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Karl Barth and Roman Catholicism via Hans Küng

In spite of Barth’s attempt to take a hard-line protestant stance on the doctrine of justification—even going into long polemical tirades in his Church Dogmatics—nevertheless, his doctrine of justification has played a prominent role in ecumenical discussions between Protestants and Catholics. The foremost interpreter of Karl Barth’s doctrine of justification in this regard is the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, who attempted to show that Barth and the council of Trent were in basic agreement on all the crucial questions surrounding the doctrine of justification.  Barth freely conceded that Küng had done justice to all of the contours of his views on justification.  In a letter to Küng, which eventually became a part of the preface to Küng’s book on justification, Barth said:  

I here gladly, gratefully and publicly testify not only that you have adequately covered all significant aspects of justification treated in the ten volumes of my Chruch Dogmatics published so far, and that you have fully and accurately reproduced my views as I myself understand them; but also that you have brought all this beautifully into focus through your brief yet precise presentation of details and your frequent references to the larger historical context.[1]

That Barth’s doctrine of justification would ever be used in such a fashion was baffling to him, yet at the same time, delightfully intriguing.

What I say about justification—making allowances for certain precarious yet not insupportable turns of phrase—does objectively concur on all points with the correctly understood teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.  You can imagine my considerable amazement at this bit of news; and I suppose that many Roman Catholic readers will at first be no less amazed … All I can say is this: If what you have presented in Part Two of this book is actually the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, then I must certainly admit that my view of justification agrees with the Roman Catholic view; if only for the reason that the Roman Catholic teaching would then be most strikingly in accord with mine!

After reading Küng’s treatment of justification, Barth came to believe that he had so strongly denunciated the Catholic position on justification because he had so woefully misunderstood it.[2]  Barth was, however, aware that perhaps in spite of the fact that Küng had flawlessly interpreted his own teaching, the ecumenical discussions would not be received well by the Catholic Church.  Although he was warmly open to Küng’s work, he was not as certain of Küng’s interpretation of the Catholic position as he was of Küng’s interpretation of his own position: “Of course, the problem is whether what you have presented here really represents the teaching of your Church.  This you will have to take up and fight out with biblical, historical, and dogmatic experts among your coreligionists.”[3] 

This Küng did, but the results were disappointing.  The attitude of the Catholic Church up to this point had been to assume that since the doctrine of justification was the main reason for the Protestant split from Catholicism (notwithstanding other disagreements), if one could show that a basic agreement existed between Protestant teachings and Catholic teaching, this would cancel the largest motivating factor for division.  But once Küng had given the most persuasive demonstration of such essential continuity, the Catholic church quickly altered their stance, arguing, in effect, “Only when the church’s claims of truth, leadership, and hierarchy are settled can we then draw consequences from the doctrine of justification.”[4]  When Küng’s hopes for a substantial reassessment of the justification doctrine were largely ignored in the Vatican II council meetings, Küng followed the Vatican meetings with a critical eye.  Disheartened, he concluded that “pope and curia [the papal court] were not willing to accept the critical challenge.”[5] 

In spite of the apparent initial disinterest of the Catholic Church, we can only predict that were Barth alive today he would be pleased to find, like Hermann Häring, that Küng’s thesis has had the last laugh.  Küng’s approach to the ecumenical dialogue over justification appears to have had a major influence in approach to Protestant-Catholic dialogue which has culminated in what might be considered the most significant ecumenical achievement in Post-Reformation times.

So far his book on justification is not outdated.  Better yet, his thesis of that time has received a late justification.  Everyone today agrees that the doctrine of justification no longer divides confessions.  Differentiating exegetical as well as theological and dogmatic research has strongly confirmed that notion, especially the studies about the Council of Trent. … Since 1999, the state of discussion can be easily and accurately shown in the Joint Declaration of Augsburg with its highly detailed style.  … [A]ll seven problem areas, the points of agreement as well as continuing disagreement are meticulously listed.  Each single time, however, the conclusion is drawn that the differences no longer warrant a church division.[6]      

Not everyone, however, has been as optimistic about the viability of the ecumenical discussions that took place over the similarities between Barth’s doctrine of justification and the Catholic position as interpreted by Hans Küng.  Alister McGrath, for example, grants that Küng has at least shown that Barth and Trent are both anti-pelagian, but he censures the hype over Küng’s thesis as reflecting failure to recognize the difference between agreement over how man is justified—by grace through Christ—and what justification actually is.

However, the Council of Trent (1543-63) specifically anathematized a series of propositions which it considered Pelagian.  The result is, as Küng has shown, that both Karl Barth and Trent teach a strongly anti-Pelagian Christocentric doctrine of justification.  Nevertheless, the question of how man is justified before God does not exhaust the question of justification. … [I]t is highly doubtful whether Küng has demonstrated anything other than that Barth and Trent both hold that justification is primarily a divine act arising through the work of Christ.  There are at least four areas in which Barth and Trent are in serious disagreement: namely, the nature of justification ; the freedom of the will; the nature of election ; and the assurance of salvation.  Küng fails to ask the crucial question, which is this: What do Barth and Trent have in common that Calvin and Trent do not also have in common?  The answer to this question is that Barth and Trent have considerable less in common than Calvin and Trent. … What does it mean to say that a man is justified?  It is a trivial matter for Roman Catholic, Anglican and Reformed theologians to agree that man is justified by a divine act of grace through Christ, for to fail to accept this would be to deny the doctrine of their churches as laid down by the Council of Trent, Orange II, the Thirty-nine Articles, and the various confessions of the Reformed churches. … But what is the difference between the unjustified and the justified?  What happens in justification?  What is justification?  It is one thing to agree how something occurs; it is quite another to agree on what the entity in question actually is.[7]

McGrath also believes that Küng “confuses the matter by introducing modern Roman Catholic scholars, whose teaching counts as theological opinion, and not as the authoritative teaching of the Church.”[8] 

It is our contention that Küng, by presenting the more theocentric, Bible-oriented section of opinion within Roman Catholicism, and by presenting only those aspects of Barth’s theology of justification which are capable of harmonization with this section, has not represented the true state of affairs.  This does not mean that Küng has misrepresented Barth’s theology of justification: rather, we are of the opinion that he has been unduly selective.[9]

Because of the prominent role that Barth’s doctrine has played in the ecumenical discussions, Catholics and Protestants argue over whether Barth’s doctrine was more Catholic in orientation or more Protestant.  Bruce L McCormack takes issue with Douglas Harink’s claim that “Barth’s doctrine of justification anticipated in all its essential features Harink’s own version of Paul’s teaching on this subject.”[10]  He argues that the defining element of the Calvinistic Protestant doctrine of justification is John Calvin’s notion of double imputation—specifically the notion of an alien righteousness outside of us (extra nos)—that came out of the Osandrian controversy in 1551.  The intention of this defining element was to free the grounds of justification from anything God does in us (in nobis)—even if it is by grace—under the conviction that it would undermine Christian assurance. 

Barth’s justification is forensic through and through, McCormick argues.  In Barth, justification does not occur through the faith of the one justified but in eternity past and consists primarily, as we have already noted, in acquittal.  Justification takes place in Christ because it is in Christ that God restores his own righteousness by destroying both sin and the sinner.  The justification of man is really Christ’s justification in Barth’s forensic framework.  In Barth faith is merely our becoming aware of our justification, not even an instrumental cause.  Thus, McCormack concludes that Barth’s doctrine of justification is not only protestant, but radically so, for not even our faith makes it effective for us; only Christ’s faithfulness, death, and resurrection makes justification effective.  “Christ’s history is as such our history … [and] participation in Christ is not something that has first to be realized by means of an independent work of the Holy Spirit, but is already real even as the God-man carries out his work.”[11]  Barth sees both our being and God’s being “constituted by way of anticipation” in His eternal decision of the covenant of grace in which the God-man takes God’s reprobation and we get God’s mercy.[12]  Just because Barth does not use the language of imputation does not remove the element from the heart of his doctrine, McCormack argues, only in his doctrine imputation does not occur at a moment in time when the believer puts his faith in Christ.  Rather, it happens in eternity past. 

Although Barth’s doctrine has perhaps caused more openness between Protestants and Catholics towards fruitful ecumenical discussion, this has not taken place without serious controversy over whether this should have ever taken place, whether it reflects true agreement between essentials of Protestant and Catholic teaching on justification or naïvety.  If nothing else, Küng has inspired a new approach to ecumenical theology that relishes in the areas of continuity between Barth (and Calvin for that matter) and Trent.  Whereas Protestants and Catholics in time past were more narrowly aiming their energies at polemical writings that emphasized the areas of disagreement between them, Küng’s interpretation of Barth has caused a shift in focus on appreciation for elements that are similar.       

—————————————–

[1] Karl Barth, “A Letter to the Author,” in Hans Küng’s Justification (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John KnoxPress, 2004), lxvii-lxviii.

[2] “I have been guilty of a thoroughgoing misunderstanding and, consequently, of a thoroughgoing injustice regarding the teaching of your Church, especially that of the Fathers of Trent.”  Ibid., lxviii.  

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Hermann Häring, “Justification: Then and Now,” trans. Katharina Gustavs, in Justification, xxii.  

[5] Ibid.  Häring seems to imply that this was part of the reason Küng ultimately denied papal infallibility, for which the Vatican rescinded his authority as a teacher of Catholic theology.

[6] Ibid. xxv.

[7] Alister McGrath, “Justification—’Making Just’ or ‘Declaring Just’?: A Neglected Aspect of the Ecumenical Discussion on Justification,” Churchman, vol 96 no 1 (1982): 44-45.

[8] Alister McGrath, “Justification: Barth, Trent, and Küng,” Scottish Jounral of Theology, vol 34 no 6 (1981): 525. 

[9] Ibid., 527. 

[10] Bruce L. McCormack, “Justitia aliena: Karl Barth in Conversation with the Evangelical Doctrine of Imputed Righteousness,” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L McCormack (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006), 168.

[11] Ibid., 191.

[12] Ibid. 

:: The Sacrament of Baptism in Roman Catholic Theology ::

Baptism is efficacious—it removes the guilt of original sin and regenerates the soul, freeing one from the slavery of sin and conferring justifying grace, leaving an indelible mark on the baptized which can never be removed (not even by mortal sin) and marks the believer with the “seal.”[1]  It actually accomplishes that which it symbolizes—death to sin and the new birth of the Holy Spirit.  Baptism is therefore the Gateway to the Christian life—to justifying grace, to membership in the Catholic Church, to communion with Christ, his sufferings and baptism, to the common priesthood of all believers, etc.  Baptism is thus also necessary—for salvation, justification, sanctification, etc., and since children are born with original sin, they too must be baptized.  Christian Baptism is prefigured in the crossing of Jordan into the promise land, in Noah’s ark as a symbol of salvation, and above all in the Exodus as a symbol of liberation from bondage.  Water has always been a symbol of life and fruitfulness, yet the water of the sea is a symbol of death, and thus represents the death of Christ and consequently the death of the believer who dies with Christ through Baptism. 

Yet, although “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism … he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”[2]  Therefore, exceptions include 1) baptism of desire (those who die with the intention to be baptized, such as a catechumen who dies before he/she is baptized), 2) baptism of blood (those who die in martyrdom for their faith before they are able to be baptized), 3) those who seek the truth and do the will of God in accordance with his or her understanding of it (for such persons “would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity”),[3] and 4) probably unbaptized infants, since God’s mercy is so great, and since Jesus had a tender heart toward children.   

The Roman Catholic celebration of Baptism is extensive and detailed.  Although only a bishop, priest, or (in the Latin Church) a deacon ordinarily administers baptism, in case of necessity, anyone who sincerely wished to truly perform the celebration may do so.[4]  All not yet baptized are subject to baptism, but since baptism can never be repeated, only those not yet baptized can be candidates.[5]  For the celebration of baptism, many rituals must be performed—exorcisms, the consecration of the baptismal waters, confession of faith, triple immersion (or triple pouring) in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the post-baptismal anointing which symbolizes the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the white garment which symbolizes the putting on of Christ, the candle which symbolizes the enlightened neophyte and the transformation of this one from darkness to light (even the light of the world), and finally, the solemn blessing which concludes the celebration.          

Texts which on the surface seem to support Baptismal regeneration—which is directly tied to salvation—are used in support of the Roman Catholic understanding of Baptism as efficacious for purification and regeneration.  Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5).[6]  In addition to baptism being central to the Great Commission, Jesus explicitly says, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mk 16:16).  The apostles carried out their preaching in the same way.  The Chief Apostle Peter preached this way: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  Thus, it is no surprise that Paul would also strongly connect Baptism with dying to sin and being liberated from its bondage (Rom 6:4-7, cf. Col 2:12).  The Catechism suffers no shortage of proof texts for Baptismal Regeneration (see also Titus 3:5; 1 Pet 3:20; Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 6:11; 12:13; Eph 5:26).  For infant baptism, the Catechism first recognizes that infants are born with a sin nature which leaves them in need of salvation.  Secondly, it harkens to Jesus words, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mk 10:14).  Thirdly, it appeals to the “explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on.”[7]  Lastly, the Catechism appeals to “household” baptism of the NT (Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16).  A frequent theme in defense of the inclusivistic widening of baptismal grace is an appeal to the desire of “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:6).  This verse is reference more than once in the section on baptism.

            Compared to many other doctrines of Roman Catholicism which find not even a shadow of support from the NT, Rome’s support for her views on Baptism seems at first impressive.  Whereas much of the Catechism’s footnotes and quotes hearken more to Tradition, the majority of arguments in this section come straight from scripture.  Much of Protestant Evangelical Theology will differ immensely from the views summarized above.  There is no way to give a substantive critique of the mountain of biblical passages appealed to in the above mentioned summary, so I must only give a hint as to how certain Protestant Evangelicals would critique the Roman Catholic arguments employed in defense of their views.  Although on the surface the passages cited are very persuasive, in the end, the conclusions Rome draws from these verses violate her own canons about biblical interpretation—namely, to “be especially attentive ‘to the content and unity of the whole Scripture,'” and to “be attentive to the analogy of faith.”[8]  Passages in Scripture which teach that salvation comes at the moment of faith—not the moment of baptism—are overwhelming in number, and more didactic in nature.  Therefore, in spite of the plethora of proof texts, Rome falls short of her own standards of hermeneutics.  Rome’s arguments for Inclusivism, which are based on the general concepts of the mercy and compassion of God are in need of more exegetical input.  We should not assume God’s mercy extends beyond the explicit ways revealed to us in Sacred Scripture.  Finally, as the most frequently quoted verse in Rome’s whole defense for Baptismal Regeneration, John 3:5, the concept of being born of water and Spirit is drawn from OT imagery about the New Covenant.  Therefore, Jesus language of the necessity of being born of water and Spirit is tantamount to speaking of the necessity of being a part of the New Covenant (Ezek 36:25-26).  One should not, then, read water baptism into this apocalyptic symbolism.          

From an evangelical Baptist perspective, Jesus’ words about children are just that—words about children, not infants.  Jesus referred to children who were at least old enough to “come” to him (physically, not spiritually).  The passages about “household” baptisms are presumptuous in that they must assume that the households referred to include infants (which is not explicitly in the text), but also it seems clear from comparing parallel accounts of baptisms that when a household was baptized it was because the household also believed (Acts 16:34; 18:8).[9]  Beyond the fact that Protestants do not accept arguments from church history on equal grounds with Scripture, the evidence from church history can also be interpreted in a way which actually creates an argument against infant baptism.

Rome’s doctrine of baptism is not all bad.  Adult baptisms are likely to be handed with greater care than in Protestant churches by emphasizing the need for catechesis.[10]  Also, she emphasizes the importance of the responsibility of the church to help nourish those who join the church through baptism, as well as the responsibility of those who are baptized to respect church authority.[11]  She rightly sees a connection between faith and baptism.  She rightly sees baptism as central to the great commission, and as symbolizing our death to sin and resurrection to new life.  As is common with all sacraments and doctrines of Rome, she sees the mystery of the sacrament summed up in Christ: “In Christ’s death ‘is the whole mystery.'”[12]  However, while getting these less important details right, Rome has indeed presented quite a different way of salvation than that which so many evangelical protestants believe to be the biblical doctrine of salvation by her teaching of the efficacy of regeneration and forgiveness of sins through baptism. This leads many evangelicals to conclude that Rome’s doctrine of baptism, with her understanding of its efficacy, with her inclusive tendencies, with her practice of infant baptism, violently distorts the biblical gospel.  I would remind such Protestants that Jesus himself (his incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection) is the essential part of the kerygmatic gospel in the NT (1 Cor 15:3-4) not a specific view about baptism.  Plenty of Protestants also believe in the efficacy of water baptism for salvation.  In fact, Martin Luther himself believed this and taught it with a passion.  If we accuse Rome of distorting the very gospel of Jesus Christ on account of her beliefs about baptism, we will get more than we bargained for and end up condemning almost the whole pre-reformation church, including the early martyrs, the apostolic and patristic fathers, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther himself, and several Protestant denominations.  Perhaps Rome is wrong on her doctrine of baptism, but this does not mean Catholics deny the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Let’s not make too little of the gospel and too much of our different views of baptism.        


[1] Although the idea of “seal” seems to communicate that one is sealed for eternal salvation, if one does not “keep” the seal he or she receives then that person will lose his or her status in the state of grace, make shipwreck of their faith and go to hell—even though they would still have a permanent “mark” on their soul.  In other words, neither the seal, nor the indelible mark are any guarantee of salvation, just guarantee of a “mark” and a losable “seal.”  Catechism, par 1274.

[2] Catechism, par 1257.

[3] Catechism, par 1260.

[4] After all, it is better that a layman perform the sacrament unlawfully than that the one desiring baptism lose out on salvation.

[5] The church is only willing to baptize anyone who has never been baptized.

[6] This text, John 3:5, is appealed to more than any other verse in the section on Baptism—5 times total.  See footnotes 24, 25, 40, 59, and 64.

[7] Catechism, par 1252.

[8] Catechism, par 112 & 114.

[9] It should be noted that Rome seems hesitant to use these verses as prove her case, since she holds out the “possibility” that they may not refer to infant baptisms.  Catechism, par 1252.   

[10] Catechism, par 1216, 1233, 1248.

[11] Catechism, par 1255, 1269, 1271.

[12] Catechism, par 1225. 

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••••••••••••••••••••••

Contraception a Culprit to Denigration? :: Pope Paul VI’s Prophetic Warning

Sharon Hodde at She Worships claims that Pope Paul VI was a prophetic voice forty years ago in Humanae Vitae, and laments that we did not listen to him.  She’s not sure if the growing use of contraception is the causal mechanism to the objectification of women, but she thinks it is at least one small contributing factor.  Read her thoughts.

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