Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Roman Catholicism on Free Will, Justification and Merit

A reader requested more information on what I referred to in a previous post as fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic doctrines of man under the power of original sin, a crucial aspect of the larger topic of theological anthropology. We are always keen to oblige our readers at the virtual old manse if possible. The following is the first installment (already overdue!) for that reader and others who may find this topic of interest (everyone?). This project may take a month or more to complete as I am working on two reviews for other people and have two conferences to attend in the meantime as well as everyday pastoral and family duties!

The use of headings might seem a bit pretentious for a blog post but it's just to clearly organise what follows for the sake of the reader. Perhaps one day I'll have the time to expand this blog project into a proper essay with more extensive references and footnotes; to that end any constructive criticism from readers that would improve the following is appreciated.

A Word to 'Newbies'
I'm aware of a few "newbies" to theology who read this blog - welcome! I'm an advocate of retaining traditional theological terms rather than "dumbing down" theological discourse, even in the blogging medium. Looking up unfamiliar terms in a good theological and/or Biblical dictionary is the first step learning in theology. When consulting such works, try to check the background of the author of the entry to determine his presuppositions - no-one (not even me) does theology without presuppositions! If you don't have access to these resources (or even better to the reference section of a theological library), Wikipedia usually provides a decent summary with leads to explore. You should also be able to direct questions to your pastor/minister/priest, who might be able to recommend/lend you something to read. And don't forget to dig into your Bible - don't worry, we'll come to the important Bible passages (known in Latin as the sedes doctrinae or 'seats of the doctrine'; in other words, where "it is written...") in our conclusion (see below on method). Enjoy! 

 A Word on Method
I thought I’d begin by surveying the Roman doctrine on free will, justification and merit, citing the decrees of the Council of Trent (a council of Catholic bishops and theologians which met intermittently from 1545-1563 to determine the Roman response to the Reformation; a volume thereof is pictured) and the current 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' (first pub. in French in 1992; English trans. 1994, official Latin version 1997). It is crucial to go to official Roman Catholic statements of doctrine to determine what their teaching teaching is rather than rely on secondary theological literature whether Catholic or Lutheran or other. There is also, it should be noted, a fundamental continuity between these two sources of authoritative teaching although they are c. 500 years apart. On these aspects of doctrine, at least, there has been little or no 'development' by Rome since Trent.    

I could have begun with the Trent's decree on Original Sin, but by working backwards, as it were, we proceed in a forensic (!) manner from effect to cause. Although unusual, I think this has definite advantages as a pedagogical method for my purposes. In time we will examine Trent's decree on Original Sin and the Lutheran doctrine that provoked it. We will conclude (D.v.) with a study of conversion drawing upon the Biblical data which will focus on what classical Lutheran theology refers to as the 'transitive and intransitive aspects' of conversion, a way of considering the interplay of divine and human action in conversion and justification drawn from the Bible itself that preserves the divine monergism in those acts while accounting for the powerful religious experiences of the human subject of those acts. It is the relationship of divine and human acts in conversion and justification that the Tridentine fathers both misunderstood Luther and misread the Bible.        

Historical Theological Background Sketch
A good argument can be made that Trent marks the beginning of Roman Catholicism as a distinct confessional movement within the Western church. Prior to Trent, various views existed within the Western church on these subjects and vied for supremacy. A process of synthesising these views began with the work of Thomas Aquinas and reached its terminus with Trent, which set forth the Roman response to the Reformation and provided the doctrinal structure of Roman Catholicism. Ever since, Trent has set the parameters for Roman Catholic theological anthropology and soteriology.

One should not imagine that the bishops gathered at Trent were anywhere near unanimity on the important doctrinal questions under consideration here. In many ways Trent represents the Roman attempt to finally bring to a close the long running tension within the Western church between Augustinians, who took a low view of the spiritual abilities of man under the domineering power of original sin, and those who took a more positive view of such abilities and ascribed a measure of positive free will (i.e. “positive” because it included not just the power to resist grace but also the power to positively co-operate with grace). The latter are generally termed semi-Pelagians (there is debate about this terminology which we will not go into here; suffice it to say for now that there are definite continuities between those early fathers of east and west who were perplexed by and doubtful of Augustine's rebuttal of Pelagius and the late medieval synergists whom Luther and his successors came up against).

The decrees of Trent bear all the marks of the compromise which was effected between these two groups so that Rome could present a united front against the Reformation. What resulted at Trent was a sort of via media (middle way) between Augustinianism and semi-Pelagianism, achieved at the expense of failing to sound a clear, evangelical note. Thus, what is granted to the Augustinians with the one statement is weakened by a following statement which assuages the concerns of the semi-Pelagians. Rather than concord under the teaching of Holy Scripture, we have human compromise, which, I contend, has fatally weakened the ability of Rome to proclaim the Biblical Gospel.  

Here is a survey of the official Roman Catholic doctrine on free will, justification and merit with my underlining of crucial and/or problematic statements (readers are encouraged to read these in the context of the original documents which are freely available on-line):  
Quotes From The Council of Trent
Trent VI, 1
On the Inability of Nature and of the Law to justify man.
The holy Synod declares first, that, for the correct and sound understanding of the doctrine of Justification, it is necessary that each one recognise and confess, that, whereas all men had lost their innocence in the prevarication of Adam-having become unclean, and, as the apostle says, by nature children of wrath, as (this Synod) has set forth in the decree on original sin,-they were so far the servants of sin, and under the power of the devil and of death, that not the Gentiles only by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter itself of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated, or to arise, therefrom; although free will, attenuated as it was in its powers, and bent down, was by no means extinguished in them.

Trent VI, 5
On the necessity, in adults, of preparation for Justification, and whence it proceeds.
The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God.
Canon XXXII on Justification
If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,-if so be, however, that he depart in grace,-and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema.

Quotes From 'The Catechism of the Catholic Church'
144 To obey (from the Latin obaudire, to "hear or listen to") in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself. Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. the Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment.
150 Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature
1731 Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility. By free will one shapes one's own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.
1739 Freedom and sin. Man's freedom is limited and fallible. In fact, man failed. He freely sinned. By refusing God's plan of love, he deceived himself and became a slave to sin. This first alienation engendered a multitude of others. From its outset, human history attests the wretchedness and oppression born of the human heart in consequence of the abuse of freedom.
1742 Freedom and grace.  The grace of Christ is not in the slightest way a rival of our freedom when this freedom accords with the sense of the true and the good that God has put in the human heart. On the contrary, as Christian experience attests especially in prayer, the more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world. By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world:  “Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness take away from us all that is harmful, so that, made ready both in mind and body, we may freely accomplish your wil. (Roman Missal, 32nd Sunday, Opening Prayer).
1732 As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach.
1733 The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to "the slavery of sin."
1989 The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus' proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” (Council of Trent (1547): DS 1528.)
1990 Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God's merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals.
1991 Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God's righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness (or "justice") here means the rectitude of divine love. With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us.
1993 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 justice in God's sight.” (Council of Trent (1547): DS 1525.)
2002 God's free initiative demands man's free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love.
III. Merit
2006 The term "merit" refers in general to the recompense owed by a community or a society for the action of one of its members, experienced either as beneficial or harmful, deserving reward or punishment. Merit is relative to the virtue of justice, in conformity with the principle of equality which governs it.
2007 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.
2008 The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the 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.
2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God's wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.
Summary comment
There is a certain superficial consistency in the Roman doctrine. If one begins with the premise that the human will retains a certain amount of freedom in spiritual things even after the Fall, then it is logical to believe that human free will must be called to actively play its part in conversion, which then results in justification. After that initial justification, it is logical in this system that the will can merit further grace and thus "increase justification". But there are frustrating contradictions in the reasoning set out above that reflect the already mentioned tensions between schools within the Tridentine Fathers.  How, for example, can the cause of justification be attributed solely to God when it is acknowledged that man also plays his part as a spiritually competent actor who can "freely assent" to grace? How can a slave to sin free (convert) himself? By definition he cannot; he must be redeemed by another. And since when can grace be merited? Grace is by any reasonable definition unmerited and unearned. Rome may claim to be infallible, but that does not exempt it from the law of non-contradiction!



Martin Yee said...

Pastor Henderson,

Thanks for this awesome piece of work! Will go back, print out and carefully read through and study it.

Our own Lutheran Confessions become clearer when we compare and contrast with something that seems vaguely similar but is actually distinctly different.

Keep them coming. Thanks again.


Mark Henderson said...

Thanks kindly, Martin.
Good to know it's appreciated!

Martin Yee said...

It was great to read first hand the RC Confessions on free will, merit and justification. But ironically it droved me TO LOVE THE LUTHERAN CONFESSIONS MORE DEARLY. I am so glad to be a Lutheran after all! The RC confessional articles indeed seem to oscillate between the Augustinian position and semi-pelagian tendencies. They seem to lean on one side one moment and then quickly qualifies itself in the next. But then may be they may think that they are maintaining the "tension between two seeming contradictions" both affirmed in Scripture like what Lutherans do with the "tension" between divine sovereignty in salvation and man's responsibility in damnation? Of course the RC "tension" may be on false premise and unscriptural. Wonder what you meant by "the debate about this terminology" on semi-pelagianism. Care to elaborate? Their merit system from what I perceive is based on God's initial prevenient grace and freedom of the human will to respond (which Luther denounced in his de servo arbitrio). The RC concept of condigned and congruent merit kicked in as well. "God starts the ball rolling and man need to continue the game". Their merit system seems to be based on concept of justice as well, kind of like our Asian karma thing. Come to think of it, Singapore's meritiocratic society will welcome RC theology on merits and continuing justification/ sanctification. Justification is seen as a kind of repair job instead of a write off and replacement extra nos. Your 2 concluding questions are sharp,the cause of justification attribution and how can a slave free himself? I would also add - how can a "dead man" respond and save himself? Your last dig was great, the RC is certainly not exempt from the law of non-contradiction, and if I may add - so are the Lutherans. Thanks for this great "food for thought" post.

Warmest regards,

inga said...

Great analysis. Look forward to the following posts. With the new pope euphoria, I had to revisit Trent and the Apology of Augusburg Concession to see, again, why the Reformation happened.


Mark Henderson said...

Thanks kindly Gabriel.
We hope the series will prove to be both informative and edifying.

I have re-worked the piece somewhat since we last communicated. "How can a "dead man" respond and save himself"; indeed - I will begin the next post with an illustration along these lines.
Re the law of non-contradiction, we must remember there is a difference between a formal contradiction and a paradox. A contradiction nca be demonstrated to be false, whereas a paradox may be veridical (true) even though it appears to be absurd. Lutherans resort to paradox usually because God has not provided us with definitive answers to all our questions (e.g., If God is all-powerful, and he desires the salvation of all people, why are some saved but not others?) If we attempt to answer that question according to the law of non-contradiction, we can very easily deny the major or minor premise; better to let the 'paradox' stand!

Martin Yee said...

Pastor Henderson,

Thanks for your guidance regarding the difference between contradiction and paradox.

Really great to learn from you. Look forward to your next post.


Damo said...

this a a deep post PR Mark and a bloody good one at that,very balanced and explains the situation accurately ,I see st ursulas and st pats centre here in Toowoomba are doing some interfaith dialogue with the Bahai here ,and the Bahai had Rev Dorothy woodside a spiritist medium help with a Christmas celebration at pureland learning "A SPIRITIST" ,this I find very disturbing,much reform is needed ,

Mark Henderson said...

It seems ot me that if you believe in a certain spiritual openness in man even under original sin, you will sooner or later tend towards syncretism with non-Christian religions, seeing in them some innate value apart from what God has revealed through nature, conscience and remnant knowledge of the Word.

Mark Henderson said...

Would you believe I've never been to Easterfest in nearly ten years of living in Toowoomba? Apart from the fact that I can't afford it, I don't want to be exposed to "in your face" Pentecostalism. I'm sure some of the music is good, but then I can listen to it at home if I want to.

Damo said...

LOL PR Mark,there is some in your face stuff but some uncanny ways God reaches people there,they had a stall from the Catholic Charismatics from Emmanuel in bris and the Serbian orthodox Church in bris,as well as Lutherans for life and the shed,the Kenyans Catholics,I would love it if you came there and gave a talk on Salvation gave the best one I ever heard in 2006,i haven't missed easter fest since 2001,I just love the 3 day extraction from the world,even if there is some unbiblical stuff there,I see PR from good shepherd living grace redeemer, walking among the people very Godly and I see the catholic bishop just strolling around meeting people ,and some of the Pentecostals are like on stage only and more glory focused,so I know what you mean,but there's a lot of good To Gods Blessings Damo,I am goning to chance its and buy you a ticket