Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Justification and Rome

Did the Lutheran church misrepresent and falsely present the Roman Catholic's view on justification? According to Dan Woodring, who recently left the LCMS for Rome, they did. He writes:

“As I continued my research, I began to realize that what I had thought Catholic Church taught on Justification, was not what they really taught. I came to understand that the Scholastic Occamist view of justification, which was semi-pelagian, the view criticized most extensively in the Confessions was not what the Catholic Church teaches, now or then. The view presented in the Roman Confutation and at Trent was pure Augustinianism, and was the doctrine that every major Church Fathers maintained. “

Finally, I began to doubt whether the Lutheran teaching was the most faithful to the Word of God. Both sides appealed to Scripture, and although Lutherans are reluctant to admit it, both sides interpret Scripture according to their own tradition. Lutherans start with the believe that we are saved by faith alone, and our works have nothing to do with justification.

Roman Catholics do not teach that we are saved because of Christ's Atonement PLUS their works. It is simply not true. Roman Catholic Theology is Augustinian. He is our "Doctor of Grace." We reject all forms of semi-pelagianism."

Admittedly it has always been easy to misrepresent the theology of any church by simply repeating cliches and easy generalizations. However, many Lutheran theologians have examined and studied the theology of Rome since the 16th century, and their work could hardly be characterized as careless misrepresentation.

Mr. Woodring rightly indicates that the Lutheran doctrine of justification, which we believe is the biblical doctrine, is that "we are saved by faith alone, and our works have nothing to do with justification." As Romans 3:28 states: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law." The difference between Rome and the Lutherans on justification is indeed centered on the issue of works. Are good works part of the justification of the believer, or are they the fruit of faith, and thus rightly discussed as part of the sanctification of the believer? Is the believer declared righteous in God's sight in light of his own deeds, even if these are supposedly carried out in faith? Now having asked that question we must also realize that Rome and the Lutherans understand these terms in different ways, thus yielding very different answers from the beginning. When we use the term "justification," for example, we get different approaches. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church it states that "Justification includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and renewal of the inner man" (Par. 2019). Lutherans see the biblical term justification as forensic - a declaration of absolution in light of Christ's work; Rome as more of an event within the believer.

In recent years some declared that the two churches had now come to agreement on this important doctrine, yet such declaration was quite premature. In fact, missing from the rhetoric of the time was the simple observation that justification served an entirely different focus in each church. For the Lutherans it was central and key to understanding all other doctrines. For Rome it was peripheral.

It might also be helpful to note that the Lutheran view of justification was condemned by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, and the canons that condemns them are still part of the teaching of Rome. A reading of these canons reveals a very wide divide on this issue of justification. Mr. Woodring's assessments above would seem to be in the spirit of these condemnations. Thus we read:

CANON 9: "If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema."

CANON 12: "If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ's sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified ... let him be accursed."

Canon 14: "If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema."

Canon 23: "lf any one saith, that a man once justified can sin no more, nor lose grace, and that therefore he that falls and sins was never truly justified; or, on the other hand, that he is able, during his whole life, to avoid all sins, even those that are venial,- except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds in regard of the Blessed Virgin; let him be anathema."

Canon 24: "If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema."

Canon 30: "If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema."

Canon 33:
"If any one saith, that, by the Catholic doctrine touching Justification, by this holy Synod inset forth in this present decree, the glory of God, or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ are in any way derogated from, and not rather that the truth of our faith, and the glory in fine of God and of Jesus Christ are rendered (more) illustrious; let him be anathema.

Thus, I would agree with Mr. Woodring is so far as to admit we have two very different views of this doctrine. Reconciling them into one would not seem to be an option. The question, then, is which reflects the biblical truth? Only by answering that should we then move on to the witness of others.

For those interested in reading a good examination of the doctrine of justification as seen by both Lutherans and Catholics, and a helpful study of the various doctrines involved, I would recommend Dr. Robert Preus' book Justification and Rome (Concordia Publishing House, 1997). It can be ordered from here. The cover presented above is of this book.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to say that as yet, I have never seen anyone cite or comment on any part of the Council of Trent documents other than the Canons themselves.

In my reading of the Council of Trent documents I was surprised to learn that the Canons cited do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger context of numbered "Chapters" that precede all of the Canons on a given subject. These "Chapters" give the scriptural basis for the Canons themselves.

The Chapters can be one or several paragraphs in size and the reader will find that several Chapters can address a single Canon, so numbered Chapters will not necessarily correspond to the same numbered Canons.

I think anyone who reads the preceding Chapters to the Canons will be surprised at how grounded in scripture the Canons are.