Monday, 8 November 2010

The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained


The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

(Shakespeare, Portia to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice)

I had occasion to quote Shakespeare's Portia recently in a reply to something erstwhile Lutheran come Roman Catholic David Schuetz wrote over at his blog, Sentire Cum Ecclesia, on the subject of Indulgences. David informs us that "Indulgence season is now open. For the Indulgences for the Faithful Departed available from 1 to 8 November see here". A link is supplied to The Manual of Indulgences where it is explained how "a plenary indulgence, applicable only to the souls in purgatory is granted to the faithful who, on any and each day from November 1 to 8, devoutly visit a cemetery and pray, if only mentally, for the departed...or on the solemnity of All Saints, devoutly visit a church or an oratory and recite an Our Father and the Creed."

I suppose we can at least be grateful they're not selling Indulgences anymore!

David then goes on to note that this is "a contentious issue ecumenically", and to complain of the misrepresentation of Indulgences which stubbornly persists in Lutheran circles, telling us that "My children were treated yesterday [i.e. Reformation Day] to a “fun” children’s address in which (according to their report) the one giving the address came into the church crying something along the lines of “Pay your money and get your sins forgiven”. They were then taught that sins are only forgiven through confession and repentance. Of course. That is what the Catholic Church teaches too. Indulgences has [sic] nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins, and perpetuating this myth is not helpful."

Actually, I think it’s perpetuating Indulgences that is not helpful. And to say that "Indulgences (have) nothing to do with forgiveness of sins" is more than a little misleading. Indulgences have everything to do with the forgiveness of sins - the basis on which forgiveness is granted, how it is received, its extent and its benefits. Yes, the Roman church teaches that sins are forgiven through confession and repentance, but there's more to it than that, and we need only draw attention to the Roman definition of repentance to make that clear; let Luther remind us: “This word repentance cannot be understood to mean the sacrament of penance, or the act of confession and satisfaction administered by the priests” (Disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences, thesis #2).

The Roman doctrine on Indulgences is an extension of their teaching on forgiveness. In fact, I would suggest it is actually integral to their doctrine of forgiveness rather than incidental to it. What Roman Catholic, knowing and believing what his church teaches, would not seek to gain Indulgences for himself (or his deaceased relatives in purgatory), when by doing so he avoids suffering the temporal punishment his sins are due? The Roman Code of Canon Law, which regulates Roman Catholic practice in this as in all areas of its life, explicitly states that "An indulgence is the remission before God of temporal punishment for sins whose guilt is already forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful gains under certain and defined conditions". Let's leave aside, for the moment, exactly what "properly disposed" means and how the pious works of a Christian may gain a remission of these temporal punishments, and focus our attention solely on what I believe is the most important issue here, the doctrinal root of the practice that is so offensive to Lutherans.

Note that, according to Rome, the guilt of sin is forgiven - in sacramental confession - but there is still "temporal punishment for sins" which must be suffered. If Canon Law wasn’t clear enough, we have the benefit of the authoritative Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina (The Doctrine of Indulgences), promulgated in 1967 by Pope Paul VI, in which he states that, “ It is a divinely revealed truth that sins bring punishments inflicted by God's sanctity and justice. These must be expiated either on this earth through the sorrows, miseries and calamities of this life and above all through death, or else in the life beyond through fire and torments or "purifying" punishments.”

According to the Papacy, then, the punishments for sin are inflicted by “God’s sanctity and justice” and “must be expiated…through sorrows…either in this life or the next” [italics mine]. Note the forensic language used here: the Pope speaks of punishments inflicted by God’s justice which must be expiated - Lutherans, who must often bear the charge from Roman Catholics that we reduce salvation to the “legal metaphor” of justification or the “commercial metaphor” of imputation, can at least smile at the irony here, even while observing that Pope Paul’s legal metaphors tend in completely the opposite direction from Luther‘s, towards nomism in fact - but that is a subject for another post. The doctrinal bedrock of Roman Catholicism, the Decrees of The Council of Trent, also state that “sins be not in such wise pardoned us without any satisfaction”, and that the satisfaction that priests impose as part of repentance “be not only for the preservation of a new life and a medicine of infirmity, but also for the avenging and punishing of past sins” (Council of Trent, Session 14, On the most holy sacraments of penance and extreme unction, ch. VIII, On the necessity and on the fruit of satisfaction).

On the basis of these statements, we are entitled to draw the conclusion that for Rome the guilt of sin and its temporal punishment are two distinct things; guilt is atoned for by Christ’s death on the Cross, but temporal punishment must be expiated (suffered or paid for) by the repentant sinner, either in this life or the next. And these punishments, note carefully -for this goes to the crux of the matter - are actually inflicted by the justice of God upon his sinning child, and are not just remedial or corrective in intent, as are, for example, the chastisements of a loving parent upon a wayward child.

Now, what strange love is this, that forgives, but still punishes? Strange indeed! As the great St Anselm remarked to his interlocutor, “What else does it mean to remit sins than not to punish them?” (in Cur Deus Homo? Why Did God Become Man?) But then Anselm lived well before the worst excesses of the medieval penitential system and their later codification by the Council of Trent! (It is my contention that the morphology of modern Roman Catholicism developed during the Counter-Reformation, and represents a version, and a distorted version at that, of the Western Catholicism which came before it.)

But back to temporal punishments, for this is where Indulgences come in. The Indulgence, which is gained by performing the prescribed pious work - it may be saying the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer or a Hail Mary - remits (i.e. cancels) the temporal punishment. Here the sufficiency of Christ’s satisfaction for sins is clearly brought into question, as the temporal punishment due for sin is remitted by a satisfaction made by the believer himself, or in the case of the “poor souls in purgatory” by someone still living on their behalf. This practice clearly ascribes salvific merit, even if only partially, to human acts. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church confirms this in ascribing such merit to the good works of the saints (believers whose sanctity resulted in their entering heaven immediately upon death), especially the good works and prayers of the virgin Mary, which merit is supposedly added to the treasury of merit won by Christ, out of which Rome dispenses this remission of temporal punishments (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras 1471-1479). What else is this, I ask, but rank synergism, salvation by faith plus human works? How does it not undermine the doctrine of the vicarious satisfaction of Christ for the sins of the world and the sufficiency of the atonement made by Christ by teaching that there is still some satisfaction which must be made by the repentant sinner himself or by others - who have the "correct disposition" - on his behalf?

Need I remind the reader of how this system contradicts scripture? There is a catena of passages one could cite, but suffice it to point to the chief passages and let the reader examine each passage for himself in context and follow through by using the cross-references in his own Bible: Isaiah 43:25, John 3:36, 5: 24, Romans 3,5:9, Romans 8, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Colossians 2:13, Hebrews 1:3; 1 John 2:1-2, 5:10-13, Revelation 1:5. But we must give special consideration the words of our Lord which he uttered on the Cross, when he was making atonement for the sins of the world. When the thief at his side humbly and penitently asked to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom, our Lord assured him that “today you will be with me in Paradise.” The thief would not be consigned to purgatory, a place where the temporal punishment for his obviously manifold sins would have to be suffered, but Paradise.

Then consider our Lord’s words “It is finished.” What was finished? The work he came to accomplish, making atonement to God for the sins of mankind. The word used by the apostle John in his Gospel account (19:30) is tetelestai. We know from ancient Greek papyri that the word had a commercial context, as it was written across a bill or loan contract when the outstanding debt was paid: “paid in full.” Thus Jesus not only made satisfaction for our sins, but he also propitiated (hilaskomai) the wrath of God, turning it away from believers (1 John 2:2). In the Old Testament, the high priest placed the blood of the sacrifices on the mercy-seat (“the place of propitiation”) which formed the lid of the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25). For Christians the Cross has become the “mercy-seat” of the New Testament upon which the blood of Jesus was shed to atone for sins, including the propitiation of God’s wrath (attempts have been made to deny that Jesus’ death on the Cross contained the element of propitiation, most notably by C. H. Dodd in the 1930s, but these assertions have been refuted by scholars as diverse as Leon Morris in his Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics, II, I, pp 398-403 and F. Buechsel in his article on hilaskomai in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. The AV's use of "mercy-seat" derives from Tyndale, who was in turn influenced by Luther's rendering Gnadenstuhl).

But what does this mean, the lay reader may ask? It means that the death of our Lord on the Cross not only removed the guilt of our sin, but also turned away the divine anger from repentant and believing sinners. God no longer punishes his children for their sins, for that punishment has been borne completely by Christ. God demonstrates his righteousness to us precisely by setting forth Christ as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, to paraphrase Paul in Romans 3 (and note his allusion to the mercy-seat through his use of hilsterion there, derived from the Septuagint‘s translation of kapporeth [Exodus 25:17]). We cannot, and need not, add to the sacrifice of Christ through our own penal sufferings. To assert that we can is to deny the completeness and sufficiency of Christ’s atonement and deny the Word of God.

There is much more that could be written, but satis est - it is enough! In conclusion, let us return to Shakespeare, who noted that in the exercise of mercy, which is not “strained” - meaning not constrained, or meted out only in parts - human beings reflect an attribute of God. The Popes do not understand what the Protestant layman Shakespeare clearly did - that God’s mercy is not stored up in heaven in some treasury of merit to be doled out by the church on earth in “seasons of indulgence” in exchange for pious works of satisfaction, but rather droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon repentant sinners.

So forgive me, William, for now turning your immortal words to my own purpose:

Therefore, Romanist,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy…


Amen! SDG.

[David's original post can be viewed by clicking on the post title.]

7 comments:

Peter McKeague said...

Thank you for this post Mark. You have dealt very well with a vital subject that still divides Roman Catholic from Protestant, and that goes to the heart of those differences. Various ecumenical statements purporting agreement on Justification cannot hide this disagreement, or at least that these statements are read rather differently in the respective traditions. Your comments apply also to the differences over Eucharistic Sacrifice, particularly the RC doctrine, another topic where ecumenical consensus has been claimed. Purgatory and Indulgences are incompatible with the freeness of God's grace and they compromise the sufficiency of Christ's atonement.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thank you Peter for your comments -good to have you drop by the old manse once again.
I'm happy to say I am one with you also on eucharistic sacrifice. In my view, the persistence - no, not just persistence but, we must sadly say, the continued positive promotion of these errors in Rome's practice cheapens the ecumenical agreements that have been claimed in the recent past, including the Lutheran-RC JDDJ.

Schütz said...

I will read this and get back to you soon.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

OK David.
If you respond, let's keep focussed on the main issue, the penal character of purgatorial suffering, and how that can be made to square with the atonement.

PS
I have no problem with temporal sufferings being remedial, i.e. designed to draw us closer to Christ; that is part of the Reformation theology of the cross. Of course I deny such sufferings take place after death - in light of the benefits of the atonement that would be redundant. It seems to me that by emphasising this point so much you are ackonwledging a problem with the doctrine of a penal purgatory as taught in the official pronoucenments of your church. Or perhaps you haven't quite grappled with this contradiction yet?)

Schütz said...

If you respond, let's keep focussed on the main issue, the penal character of purgatorial suffering, and how that can be made to square with the atonement... Or perhaps you haven't quite grappled with this contradiction yet?

I am going to be absolutely candid and admit that you are right.

Now that you have picked yourself up from the floor, let me explain:

I think there is some real difficulties with the penal language of Trent and other aspects of the tradition in regard to purgatory.

But I see in both the Catechism and in Pope Ratzinger's teaching some real indications of an awareness that this is a problem, and that the tradition of penal language to describe purgatory is not (today at least) the most helpful; and moreover that these penal metaphors are not "of the essence" of the doctrine as such.

I am convinced that there is in fact a point of meeting - as you yourself have begun to acknowledge in saying that you "have no problem with temporal sufferings being remedial, i.e. designed to draw us closer to Christ; that is part of the Reformation theology of the cross."

I am also convinced that we are not bound to continue to use the metaphors which the Church has used in the past, especially if they fail to communicate the truth of the doctrine in question. As a small example of this, we note how it was once standard to refer to "days" and "years" in purgatory - such language has been entirely done away with.

In his latest Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict urges those engaged in ecumenical dialogue to return to the Scriptures and seek in them the unity of the faith of the Church.

I declare myself here and now entirely prepared for such a project. I welcome it, confident that the Tradition of the Church is in conformity with the Scrpitural witness. At the same time, I am ready for the Scriptures to challenge the language and metaphors that we use.

Are you?

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Well, having indeed just picked myself up off the floor, I notice it's past my bedtime. I have a big day tomorrow and will travel c. 200kms doing numerous visits before getting back to Toowoomba to attend a meeting at 7.00pm, which is a circumlocutionary way of saying I may not get back to you until Thursday, David. But I must say I'm intrigued by your proposal. However, I should say I can't see how Rome can reform its doctrine on this without serious implications for the authority of the Magisterium.

Now, define your canon of scripture...

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Shutz said:

""Now, define your canon of scripture"

This can only be a reference to 2 Macc 12. Of course Maccabees are not in the Protestant canon, but they were in the canon of the Church from the very beginning.

Be this as it may, it is not essential that Maccabees be a part of the Canon for us to see it as an important historical development in the Jewish view of the afterlife. It therefore forms a background to the New Testament understanding of the afterlife (at least!).

Any discussion of purgatory would need to take this historical development into account."

For some reason Blogger would not approve your response, David. Perhaps the gods of blogdom ruled it out of bounds, like 2 Macc!

Feeling gracious, I've cut and pasted it anyway.