotion as we feel for the Virgin Mary.

[Pope Francis; Open Mind, Faithful Heart (p. 44). Kindle Edition]

Why do we say that she is the mother of the Church? There are two main reasons. First, the Church is repeatedly described in the Bible as the Body of Christ. If that is the case (and it must be so, in some mystical sense), then together with Jesus her Head she forms the totus Christus, and may be said to have been “born” of Mary in that Mary gave birth to Jesus.

A second reason is found in John 19:26-27:

Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son.’ Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.

The Church has long understood this as not merely the Lord ensuring that His mother is cared for, but also as associating the Church (in the apostle John) with Mary as the Church’s mother. This makes the most sense, I think, when we consider again that the Church is in fact the Body of Christ, but it is still in some sense a mystery (and not one that I can explain).

But I digress. Getting back to Revelation 12, the notion that the Woman is Mary has some strong things to be said in its favor. First of course is the fact that her Son is Jesus, who really is the one who will rule the nations with a scepter of iron. That practically settles the issue all by itself, it seems to me. But there is more to be said. We may see the Dragon as Herod, looking to kill the Child Jesus immediately (though admittedly it actually happened after the fact and not beforehand as the passage says; so there are problems with this view as well).

I do not know of any particularly good way to understand verse 5, because Jesus was not taken directly to heaven. The Woman’s son can’t realistically be anyone other than He, given the iron scepter, so perhaps some sort of telescopic compression of time occurs in what John sees here.

At any rate, it is a difficult passage. I think a strong case can be made for the identification of the Woman as the Blessed Virgin Mary, but it is not without problems that I am equipped to surmount. Revelation is a book that defies explanation at times, it seems. :-)

Another Aristotle QOTD

Love for others comes of love for oneself. — Aristotle

Yes, I know that I wrote about this not too long ago. But I just found this in my notes and I decided to repeat myself.

At first blush this idea just feels wrong to me: how can loving myself be the basis for loving others? It seems like narcissistic self-centeredness. Take a second look, though, and the good sense creeps up on you and swats you on the nose.

Jesus said that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Well, how can you love your neighbor as yourself if you hate yourself? There is a contradiction here that is insurmountable unless we love ourselves. That contradiction reverses what Jesus said, effectively saying (as I observed in the previous article) “Hate your neighbor as yourself.” Now obviously that is ethically perverse, and you do not have to be a Christian to know it. Aristotle knew it.

If I do not know how to love myself, how on earth can I possibly know how to love anyone else the right way? If I manage it at all, it will be a giant stroke of luck. We need to love ourselves. As someone recently said on Twitter, to love ourselves is to love what God has made; to hate ourselves is to hate what God has made. And that is just plain senseless. Love yourself, and then you can love others too.

Romans 2 and sola fide

It is a tad ironic that Luther built essentially the entire edifice of his idea of sola fide on a short bit of Romans 4, but inexplicably seems to have ignored the impact of Romans 2 on any conversation about justification. Let us take a quick look. Here is 2:5-16:

Your stubborn refusal to repent is only storing up retribution for yourself on that Day of retribution when God’s just verdicts will be made known. He will repay everyone as their deeds deserve. For those who aimed for glory and honour and immortality by persevering in doing good, there will be eternal life; but for those who out of jealousy have taken for their guide not truth but injustice, there will be the fury of retribution. Trouble and distress will come to every human being who does evil—Jews first, but Greeks as well; glory and honour and peace will come to everyone who does good—Jews first, but Greeks as well. There is no favouritism with God.

All those who have sinned without the Law will perish without the Law; and those under the Law who have sinned will be judged by the Law. For the ones that God will justify are not those who have heard the Law but those who have kept the Law. So, when gentiles, not having the Law, still through their own innate sense behave as the Law commands, then, even though they have no Law, they are a law for themselves. They can demonstrate the effect of the Law engraved on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness; since they are aware of various considerations, some of which accuse them, while others provide them with a defence … on the day when, according to the gospel that I preach, God, through Jesus Christ, judges all human secrets. (NJB; emphasis added)

God is going to administer justice. “He will repay everyone as their deeds deserve.” He does not say a single thing here about being justified by faith alone. He says God will judge us according to our deeds. All of us. There is just no way to make this “fit” with the Protestant idea of sola fide, according to which God will specifically not repay Christians as their deeds deserve. What’s more, St. Paul strongly implies that there are Gentiles who do such good before God as to receive glory and honor and peace from God. We must be careful here: it is not the case that their own works as such can justify them before God, but rather God pours His grace into their hearts in such a way that they may be saved even apart from visible attachment to the Church. See my recent post about merit for more.

Not convinced? How then does an angel appear to Cornelius (Acts 10) who, according to any definition of “Christian” I have ever heard from Protestant lips, does not make the cut before St. Peter visits him? And what does the angel say to him? “Your prayers and charitable gifts have been accepted by God” (verse 4). The angel does not even mention faith to the man as a reason why God had accepted him; rather, he said that the man’s prayers and almsgiving had been accepted by God.

As I always say, the absence of any mention of faith in Romans 2 and the first part of Acts 10 does not mean that faith is not required. But there is flatly no way to read these passages in such a way as to say that one’s deeds have no effect on his standing before God. There is a certain form of sola fide taught by the Council of Trent that coheres with these portions of the New Testament, but the Protestant version just will not make the cut.

Oh, one last thing before I go: Did you ever notice how these two passages wreak holy havoc on the Reformed doctrine of “total depravity”? I’m just sayin’…