"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Reconciling Catholics and Protestants on justification

The two major doctrinal sticking points between Catholics and Protestants are "sola fide" and "sola scriptura". I have addressed sola scriptura a number of times on this blog, because I think it is more fundamental than is sola fide. But last month I wrote briefly here about justification by faith. Now I wish to say a bit more.

According to Scott Hahn, John Gerstner once said, [paraphrasing], "If we're wrong on sola fide, I'd be on my knees outside the Vatican in Rome tomorrow morning doing penance." What is encouraging about that statement is that he recognizes that if he is wrong about sola fide, he is not only in [material] heresy, but also in schism. It seems to me that fewer Protestants are aware of the truth of a conditional of that sort. I want to focus on "initial justification" by which I mean that initial translation from the state in which man is born in the first Adam to the state of grace through the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Is this initial justification by "faith alone"?

I think the answer to that question depends on what is meant by the term 'faith'. When we [Americans] hear the term 'faith', we tend immediately to think of something entirely individual, internal, private and subjective. But in the fathers, faith is something public. It is something we receive from God through the Church (cf. Romans 10:14-15). We come into the fullness of that life of faith through baptism, which is for that reason called the "sacrament of faith". It is through baptism that we are initially justified, because it is through baptism that we are washed, regenerated, brought into the community of faith and the fullness of the life of faith, and thus joined to the Body of Christ. Yes, of course, catechumens who died prior to baptism were considered by the Church to be justified. But that was not because baptism is not Christ's appointed means of initial justification. Rather, the Church taught that in His mercy Christ granted to these persons also the grace of baptism through their desire for it. Thus it was called "baptism of desire".

When we read passages like Ephesians 2:8, we tend not to recognize that the context has to do with baptism. Reading the fathers on baptism (and they are very clear on this subject) shows that baptism is the sacramental means by which we die with Christ and are raised with Him. And that is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 2:1-7. So the faith of Ephesians 2:8 is not a private, entirely subjective, individual faith; it is an ecclesial faith, the faith of the Church in the Church with the Church. It is a baptismal faith.

Likewise, Romans 10:9 can only be understood in the context of Romans chapter 6. Romans chapter 6 is all about living in post-baptismal grace. So "confessing with one's mouth" and "believing in one's heart" is not teaching a private, individualistic, non-ecclesial act. Rather, Paul is talking about an act that is still practiced to this day in the Catholic Church. Catechumens confess to (and with) the Church the faith of the Church (i.e. now in the form of the Creed) just prior to their baptism. So the "confessing with one's mouth" Paul is talking about is a public, ecclesial confessing in the context of receiving the sacrament of baptism, and subsequently and regularly in public worship. He does not have to explain this to his readers, because they all know it, having all gone through it themselves. But in the non-sacramental context of contemporary evangelicalism, there is no such awareness of that implicitly understood ecclesial and sacramental context. And hence these verses are often interpreted in very individualistic, non-sacramental and non-ecclesial ways.

Is baptism a work? Yes and no. Yes, in that Christ is the baptizer. He is the one (through the minsters of the Church) who baptizes. He works; we receive baptism. But baptism
is not a work of the Law, but a work of grace. With our hearts and mouths we do something. So in that sense we are doing a work in order to be justified. But this work is the result of grace. It is by grace that our eyes have been opened to understand and believe the gospel that was preached to us. It is by grace that we show ourselves to the Church as ready for baptism. It is by grace that we believe and confess before the Church the faith of the Church, and thus it is by grace that we do all those things that lead to our baptism. And so we cannot boast! And yet we were not passive or inactive; it was truly our will that carried out those acts. We were not puppets being pushed by divine will apart from or without our will. But our will was a will transformed and empowered and drawn forward to the Truth and the Mysteries by divine grace.

Are we initially justified by faith alone? If we are speaking about a faith that is sacramental and ecclesial in nature, and as such includes within itself works of all sort, i.e. believing the gospel, repenting, obeying the Commandments and precepts of the Church in the Catechumenate period, willing to be baptized, and in fact receiving baptism, then the answer is yes. Such a conception of faith includes within itself the sacrament of baptism by which we are regenerated and given the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. So in that broad sense of the term 'faith', we could be said to be initially justified by "faith alone". But we are not initially justified by "faith alone" if by 'faith' is meant something entirely individual, private and separate from the sacrament of baptism (and the preparation necessary for its reception) and from incorporation into the life of the Church, a life which includes the other sacraments and prayer and obeying the Commandments. So the debate hinges in part on our conception of 'faith', whether it is individualistic, non-sacramental, and private, or ecclesial, sacramental, and corporate. The more we recognize the connection between baptism and justification, the closer we will be to the Catholic Church's doctrine on the relation of faith and our initial justification.


Strider said...

Bryan, please take a gander at Newman's sermon "Faith the Title for Justification." I'd be interested to hear about your response to Newman's reflections on that faith that brings us to Baptism. Also, Lecture #10.

Principium Unitatis said...

Father Kimel,

Thank you very much for the links to these articles. As you know, the Council of Trent teaches that "In justification, man receives simultaneously with the remission of sins all the three virtues of faith, hope and charity, which are infused by Jesus Christ in him in whom He is implanted." (D800) And that is clearly referring to the time of baptism. So when Cardinal Newman talks about [pre-baptismal] faith as the title or right to [initial] justification, he seems to be referring not to the "theological virtue of faith" that is received at baptism, but to faith in a slightly different sense of the word, the sort of faith had prior to baptism. Clearly the catechumen has some kind of faith. That is in part how the Church determines that he is ready for baptism. That fits with what he says in Lecture 10 when he writes:

Justifying faith does not precede justification; but justification precedes faith, and makes it justifying. And here lies the cardinal mistake of the views on the subject which are now in esteem. In those views faith is considered as the sole instrument, not after Baptism but before; whereas Baptism is the primary instrument, and causes faith to be what it is and otherwise is not, giving it power and rank, and, as it were, constituting it its own successor.

He then goes on to say:

[T]hough faith comes before Baptism, yet before Baptism it is not the instrument of justification, but only one out of a number of qualifications necessary for being justified. Nothing is said in Scripture of faith before Baptism, that is not said of repentance, or of the resolve to lead a new life, which also are necessary conditions, together with faith, in order to Baptism; but before Baptism, it, as well as they, is without "availing" power, without life in the sight of God, as regards our justification. After all these preparatives (as they may be called), not in and through them, comes Gospel grace, meeting, not co-operating with them, by a distinct process and with an interval.

And then he speaks of "two offices of faith", one corresponding to that of the Catechumen, and one to the baptized believer.

I do not assign two senses to the word "faith," but two offices. What is there unreasonable in holding that, whereas all we have and all we are is exalted by Baptism, the office of faith is exalted also? that, while faith is renewed in knowledge, upon Christ being revealed as an Object, it should also be renewed in power, upon Christ being imparted as a Spirit? that, as it is variously exercised in the Law and the Gospel, so it should be variously endowed also? that, when it has changed its character, it should also change its function? Surely it is not at all strange that faith, when a grace, should do more than faith when but a human virtue; when lively, than when it "willed" without "performing." Rather it is strange that faith, before Baptism, like the jailor's, full of terror and disquiet, or that of his household, vague and dull-minded,—that feeble, sickly, wayward, fitful, inoperative faith, should be taken even as a condition, except that a man "is accepted according to that he hath, not according to {243} that he hath not;" that the principle of faith is capable of great things, though it be nothing till Christ regenerate it; and that when it comes for Baptism, it is on the point of being rid of itself and hid in Him. It comes to the Fount of life to be made alive, as the dry bones in the Prophet's vision were brought together in preparation for the Breath of God to quicken them; and He who "makes all things new," and takes into Him, and assimilates unto Him, all that is "in heaven and earth," as He makes sinners righteous, their persons "pleasant," their works "acceptable," and their alms, instead of a mere "memorial," a "sweet-smelling sacrifice," so also by His presence, converts what is a condition of obtaining favour into the means of holding and enjoying it.

The faith then of the justified continues and preserves his justification; the faith of the sinner prepares the way for his justification. From the first it is a condition, and afterwards it is an instrument, its office varying in importance with its character.

I think (and hope) that I am not saying anything here that is contrary to anything Cardinal Newman says. When I speak of faith as sacramental and ecclesial and public, I am referring not so much to pre-baptismal faith, but to the theological virtue of faith that is received in baptism. So when we fill in the ecclesial and sacramental context for receiving faith as a theological virtue, such that it even includes baptism, then it seems to me that there is a sense in which one could say that we are initially justified by faith alone. But perhaps that is rather misleading, because our everyday sense of the term 'faith' is so personal and epistemic by comparison.

I'm trying to find a way to say sincerely as a Catholic to a Protestant that I too could affirm initial justification by faith alone, as long as by the term 'faith' we are referring to something that is sacramental and ecclesial (in the way I just explained above). I found Peter Leithart's connection of [initial] justification and baptism (in Romans 6:7) fascinating; it seems to create a window for common ground with the Catholic Church on the issue of sola fide, in the sort of way that I'm trying to explore here. Thanks again very much for your comment.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan