Thursday, July 5, 2012

Lutherans and Catholics on Justification

I sometimes read that Catholics and Lutherans have identical views on justification.  But if Catholics and Lutherans have identical views on justification, then it makes you wonder exactly whom the Council of Trent thought it was anathematizing.  If the Lutherans and the Catholics actually have identical views of justification, then one or both of two things is true:

(1) Luther and Chemnitz were as ignorant of their own views as the Bishops at Trent were of theirs.  They all thought their competing views were not only not identical to those of their opponents, but not even remotely compatible.  They thought that those who held the other view were so deeply deluded as actually to fall outside the faith.  But I am not convinced that both sides were such horrid theologians as not to notice that their competing beliefs on this point were actually one and identical. 

(2) Some Lutherans and Catholics today actually do hold identical beliefs on justification and, while they agree with each other, they no longer hold to the views of their respective pasts.  Either both groups have become shockingly superior to previous theologians of their own stripe so that they see now what was resolutely invisible to the best theologians of the past, or else they became liberalized and have defected.

If they became liberalized, when did it happen?  According to some of those who identify themselves as the more traditionalist Lutherans and Catholics, it happened with the the rise of German Protestant liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries and with Vatican II.

You decide. 


Dr. Jack Kilcrease said...

The thing is that I don't think even liberal Catholics have budged much on the issue of justification. Many Lutherans have taken over the position that justification=regeneration and so have come closer to the view of Trent and Thomas. This is due primarily to the influence of Pietism and Protestant Liberalism on Luther-research in the 19th and early 20th century. In particular, Karl Holl (who was raised a Swabian Pietist and was later a Liberal Protestant) understood the 1516 Romans commentary (which was pre-reformational!) to be Luther's actual position on justification. Because the view put forth in the commentary is pre-reformational and therefore identifies justification with God's judgment of us as righteous in anticipation of our final regeneration (a somewhat novel view even for the medieval Church!), Holl contrasted this "Lutheran" view with the "Melanchthonian" view of the Lutheran confessions and subsequent Orthodoxy-which taught imputed justice. Of course, the major problem here is that Luther knew exactly what Melanchthon taught in the Augustana and the Apology, as well as his various editions of Loci Communes, and approved of it publically. Moreover, his post-1519 writings do operate with the same view of justification and the language of imputation becomes more and more heavy, particularly in the Galatians commentary of 1531.

Having attended a Catholic university for my doctorate, I would say that something Catholics fundamentally do not understand is the difference between justification by faith and justification by grace. In their post-Vatican II desire for ecumenical understanding (certainly a noble impulse!) they have something of a tendency to treat the two things as if they are the same. The thing is, that the reformational view is fundamentally different because saying that my righteousness is external to me in another (Christ) means that my reality as a person is totally re-oriented. I now trust in God external to me and not in myself. In this sense, since sin is to be curved in on one's self (according to Augustine's classical defintion), this also means that because justification is forensic it is also effective. The problem with the Catholic view is that if grace becomes a predicate of my being and I am capable of meritorious works, then I am stuck in the same mess as before. In other words, isn't it the case I have grounds to trust in myself and look to my own holines as a basis of my relationship with God? I am still stuck on myself. This is true even though for Catholics it is God who communicates grace. Existentially, if grace located in me, I can still have a reason to focus on myself. This is a problem which they haven't dealt with and (in my experience) find it basically impossible to deal with.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Well argued and well said, Jack. I agree with your assessment (1) of the evolution in Luther's personal theology, (2) your assertion of the external or extrinsic nature of grace and justification, and (3) your notion that the Catholics, whether then or now, do not really hold the Reformation view, despite the fact that so many assert that they do precisely that.

I too did my doctoral work in a Catholic grad school. I am grateful to the RCC for it.

Ilíon said...

"... (3) your notion that the Catholics, whether then or now, do not really hold the Reformation view, despite the fact that so many assert that they do precisely that."

In my experience, the view of almost all Catholics, whether he thinks himself an intellectual or realizes that he's just Piers-in-the-Pew (whose function is to pay the bills) is that justification is a function of adherence to The One True Bureaucracy.