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::: What do Catholics Mean by “Infusion”? ::: Thomas Aquinas

Catholics often speak of the “infusion” of grace.  Protestants are often allergic to this language, perceiving it to be a threat to the legal status of our justification.  But in fact, Protestants also believe in the “infusion” of grace, and some Protestant theologians (read: the brightest ones) are not shy to speak this way (e.g. Jonathan Edwards).

What do Catholics mean when they speak of “infusion”?  That’s like asking what Protestants mean when they speak of God’s “giving” grace; it all depends on which Protestant you talk to; there are likely ten different answers for every ten theologians answering.  However, a certain continuity can easily be found in the Catholic ways of speaking about “infusion” just as a certain continuity can be found in Protestants who talk about “giving [of grace].”

No theologian influences Catholic ways of theological language more, probably, than St. Thomas Aquinas.  What does Aquinas mean when he speaks of “infusion”?  For example, Aquinas believes that charity (love for God) is a divine gift of the Holy Spirit that is “infused” into us.  What does he mean?  Here is a few small excerpts from his writings I believe partly illuminate an answer to this question.

[Charity] is not founded principally on the virtue of a man, but on the goodness of God. ST II-II.23.3.ad.1

Charity is superior to the soul, in as much as it is a participation of the Holy Ghost. ST II-II.23.3.ad.3

The infusion of charity denotes a change to the state of having charity from the state of not having it, so that something must needs come which was not there before.  On the other hand, the increase of charity denotes a change to more having from less having, so that there is need, not for anything to be there that was not there before, but for something to be more there that previously was less there.  This is what God does when He increases charity, that is He makes it to have a greater hold on the soul, and the likeness of the Holy Ghost to be more perfectly participated by the soul.  ST II-II.24.5.ad.3

Here Aquinas distinguishes between infusion and increase.  God infuses charity instantaneously (from not having to having is like from not-pregnant to pregnant), and this is different from our increase in charity.  Our increase in charity does have a similarity to infusion, however, for according to the Doctor, God is the one who works both in us.

~ 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.

And You Thought Evangelical Catholic was an Oxymoron? • Francis J. Beckwith’s New Book

 return-to-rome

Francis J. Beckwith came out with a new book this month entitled Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic.  And I just found out that he has a website and also blogs!  He was surprised to see that someone had written a review of his book so fast by none other than Southern’s very own Michael Haykin.  

For those of you who don’t know, Beckwith used to not only be an evangelical Protestant, but he crossed over to Catholicism while holding the post as President of the Evangelical Theological Society. He’s no pushover. You know all those arguments we Protestants use to keep people convinced that Rome is not the place to go? Believe it or not … He’s heard all of them (and used many of them probably at some point in his life).  He became skeptical about many of them and eventually, of course, convinced they were mislead.  

This is a reality Protestant evangelicals need to stare in the face: Intelligent, biblically sophisticated, well-informed, theologically sober evangelicals can find very attractive aspects in Roman Catholicism—even in RC theology.  And yes … there is such a thing as Evangelical Catholics, whether you like it or not. It’s not an oxymoron.  Click here for a definition of Evangelical Catholic.

•  To listen to an interview about why he switched over, go here and see Audio Interview Downloads on the left side of the page. •

••••••••••••••••••••••HT: Return to Rome ••••••••••••••••••••••••

•••••••••••••••••••••••HT: Pastor Steve••••••••••••••••••••••

Affectional Symmetry for Doctrine as the Foundation for a New Ecumenism

There is an ethical need for a certain symmetry of affection for truth.  This symmetry would lead to greater gospel unity amongst God’s people (The Church) and a greater gospel witness to a lost world.  If Catholics and Protestants, Open Theists and Calvinists, Complimentarians and Egalitarians, Calvinists and Arminians, etc. could decide that their unity in the gospel was more important than their disagreements on everything else, and actually live this conviction out consistently … (!) … there would be a New Ecumenism at work that could change the face of Christendom.  

Let me explain … 

One way of describing the essence of true godliness is this: godliness is keeping your priorities straight.  This is because keeping one’s priorities straight would include keeping God as the priority of your heart’s affection, and such love would entail obedience to the entire law (Mt 22:36-40; Rom 13:8-10; 1 Jn 5:1-3).  It is also true, by that same token, that when something of lesser value than God takes the place of priority in our affections, this is the essence of sin (Jn 3:19; cf. Mt 22:36-40; 1 Jn 5:1-3). 

Have you ever asked the question, “Why should we love God more than anything else?”  One true answer would be, “Because He commands us to,” but this would miss the design of the question, for we are asking a more penetrating question about just why it is in the first place that we are commanded to love God above all things.  The answer cannot be in any particular act of God’s redeeming love toward us (e.g. because he redeemed us and has sent His own Son to die for our sins, has loved us, etc.), for if we seek to ground the necessity for God to be the priority of our affections in any one of His redeeming acts, we would have no grounds for why Adam should have loved God above all things before the fall.  The answer is quite simply that God sees love for Him as the greatest of all commandments because He is more worthy of our love than all things; He alone possess infinite worth. 

It would be sin to love so many things which are good in and of themselves, and worth loving, if at the same time our hearts grew cold to those things which were far more worth loving.  It should be no wonder to Christians that depression is such a wide-spread epidemic, coupled with shocking numbers of suicide.  There is no quicker way to make the soul unbearably sick than to feed it with everything worth two cents while starving it from enjoying the most worthy of all things.  The human race was created for something infinitely bigger than those things we settle for in our desperate scramble for satisfaction-namely, The Uncreated.  As the saying of Augustine goes, “…you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  Thus, it is easy to see why God has commanded us to love Him above all things.  It is the most loving thing He could have commanded us.  In fact, all of God’s commandments have just this loving quality to them.  They are for our good.  God’s law speaks to us as divine council for our souls, pleading for us to know ultimate peace and exquisite happiness, and warning us of those things which expedite our own destruction.

Yet for those who have, by the great mercy of God, come to realize this great and ultimate truth, we should not think we have mastered this truth in our experience.  In addition to the human tendency to lapse in our affection for God by applying the strength of our hearts on lesser things, we often allow our affections for certain divine truths of God’s word to be destructively disproportionate to the level of affection such truths deserve.  For example, if those who are Calvinists allow their zeal for the doctrines of grace to exceed their measure of passion for the truth of the gospel such that they become bent more on Calvinism than the more basic message of the gospel, this would be a sin akin to idolatry.  Or, if some group of Southern Baptists, in despising a legalistic approach to abstinence, were willing to allow their zeal for Christian freedom to drink alcohol to divide the denominational unity and thereby ruin the pooling of resources which has been so effective in reaching so many people and nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ, this would be a great sin.  Freedom to drink alcohol cannot-by any sober biblical standard-be worth sacrificing such large scale Christian Unity, not just because of the unity itself, but for the sake of the prospering of the gospel message in the world which that unity affords. 

It is manifest, therefore, that a certain symmetry of affection with respect to various important truths is necessarily a part of getting a grip on the essence of real charity and godliness.

For too long Christians have been unnecessarily divided over secondary matters.  The history of the Protestant Reformation bears witness to schism after schism, resulting in a plethora of denominational zealots who devote themselves to defending and propagating the unique views of their denomination.  All this is done, of course, in good conscience of the individuals involved (we trust), and under a worthy banner: “the truth of God.”  Each denomination is fully convinced against another over some point of soteriology (e.g. Calvinism vs. Arminians, predestination and free will, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility), church government (e.g. legitimacy of the presbytery, plural eldership vs. head pastor as virtual C.E.O., congregationalism vs. elder-authority), legitimacy or mode of certain church ordinances (e.g. infant baptism, foot-washing), etc.  Each person deems his or her teaching with regard to these issues as vital to the health of the body of Christ. 

The effect this has on all true Christians everywhere is a mixed bag, but some of the negative effects include the following: a distraction from the most important Christian beliefs, a confusion about what beliefs are essential and what beliefs are non-essential, a lack of one denomination’s trust and respect for another denomination, perpetual characterizations and uncharitable assessments and accusations of various sorts against those in opposition to one’s denominational or personal position, a lack of appreciation for whatever unity exists in spite of the differences, a lack of cooperation among Christians on important social and political problems, a diminishing of the demonstration of Christian unity, a weakening of Christian influence in an unbelieving world, and the near impossibility of a unified effort to reach and nurture the nations of the earth with the basic message of the gospel.        

On the other hand, if the truth about God is more cherished by Christians than it is despised by unbelievers, it is no more surprising that Christians find themselves in the midst of heated controversy over doctrinally related differences than it is to find Christians in controversy with unbelievers over differences of worldview beliefs.  Those who believe the original autographs to be inspired and inerrant would lack virtue if they did not consequently take great measures in securing their understanding of what the Scripture teaches for the sake of the edification of the body.  If ministers have the responsibility of teaching the people, and one minister’s teaching about the role of women in the church, church government, or the legitimacy of infant baptism differs from another minister’s teaching, it is easy to see how they would find it hard to “do church” together-even if each is willing to esteem the other highly as a virtuous Christian. 

This is part of the result of the fall.  Even as Christians, our remaining sin keeps us from discerning God’s truth perfectly.  Many Christians, while recognizing that institutional divisions (denominations) are a necessary evil on this side of eternity for the sake of conscience have also longed for all Christians everywhere to unite in some significant way.  Perhaps the most successful trans-denominational unity which has been achieved has been by those who have tried to form a strong alliance by rallying around the most basic belief in all Christian doctrine-the basic message of the gospel.  This group of Christians are known as evangelicals (from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news” or “gospel”).  While evangelicals cannot by any means be accused of considering all non-essential beliefs as unimportant, they have considered unity in the gospel as the most basic kind of Christian unity.  This evangelical unity was one of the greatest (if not the greatest) by-products of trans-denominational movement of Liberal Theology in the nineteenth century. 

Evangelicals, however, are all too often guilty of not being faithful to this original vision of gospel unity.  When Classical Liberal Theology that no longer believed in the deity and resurrection of Jesus was at stake, it helped us to see how relatively unimportant the secondary issues amongst true believers actually were compared to the need to fight for the basic gospel truth.  But nowadays we are overly zealous for non-essentials.  Particularly Protestant Christians should give more thought to having an evangelical unity and cooperation with anyone who believes in the gospel, even if they happen to be Catholic, Orthodox, Open Theist, Emergent, etc.  Those who work for a New Ecumenism don’t have to give up their secondary convictions, they just have to value the gospel more than those secondary convictions.  They don’t have to love their -ism’s any less so much as they must come to love and value the gospel even more.  

 


St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans by John K. Ryan (New York, New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1960), 43.

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