T h e o • p h i l o g u e

Home » Posts tagged 'The Council of Trent'

Tag Archives: The Council of Trent

~ 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.

Trent’s Interpretation and Implementation: After the Council

What did Catholics do when Protestants objected about the churches corruption and doctrine?  Trent.  That’s what they did.  But did the Council of Trent actually do anything?  Did it change anything?  How was it implemented?    

We have already summarized O’Malley’s summary of the council of Trent, using quotations from his article.  Now we will look at a few things that took place after the council, and summarize O’Malley’s conclusion. 

All this comes from John W. O’Malley’s chapter, “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J.  Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.

Pius IV: Interpretive Precedent

 “Pius IV, pope when the council ended, refused to listen to those advisers who entreated him to delay approval of the decrees or to proceed selectively by omitting or correcting some of them.  He forthwith decided to approve and promulgate the decrees in their entirety.  … By this act Pius … implicitly put the papacy forward as the chief interpreter and implementer of the Trent decrees and initiated the battle over who should interpret and implement them.  Three rival claimants soon emerged” (221). 

Sixtus V: Subsequent Papal Interpretation

 The first of these rivals was the subsequent papacy itself.  “Pope Sixtus V gave institutional grounding in 1588 by creating the Congregation of the Council, a bureau of the Roman Curia empowered to issue authoritative interpretations of Trent” (221).  The Council enabled this sort of maneuvering “by commending to the papacy the publication of an Index, catechism, missal, and breviary”  (221).  Thus, while the pope approved of the council’s decrees, if there were any debates over what the decrees actually intended, the subsequent popes would set the standard for interpretation.    

Phillip II of Spain: Royal Implementation

The second of these rivals were the Catholic princes like Phillip II who promulgated the decrees of Trent in Spain, but “made it clear that no important measures would be enacted without his knowledge and approbation” (222).  Because of the religious wars in France, Trent was not officially embraced until 1615.  By that time “the crown was … strong enough to protect its traditional prerogatives in many ecclesiastical matters” (222).  In other words, it appears that O’Malley is saying that the royal implementations tended to be willing to allow for incomplete implementation in cases where the crown’s control would be limited by the decrees.    

St. Charles Borromeo: Episcopal Implementation

The third of these rivals were charismatic bishops.  This rival is best exemplified in St. Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan.  He placed emphasis on “the right and duty of bishops to adapt, regulate, and even expand upon what the council had decreed” (222).  After the council he held many synods with his clergy and with suffragan bishops also, and he eventually published the results of these meetings under the title “Decrees of the Church of Milan” (222).  “This volume, along with some of Borromeo’s treatises on subjects like confession and ecclesiastical furnishing, became best-sellers among high churchmen and to some extent replaced the reform decrees of the council itself.  But Borromeo often found himself at odds with a papal curia that viewed these developments with distrust and sometimes tried to obstruct them” (222).  “Bit by bit … the impact of ‘Trent,’ already at least a step removed from the actual decrees, became evident” (222).  In other words, certain bishops went beyond the council’s decrees in their interpretation and implementation.  O’Malley thinks this has caused later historians to mistake the reforms of bishops with the reforms of Trent.  They were not always the same.  Of course the popes did this sort of thing too, which leads us to O’Malley’s conclusion.  

Conclusion

“By the seventeenth century Rome had for the most part established itself as the effective interpreter of the council and, in responding to various pressures of the era, more and more presented the council as a systematic, complete, and exhaustive response to every problem.  From Rome itself, therefore, sprang the myth still prevalent today that ‘Trent’ was comprehensive in its scope and exhaustively detailed in all its provisions” (223).  Giuseppe Alberigo said: “Under the aegis of the council, Catholic theology in the post-Tridentine era closed a great number of open questions, which at Trent were indeed recognized as such.  The effect was to put a blight on theological pluralism and to promote a false identification of the certainties of faith with theological intransigence” (223).

Trent on Reform: The Catholic Counter-Reformation

So what did the Catholic Church do after Protestants had year after year pointed to obvious corruption in the church?  Trent.  That’s what they did.    

O’Malley teaches that although the Council of Trent published many decrees, the decrees can be boiled down to two areas: 1) denouncing Protestant doctrines (particularly Luther) and 2) reforming the “institutional” church.  In our last post we looked at Trent’s doctrinal reforms.  Now we look at the council’s ecclesiastical reforms.

All this comes from John W. O’Malley’s chapter, “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J.  Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.

The Goal of the Reform 

 “The reform of the bishops and pastors had as its goal a more effective ministry” (215).  “The most notable effect, perhaps, was that within a century bishops were, for the most part, resident in their dioceses and taking their pastoral responsibilities more seriously than before.  They established seminaries and insisted on a new standard of deportment for the parish clergy” (222).     

Papal Reform

 Only after a long “stand-still,” the suspension of all sessions, and the new appointment of Giovanni Morone as a papal legate (“who had recently been released from the papal prison”) was there significant progress made on reform (214).  This is because “of the three offices in the church that needed reform, the papacy was first on just about everybody’s list,” but the pope wanted to have control over the reform of the papacy (214).  Imagine that right?  

Finally, “except for a brief and perfunctory bit of sumptuary regulation for prelates that in passing mentioned the cardinals, it was agreed that the papacy would have complete control of its own reform” (214).  “Trent did not define the prerogatives of the papacy because, had it been able to do so, it would have in some measure tried to restrict them.  This is another aspect of the Council of Trent that is little known or appreciated” (216).  “The bishops at Trent realized that all their work would go for naught if it failed to receive papal approval” (221).  It is important to remember that “none of the three popes under whom the council met during its eighteen-year history had ever set foot as pope in the council chambers” (221).   

Pastoral Reform: Bishops and Pastors

“By the third period, under Morone’s leadership, it courageously passed a series of measures that aimed, as Jedin puts it, at transforming bishops from collectors of benefices into pastors of souls” (214).  Trent forbade absenteeism (bishops or priests who were absent from their dioceses or parish) and pluralism (the practice of collecting revenues from more than one bishopric at a time and the practice of being pastor of more than one parish).  These were the practices that enabled bishops and priests to collect lots of money while not doing any pastoral ministry.  These were the practices that caused greedy people to aspire to ecclesiastical offices just for the sake of money.  Therefore, this part of the council of Trent O’Malley calls a “moral miracle,” since “this meant reforming themselves where it hurt most—in their bank accounts” (214).  These were the two “foundation stones” of the Tridentine Reform. 

Furthermore, it required each bishop to 1) “hold regular synods with their clergy,” 2) “visit and oversee” more closely “their parishes and other institutions of the diocese,” 3) “show greater stringency in admitting candidates to priestly ordination,” 4) “to assure that confessors be properly qualified,” 5) to establish a seminary for the training of poor boys for the priesthood, 6) “to promote teaching on Sundays and feast days, setting the example themselves” (215). 

The council understood the pastor’s function as consisting in residing in his parish, administering the rites and sacraments of the church, and preaching on Sundays and holy days.  While the council dealt extensively with the reform of both the bishops and pastors, it did so largely through the bishops.  “These are the ‘pastoral’ decrees of a council often not conceived of as pastoral.  In time they had great impact on the way bishops and pastors functioned.  … They illustrated beyond a doubt how episcopal the reforms of the Council of Trent were” (216).

Mendicant Orders

“This purview excluded (except almost as a bothersome intrusion) the ministry of the members of mendicant orders like the Franciscans and the Dominicans. … At Trent the bishops passed measures that limited the pastoral prerogatives of the mendicants and that also tried to regulate various aspects of the life of members of all religious orders” (216).

Nuns

There was a “decree insisting on the strict cloister of nuns, so that ‘no nun shall after her profession be permitted to go out of the monastery’ except with Episcopal approval” (217).  It is extremely important, however, to remember that “this decree applied only to the nuns in the strict sense of the word (monialies—in today’s popular parlance, ‘contemplatives’), and did not apply to members of the Third Orders like Saint Catherine of Siena who, always depicted as wearing the Dominican habit, looks to us for all the world like a ‘nun’” (217).  

Disciplinary Measures

“In its decrees and canons on reform the council set forth briefly its pastoral goals; it put teeth into them by the sanctions it threatened for noncompliance. … The council could hardly have proceeded otherwise.  No realistic person thought exhortations would do the job, but in the long run such procedures reinforced ‘social disciplining’ as an ecclesiastical style” (217).  Although articulated in juridical and disciplinary terms, “the council established a closer relationship between bishops and the parish clergy than was common earlier” (215).  

:::: In our next post we will look at what happened after the council and draw some summarize O’Malley’s conclusions.

Trent on Doctrine: Justification and the Sacraments

In our last post, we looked at the obstacles that prevented a Catholic council for so many years before Trent, the cooperation between Pope Paul III and Emperor Charles V that eventually made a council possible and the double agenda of the council that resulted from their agreement: denouncing Protestant teaching (Doctrine) and addressing corruption within the Catholic Church (Reform).  In this post, we will look at the highlights of the doctrinal decrees of the council as summarized in John W. O’Malley’s article “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J.  Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.  

Two Issues: Justification & The Sacraments 

“Despite their number and length, the doctrinal decrees deal substantially with only two issues: justification and the sacraments” (210).  For example, “the decree on original sin, though published in its own right, surely needs to be considered as a prelude to the decree on justification” (211).  “Under the rubric of justification” also, “the council made statements about predestination, about the kind of certitude persons might have of their salvation,” and related matters such as a brief statement on purgatory (213). 

Also, because Luther, in attacking the Catholic position on the sacraments, had bolstered a “Scripture alone” argument, before getting underway with the Catholic understanding of the sacraments, the council was forced to deliberate on “the basis on which it would argue them” (213).  This is why Trent initially decides on a canon (including the so-called deuterocanonical books that Luther rejected) and included as an authority, in addition to Scripture, “apostolic traditions” (213).  Thus, although Trent dealt with many doctrinal issues, when understood in this way, the council was essentially attempting to address only two issues: justification and the sacraments.  The other issues, such as authority and original sin, are addressed only because they are forced into the discussion by virtue of the councils desire to address Luther’s doctrine of justification and sacraments. 

Justification: The Necessity, Priority and Ubiquity of Grace

 “Stung by Luther’s criticism that Catholics were Pelagians who believed that ‘works’ rather than grace saved them, the council insisted sedulously that justification was accomplished always and everywhere under the inspiration of grace; that the beginning, middle, and end of the process of justification was grace-inspired.  One did not do what one could on one’s own so that grace would be given.  All movement toward grace was done under the impulse of grace.  ‘Good works’ were not good unto salvation unless they were grace-inspired.  Thus, within the theological framework in which it formulated its decree, the council was resoundingly anti-Pelagian” (211).  “The council interpreted Luther, however, as denying any human part in justification, as altogether eliminating human responsibility—relying on ‘grace alone.’  Anti-Pelagian though the council was, it also taught that in some mysterious way, human beings played a role in their own justification.  Indeed they somehow ‘cooperated’ in it, though grace always held primacy” (211). 

The Sacraments: There are Seven, They Were Instituted by Christ

“Luther had not only denied that there were seven but had also redefined the two that he saw as clearly taught in the New Testament: baptism and the Eucharist.  The council decided to answer Luther point for point,” which made for a frustrating protracted treatment that took much longer than the council expected (212).  Although “in the opening weeks of the council, the bishops decided that, as far as possible, they would frame their teaching in the language of Scripture and the fathers of the church and would eschew the technical language developed by scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages,” this goal was not as well attained in the doctrine of sacraments compared to the doctrine of original sin and justification (212).  “The scholastic framework of matter and form, of the four ‘causes,’ and of similar categories is the first distinguishing mark of the Tridentine doctrine on the sacraments” (212).  The council insisted on seven sacraments but made the qualification that they were not all “equal in dignity” (212).  The chief argument here was this: “they have come down from [Christ] and the apostles to the present in an unbroken and undeviating tradition” (212).  “No previous council had so repeatedly propounded such continuity and changelessness in the handing on of doctrine” (212).

The Ignorance of the Bishops About Luther

“Most of the bishops who assembled at Trent in 1545 had never read a word Luther wrote and knew only through hearsay what he supposedly had taught.  Most of the theologians they called on to assist them knew little more” (210).  The exceptions to this are: Girolamo Seripando (prior general of the Augustinian order) and Cardinal Reginald Pole, “one of the three papal legates who presided over the council in that first, crucial period” of 1545-47, when the decrees concerning justification were hammered out (210-11).

Forbidden Books

The “grab bag of decrees” at the end of the council included a decree “that handed over to the Holy See the publication of … an index of prohibited books” (in addition to a catechism, a revised missal and breviary) (217). 

Veneration of Relics and Sacred Images

In the “grab bag” session “also appeared a decree commending the veneration of sacred relics and of sacred images.  This decree was obviously meant to counter Protestant attacks on such practices” (217).  It did, however, specify that superstition and lasciviousness is to be avoided in sacred images, “thus warranting some later attempts by churchmen to censor all religious art” (218). 

Teachings on Purgatory

In the “grab bag” session there was also a reaffirmation of purgatory, basically reiterating the teaching of the Council of Florence, with this difference: there appear lengthy cautions about abuses of the teachings on purgatory.

Indulgences

The council confirmed the validity of indulgences, asserting that the power of granting them had been bestowed on the church by Christ.  It also anathematizes those who either denounce them as useless or question their efficacy.  As with teaching on purgatory, however, there appear warnings about abuses and an admonition that “moderation be observed.” 

Unauthorized Printings

Although forbidding the printing of scriptures, Bible study notes, and theological books without ecclesiastical approval (and those without the author’s name attached), Trent does not condemn Bible reading in the vernacular as popularly believed.  The council threatens that no one dare question the authenticity of the Latin Vulgate, however.  “Finally, contrary to what often is said, Trent did not decree that the Mass must be celebrated in Latin” (220).  “It is forbidden to hold that ‘the mass ought to be celebrated in the vernacular tongue only’ [lingua tantum vulgari]” (220).  On this last point, “we have an excellent illustration of how the council began to be misconstrued and manipulated almost before the ink was dry, and thus of how ‘Trent’ began often to bear only a distorted relationship to what the council actually decreed and intended” (221).    

In our next post, we will look at the decrees of the Council that addressed many of the areas of corruption in the Catholic Church that Protestants pointed to in order to justify their Reformation.

The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation

The following are summaries and excerpts from the following resource: John W. O’Malley’s article “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J.  Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.  The following is only a summary up to page 210.  I hope to post more soon, eventually encapsulating his entire article in about three brief posts.  

Introduction 

According to O’Malley, there are two extreme views of the Council of Trent among Catholics: “that the council wrought all the bad things that Vatican Council II saved them from, or that it set forth all the good things Vatical II robbed them of” (205).  Although Hubert Jedin left few stones unturned when he published the most comprehensive treatment of the Council in 1975 (four volumes long, only two of which were translated into English), “few English-language historians” have taken the time to read through them because “as the little girl said about the book on snakes, [Jedin’s work] tells people more about Trent than they could possibly want to know” (206).  

For example, it is now clear that “Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan (1564-82) and great implementer of Trent, in effect rewrote the decrees by giving them a specificity and sometimes a rigor they originally lacked, and by supplying what he thought the council ought to have done but had failed to do” (206).  “These interpretations were foisted onto the council and became Trent” (206).  Because many historians have tended to focus on the implementations of the councils decrees rather than the council itself, “this new scholarship, for all its merits, has contributed to the tradition of ignorance and misunderstanding of the council itself” (206).   

Obstacles to Trent

Obstacles to Trent were: 1) “The Vacillation of Pope Clement VII (1523-34), who feared that the council might depose him” (207), and 2) “The obstructive tactics of King Francis I of France (1515-47), who feared that a council, if successful, would strengthen the political hand of his great rival, Charles V, by eliminating in Germany the threat of civil war created by the volatile and often violent religious situation” (207).

Cooperation for Trent and the Double Agenda

“Two persons cooperated in bringing [the council] into being: Pope Paul III (1534-49) and Emperor Charles V (1519-55).  …. Charles V, and his entourage hoped, for the sake of the peace of ‘the empire,’ that is, of Germany, that [the rift] could” be healed between Protestants and Catholics (207).  “A practical man, he sincerely believed that the real problem was reform, and that the unreformed condition of the church had caused the Lutheran crisis.  A reform of the church was therefore the precondition, at least, for resolving it” (209). 

On the other hand, “The pope envisaged the council principally as a response to the doctrinal issues raised by Luther, issues that he and many others interpreted as just some old heresies in a new dress. … The condemnation would probably preclude any possibility of reconciliation with them, but Paul and many in his entourage thought that was a lost cause anyway” (208). 

Thus, all the enactments of the council can be gathered under these two headings: 1) uprooting heresies and 2) reform of clergy and members.  Charles V wanted reform to be dealt with first, while Paul III wanted to first deal with heresies, so the compromise was made: the bishops agreed to “deal with both doctrine and reform alternately: first a decree on doctrine and then a decree on some aspect of reform” (209).  

Simplicity of the Council of Trent: Doctrine and Reform

“The council was far from being as all-encompassing as Vatican Council II tried to be.  Under ‘doctrine,’ the council meant to treat only Protestant teachings. … In this regard Trent had Luther principally in mind” (209).  The reform of the church “meant essentially reform of three offices in the church: the papacy, the episcopacy, and the pastorate” (209).  In other words, the reform was aimed at “institutional church” (210). 

“The council dealt of course with the laity and directed its efforts to the ‘reform of the Christian people,’ but it did so almost exclusively through directives for pastors” (210).  The simplicity of the Tridentine doctrinal and reform agenda easily escapes students because the decrees and canons of the council are always published in chronological order,” thus the decrees seem like “an endless scattershot of rules, regulations, and prohibitions devoid of plan and vision” (210).  “Nonetheless, Trent has, in both its doctrinal and disciplinary enactments, a remarkable and consistently maintained focus”: denouncing protestant doctrine and reforming the “institutional church” (210).  

In our next post, we will continue to explore O’Malley’s understanding of the decrees of the council.

%d bloggers like this: