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~ Luther vs. Catholics on Justification ~

Martin Luther’s Sola Fide

In 1531, long after the initial controversies over justification were hammered out, the “mature” Luther taught a bipartite justifying righteousness composed of both a forensic and a renewal element:

These are the two parts of justification.  The former is the grace revealed through Christ, that through Christ we have a God appeased, so that sin is no longer able to accuse us, but the confidence of conscience in the mercy of God is reduced to certainty.  The latter is the bestowal of the Spirit with his gifts, who illuminates against the pollution of the spirit and the flesh.[1]

Luther taught that the justification of a sinner involved being declared righteous on account of the righteousness of Christ received only when one partakes in the sacrament of baptism with faith.  This righteousness includes 1) the non-imputation of sins or the removal of guilt based on the atonement of Christ and 2) the communication (or imputation) of the righteousness of Christ through the renewal of the Holy Spirit whereby we are spiritually united to Christ so that our hearts are made new and gladly obedient to the law of God.  Both kinds of righteousness are received through faith because faith brings the Spirit which causes the heart to love, and therefore fulfill, the law.[2] For Luther, “works of the law” (also called “works-righteousness”) are works done in one’s own free will apart from the grace of the Spirit:

Accustom yourself, then, to this language, and you will find that doing the works of the law and fulfilling the law are two very different things.  The work of the law is everything that one does, or can do toward keeping the law of his own free will or by his own powers. … To fulfil the law, however, is to do its works with pleasure and love, and to live a godly and good life of one’s own accord, without the compulsion of the law.  This pleasure and love for the law is put into the heart by the Holy Ghost. … But the Holy Ghost is not given except in, with, and by faith in Jesus Christ, as he says in the introduction … Hence it comes that faith alone makes righteous and fulfils the law[3] [italics mine].

Luther believed that although this righteousness is worked within us (in nobis), because it is brought about by the gift of the Spirit, it does not originate from within us, it originates from outside of us (extra nos).  Therefore, it is an alien righteousness.[4]

Although Luther reduced the number of sacraments to only two, baptism and the Eucharist, when it came to the sacramental mediation of saving grace, Luther preserved the basic paradigm of the Catholic Church.[5] Luther believed, “in short, whatever God effects in us he does through such external ordinances.”[6] One of the ways Luther attempts to acquit himself from teaching salvation by human works, is to claim that baptism is not merely an act done by men, but is ultimately God’s act.  He answers the accuser like this: “Yes, it is true that our works are of no use for salvation.  Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s.”[7] Since Luther limited God’s supernatural saving grace to the sacrament of baptism, trusting in anything but God’s salvific work through baptism—including faith in Christ—is to be guilty of trusting in human works.[8]

We know that wherever there is a divine promise [such as the promise of salvation through baptism], there faith is required, and that these two are so necessary to each other that neither can be effective apart from the other.  For it is not possible to believe unless there is a promise, and the promise is not established unless it is believed.  But where these two meet, they give a real and most certain efficacy to the sacraments. … Thus Christ says: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned”[9] [Mark 16:16, emphasis mine].

Thus, when Luther says “it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added,”[10] he is often misinterpreted[11] as teaching a pure sola fide which rules out baptism as efficacious for salvation.  Faith is necessary for baptism to effect salvation—but it is still baptism effecting that salvation.[12] Because baptism is the work of God and comprehends God’s promise of salvation, we can be certain about our justification.[13] However, according to Luther, just as faith only makes righteous, only unbelief can cause a person to fall away from their baptism and loose justifying grace.[14] Furthermore, Luther taught that justification is an ongoing process of receiving forgiveness of sins and inward holiness.[15] Compared to John Calvin, whose doctrine of justification had more influence on Protestantism and even Luthernism than Luther’s, Luther’s view of justification is strikingly Roman Catholic.  It is easy to see why Lillback concludes that “Luther’s theology of justification does not neatly fit the classic pattern of the Reformational debate,” for it is much closer to the Catholic view than is widely acknowledged among Protestants of the Reformation heritage.[16] In spite of a great divergence from Luther’s sola fide in modern Protestantism, many protestants still hold to Luther’s teaching of the centrality of the doctrine of justification, believing it to be the message of the gospel.[17] Therefore, many understand Luther’s Reformation to be a rediscovery of the gospel itself.

The Roman Catholic Doctrine of Justification

Since the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is much like Luther’s,[18] it will be sufficient to note only those aspects of Rome’s doctrine unique to the Catholic position.[19] First, while Luther preferred to speak of the righteousness of God and/or Christ communicated to us (or imputed to us) by the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church prefers to speak of the righteousness of God and/or Christ “infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul” [emphasis mine].[20] Second, the Catholic view holds that once a person looses their justification, the only way to get it back is through the sacrament of penance.[21] Third, the Catholic formulations of salvation and justification include the language of “cooperation” when taking into account the non-passivity of man[22] in justification (and salvation in general) and man’s ability to reject prevenient grace.[23] Fourth, the Catholic Church teaches that Christians cannot have “an absolute and infallible certainty” that they will persevere in their faith, and thus, their justification—unless they receive such certainty through a special revelation of God.[24]

Fifth, Catholic dogma holds that final justification (or the inheritance of eternal life at the final judgment) is by grace-wrought works of faith done by the merit of Christ.[25] Although I list this fifth doctrine as unique to the Catholic position, it may have also been taught by Luther.[26] Sixth, it is a part of Catholic teaching that such works, therefore, merit eternal life.[27] For these last two distinguishing aspects of the Catholic teaching, it is important to understand two distinctions.  First, to merit something is different than deserving it, but refers to God’s rewarding of good works—itself an act of grace—which good works were done by grace in the first place.[28] Second, final justification is different from initial justification: the former is merited, the latter is not: “No one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion.”[29] Seventh, although not incompatible with Luther’s teaching of the centrality of the doctrine of justification, Catholic teaching tends to emphasize that justification is one among many ways the Bible describes the free gift of salvation, rather than, as Luther, emphasizing its unique role in Pauline theology.[30]


[1] Cited in Peter A. Lillback, “Calvin’s Development of The Doctrine of Forensic Justification: Calvin And the Early Lutherans On The Relationship of Justification and Renewal,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan For Us in Justification, ed. Scott Oliphint (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britan: Christian Focus Publications, 2007), 76.

[2] “Hence it comes that faith alone makes righteous and fulfils the law; for out of Christ’s merit, it brings the Spirit, and the Spirit makes the heart glad and free, as the law requires that it shall be. … Grace does so much that we are accounted wholly righteous before God. … Righteousness, then, is such a faith and is called ‘God’s righteousness,’ or ‘the righteousness that avails before God,’ because God gives it and counts it as righteousness for the sake of Christ, our Mediator, and makes a man give to every man what he owes him. Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), xv-xvii.  Although this comment was written in the period of the early Luther, the editor and translator writes: “In short, a scholarly edition of Luther’s Romans must satisfy all scholarly demands, while this popular and abridged edition seeks only to acquaint the average Christian reader with the fundamentals of Luther’s evangelical teachings.  We might add that Luther’s commentary on Romans contains some thoughts which later he modified or discarded altogether.  In order to avoid confusion, such portions are largely omitted in this practical edition.”  Ibid., ix.  More importantly, Lillback marshals compelling evidence that Luther endorsed Melanchthon’s doctrine of justification which included inward renewal of the Spirit and that Luther himself connected inward renewal to justification even in his later, more mature works.  Lillback, “Calvin’s Development of The Doctrine of Forensic Justification,” 66-80.

[3] Luther, Commentary on Romans, xv.  “Of these [true, faith-wrought works] the work-righteous saints know nothing, but feign works of their own in which there is no peace, joy, confidence, love hope, boldness, nor any of the qualities of true Christian works and faith” [italics mine]. Ibid., xxi.

[4] “God certainly desires to save us not through our own righteousness, but through the righteousness and wisdom of someone else or by means of a righteousness which does not originate on earth, but comes down from heaven.  So then, we must teach a righteousness which in every way comes from without and is entirely foreign to us.” Ibid., 28-29.

[5] Lohse makes the judgment that although Luther “with his emphasis on the strict correlation of baptism and faith…gave new accent to traditional baptismal theology…on the whole [he] did not attack it.”  Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1999), 303.  Lohse also recognizes that Luther appealed to “the concept of the sacrament as ‘effective in itself’ (ex opere operato)” in his defense of infant baptism.  Ibid, 302.

[6] Martin Luther, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 440.  The fact that God’s Word (the promise of salvation) is attached to baptism is sufficient (in Luther’s mind) to defeat the skeptics who say, “How can a handful of water help the soul?” (i.e. anyone who would deny baptismal regeneration).  Ibid., 438.  In his Large Catechism, Luther gives more argumentation against those who deny the efficacy of the sacraments than on any other issue.  Not only are those who claim that baptism is merely an external sign having no spiritual effect “so foolish as to separate faith from the object [Gods Word] to which faith is attached and bound,” but Luther argues that they miss the point that God’s grace has been limited to being distributed only through the external sacraments.  “Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the sense and thus brought into the heart, just as the entire Gospel is an external, oral proclamation.  In short, whatever God effects in us he does through such external ordinances.”  Ibid., 440.  Therefore, faith alone will not do, because although “faith alone makes the person worthy to receive the salutary, divine water profitably,” faith apart from the actual administration of the sacrament of baptism is nothing but a faith which is mustered up apart from the power of God’s grace and severed from God’s Word—and thus it is a human work. Such faith is just as shaky ground for salvation as any other human work.  Ibid., 440.

[7] Ibid., 441.

[8] Tranvik argues that Luther saw pre-baptism faith as a human work, not the work of God, and thus he considered anyone who believed faith came before baptism to be in the same heretical camp with Rome, trusting in human works and denying the gospel.

Therefore, one dare not base his baptism on his faith.  For who can be sure if he really believes?  The Enthusiasts’ stress on subjectivity, like the late medieval view of penance and monasticism, troubles Luther because it put the question of salvation back into the hands of a frail and doubting humanity. … From Luther’s perspective, the dispute with the Enthusiasts is not merely about the nature of material things and whether or not they can be mediums of the divine.  Rather, the gospel itself is at stake.  … In his conflict with enthusiasm, Luther suspects that faith itself is being idolized, the very faith that is subject to the vagaries of human moods and emotions.  Faith simply cannot bear that burden and remain salvific.  Again, as was the case with Rome, Luther believes the enthusiasts are shrouding the life-giving promise.  God must move from the external to the internal.  To reverse the order is to make faith a work and set up a pernicious ordo salutis based on law.  What Luther did was expose the essential nomism of the Enthusiasts.

Mark D. Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 32-33.  “And he most sharply rejects the attempt to determine whether or not an adult believes, particularly in the form in which it was practices by the Baptists.”  Althaus, The Theology of Marin Luther, 365.  Luther considered the Anabaptists to be sects of the devil.  “Here we come to a question by which the devil confuses the world through his sects, the question of infant Baptism.”  Luther, The Book of Concord, 442.

[9] Ibid., 67.

[10] Ibid., 66.

[11] For example, in a relatively recent treatment (2001) of doctrine throughout church history, John D. Hannah misrepresents Luther as believing in sola fide in such a way as to rule out sacramental mediation of saving grace. John D. Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), 227-229.  His misunderstanding appears to be rooted in a misinterpretation of Luther’s phraseology of baptism as God’s Word.  Since Luther denies that water all by itself saves, but rather asserts salvation through the Word which is attached to the water and faith which receives it, Hannah concludes that Luther did not believe in the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism.  “The sacraments, then, have a subjective function as a witness to faith in God’s generosity; they do not have an objective function of being the actual means of acquiring God’s grace.” Ibid., 229.  In the same vein, Hannah represents Luther has having a view in which “the symbol has no efficacy.” Ibid.  Lohse tries to correct this false interpretation of Luther’s “sign” language (pardon the pun).  “When Luther at times used the word ‘sign,’ particularly in his doctrine of the Supper, that use may not be construed in Zwinglian terms.  Luther never intended the term to be merely ‘symbolic.'” Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 300.

[12] “God’s works [such as baptism], however, are salutary and necessary for salvation, and they do not exclude but rather demand faith, for without faith they could not be grasped.  Just by allowing the water to be poured over you, you do not receive Baptism in such a manner that it does you any good.  But it becomes beneficial to you if you accept it as God’s command and ordinance, so that, baptized in the name of God, you may receive in the water the promised salvation.  This the hand cannot do, nor the body, but the heart must believe it. … Actually, we insist on faith alone as so necessary that without it nothing can be received or enjoyed.” Luther, The Book of Concord, 441.

[13] Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 32-33.

[14] “All of us do not remain with our baptism.  Many fall away from Christ and become false Christians.” Martin Luther, What Luther Says, ed. Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), 1:280. “Through baptism these people threw out unbelief, had their unclean way of life washed away, and entered into a pure life of faith and love.  Now they fall away into unbelief and their own works, and they soil themselves again in faith.” Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. J. Pelikan (St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 30:190.  “Indeed, even the righteous man, if he presumes to be justified by those works, loses the righteousness he has and falls from the grace by which he had been justified, since he has been removed from a good land to one that is barren.” Ibid., 27:331.  Luther understood unbelief to be the root and sum of all sin.  “And the Scriptures look especially into the heart and have regard to the root and source of all sin, which is unbelief in the inmost heart.”  Luther, Commentary on Romans, xv.

[15] “Now we are only halfway pure and holy.  The Holy Spirit must continue to work in us through the Word, daily granting forgiveness until we attain to that life where there will be no more forgiveness.  In that life are only perfectly pure and holy people, full of goodness and righteousness, completely freed from sin, death, and all evil, living in new, immortal and glorified bodies.”  Martin Luther, Selected Writings of Martin Luther, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 418.  Cited in Lillback, “Calvin’s Development of the Doctrine of Forensic Justification,” 76.  Lillback concludes: “Luther conceives of this forgiveness as an ongoing process to remedy the partial holiness of the believer.”

[16] Lillback, “Calvin’s Development of the Doctrine of Forensic Justification,” 76. Lillback argues that Luther never used the word “forensic” (although Melanchthon himself used it and although forensic elements are one part of Luther’s bipartite doctrine of justification), and that John Calvin was the first to teach that justification was merely forensic. Ibid., 79.  If Lillback’s [and my own] reading is right, Luther is not only misrepresented as teaching a pure sola fide that rules out sacramental mediation, but Calvin’s teaching of justification is read back into Luther.  For example, Erickson has Luther’s doctrine of justification only addressing the problem of forensic guilt, but not the problem of the corruption of human nature, and appears to teach that Luther did not think that in justification God actually causes the one justified to fulfil the law but rather to be merely treated as if he had fulfilled all the law. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, second edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998), 968.  Johnson and Webber understand Luther to teach that justifying righteousness is alien in the sense that it does not belong to the one justified by it, but rather to Christ.  Alan F. Johnson, Robert E. Webber, What Christians Believe: A Biblical and Historical Survey (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 310.  Others seem unaware that such major differences exist between Luther and Calvin and treat these two magisterial Reformers (and the Reformers in general) as if they all believed the exact same thing.  “The Reformers proclaimed justification by grace alone through faith alone on the ground of Christ’s righteousness alone.”  J. I. Packer, “Justification,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, second edition, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001), 646.

[17] “Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Luther’s mature doctrine of justification is the emphasis he places on its theological centrality.  It was Luther above all who saw the articulus iustificationis as the word of the gospel, to which all else was subordinate.” Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei (New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 223.

[18] The basic Catholic definition of justification is as follows: “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleans us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ’ and through baptism.”  Catechism of the Catholic Church: With Modifications from the Editio Typica, second edition (New York, New York: Dobuleday: 1995), 535, par 1987.  It is also the Catholic position that justification depends entirely on the grace of God (sola gratia), faith is a necessary part of baptism, and the purpose of justification is the glory of God.  “With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted to us” [emphasis mine]. Ibid., par 1991.  “Justification is conferred through baptism, the sacrament of faith.  It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life” [emphasis added]. Ibid., par1992.  “Our justification comes from the grace of God.  Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” Ibid., par 1996.  “This vocation to eternal life is supernatural.  It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative.”  Ibid., par 1998.  “The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace.” Ibid., 2001.  Like Luther, the Catholic view believes that justification is a process.  “Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love.”  Ibid., 538, par 2000.

[19] This brief treatment will not allow for a comprehensive listing.  Therefore, I have attempted to list those that seem most important.

[20] Ibid., 538, par 1999. Since Luther’s language of imputation appears to still include soul transformation through the “communication” of righteousness, the differences between his language of imputation and the Catholic language of “infusion” may be a matter of emphasis (or choice of words) rather than a significant difference in substance.

[21] “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion.  It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification.  The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as ‘the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.” Ibid., 403, par 1446.

[22] Although, according to McGrath, Luther insisted upon the “utter passivity of humans in justification,” it appears from my own study of Luther’s doctrine that Luther’s notions of passivity are compatible with Catholic teaching justification.  The non-passivity and “cooperation” in Catholic teaching is defined in terms of “the assent of faith” that works through love.  Ibid., 537, par 1993.  The Catholic language of non-passivity and cooperation, then, appear to be concerned with ruling out the idea of a person’s being justified without a real change effected in the person’s heart and life—they believe, repent, and live by a faith that works through love.

[23] “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom.  On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent: ‘When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward injustice in God’s sight.’” Ibid., 537, par 1993.

[24] “If anyone says that he will for certain, with an absolute and infallible certainty, have the great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation, let him be anathema.”  Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. Rev. H. J. Schroeder, O.P. (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1978), 44, can.16.

[25] “If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such a manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in the case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.”  Ibid., 46, can 32.

[26] “Luther does not, as he is frequently represented, reject the necessity of good works in justification.” McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 231.  The quotation from Luther that McGrath puts forth as evidence, however, only shows that Luther believed in the necessity of works for salvation—not the causal role of works in justification.

[27] Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 44, can.16.

[28] The section on merit in the Catholic Catechism begins with Augustine’s famous quote: “You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.”  Catechism, 541.  Indeed, as if a response to protestant objections, this is the chief emphasis of the section.  “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man.  Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator. … [T]he merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful.  Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit. … [Adoption by grace] can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. … Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men.” Ibid., 541-42, par 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011.

[29] Ibid., 542, par 2010.

[30] “[Justification] stands in an essential relation to all truths of faith, which are to be seen as internally related to each other.  It is an indispensable criterion that constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ.  When Lutherans emphasize the unique significance of this criterion, they do not deny the interrelation and significance of all truths of faith.  When Catholics see themselves as bound by several criteria, they do not deny the special function of the message of justification.”  Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: The Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, English-Langauge Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 16, article 3, par 18.

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Breaking News: N.T. Wright Steps Down from Bishopric

The following news comes from BBC News Channel.

The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, has announced he is quitting the post at the end of August.

The 61-year-old, who has held the high-profile position since 2003, plans to take up an academic appointment at the University of St Andrews in Fife.

He said he was finding it difficult to balance the demanding role with other interests like writing and teaching.

Dr Wright, the 71st Bishop of Durham, described the decision to step down as the hardest of his life.

He has written several books on faith and religion and has agreed to become research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at St Andrews.

‘Complex demands’

He said: “This has been the hardest decision of my life.

“But my continuing vocation to be a writer, teacher and broadcaster, for the benefit, I hope, of the wider world and Church, has been increasingly difficult to combine with the complex demands and duties of a diocesan bishop.

“I am very sad about this, but the choice has become increasingly clear.”

During his time as Bishop of Durham, Dr Wright has been outspoken on several issues.

In 2008, he was one of several bishops who attacked the government for creating a “sense of hopelessness” in England.

In the same year, he also condemned an anti-gay movement in the Church of England as “deeply offensive”.

A new bishop will be selected later this year by the Crown Nominations Commission. Its choice will be sent to the prime minister and Queen for approval.

Book Review: The Sacraments by Louis Marie Chauvet

The following is simply a barebones sketch of an introduction to Louis Marie Chavet’s provocative critique of traditional Catholic sacramental theology and his alternative proposal.  Page numbers refer to his abridged work: Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body. Liturgical Press, 2001.

Chauvet’s Critique of Traditional Sacramental Theology

Chauvet uses the language of a 20th century Catholic Catechism (from the 1950’s) for the definition of the Objectivist Model: The sacraments are “visible signs instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ to produce and increase grace in our souls” (xiv).

He criticizes this model as being too narrow in its emphasis.  For example, he notes that Augustine taught that the sacrament was a “sacred sign” or “a sign of a sacred reality.”  Thomas Aquinas would come also to use Augustine’s language for the sacrament.  But in this catechism, this is not utilized in the definition.  Instead, what is important is “the objective efficacy of the sign” (xiv).  They are less revelatory signs than as operative means of salvation.

This leads to the images of the sacraments as instruments that have a quasi automatic production as long as the instrument is properly used by the minister.  Chavet thinks that this image favors questionable representations of the efficacy ex opere operato. He compliments his criticism by pointing out the fact that in the 1947 catechism’s sixteen lessons on the sacraments, the word “faith” never appears.  The only place where the subject is taken into account in this section is the warning that the subject not place any obstacle (mortal sin) to the reception of grace.  This is not a well balanced account of sacraments, thinks Chauvet.

Complaining about this narrow approach, he admits that the catechism bears resemblance to Scholastics (e.g. Thomas Aquinas), but only, he says, in overall model.  However, the scholastics “strove to purify the images” from false understandings and from being comprehensive by teaching that all concepts and images were approximate, and while the spiritual reality bears similarity to the images, it also bears some measure of dissimilarity (xvi).  Thus the sacraments are not instruments, but rather “function a little like instruments” according to the scholastics.  “While they contain grace, it is not like a vase containing a remedy” (xvi).

Here he complains that it is easy to see “the importance of the differences between the doctrine of eminent theologians … and what becomes of it in pastoral manuals of catechism and liturgy not always concerned with nuances” (xvi).

Chauvet’s Proposal of Symbol

In the end, Chavet doesn’t even think the Scholastic model with all its nuances is a good overall model for the sacraments, so he proposes the sacraments as “symbol.”  In his new model, the sacraments are part of an overall symbolic scheme or order that mediates “the world” by functioning as a language that shapes their perception of the world.  In particular, it mediates God’s new world (the kingdom), and thereby the values of that world.  The Christian thereby is shaped by the sacraments to take on these values.

This “mediation” (much like language in general) actually constructs (not merely symbolizes) the subjects self identity and personhood.  Just as the language of a culture tends to effectively shape the worldview (and therefore values and identity) of those who live in the same culture and speak the same language, so the “language” of the sacraments has a similar efficacy.  It is the linguistic “womb” of the mother church, in whose womb the Christian is effectively born.

As symbols, the sacraments effectively symbolize (or “mediate”) the whole of the Christian life in a similar fashion as a synecdoche in poetry where the part of something stands for the whole.  In a synecdoche, for example, the “hand” of God stands for the mystery of God himself, thus representing the whole of God by a part of him.  In this way, the sacraments mediate the symbolic order of the whole of the Christian life—which means they simultaneously hold in tension things that would otherwise become “desymbolzied” or isolated, and thus misunderstood in terms of their relationship to the whole.  In other words, the sacraments seen as a symbol mediating the order of the whole keeps people from thinking of the grace they receive in the sacraments apart from “the other” which it symbolizes—the community of Christians they are obligated to love, the world they are obligated to love as Christ did, etc.

The symbolic way of understanding sacraments entails Chauvet’s development of “symbol” as “a signifying whole,” (13) or, as mediating the realities of the Christian life.  Chauvet understands symbols as “fitting together” a symbolic order, providing a unifying meaning to all its parts (without which these realities are “isolated” or “desymbolized,” 15) and designating “the other,” in the case of Christian sacraments, the “symbolic womb” that precedes the Christian and mediates its understanding of the “world” of Christianity (16).  As he puts it, “One becomes a Christian only by adopting the ‘mother tongue’ of the church” (17).  “The sacraments are expressions” and therefore “they belong to what is called language,” which language is not an “instrument,” but rather a “mediation” of reality and Christian truth (3).

This requires for the Christian to relinquish the temptation for immediacy and “assent to the mediation of the church” (28).  Baptism, for example, evokes the larger symbolic order of the church in which, through this baptism, the Christian is initiated into the community where “the other is no longer to be considered a rival or a potential enemy,” but must “be welcomed as a brother or sister” (32).  The Eucharist expresses the reality of “the new ‘we’” that “applies also to the whole of the Christian liturgy” that constantly uses the language of “we,” 32).  “Every eucharistic assembly truly realizes the church of God” (37).

Compatibility with Traditional Sacramental Theology

This understanding of the sacraments does not necessarily undermine the classical ways with their emphasis on causality and instrumentality.  This is because, as Chauvet puts it, “contrary things … are in the same genus, on the same terrain.  Our symbolic way supposes a change of terrain” (95).  “The sign belongs to the order of knowledge or information or else value, whereas the symbol belongs to the order of recognition or communication between subjects as subjects and is outside the order of value” (76).

So, then, the author concludes that symbols and signs are “not on the same level” (76).  Although Chauvet claims his approach is not contrary to the classical approaches, he does, in so many words, claim that it is superior.  When he says that the classical approach was “the best one could do at the time,” he implies that his approach is better (95).  He spells out this superiority when he says “the symbolic route seems to us to supply an approach much more akin to the sacraments than that of the instrumentality employed by the Scholastics” (95).

Book Review: The Lamb of God by Sergius Bulgakov (Christology)

The following is a review of the following book: Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008). 472. pp.


The Inner Life of God

In Bulgakov’s theology, the inner life of God, creation, and the Incarnation, to be fully grasped, must be understood each in light of the other.  It is difficult to describe each of these individually without reference to the other, which is a testimony to their irreducible complexity in Bulgakov’s theology.  We will consider them one at a time, but cannot describe them apart from the others.

The inner life of God is also his Ousia [or nature] and “can be understood as God’s life and God’s power, that is, something entirely simple” (101).  It is God’s “All-unity,” where Ousia and Sophia are identical (102).  Ousia is not a hypostasis, but rather, “love” (104).  Although not a hypostasis, Bulgakov refers to Sophia in personal terms, for “She is the divine life in God, who is love” (104).  This love is to be understood as an eternal act of “self-positing” (94).  This act of self-positing is to be understood as a “going out into another” (95).

It seems fair to say, then, that the Ousia of God is an eternal divine person factory of sorts.  The Father is the principle of this love (98).  He desires to “acquire himself” or “have himself … outside himself” (98).  The other hypostases of the Trinity (the Son and Spirit) are different “realizations” of this self-positing love (94).  The Son is the Father’s begetting of himself (self-positing of himself), the result of the Father’s going out into another [person] (98), while the Holy Spirit is the joy that comes from this begotenness (99).  The Son, then, is the “self-actualization” of the Father (98) and the Holy Spirit is “precisely the joy of sacrificial love” (99).

Thus, these three hypostases are unified by virtue of this Ousia, this love, this self-positing, which is the Divine Life.  None of these hypostasis can be proper understood without consideration of the other.  In fact, each hypostasis, although equally God, does not posses divine nature “for Himself,” otherwise this would be tritheism (95).  They possess this nature “in common” (95).  The procession of the Holy Spirit (joy) from the Father to the Son is actually God’s own nature “as reality” (100).  God’s life is not possessed by each hypostasis individually, but is “one life” (89).

Creation and Incarnation

Creatureliness is defined in terms of becoming (i.e. having potentiality, 96).  Man’s nature is only “psycho-corporeal,” which implies potentiality and becoming (92).  That is, man’s nature only consists of body and soul (92).  Yet, man’s nature is not all that man is, for this nature is a “state” of man’s spirit (93).  Since spiritual being is “rooted” in eternity in the divine life, it bears “consciousness” of this divine life (92).  Thus, a part of man is “eternal” (93).  “If man were capable of freeing himself from his natural essence by the power of spiritual life, he would simply be God” (94).

By breathing His breath into man, God poured out his “essence” into man (91).  Creation, then, although in time and thus “becoming,” was created for “eternity” (157).  This was not an arbitrary act, however, for creation was created to be united with God and thus the Incarnation “expresses the most fundamental and determining relation of God to the world,” quite apart from a consideration of the fall (170).  God would have become Incarnate whether or not there was a fall to remedy; but since there was a fall to remedy, his Incarnation overcame this fall to accomplish the ultimate telos of creation—to become divine (169-71).

Divine-humanity, then, is not the by-product of the fall’s remedy, but the reason God created the world in the first place (so to speak).  Creaturliness is “becoming,” and since Divine-humanity is what God intends for creation to “become,” it is easy to see that Christ is the epitome of creation’s eternal destiny, creation’s ultimate “norm.”  Since Jesus is the ultimate end of creation (or epitome of it), he teleologically determines the beginning and everything in between (the Alpha and Omega in this sense, 169).  God “wants to become man in order make man god” (171).  The Third hypostasis’ proper “work” is the Incarnation (176).  The Incarnation was man’s “adoption” of God into humanity through the ever-virgin Mary who is the culmination of God’s work in the world seen through the “Old Testament Church” (176-78).

In short, the relationship between the inner life of God and creation is revealed and epitomized by the Incarnation, which fits perfectly God’s Ousia of self-positing (going outside himself in sacrificial love).

Kenosis of Divine in the Incarnation

Once the distinction between God’s being in Himself and His being outside Himself for Himself can be seen, it is clear (to Bulgakov) that God in his being outside and for Himself has the freedom to limit Himself (223).  “Such a possibility does not contradict God’s absoluteness” and unchangeability in his being as considered in Himself (223).  The Incarnation did not involve that Christ not have the divine Ousia (since it rather presupposes the divine Ousia, since this self-emptying happens according to this sacrificial love which is God’s nature or Ousia) but rather involves Christ’s abandoning the “glory” of this Ousia in his descent from heaven (224).  That is, Christ abandoned the “divine life,” in such a way that his nature “retains only the potential of glory” (224).  “He retains only the nature of Divinity, not its glory” (224).  Indeed the Son abandons the “closed ring of the Trinity [and] … remains outside it” (229).  “The Creator became a creature” (229).

This does not mean that Christ’s manhood is not divine, however, as even all mankind, by virtue of their portion of the eternal spirit, already consists of a union between human nature (soul and body) and divine life (spirit) [230].  In Christ, the hypostasis of the Logos—which is already spiritual in nature—simply takes the place of the spirit.  This makes the Incarnation less ontologically awkward (233-35).  In Christ, therefore, there is a perfect communion of his spirit with Divinity and this sets him apart from other humans (235).  His supreme divine-consciousness, however, co-exists with his human nature quite fittingly, just as a human spirit also bears consciousness of the divine (236).  It does not “impart to the humiliated Christ the ‘properties’ of Divinity” (236).  This helps explain (for Bulgakov) the “possibility and necessity of the coexistence of the two natures” in Christ (238).  The unity of these natures involves the unity of the “wills” and “energies” in the divine-humanity of Christ (245-46).  This means his actions were “Theandric” (247ff).

Christological Questions Answered by Bulgakov

How are we to conceive of Christ’s prophecy?  Are we to understand this prophecy as coming from omniscience?  This would seem to violate human nature.  Bulgakov, rather, proposes that we understand the prophecies in Christ in a similar way we understand all divinely inspired prophecy: as “carried out in the domain of the unconscious until some thought, word, or vision shines forth in the consciousness” (323).  Just as the Holy Spirit inspired and overshadowed the prophets of the Old Testament, so it was with Christ (324).

How are we to understand Christ’s apparent foreknowledge?  Here, again, we are to understand his foreknowledge as coming both from the “subconscious” (below) and inspired also from above (the Holy Spirit, 329).  This cannot be understood mechanically in any way.  Rather, humans have the capacity of “prescience” in their minds and hearts “in proportion to the intensity of their relation to that at which they are directed” (329).

Christ’s priesthood is to be understood in parallel to other human priests (e.g. Aaron, Melchisedec, 335).  His priestly “function” was sacrificial in nature (as attested by the Divine Eucharist) but epitomized by his prayer in John 17 where his focus is on deification (not redemption, 334-35).  His priesthood consisted of offering himself to the Father by the Spirit (336).

The goal in each of these examples is to attain a human understanding of Christ’s action in such a way that it could be considered perfectly human.  This would appear to mean that the actions of Christ could potentially be imitated by other human beings (who also have divine-humanity, even if their spirit is not the Logos).

Problems

Innumerable contradictions and problems exist with Bulgakov’s theology.  For example, distinctions of persons in the Trinity break down in his understanding of the Ousia, self-positing love.  If the Son is simply the result of the Father’s self-positing, and is the Father’s going outside himself into another person, the distinction between the person of the Father and the person of the Son breaks down.  He is not suggesting that the Father posits his nature in the form of a hypostasis, but that he posits himself.  This corresponds to the language of hypostasis.  The Father’s love is to “posit” his own hypostasis into another hypostasis so completely that he is “outside himself” and “acquiring himself.”  If the result of the Father’s self-positing is another person, this person must be considered the Father “outside himself,” but still himself (since this is a self-positing, a person’s traveling “into” another).

This self-positing cannot be the Father’s positing anything less than his own hypostasis, otherwise it would not be a self-positing, but some other kind of positing (e.g. ousia-positing, power positing, etc.).  If the Father truly leaves himself to go outside himself, how can he still be with himself and thus be himself?

In seeking answers to these questions, I find myself beside myself, going out of myself through the corridors of my own mind.  In other words, Bulgakov’s logic is enough to drive even professional theologians mad!  Yet these questions are about the fundamental skeleton of Bulgokov’s ideas. At the very heart of his novel theological construction exist a fundamental breakdown in basic contours of classic Trinitarian theology.

This breakdown, for example, of the identity of the Father and Son as distinct hypostases, along with countless other logical conundrums in Bulgakov’s work, create more problems than they solve and outweigh the tensions of the Chalcedonian problematic he seeks to relieve.  It would appear to this author that not even the theologians who attended The Council of Chalcedon could boast of the great mysteries (read: great contradictions) that Bulgakov’s theology embodies, which appears to solve the Christo-logical problem much like an unfaithful husband might relieve the problem of his own infidelity to his wife by becoming a polygamist.  His solution to the “Christological problematic” simply multiplies the sort of logical tensions that gave rise to his work in the first place.

Review by Bradley Cochran

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