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

Monday, November 3, 2008

On Imitations and the Gospel

"The School of Athens"
Raphael (1509)

Earlier this semester as I was teaching Plato's Gorgias, I was reflecting on the way that Socrates pointed out the repeated parallel between genuine goods and their imitations. Of course we see something like this in the Republic, where the shadows are depicted as mere imitations of something much more real. But in the Gorgias, this imitation motiff also applies to certain crafts or skills (τέχνη) as well. The true physical trainer, for example, knows how to make one's body truly healthy. That is the craft or skill he has acquired through study, practice and experience. He requires of those who seek his services discipline with respect to eating, sleeping and exercise. But there is an imitation of this craft that seems to provide us with the very same good, yet without all the work. It gives us the mere appearance of health, but it does not makes us truly healthy. This imitation, in contemporary times, may involve cosmetics, plastic surgery, liposuction, or even anabolic steroids, etc.

Similarly, the nutritionist also has an imitator, one who offers foods that seem good, but in fact are not. Socrates describes these as including meats and sweets and pastries, etc. These foods offered by the imitator even seem to the untrained to be better than the foods the nutritionist advises us to eat, since they are more appealing to the untrained taste. But these foods do not in fact lead to bodily health; they lead to its contrary.

Toward the end of the Gorgias (521d-522a), Socrates shows how the physician would not fare well in a courtroom judged by a jury of children, where the prosecutor is one who practices the 'knack' that imitates the physician's craft. To the children, the physician's practice seems cruel in contrast with the apparent goods offered by the imitator (referred to here as 'pastry-baker' or 'cook'). If you wish to read that particular paragraph click here and do a search within that document for the phrase "I shall be tried just as a physician".

Likewise, according to Plato, the statesman who truly knows the craft of politics knows what is truly good and just for the citizens of the polis (i.e. city). His imitator, on the other hand, appeals to the citizens' [disordered] desires in order to persuade the citizens to choose and support him. He offers to them what seems best to them, but what is not in fact best for them, and may even be harmful to them.

Similarly, the philosopher is the lover of wisdom, truth and justice. But the sophist is the imitator of the philosopher. The sophist has no regard for wisdom, truth and justice, but has a knack (i.e. an imitation of a craft) by which he can persuade his listeners by appealing to what merely seems wise, true and just. In Spe Salvi 6, Pope Benedict makes this distinction between the true philosopher and the charlatan who imitates the true philosopher but does not provide true wisdom. (It should be noted here that the possession of a PhD in philosophy is not a guarantee that the possessor is a true philosopher.)

Similarly, in various places both Plato and Aristotle contrast the friend with the flatterer. The flatterer's knack is the mere imitation of the true friend's activity. The friend aims at bringing about his friend's good. The flatterer, by contrast, ingratiates himself to the other, giving pleasure to him but not aiming to bring about his good. The true friend, by contrast, will say the painful thing that needs to be said for his friend's well being. The flatterer does not do that, precisely because he does not desire the true good of the other person. He says and does things that seem good, but in fact are not truly good, but only superficially pleasing.

These examples all indicate a repeating pattern: a true good, and an imitation that mimics the true good by seeming to offer just what the the true good offers, but in each case offering only the mere appearance of the true good, not the actual true good. Satan cannot offer the true good, for he cannot give what he does not have. So his manner of deceiving must be that of imitating the true good. This is of course why his work culminates in an Antichrist. The term 'Antichrist' does not so much mean someone who is opposed to Christ (although of course he is opposed to Christ), but rather someone who arrogates to himself the place of Christ, as I have discussed previously here. This is Satan's mode of operation. He deceived Eve by offering her an apparent good that in its description seemed to be just what God had offered them as the fruit of obedience. Satan offered them a shortcut to what seemed to be that very same good, i.e. being like God (Gen 3:5), and being immortal ("you shall not die") [Gen 3:4]. Similarly, Satan offered to Jesus what seemed to be His goal, attaining all the kingdoms of the world. But it was by way of a false shortcut, bending the knee to Satan instead of persevering through the cross.

I couldn't help but wonder whether the gospel has an imitation, something that seems to provide everything the true gospel provides, but in fact does not provide the actual good that the true gospel provides. What must this imitation look like?

The imitation gospel is going to offer us what seems like heaven, because the eternal life of heaven is the actual good offered to us in the true gospel. The imitation gospel is going to use the same terms as the actual gospel. That is the most effective way of deceiving people into thinking that what is being talked about is the same thing as what is referred to in the true gospel. That is why knockoff Gucci bags have a 'Gucci' insignia. In order to distinguish the imitation gospel from the real thing, we have to know what we need saving from, in order to know what true salvation is.

I have briefly discussed this before, in my "Gnostic Salvation" paper, and to some degree in my post titled "Prologemona to the Gospel". But I wish to go into a bit more detail here.

The fundamental problem in fallen man is in his heart. Jesus says,

"For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders." (Matthew 15:19, cf. Mark 7:21, Luke 6:45).

The solution to this heart problem does not involve a mere change of place. If I go on vacation, my heart comes with me. If my heart is evil, then I bring my evil heart with me on vacation. For that reason, in order to go to heaven, I cannot have an evil heart, for if my heart were evil, and heaven were merely a different place than earth, I would bring my evil heart to heaven. And in that case, heaven would not be heaven; it would be merely a continuation of this present world in its fallen condition. No one therefore can enter the eternal life of heaven with an evil heart. The gospel necessarily involves primarily and fundamentally a change of heart, away from the autonomy and self-centered disorientation of pride, and toward God in loving and trusting obedience.

We see this in the transformation of Zaccheus, when he says, "Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much." Jesus says in response, "Today, salvation has come to this house". (St. Luke 19:8-9) Jesus notes that salvation came when Zaccheus had a change of heart. Zaccheus did not first come to understand the 'four spiritual laws' or some kind of formula such as 'justification as imputation by faith alone through grace alone on account of Christ alone'. His heart changed, away from the self-centeredness of sin, toward Christ, in love. This change of heart, according to Jesus, was Zaccheus's salvation.

The solution to the problem of man's sinful heart does not involve simply writing his name in the Book of Life, or balancing his legal account in heaven, insofar as those events are conceived of as external to man. Any proposed solution to the problem of sin that does not change the heart of man does not solve the fundamental problem of man. Pelagianism is a heresy precisely for this reason; it denies the sinfulness of the human heart. But just as a virtue lies between two opposing vices, so the true gospel is opposed not just by the denial of man's sinful heart, but also, on the other side, by any position that merely covers over man's sinful heart. This is the vice that is closer to the virtue, and thus, in a way, more capable of being mistaken for the virtue. (See Nicomachean Ethics 1109a6-12) Any proposed solution to the problem of sin that remains external to the heart, is an imitation of the true gospel, a shortcut to actual salvation.

Here's an example. In a recent conversation on this thread at Michael Spencer's site "Internet Monk", I commented on a brief telephone conversation I had years ago with a Lutheran named Don Matzat. Back in the mid-90s, he was hosting a radio program called "Issues, etc.". So I called in one time, and asked him how there could be anyone in hell, given his Lutheran view of the all-sufficiency of Christ's work and unlimited atonement. Here is his exact answer — I'll never forget it: "All the people in hell are saved; they just don't know it."

Think about that answer for a few moments, and consider the concept of salvation implicit in Matzat's use of the term 'salvation'. According to Matzat, a person can be simultaneously saved and in hell eternally. What follows from that conception of salvation? Salvation, in Matzat's version of the gospel, does not mean loving union with God forever. Otherwise a person could not simultaneously be saved and in hell eternally. Moreover, salvation, in Matzat's version of the gospel does not mean purity of heart. If a person's heart were pure, then there would be no reason for him to be in hell. This shows that in Matzat's version of the gospel, the person who is saved and in hell does not have a pure heart. And this shows that according to Matzat's conception, salvation per se is something *external* to the human heart.

This conception of salvation as something extrinsic to us is entailed by Martin Luther's notion of simul iustus et peccator which I discussed here. Salvation, for Matzat, is (or is primarily) an accounting procedure, not the transformation of an evil heart into a heart filled with the supernatural virtue of charity. As an accounting procedure, salvation is external to us, as if the external problem [i.e. the debt we owe to God on account of our sinfulness] is the fundamental problem, and the internal problem is either secondary or a resultant of the external problem. But the debt of our sin before God has been caused by our sinful hearts. Our sinful hearts are the fundamental problem, and salvation therefore has to be primarily a transformation of the heart from its perversion of curved-inwardness to the rightful order of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and, subordinate to that, loving our neighbor as our self.

In Matzat's view, by coming to know that the accounting procedure (in which Christ's merit is applied to our account) has been done for us, for some reason we then get to "go to heaven". There are two things to note about this. First, what effectively translates persons from ending up in hell to ending up in heaven, in Matzat's soteriology, is a bit of knowledge, not the cross or the celestial accounting procedures. And so Matzat's position is in this respect a kind of gnosticism (i.e. salvation by knowledge), even though it is semantically structured such that what gets called 'salvation' is all done by Christ. Contrast that with the Catholic teaching that we are saved not primarily by knowledge of what Christ has done for us, but by becoming a participant in the very life of Christ, in His death and His resurrection, joined to Him through baptism, having His very life within us, even within our hearts. This is how babies are saved through baptism from their original sin, even before they know anything at all.

Second, the conception of heaven implicit in Matzat's statement is primarily one of place. By contrast, Aquinas understands heaven primarily as perfect happiness, the climax of our union with God in charity, i.e. a union of our heart with God's, as the union of two lovers' hearts. According to Aquinas heaven is a partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), a kind of participation in the perfect community of the Blessed Trinity. We can have this kind of union with God only if we love Him. The 'placeness' or 'locatedness' of heaven is only secondary, because God, being immaterial, is not in space or time, yet we are embodied and so must be in a place.

Matzat's position has difficulty explaining how it is that saved people with evil hearts who discover that Christ died for them are thereby able to enter heaven, especially if they remain filthy rags merely hidden by a covering. According to his position we remain hidden from God, not open, free and transparent before Him. Matzat's position has difficulty explaining why gaining this bit of knowledge about Christ dying for them makes them suitable to enter heaven. These difficulties arise because this concept of salvation is an imitation of the real thing, for salvation according to this conception does not deal with the primary problem of man's evil heart; it offers a shortcut (i.e. an accounting procedure) by which antinomianism becomes the default, and "sin boldly" becomes even conceivable to utter. No more taking up one's cross. No more "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter." (Matt 7:21) No more "Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness" (Matt 7:23). No more "We know that no one who is born of God sins" (1 John 5:18).

All of that gets swept under the rug, conceptually excised out of the gospel by an interpretive paradigm that separates all things law-like from all things gospel-ish (i.e pleasant to hear). If this paradigm were applied to friendship, then only flatterers would count as friends; true friends would be considered non-friends. This law-gospel interpretive paradigm is a philosophical presupposition brought to the interpretive process, one whose resulting 'gospel' is an imitation and a shortcut. This interpretive paradigm has difficulty with verses such as St. Paul's description of Christ "dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thess 1:8) and St. Peter's question, "what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?" (1 Peter 4:17)

How does this imitation sell itself? By claiming to give God all the glory, and turning that into a theological methodology. This methodology leads to monocausalism, also called monergism. Since Christ should get all the glory, according to this methodology, therefore our salvation cannot at all involve our own will or activity of our will. That same intention to maximize God's glory drove the occasionalists in the Middle Ages to deny actual causal powers to created things, mistakenly thinking that they could ascribe more glory to God by ascribing every effect directly to God as its cause. The occasionlists thereby ended up with a position that runs contrary to the doctrine of creation. In the same way, the methodology of a philosophical theology that seeks to "maximize the glory given to God" presumes dangerously to know what it is, precisely, that maximizes the glory given to God. "We know what will maximize the glory given to God", it reasons; "God must do everything". But this presumptuous and rationalistic approach ends up blinding itself to what salvation actually is, and accepting a cheap substitute, one that doesn't actually save us (and thus, paradoxically, detracts from God's glory).

In Matzat's theology Christ did everything for us except one little (but yet consequentially enormous) thing; He did not believe for us. We still have to believe. But this creates an arbitrariness in rejecting the notion that Christ's work did not include working out my salvation in fear and trembling for me. If Christ's work did not include believing for me, and my believing is an act of the will that contributes to my going to heaven (as Maztat seemingly accepts) then there is no principled reason why my other willings must be excluded from contributing to my going to heaven. If we were truly consistent with this theological methodology of maximizing the glory to God (according to our own conception of what would maximize someone's glory), we would go all the way to universalism, and say that Christ's salvific work does everything for everyone. Already Matzat's position has difficulty explaining why suffering and death, both results of sin, are still around, given that everything needed for our being in heaven (except merely accepting it as true) was already accomplished on the cross by Christ. Matzat's position cannot explain why those of us who know that Christ died for us, are still here. God seems not to have realized that once people came to believe Christ died for them, then since everything had already been accomplished for their going to heaven, there would be nothing left for them to do until they died. We're left just twiddling our thumbs waiting to die or be caught up when Christ returns, whichever comes first. This is monergism’s reductio.

The true gospel as the good news of Christ ultimately transforms us into that which God intended us to be. Made in His image, partakers of His divine nature, we are ennobled and lifted high above all creatures, loved uniquely by God. Walter Farrell O.P., S.T.M. writes:

It would be a poor kind of love that made us in His image and left us nothing to do for ourselves; it is a divine love that sets out a man's work for a man's life and stands by a man's own decisions. He has indeed left us something to do with our mind and our will as well as with our hands and our feet. If we do these things, we are fulfilling the divine will; if we do not, we are not thwarting God but ourselves, for our eternal happiness hangs on the condition of our activity. This is not reason for despair; rather it is a divine tribute to the nobility of the nature of man. If prayer were a cringing, whining, coaxing of a whimsical God, it would debase a man; where, in fact, it is the shouldering of the burden of his own destiny, a doing of his part in winning heaven, it is the ennobling thing that has so set apart the saints from the cowardly braggarts who deify themselves and the whining cowards who dehumanize themselves.

The imitation gospel, by contrast, robs man of meaningfulness and nobility. It makes itself out to be the real gospel. Anyone who disagrees with it is described as having abandoned or compromised the gospel. Anything short of monergism is, by stipulated definition, some species of Pelagianism (see here), and hence some form of heresy. I was reminded of that again when reading of one Talbot graduate student's response to Frank Beckwith's talk there this past Friday evening. The student writes, "I'm not sure whether Beckwith is a brother in Christ, though I lean strongly towards no."

Does the imitation gospel actually harm anyone? Yes, it does. It does so even to those who end up in heaven with God. How so? Because not everyone in heaven is equally happy. Some are more blessed (i.e. happier) than others. Does that mean that some people in heaven are unhappy? No. Everyone in heaven is perfectly happy. Consider a series of cups on a table, each cup is a different size and thus is capable of containing a different volume, and each cup is filled completely to the brim. Are they all perfectly full? Yes. Do they each contain the same amount? No. Some contain more than others. Likewise, in heaven while all souls will be perfectly happy (i.e. filled to the brim with love for God), some hearts will have a greater capacity or disposition to see God, the greater their charity. And our capacity to love God in heaven is related to how we loved Him here on earth. The more we love Him here, the more we will be capable of loving Him in heaven, and thus the happier we will be in heaven eternally. (See Summa Theologica Supp. Q.93 a.3) Thus those whose Christian life here under an imitation gospel consists in reveling in their 'freedom' from good works and construing faith in Christ as meaning that Christ's work on the cross ensures that we do not have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, are thereby eternally robbed of the level of happiness they could have had, had they lived a righteous and holy life in love for God. It is not enough for Satan to lead people to hell; he seeks also to deprive Christians of the degree of happiness and joy that we will have in heaven.

Not too long ago someone criticized the Catholic teaching concerning the gospel by saying that it detracted from the goodness of the good news, both by requiring that we do good works, and by failing to provide absolute assurance of our elect-to-glory status. Upon hearing this objection I was reminded of the 'pastry-baker' in Plato's Gorgias accusing the physician before the children: "His message detracts from the goodness of the good news that I'm giving you; you don't need to exercise regularly or avoid pastries, sugar and fat." What is it but sophistry that measures the truth of any version of the gospel by how 'good' it appears to us? That's simply another form of ecclesial consumerism. According to this maxim, the more 'freeing' and antinomian one's version of the gospel, the more it must be true, since then it is 'better' news, and the gospel [εὐαγγέλιον] is "good news". This kind of thinking is what makes so many people susceptible to the Heath and Wealth 'gospel' offered by well-known figures such as Benny Hinn and Kenneth Copeland. The better the offer, the more it must be the gospel, because 'gospel' means good news.

But that way of thinking is deeply flawed, precisely because what seems good to us is not necessarily what is actually good for us, just as what seems good to the jury of children in Plato's Gorgias is not in fact what is good for them. The goodness of the good news depends upon its truth. If the 'good news' is false, then it is not good news, no matter how good it sounds or seems. Therefore we should not compare versions of the gospel by how good they seem to us, but rather by which is true, even if it seems less attractive and more arduous than the other versions of the gospel.

Satan's greatest deception is convincing people that they do not need to be saved. His most effective way of doing this is to convince them that they are already entirely saved when in fact they are not. And his most effective way of doing this is to convince them that salvation is something external to them, something already entirely accomplished for them outside of them, and not requiring love and righteousness in their heart or obedience in their lives. In this way, they think they do not need salvation, because they think they are already saved, as saved as they can possibly be this side of heaven. What they have, however, is an imitation of the gospel, and this inoculates them to the true gospel. The imitation gospel allows them to ignore their sinful heart, and even celebrate it by recharacterizing it as 'freedom' from the law. They have been deceived by accepting a cheap knockoff conception of heaven as merely a nice place, and not as an everlasting loving and obedient union of our hearts with the heart of God. If they understood heaven to be most fundamentally a union of hearts (ours with God), they would understand that the gospel must be a purification of our heart, for light can have no fellowship with darkness. (2 Corinthians 6:14)

The true gospel "cleanses our hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9). The true gospel gives us a pure heart (1 Timothy 1:5; Romans 2:29). Otherwise St. Paul could not have written, "Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart." (2 Timothy 2:22) He could not have written that because there would have been no one with a pure heart with whom to call on the Lord. But they had, by the grace of Christ, purified their hearts, as St. James commands that we do. (St. James 4:8) Their hearts had been filled with the love of God, as St. Paul writes, saying, that the "love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us". (Romans 5:5) When Jesus said that the good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good (St. Luke 6:45), He wasn't speaking about a merely hypothetical, someone not to exist this side of heaven. He was talking about what His own followers are to be now, through His grace. His command to be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect, was not a mere hypothetical (St. Matthew 5:48). This is what He truly wants His followers to be, now, and He has provided the means for us to attain this goal through the grace that comes to us through the sacraments.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." (St. Matthew 5:8)

The ultimate goal of the true gospel is to see God. And in order to see Him, we must be pure in heart. The imitations reduce the gospel, either to a denial of our sinful heart, or to a covering of our hearts, a perpetuation of the fig leaves in the Garden of Eden. The true gospel, and it alone, provides the means by which our sinful hearts may be purified so that we attain true salvation, eternal union with God our loving Father.

Lord Jesus, please help us all come to unity in the true gospel that you entrusted to your Apostles. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


SadEnding said...

Sir, you have written, (re: Kenneth Copeland)

"This kind of thinking is what makes so many people susceptible to the Heath and Wealth 'gospel' offered by well-known figures such as Benny Hinn and Kenneth Copeland. The better the offer, the more it must be the gospel, because 'gospel' means good news.

But that way of thinking is deeply flawed, precisely because what seems good to us is not necessarily what is actually good for us, just as what seems good to the jury of children in Plato's Gorgias is not in fact what is good for them."

It is, in fact, your take on Copeland's teaching that is flawed (I'm not familiar with Mr. Hinn). Mr. Copeland teaches that what is good may be likened to the difference between Cain and Abel's offering, a very different take on the issue.

Additionally, he teaches, as do many Protestant ministers, that what is God's will, (or, in your more simplistic term, "good,") is revealed in scripture.

Thank you.

Joseph Ciolino

Principium Unitatis said...


In 1993 our son Joshua was diagnosed with a terminal illness. We prayed for his healing, but we lost him in 1995. We reached out to this Health & Wealth 'gospel', because it offered the guarantee that our son would be healed. But after his death, the emptiness of that teaching became painfully clear. So I'm speaking about Copeland and Hinn from personal experience.

The Health & Wealth teachers believe and teach that it is God's will that everyone [in this life] be healthy and wealthy. It is only our lack of faith, according to them, that prevents us from being always healthy and wealthy.

That's a novel view that was unknown from the time of the Apostles until the 20th century. It is a product of the USA. There are many good books that refute the H&W 'gospel'. Hank Hanegraaff's Christianity in Crisis was one I read back in the 1990s. John Piper makes it very clear in this brief video.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Jim said...


In a post of this sort, wouldn't it be fairer to interact with the Book of Concord directly rather than with the comment of a radio host during a phone conversation over ten years ago?

For example, regarding "salvation,"
the Confessions provide:

"[I]n penitence we must consider faith and fruits together, so we say in reference to almsgiving that it is the whole newness of life which saves. Almsgiving is an exercise of that faith which accepts forgiveness of sins and overcomes death as it becomes ever stronger through such exercise."

(Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Art. IV.275-278.)

In any event, the Confessions speak a lot about regeneration, good works, and the new man. These changes follow from the forensic act in justification, but they do follow necessarily. The forensic act changes us ontologically.


Principium Unitatis said...


Thanks for your comments. Matzat is no mere maverick or outsider; he is a well-known Lutheran figure. Do you disagree with his statement?

I'm curious about one thing you said: "The forensic act changes us ontologically."

How so? Because we find out about it, and our knowledge of it changes the way we act? In what way does a merely forensic act change us ontologically?

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Rene'e said...


Thank you for sharing Joshua with us. He is a beautiful angel.

May the Lord continue to bless you, your wife and your family, with His strength, comfort and love always.


Principium Unitatis said...

Thanks Renee.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jared said...


For clarification, can you explain more on what you replied to Jim:

"I'm curious about one thing you said: "The forensic act changes us ontologically."

How so? Because we find out about it, and our knowledge of it changes the way we act? In what way does a merely forensic act change us ontologically?"

Jared(new blogger)

Principium Unitatis said...


Welcome to my blog, and thanks for your comment. Let's say that there is a warrant for your arrest. Then the judge decides to cancel it. That is a forensic act. Does it change you? Not necessarily. If you don't know about what the judge did, then the forensic act does not change you at all. If you find out that the judge canceled the warrant, that changes what you know, and that change in knowledge would affect the way you live (because you won't be worried about the police showing up at your door). But it doesn't change you ontologically, but rather, episetmically (i.e. in what you know). So when Jim says that this forensic act changes us ontologically, I would like for him to explain how a merely forensic act changes us *ontologically*, and not merely epistemically (i.e. that we come to know it).

Does that clarify my question/comment?

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jason Stellman said...


You often seem to give the impression that Protestant/Reformed soteriology speaks of salvation as only extrinsic, outside of us, and non-renewing. This is completely false, and I've pointed this out to you before (not that you should need me to, you did go to Protestant seminary).

So for the record, Reformed soteriology teaches that in sanctification God renews us from the inside out. We are united to to the risen Christ, which changes our hearts and enables us to work out our own salvation.

Honestly, Catholicism has plenty to commend it without resorting to deliberate mischaracterization of its opponents.

Principium Unitatis said...


As a philosopher, I try to say just what I mean, and nothing more. Here I'm not saying anything about "Protestant/Reformed soteriology". I'm criticizing the soteriology expressed in the Matzat quotation. Since [traditional] Reformed theology would not affirm Matzat's statement, my criticism here is not of [traditional] Reformed theology. In my other posts on this subject, I have explicitly distinguished traditional Reformed soteriology from the more common [quasi-Lutheran] form found in contemporary persons like Gene Bridges and Horton's Putting Amazing Back Into Grace.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jim said...


[1] Regarding Matzat: I’ve never heard of the guy – although, to be sure, there are many important people that I’ve never heard of.

Still, it just seems like an odd choice on which to base an argument that the Gospel taught by Augsburg evangelicals (“Lutherans”) is a false Gospel. Your post would be several pages long were it typed, and is erudite in its appeal to Catholic authority.

But then you choose as your foil for this discussion, a comment from a phone conversation you had with a Radio talk show host over ten years ago. Shoot, with the official views of Lutheranism published openly in the Book of Concord, it seems very odd – even unfair – to prefer to interact with the stylings of a Radio talk show host from a phone conversation rather than to interact with the movement’s official statements.

I'd assume, for example, that you'd prefer people to wrestle with RCC theological positions as stated by the Catholic Catechism than, say, individual Catholic apologists.

[2] It seems to me that you also unfairly equate the forensic act that is justification (as evangelicals understand it) with conversion or salvation in its totality, as understood and articulated by us in our Confessions. (This is why interacting with the Book of Concord might serve you better than snippets of phone conversations with radio talk show hosts.)

To wit, from the Solid Declaration, art. iii.40-41:

“First the Holy Spirit kindles faith in us in conversion through the hearing of the Gospel. Faith apprehends the grace of God in Christ whereby the person is justified. After the person is justified, the Holy Spirit next renews and sanctifies him, and from this renewal and sanctification the fruits of good works will follow. This is not to be understood, however, as though justification and sanctification are separated from each other in such a way as though on occasion true faith could coexist and survive for a while side by side with a wicked intention, but this merely shows the order in which one things precedes or follows the other.”

Now I realize that you, as it were, want to push together justification and sanctification. I'm not trying to insist that they should be separated. My point here is much more humble than that: only that because we do distinguish the two logically for theological reasons, does not mean that the two can be separated experientially for the Augsburg Christian.

So it is unfair of you to point to the forensic nature of justification and say, "See there is no more about sin." There is a change, a renewal, and a righteousness that is beyond the imputation of Christ's righteousness in us. And this is taught non-problematically in the Confessions.

E.g., from the Solid Declaration, art. iii.32:

“It is indeed correct to say that believers who through faith in Christ have been justified possess in this life, first, the reckoned righteousness of faith and, second, also the inchoate righteousness of the new obedience or of good works. But these two dare not be confused with one another or introduced simultaneously into the article of justification by faith before God.”

SD, art. ii.70

“It is, of course, self-evident that in true conversion there must be a change, there must be new activities and emotions in the intellect, will, and heart, so that the heart learns to know sin, to fear the wrath of God, to turn from sin, to understand and accept the promise of grace in Christ, to have good spiritual thoughts, Christian intentions, and diligence, and to fight against the flesh, etc. For if none of these things takes place or exists, there is no true conversion.”

[3] Regarding how the forensic changes us ontologically:

Consider Heb 2.14-15:

"Therefore, since the children share in blood and flesh, he himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death he might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives."

In forgiving us in Christ, God frees us from the fear of death, which means that we are no longer slaves to sin; we serve God instead of Satan. So it seems to me that the forensic act renders an ontological change, death to life. The ontological change is the fruit of the forensic act.

Jason Stellman said...

I think Jim has a point. Often I hear Catholics lament the fact that Protestants appeal to this or that random apologist rather than to the official teachings of the church (and they're right). But let's all be consistent, then, and argue against a tradition's credal or confessional formulations rather than against some maverick spokesperson who may or may not be faithfully representing their church.

Principium Unitatis said...


Still, it just seems like an odd choice on which to base an argument that the Gospel taught by Augsburg evangelicals (“Lutherans”) is a false Gospel.

Indeed it would. But that's not *my* argument. That's some other argument. If you think Matzat is wrong, feel free to say so. (I noticed that you haven't done so.)

It seems to me that you also unfairly equate the forensic act that is justification (as evangelicals understand it) with conversion or salvation in its totality, as understood and articulated by us in our Confessions.

I did no such thing. If you find some place in my post where I did such a thing, please point it out.

In forgiving us in Christ, God frees us from the fear of death, which means that we are no longer slaves to sin;

I have to point out that this is a non sequitur. Just because I learn that I am not going to be punished for my sin it does not follow that I am no longer a slave to sin. Knowledge of non-punishment does not "mean" or entail or necessitate freedom from *sinning*.

So it seems to me that the forensic act renders an ontological change, death to life.

If by 'life' you mean that we get to go to heaven, then that is a change in destiny, not an ontological change. But if by 'life' you mean that our hearts are filled with the love of God, then that is not merely a forensic change.

The ontological change is the fruit of the forensic act.

Then it is not merely a forensic change. The judge ripping up the warrant for my arrest does not entail an ontological change in me. If I come to know that he did so, then that is an epistemic change, not an ontological change. If you want to affirm an ontological change, then the act effecting that change is not merely a forensic act (which would be an extrinsic act); it must [at least] also be an ontological act. This is why Aquinas argues that the infusion of grace changes our nature.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jared said...


Thanks for your illustration to clear things up for me. I am a recent Catholic convert from a reformed church and I have studied the doctrine of justification deeply and do agree with you. I believe one major point where reformed christians go wrong in their readings in romans and other such scriptures dealing with justification is that they take pauls theology on salvation and interpret it as being prescriptive rather than descriptive. So, when they read passages by Paul saying we are justified by faith alone the think,"OK...so I must have faith. Faith is what I must have and do in order to be saved and God to give me favor and forgive me my sins." As a result, faith becomes something they do and focus on for salvation. If they were to read pauls words as descriptive of salvation they would understand that the focus is not on faith as if it were something we do but something we have, produced as fruit by the spirit, and a conduit for obedience to the Gospel which is our true focus.

Furthermore, protestants fail to understand that faith and works are not two different coins in the economy of salvation but two sides of the same coin, both fruits of the regenerating work of the spirit of God; faith being the begining, and works the completion just as james says.

Touching on your analogy and argument concerning the ontological "or" epistemological nature of forensic act of justification. I agree with you that the forensic act is not ontological. In fact it is impossible. For the forensic act is Gods declaration of a sinner when He sees the sinners faith. But if faith is the fruit of the spirit then the sinner has already been changed ontologically. The ontological nature of our salvation is not cognitive. However, it is through the knowledge of Christ that a person is ghanged. Not that this mere knowledge renders us rightious before God but that through this knowledge we are made rightious before God. So the epistemological element is necessary. It is true that we must know something and this knowing changes us and makes us rightious. The Gospel is a message of fear, hope, and comfort, for we are commanded to repent and obey Christ and at the same time we are assured forgiveness of sins. This knowledge is what moves us toward God. Paul says it is through knowledge that we obtain the promises, and we obtain that knowledge through the hearing of faith. So knowledge does play a part, but not merely knoledge. It is true that when a person truly understands the forgiveness of Christ they are spured on to greater obedience. I cannot obey someone who I think is angry at me, for I do not have the ability to. I believe the communication of the forgiveness of sins by the holy spirity plays a major role in setting a person free from their sin.

I hope this may help things.
Thanks for your posts they really help.

In Christ,

Principium Unitatis said...


Thanks for your note. Protestantism is very much a mixed bag. One of the things that is sometimes frustrating to me is that with some Protestants, we are almost so closely agreed that the warrant for remaining divided seems minuscule. I want to say, "Come on back already." That's especially true for those folks who follow the early Reformers, because they were more 'catholic', in many ways, than present-day Evangelicals. But, presently there is no single "Protestant" position. Each of the various Protestant traditions has to be considered separately. Some are much more catholic than others. And that makes the task of pursuing the visible unity of all Christians much harder, because we cannot deal with a group as such (e.g. the Pope meeting with the 'head' of Protestantism), but we have to pursue reconciliation in a very personal way, one person at a time, finding common ground and pursuing reconciliation.

The Holy Spirit is not limited. He has ways of multiplying work that, from a human point of view, seems fruitless and pointless. We hand to him the loaves and fishes, and Christ multiplies them thousands of times over.

Thanks for commenting. And I rejoice with you over your coming into the Catholic Church. Make sure you check out Neal Judisch's blog (of towers and tongues) and Taylor Marshall's, and Tim Troutman's (on my side bar), if you haven't already. I believe that we (those coming into the Church from the Reformed tradition) are bringing something good and beautiful into the Catholic Church, even as we ourselves are being nurtured and stretched by the vast treasures of the Church. I hope you join us in working to bring all of our brothers and sisters in Christ into full visible unity, according to Christ's high priestly prayer in John 17.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jim said...


You write: "Matzat is no mere maverick or outsider; he is a well-known Lutheran figure."

I took your post and comment to suggest that Matzat is a illustrative representative of Luteranism. You say in a comment below mine, resonding to another, that you do not in fact take Matzat's position as illustrative of Protestant/Reformed soteriology more generally. In which case your post does not attempt to take on an anymore broad position.

O.k. Since I never heard of the guy before reading your post, and since he's not representative of any broader view than his own, I don't really care whether you refute him or not.

That being said, you quote one line from a phone conversation from Matzat, and spend pages "refuting" it. If you do not in fact think that his view is representative of his broader church, then you, my friend, have a lot more time on your hands than I ever will.

Further, if you think that you are able to withstand the same treatment -- someone taking one sentence from a brief phone conversation and responding to that one sentence -- then you are indeed no merely a philosopher (as you style yourself), you are the philosopher or philosphers, because I know of no scholar, whether ancient or modern, who could not be refuted in the same way you "refute" Matzat.


-- Jim

Principium Unitatis said...


I took your post and comment to suggest that Matzat is a illustrative representative of Luteranism.

That's not what I intended to imply. His position, does, however, represent the view of some Lutherans.

You say in a comment below mine, resonding to another, that you do not in fact take Matzat's position as illustrative of Protestant/Reformed soteriology more generally.


In which case your post does not attempt to take on an anymore broad position.

No, that would be the wrong conclusion to draw. I am criticizing the position described in the Matzat quotation; he's not the only one who holds that position.

Further, if you think that you are able to withstand the same treatment -- someone taking one sentence from a brief phone conversation and responding to that one sentence -- then you are indeed no merely a philosopher (as you style yourself), you are the philosopher or philosphers, because I know of no scholar, whether ancient or modern, who could not be refuted in the same way you "refute" Matzat.

I didn't refute "Matzat"; I refuted the position captured in that one line of his. And, I agree that when a claim or statement is taken out of context, it is pretty easy to 'refute' it. But I'm not taking Matzat out of context. I used to listen to him every day, for months and months. So I can say with good confidence that that line pretty well captures his position. He believes in unlimited atonement and monergism. And when you put those two together, you get the Matzat quotation I cited.

Do you think Matzat's statement is true or false?

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Principium Unitatis said...

I should clarify that you when you put together monergism, unlimited atonement, and a denial of universalism, then you get the Matzat quotation.

Principium Unitatis said...


If you would like to see how well-known Don Matzat is as a LCMS Lutheran, just do a google search on "Don Matzat". You can see the books he has written, the stuff he did with the White Horse Inn, all the articles he wrote on the monergism site, etc. He is not an insignificant Lutheran figure.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

John Bugay said...

Bryan, I agree with Jason and the others. You have built an entire edifice here based on an off-hand comment of a radio commentator.

You would do much better looking to a work like Michael Horton's "Covenant and Salvation," which discusses the ontological issues associated with forensic justification in much greater detail. Here are some selections that I think are pertinent:

"According to federal (covenant) theologians, Adam and Eve were never in a state of grace before the fall. Endowed in their creation with all of the requisite gifts necessary for fulfilling God's eschatological purposes, there was nothing lacking requiring a gracious supplement.

This reveals a fundamentally different understanding not only of the original condition of humanity in Adam (under a covenant of works), but of grace itself. After all, "the image of God is not a superadded gift but integral to the essence of humanity," as Bavinck observes. From this it follows that in Reformation theology, grace cannot in any respect bear the character of a substance.

If grace is a spiritual substance infused into a person in order to perfect nature, rather than divine favor shown to those who are at fault, we have a perfect example of the contrast between ontological-metaphysical and ethical-covenanted construals of the problem." (pg. 194)

The forensic justification is then "foundational" -- ontological changes occur, and these occur because God speaks a new creation. Horton suggests "the terminology of infused habits" should be abandoned (197).

“Recognizing this danger (medieval ontology), Protestant orthodoxy walled off justification from any inward change, but then (with varying degrees of success) continued to appeal to traditional medieval categories for [to describe] regeneration and sanctification.

“Although I affirm everything that they were after in the formulation, I am arguing that justification should be seen more clearly not merely as ontologically different from inner renewal, but also as the ontological source of that change (regeneration in both its narrower and broader senses). In that case, we need not reformulate a doctrine of regeneration as immediate and direct or even as subconscious and nontransformative, but treat justification as an illocutionary speech-act (verbum externum) that, when identified with the Spirit’s perlocutionary act of effectual calling, issues in repentance and faith. Developing this particular argument will be a central aim of the next chapter.

For Calvin, not only is justification entirely forensic; union with Christ is also regarded as first of all forensic and only consequently transformative.”(198)

“Unlike a human judge who can only call them as he sees them, God’s declaration [the double imputation of forgiveness for man’s sin and Christ’s righteousness back to man] … creates the reality it declares. God’s declaration, in other words, is itself constitutive of that which is declared.

Once more we see the superiority of communicative and covenantal over purely causal and metaphysical grammars. No less than God pronounced “Let there be…!” when there was nothing, Abram, the ‘father of many’ while he was childless, Sarah fruitful while she was barren, a young woman pregnant while she was a virgin, God pronounces believers to be righteous while they are unrighteous. Thus, the entire reality of the new creation … not only justification but also renewal, and not only the renewal of the individual but also of the cosmos … is constituted by the covenantal speech of the Trinity.” (201)

Principium Unitatis said...


Thanks. Matzat's statement was not an offhanded comment. It is a crystallization of his soteriology given his belief in the all-sufficiency of Christ's atonement [monergistic soteriology], unlimited atonement, and the falsity of universalism. I raised this objection to him when I was Reformed [believing in limited atonement], precisely because from my point of view then, I knew what his answer had to be, and he went ahead and bit the bullet, taking what was (to me then) the reductio of unlimited atonement, given soteriological monergism.

I'll take a look at the Horton text.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan