Sunday, January 14, 2007

Reformed and Roman Catholic doctrine as compromise platforms

What is the difference between the Reformed and the (Ausburg) Evangelicals on the Lord's Supper and Baptism? I'm not going to talk about the actual issues, except to say that I think some of the Reformed -- maybe not a majority, but not a tiny minority either -- actually in their hearts agree with us. I know because I used to be one; I spent about a year in a PCA church, finding nothing in Luther's Small Catechism or Babylonian Captivity of the Church to be other than what I believe about baptism and the Lord's Supper, and only vaguely suspected that others would disagree. The Dutch Reformed theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper famously said that he would rather worship with Lutherans than in a church that demanded Zwinglianism.
So why doesn't union happen, at least with such as Abraham Kuyper? Because most of the Reformed are not on our page, are in fact Zwinglians. And the crypto-(Augsburg) Evangelicals among them don't agree with us on one crucial principle: that rejecting Zwinglianism is a necessary part of affirming the Evangelical faith. And in fact it is; you can't do one without the other.

That's why the language of Calvinism is so complex -- it has to give a formula which explicit Zwinglians and inconsistent, crypto-Lutherans can both agree upon so as to remain in fellowship. Nor can Calvinist language really nourish Eucharistic devotion the way Lutheran language does -- it is always lamed and crippled.

I have the impression that the same is true of Tridentine Catholicism -- it is a compromise formula so that those with real evangelical faith can continue in the same church with those who believe in Jesus (and even all the supernatural things about him asserted in the creeds) as a mere historical fact, and who then (as a separate matter) try really hard to be good people.

I was reminded of this by a blog commenter at "All Too Common" (to whom Bill Tighe directed a bunch of his correspondents for his actual defense of Luther and Evangelicals from misrepresentation.) The Common Anglican wrote:

[Luther] did define faith as a complete trust (fiduciary), such that this is a knowledge and reliance upon Christ alone for salvation. It is much more than knowing about Christ, for Luther. As the Catholic Encyclopedia records (on Justification),

According to Luther (and Calvin also), the faith that justifies is not, as the Catholic Church teaches, a firm belief in God’s revealed truths and promises (fides theoretica, dogmatica), but is the infallible conviction (fides fiducialis, fiducia) that God for the sake of Christ will no longer impute to us our sins, but will consider and treat us, as if we were really just and holy, although in our inner selves we remain the same sinners as before. (CE, Just.)

Another commenter added:

The question I have, is how is Lutheranism -- like other forms of Protestantism -- not gnostic? Regardless of whether or not there is a complete separation between justification and sanctification in Lutheranism, it still depends on fiduciary faith, does it not? Or I should say, Whom you know?

Well, innocent as charged. Yes, Evangelical faith depends on fiduciary trust in Christ. Simply knowing Christ -- in the sense of resting on Him and His work as offered to you in Word and Sacrament -- makes you different, transforms you. That's the experience of my life, that's the faith I was baptized in and, God willing, the faith I will die and go to heaven in. Yes, that's "gnosticism" if you will, but only in the sense that not being such a gnostic makes you a Judaizer. Gnosticism found haven in Christian churches precisely because compared to Phariseeism and conventional morality, Christian truth is gnostic -- a knowledge that once you believe it, changes you.

So apparently, educated and theologically-minded Catholics have ample warrant to construe their teaching to say that those are justified who merely believe, as a set of facts that has nothing essentially to do with their lives, the church's creed, as long as they sincerely try to be a good person (as defined by Christian moral teachings) and avoid mortal sin.* Such people we all know (and they are not uncommon in Evangelical churches either, sad to say, despite the vast efforts of the church and faithful pastors to disabuse them of any saving results from a purely historical faith).

Yet it is likewise obvious that there are many Catholics who actually have fiduciary faith, who actually rest on Christ for salvation and whose works flow out of that fiduciary faith.

So just as with Calvinism on the sacraments, the Tridentine formulas on justification are compromises intended to keep in one communion those who are (from the Evangelical point of view) fundamentally non-Christian and those who are fundamentally Christian. Again, as with Calvinism, that's why it has to be so complicated, compared to the simplicity and directness of (Augsburg) Evangelicalism. And that complexity can't help but have baleful effects on fiduciary faith among the congregation, just as Calvinism damages the Eucharistic faith even of those who truly believe in the Real Presence.

*UPDATE: Fr. Al Kimel in the comment box disagreed with the phrasing here; I've made a small change, but I don't think it makes a material difference in my point.

*FURTHER UPDATE: More objections by Dave Armstrong to this phrasing which can be seen in the comment box. Let me just stipulate that this "sincerely try to be a good person (as defined by Christian moral teachings) and avoid mortal sin" is indeed seen, as the Catholic Encyclopedia says, "not, like good habits in general, the outcome of repeated acts or the product of our own industry" but rather is "directly implanted in the soul by Almighty God," "outstrips the limits of the created order," and "transforms of a faculty for the performance of functions essentially outside its natural sphere of activity." But the key point is that this faith, love, and hope are all three defined as relating to God in general: faith in the entire content of the revealed truth, love of God for all of His being and works, and hope because all of the means of grace placed at our disposal. I guess from one perspective this can look like so much more than the limited Evangelical idea of faith as being fiducia -- trust in Christ's death for me -- but from another perspective, it can look like crucially less than Evangelical faith, love, and hope.

*FURTHER, FURTHER UPDATE: I've rephrased the offending phrase from "Catholic teaching explicitly says" to "educated and theologically-minded Catholics have ample warrant to construe their teaching to say." This is clearly true, and emphasizes again precisely how traditional Catholic teachings for all their dogmatic subtlety leave open a very wide variety of attitudes, and is also in a way more alarming: that you can have people who seemingly glory in the fact that their church teaches "we don't need or want fiduciary faith."

In my comments I added some documentation:

1) I think the way I stated is clear enough, but let me just repeat:

I know that justification in traditional Catholic teaching demands not just faith (=assent) but also love and hope.

I also know that these are seen as being all three given by God's infused charity, and that without all three no one is justified.

Let me repeat, I know those two points, I knew them before, and I certainly know them now.

But what I am asserting is that in traditional Catholic teaching faith is assent, not fiducia (trust in the forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake). And here I'm still going to stick to the Catholic encyclopedia, because it is a great resource, and because it's part of the ordinary magisterium. In the words of Thomas Aquinas: faith (scroll down to "definition of faith") is defined as "the act of the intellect assenting to a Divine truth owing to the movement of the will, which is itself moved by the grace of God."

Note: that faith refers to ANY divine truth, not specifically the death of Christ on the Cross.

2) Now what is love? Well, I read here:

"a divinely infused habit, inclining the human will to cherish God for his own sake above all things, and man for the sake of God."

I find no reference to the death of Christ on the cross in the lengthy description of love in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

3) Hope is "a Divine virtue by which we confidently expect, with God's help, to reach eternal felicity as well as to have at our disposal the means of securing it." Again no specific reference to Christ's death on the cross.

As Fr. Kimel says, this definition of Hope is the closest you're going to get to Evangelical fiducia -- reliance and trust that Christ died for YOUR salvation and will ensure it. The closest, yes, but it's still not the same.

Now, it is true that the THEOLOGICAL virtues of faith, love, and hope are distinguished from the mere human, habitual virtues, e.g. "Hope, such as we are here contemplating, is an infused virtue; ie., it is not, like good habits in general, the outcome of repeated acts or the product of our own industry." To that extent, my picture of Catholic justification could be objected to as being superficial. But as a practical pastoral matter the distinction of the two is hard to see in any given parishioner. As I made clear, this is of course equally a problem in Evangelical churches. If someone wants to say "Evangelicals believe that you are saved just because you think Christ died for you personally, and then show your sincerity by living a decent life" I would recognize that as a valid outsider's description.

But the difference is, justification in the traditional Catholic teaching consists of assent to general divine truths, love of God (not specifically as revealed in Christ) and man, and hope in eternal felicity through the variety of means placed at our disposal by God -- no essential priority is given to faith in Christ's death on the cross.

Again my original point was that fiducia can actually be sort of shoe-horned in here. If you have faith -- and particularly in Christ's death, love God and man -- and particularly because Christ died for you, and hope for salvation -- particularly because you know Christ died for you -- well you've got a Catholic version of Evangelical fiducia. But such a fiducia is NOT demanded for justification, and you can write long canons and articles about justification and its component parts without ever once mentioning the death of Christ on the cross for you (as Dave just cited for justification, and you can see by following my citations for love and hope).

That's the difference. It's real.


As for my statement that in traditional Catholic teaching, the faith that is part (just part!) of justification is not fiduciary faith, but assent:

Could you please present me with an authoritative pre-Vatican II statement that I'm wrong? I've give you a quotation from Thomas Aquinas that defines faith as: "the act of the intellect assenting to a Divine truth owing to the movement of the will, which is itself moved by the grace of God." You can't seriously be saying that Aquinas is not authoritative enough to define traditional Catholic doctrine!

I looked for a similarly clear and precise definition of "faith" as it is understood in Catholic teaching in the Council of Trent, but couldn't find it. If you can, I'd love to see it.

Now, as the Catholic Encyclopedia discusses, this assent is not an easy thing, because it is about a supernatural truth. The discussion is quite interesting and helpful, about how because such assent is to something beyond our fallen natures it is difficult and always subject to challenge by the flesh -- hence such assent must be supernatural in origin.

However, even such supernaturally infused assent is not fiducia -- and the article notes and discusses fiducia precisely in the course of saying "that's not exactly what we mean". Evangelical fiducia assumes Aquinas's assent and then adds to it

1) that the assent is in particular to the forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake, and

2) that one believes this forgiveness is for me personally.

Again presenting material on how faith plays a part in justification does not tell us what is actually meant by faith.


The Pontificator concludes thus:

"I do not know how many Catholic preachers preach faith in this way. Perhaps only a minority. But what is important is that this preaching is possible and permissible within the Catholic Church. No dogma excludes it. No Pope prohibits it. This is the freedom of Catholicism."

Have I ever said otherwise? People insist on reading what I wrote as saying that "Trent dogmatically excludes real faith." No, that's not what I wrote. Josh S so far seems to be the only person who actually understood that point.

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