Saturday, November 28, 2009

Richard A. White: "Sola Gratia, Solo Christo: The Roman Catholic Doctrine of Justification"

This is one of my favorite papers. Written in 1987 for a class taught by Harold O.J. Brown at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Richard A. White, then a Calvinist, offers a careful articulation of the Catholic view of justification. (I believe that Dr. White eventually earned his Ph.D. at Marquette University and is now a professor of theology at Benedictine College). Here's how it begins:
The doctrine of justification was, as John Calvin stated, the "hinge of the reformation." James Buchanan provides us with the classic "reformed" definition: "Justification is a legal, or forensic, term, and is used in Scripture to denote the acceptance of any one as righteous in the sight of God." (The Doctrine of Justification, p. 226). Understood in this way, justification is purely extrinsic to the sinner, inasmuch as he is justified solely on the basis of Christ's righteousness graciously imputed to him. The sinner does not become righteous himself, but because he trusts in Christ's work for him, he is considered innocent by God the judge. In this way, works contribute nothing to justification; it is "by faith alone" (sola fide).

In contrast is the Roman Catholic position, which sadly, few evangelicals even bother to consider, let alone understand. In many cases, the issue is naively boiled down to justification by faith, on the one hand (evangelicalism), versus justification by works, on the other hand (Roman Catholicism). This crass caricature has little basis in reality, and hampers the cause for theological truth and Christian unity. In this essay then, I will summarize the Roman Catholic teaching on justification. To accomplish this task, I will consider the Council of Trent's "Decree Concerning Justification," (Session VI) the most authoritative, even-handed, representative Church pronouncement on the issue to date (the Council was held 1545-1563). I will also consider a wide array of Catholic authors, both past and present.

My goal is to set forth the Catholic position, not to critique it. Thus, I will not preface my remarks with such phrases as "the Catholic position says" or "in Rome's view." The reader should assume that all of the text represents the Catholic teaching.

Now the Catholic view of grace and justification is very complex. Due to the scope of this essay, therefore, many subject areas (e.g., metaphysical questions, purgatory, indulgences, the mode of God's indwelling in the soul, etc) relating to the Catholic teaching on justification have been excluded. The reader should consult the bibliography for elaboration on certain points.

You can read the whole thing here. It is one of the many works I read when I was thinking more seriously about Catholicism.


SemperJase said...

God effectuates what He declares. Hence, when God declares the sinner righteous, it is more than a mere legal declaration. It is a creative and transformative action whereby God takes someone and breathes into Him that Spirit of sonship which cries, "Abba!" "Father!" [Rom 8:14-17; Gal 4:4-7]

White's statement was one of the conclusions I came to that helped me decide to convert to the Catholic Church. (If only I had access to this article written 18 years before my own conclusion).

I grew up in evangelicalism where I was taught that salvation is a legal fiction. It was a teaching that I never understood. If God is a God of truth, then why would he declare that a sinner was not a sinner? It seemed to me that imputation was God's self-delusion or his lie.

God was self-deluded - or simply unable to see the truth - if he looked at me and saw Jesus' righteousness when I was really a sinner (i.e. the infamous snow-covered dung analogy). Either that or God knew I was a sinner but lied by declaring I was not.

The Catholic explanation of infusion was the first time I had an answer to the process of sanctification.

Hodge said...

I have to disagree with this assessment, not of the RC position, but of the Reformed view. Righteousness is both imputed and infused in reformed theology. What White declares here happens in both views of soteriology. The difference is that the Reformed view of justification is forensic in the sense that it covers the individual with Christ's righteousness in order that he might obtain a salvific relationship with God which eventually will make him righteous as well. The first part of that is called justification in the Reformed view and the second, sanctification. You can't have one without the other occurring (i.e., both imputation and infusion). The idea that you could have one take place without the other is vehemently opposed by the Reformers.
Now, he does seem to refer directly to justification, but seems to imply that infusion is not a part of the Prot view of salvation as a whole. This, however, is just not the case.

Hodge said...
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Jae said...

The Reformed view of Justification and Sanctification are two distinct units but if you take the whole context of the Bible, there is NO distinction.

The problem is, of course, it is a distinction without any biblical substance. Paul never portrays justification and sanctification according to Reformed rubrics. For one thing, justification is not only spoken of in the PAST, but in the PRESENT and the FUTURE (Cf. Romans 5:1, 1 Cor 6:11, Titus 3:7, Romans 8:33, Acts 13:39, Gal 2:17, James 2:24, 1 Cor. 4:4-5, Matt. 12:37, Romans 2:13).

Sanctification is not something that can be separated from justification since WITHOUT sanctification, there CAN BE NO justification. Consider this passage from St. Paul, for instance:

"And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Cor. 6:11)

Notice how sanctification precedes justification? This doesn't seem to fit into the Reformed view of justification first and then sanctification later, does it? That's because there is no neat little division in existence.

Very Biblical, very catholic.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Long ago - 1984, in fact - when I was a Calvinist - I concluded that on justification there was no practical, phaenomenological difference between the Reformed and the Catholic views. Any reasonable Protestant would say, regarding a man who had expressed faith but later abandoned it, lived a grossly sinful life, that the man was not justified. To be sure, he would explain that he must not ever have had true saving faith in the first place. The Catholic - as well as I understood the Catholic faith at the time - would say that he had lost his living faith (at the time I would not have said 'living' because I still had a Protestant understanding of faith). This was one of a number of essential steps in my decision ten years later to enter the Catholic Church - the best thing I ever did.

Hodge said...

The problem here is that the Bible's use of the terms justification and sanctification vary in their respective contexts. The terms do not always refer to the same thing. The distinction between the two is necessary in the Reformed view because of the change in emphasized question. To ignore this, and claim that the historical and Biblical material supports a non-distinction, is a bit naive of the necessary contexts for this discussion.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

"The problem here is that the Bible's use of the terms justification and sanctification vary in their respective contexts. The terms do not always refer to the same thing. The distinction between the two is necessary in the Reformed view because of the change in emphasized question. To ignore this, and claim that the historical and Biblical material supports a non-distinction, is a bit naive of the necessary contexts for this discussion."

That, I am afraid, begs the question, since many reasonable people--no less committed to Scripture than you are--do not "see" the distinction you claim to see. In fact, I would venture to guess that you would not even see it if not for your prior commitment to a particular understanding of Reformed theology. This is not a bad thing. We all come to the text with certain theological beliefs we have inherited from others and seem to us to have a good deal of explanatory power to account for what we find in the text. But remember, those of us who reject a Reformed reading also have a cluster of theological beliefs for which we think the text offers good support as well as serving as a fruitful account of the text.

My point is this: your theory does explain much. But it, like all views, will encounter anomalies as well as contrary accounts that seem to others to explain more. For me, the Catholic view had more explanatory than the Reformed view.

Hodge said...

I agree with you that how we interpret these ideas depends upon our theological commitments. However, I don't know many scholars who would disagree with me on those observations (interpretation of those observations maybe, but not those observations themselves). My only point was to comment on the fact that the Reformed view is not so easily dismantled by a wave of the hand. The Bible does use the terms differently. This does not mean that it must be interpreted solely from a Reformed perspective, but to present the use of terms as monolithic regardless of context, and then to use that as a way of dismissing the Reformed view, I think, does not have the weight that RC's often think that it has to the Reformed individual to whom they are addressing.

To give one example, sanctification is something that God does initially at one's justification (whether you view that as initial or complete), in the sense that He sets a group apart from the world in the call of the Gospel; but then it also refers in another context specifically to the practice of purity from sexual immorality. An RC can interpret this as a part of that initial sanctification (as I think we might all do so), but he could not say that these two uses are not distinct in their emphases. That's all I'm saying.

The historical context, again, is merely an observation. Once again, it does not mean that the Reformers came down on the right side of the question; but it should not be ignored that the emphasis of the question had changed. Hence, the Reformers believed that the answer was a bit different, and needed clarification through distinction. The RCC decided that the answer should be the same. So be it. My only hope is to get away from the idea that one side is the easy choice when, in fact, none of this is quite the easy decision that others often make it out to be.