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!

19 comments:

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