Monday, June 7, 2010

Justifying the Doctrine of Justification: Part V of VI

With the end of this series in sight, it is time to address what some would say to be the Achilles’ heal of the Catholic Church’s position on justification: St. Paul. We noticed earlier that Jesus Himself spoke very little of faith as pertaining to the Kingdom of God/Heaven. For St. Paul, faith becomes a dominant theological theme which saturates nearly every letter stemming from the proverbial pen of this Apostle to the Gentiles. The question, then, is not whether or not Paul believes that a Christian is saved by faith, but whether or not he believes the Christian is saved by faith alone. As stated earlier, the Church confesses that faith is the foundation for justification but that this faith is never alone as it must be accompanied by charity/good works.

If Paul is considered the chief defender of faith alone by many Evangelicals, then Paul’s letter to the Romans is considered his magnum opus in defense of this particular non-Catholic doctrine. Due to the triteness of space I will limit the discussion to what most of our Evangelical brothers and sisters claim to be the most persuasive exposition of faith alone theology by St. Paul. Thus, I will briefly focus on the first few chapters of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

The power of the Gospel message in Romans, according to many Evangelicals, does not begin until 3:21 with the words ‘but now’ (Nuni de). It is here in the middle of the third chapter that Paul transitions into a descriptive analysis of the “righteousness of God” being revealed “apart from the law” (v. 21), being a free gift of grace in Jesus Christ (v.24), and being a reality that removes all boasting from the human conscience through this free gift (v.27). The climax of the passage comes in the following verse when the apostle boldly proclaims, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (v. 28). At this moment, it seems undeniably true that St. Paul is excluding works from salvation, thus at least implicitly expositing a faith alone theology.

When I was an Evangelical and first came across this verse, I was baffled by it. The reason for my confusion had less to do with the verse itself and more with what I had read previously as I was reading the letter from beginning to end. Before I came to 3:28, I read 2:6-11. It was in chapter two that I read that everyone would be justified by their deeds: “For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2.6-8). Knowing that St. Paul was simply too intelligent to contradict himself within verses of each other, I set out on a journey to find an answer to this enigma, and this journey ultimately led me back to the Catholic Church in March of 2000.

Being an Evangelical at the time, my first pursuit was to find an answer that would support my belief in justification by faith alone. This quest led me to two explanations of Romans 2 & 3. The more popular and convincing argument of the two was grounded in a particular interpretation of the phrase “but now” in 3:21. Many non-Catholic scholars viewed this phrase as a “temporal transition.” In other words, they believed that everything before 3:21 was an explanation of the Old Covenant with God, and everything after 3:21 dealt with how one was saved in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. The problem with this explanation is that a significant amount of Christian imagery pervades 1:18-3:20 which become foreign elements if one is forced to think exclusively through an Old Covenant lens. For instance, the concept of “steadfastness” is used in 2:7 which was considered a Christian virtue by the Early Church. In addition, Paul actually speaks of the “gospel” and how each and every person will be judged by Jesus Christ in 2:15. Finally, Paul speaks of the “circumcision of the heart” in 2:29 which is exclusively a Christian teaching! In light of the strong Christian imagery, such an explanation only creates more questions than answers.

The most persuasive answer I found was to view 3:21 as a “logical transition” rather than a temporal one. The difference between what precedes and proceeds 3:21 is not one of time (i.e. Old Covenant & New Covenant) but rather of argumentation. Paul believes that God will judge everyone by his or her works, for “God shows no partiality” (cf. 2:11). This is a problem for Paul. The problem is that the Jews have a law which they failed to obey faithfully, and the Gentles have a law (i.e. natural law) which they also failed to obey faithfully. The problem is that if God judges by works, who can be saved? This is where 3:21 comes into the picture as the argumentation moves from problem to solution, not Old Covenant to New Covenant. We will still be judged by what we do, but now Christ has come to redeem us and restore our hearts so that we will be able to live according to our own dignity, living lives of excellence if only we hold fast to the prize, Christ Jesus. This theological understanding makes sense of the many other times Paul speaks of works being necessary for salvation (cf. 1 Cor. 3.12-15; Phil. 2.12; Eph. 2.10; Gal. 5.6).

What then should we make of Rom. 3:28 when the apostle explicitly states that a man is justified by faith apart from “works of law”? The interpretive key is in the phrase ‘works of law’ (ergon nomou). Thanks to a number of non-Catholic Christian scholars such as E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright we now know that such a phrase was a technical phrase meaning something different than general ‘works.’ In fact, the verse following this cryptic phrase enlightens the reader of its technical use. In verse 29, Paul poses a mysterious question to the Roman community: “Or is God the God of the Jews only?” Paul’s inference is that if justification were by ‘works of law’ it would be exclusive to the Jews. Since justification is for both Jews and Gentiles, then it must be by faith. In other words, ‘works of law’ is not referring to all works, but rather those works that are exclusive to Judaism (i.e. circumcision, kosher laws, etc.). Thus, St. Paul is not saying a person is justified by faith alone, but that a person is saved by faith and not by ethnic privilege (in this case Jewish). What Paul is saying is that being a member of the Jewish community does not grant immunity to God’s impartiality. God will judge everyone by works and so without Jesus Christ, no one can be saved, for He is our font of life, our source of healing and redemption.

We all can rest confidently in the wisdom of our great Church for she has and will continue to keep the truths of our Lord and His inspired writers from without stain or dilution. May we all continue to increase in faith, hope and love as we set our face like flint on the magisterium of the Church for she is the face of Christ in truth, goodness, and beauty. Next time I will close this series with a cursory look at some of the other inspired writers in light of the Church’s teaching on Justification. Until then, May God be Praised!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Justifying the Doctrine of Justification: Part IV of VI

After so many weeks separating my previous column and this column, it may be wise to do a quick review of where we’ve come regarding the Catholic Church’s teaching on Justification. Of the two previous columns I’ve written we’ve come to see that justification is in fact a process by which a person is brought into a transformative covenantal relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. This divine relationship which is established, maintained, and perfected through the process of justification, is far more than a “right standing” with God as the relationship demands faithfulness to the Creator of all that is. This “faithfulness” is nothing more than a life lived according to ones own dignity. Unfortunately, the human condition has been compromised through original and personal sin leaving the individual unable to fulfill their final vocation; namely to become partakers of the divine nature (cf. 2 Ptr. 1.4). Justification, then, is the process by which one is both immediately declared and eventually transformed into the righteous person he or she was created to be thus ushering the Christian through that threshold of hope which is intimate communion with the mystery of God! Another way of saying this, although less eloquent, is that justification is by faith and charity/good works.

Mentioning the word “works” in a doctrinal context with a non-Catholic Christian can cause some undesired tension. As mentioned in a previous column, marshaling works with faith in the context of justification appears to diminish the value of Christ’s meritorious act on the cross to the non-Catholic. To the ears of the Evangelical, such a doctrine infers that one must be saved by grace received by faith along with works which occur outside the scope of grace since the person is doing it him/herself. Thus, a misunderstanding of the Catholic position ensues by creating a false dichotomy between grace and works. Such a misunderstanding can be easily corrected by looking at how faith is viewed through the lens of an Evangelical.

Thinking about the doctrine of “faith alone” may be easy enough when it is isolated from reality, but have you ever tried to think about it as it pertains to individual persons? What does it mean for an individual to be saved by faith alone? When observing the faith of others, one is quick to take notice that there is a large range of qualities to faith. Some people have unwavering faith while others have an anemic faith that borders on skepticism. The challenge for the Evangelical is to determine which faith is “saving faith.” Those who initially had faith but fell away are deemed as not having the particular faith that saves. If this is the case, what kind of faith is acceptable to God? Doesn’t Christ ask us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mat 5.48; 19.21)? Doesn’t John tell us that nothing unclean will enter into heaven whether in thought or deed (cf. Rev. 21.27)? Clearly perfection is God’s standard for He cannot deny Himself. If that is the case, then no man can be saved since no one has perfect faith. The answer to this riddle is in the fact that man is saved by grace alone, which means that man’s feeble faith is accepted, sustained, and perfected through grace. What Evangelicals understand about the relationship between faith and grace, Catholics understand about the relationship between faith, works, and grace. It is only through grace that both our feeble faith and works are accepted, sustained, and perfected. Both Catholics and Evangelicals agree that salvation is by grace alone. Where we begin to disagree is in how grace is administered to works as it relates to the act of justification.

In light of the justification debate, one would think that Jesus Himself would have spoken often about the necessity of faith for salvation. After all, to be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Interestingly enough, when Christ teaches about the kingdom of God/Heaven He is nearly silent about the roll of faith for salvation. Rather, it will be the humble of heart and those who undergo persecution for righteousness’ sake who will enter the Kingdom of God (cf. Mat. 5:3,10). We are told that if our eye causes us to sin, it would be better to pluck it out than to live with it in hell (cf. Mk. 9:47). We are exhorted to recognize our gifts and talents and to use them for the kingdom less we risk eternal damnation (cf. Lk. 19.12-27). Christ cautions the rich not to become too attached to their material wealth if they want to live in God’s kingdom (cf. Mk. 10.23). If anything, the evangelical reader may conclude that Christ has an “exaggerated” view of works being a condition for justification. In fact, Christ takes the Old Testament laws and intensifies them, never diminishing them. While in the Old Law adultery was considered a sin, Jesus adds that even if you look at another person lustfully you have committed adultery in the heart (cf. Mat. 5:28). If Jesus is advocating a faith alone theology, He has chosen a very confusing and misleading pedagogy.

The reason why Christ spends so much time on works is because He has come to redeem the heart, the source of all moral and immoral acts (cf. Mat. 6.21-22, Mat. 15:17-20). Christ has redeemed us in His blood and has called us to live in his redemption so that our hearts may be restored, and that we may live according to the dignity that is ours in Christ. The law has been intensified not to condemn us, but to call us to excellence. This excellence is only achieved through a life in submission to Christ our Lord. Thus, salvation is ours if only we continue to strive in saying ‘yes’ in faith to Christ and His Church, and ‘yes’ in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit which affords us the opportunity to live out our dignity in holiness/good works. Both are necessary for salvation for both are gifts from God in which we will be held accountable for.

Next week we will turn to St. Paul who speaks of faith much more often than Jesus. Paul is considered the chief defender of “faith alone” so it is with all the more importance that we spend a fair amount of time exploring his writing and his understanding of justification. Until then, may we continue to strive for excellence through the transformative power of the Holy Spirit so becoming one with the mystery of God who is love itself. May God be Praised!