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Friday, January 23, 2009


Kevin Davis

I think Colson was just noting that the Protestant and Catholic understanding of salvation is not as dissimilar as many still believe. Of course there are still differences, important ones, but the point of ECT and B16's statements on Luther (which B16 has made before, see Principles of Catholic Theology) is to combat two caricatures of, respectively, Protestant and Catholic soteriology: antinomianism and [semi]-pelagianism. The Protestants are accused of antinomianism (justification is not necessarily accompanied by sanctification, which fundamentally includes charity) even though this is clearly denied by the Protestant confessions and their writers. The Catholics are accused of pelagianism or semi-pelagianism (grace does not precede and/or necessarily accompany salvation at all points) even though Trent clearly says otherwise. Nonetheless, these accusations still persist, and that is all Colson was doing: he was saying that both of these accusations are wrong because we both agree that regeneration is the result of a justification freely given.

Nonetheless, the differences remain important because Protestants divide justification from sanctification in such a way that the latter does not determine or influence the former. Catholics, however, believe that a failure in charity (of a certain degree) does determine the justified status of a person. This is why Protestants vehemently opposed the mortal sin and penance schemes, which were quite dominant in the consciences of most Catholics until recent decades (even though nothing has officially changed). Even the Protestants who believe that salvation can be lost are very careful to frame the "mortal sin" as one of complete and conscious rejection of Christ's salvation itself (i.e. "apostasy"), not a failure in charity (although it includes that).

Francis Beckwith

I think that Chuck's comments on Trent is sort of like the view of the Kennedy administration as Camelot (an invention of Arthur Schlesinger after JFK's assassination). I have no doubt that Chuck has read Trent. But, and I can really relate here, Chuck probably read Trent with all the Protestant assumptions that he brought to his reading. This is something I did when I was younger. But when I read Trent with "fresh eyes" in 2007, with a better understanding of the ontological issues at stake, I saw it as perfectly consistent with ECT. In fact, the section in Trent about the causes of justification is really eye-opening, for the cluster of causes is a dagger in the heart of both Pelagianism (and semi-Pelagianism) as well as mere imputation.

Carl E. Olson

All good points, Kevin, especially re: the division between justification and sanctification in Protestant theology. But consider this statement by Colson: "But they would see it as the development of doctrine. And if it's contrary to some church council — as this was, clearly — then nothing happens immediately." Yet, as I tried to quickly sketch, this is quite untrue. Colson, in my estimation, is spinning this as a "The Catholic Church acknowledges it was wrong about justification" moment, when in reality it is nothing of the sort. If anything, it is an "Evangelicals finally realize the Catholic Church was right all along" moment (although that is simplistic). I have a lot of admiration for Colson, but in this case he is either misrepresenting what is happening or completely misunderstands the theology involved.


What consistently disturbs me about people like this is their insistence on fitting everything into "what Luther said." They're not looking to be persuaded or to find common ground, they're looking to demonstrate that they (and Luther) are actually correct, and simply finding more palatable ways to articulate that. It undoubtedly is the case that the differences between what the Church and Luther taught are narrower than what many people in the pews think (and than many evangelical pastors continue to say). But groups like ECT will never make truly significant headway beyond the individual level unless evangelicals stop tacking back and forth; at some point you have to stop, admit that Luther was a heretic and that Catholicism is true, and while acknowledging the insight gained from evangelicalism, strike out for the far bank. Carl and Dr. Beckwith obviously have a better perspective than I, but isn't this the case? Do you really get to Catholicism by constantly saying "Luther was right"?


Yes, I have gone back and forth with a Lutheran friend about all of this. He thinks that the Catholic Church is admitting that Luther was right and I insist that the core of the doctrine has not changed at all (I am a scholar of religion and literature in the 16th and 17th centuries, so I know Trent well). I don't know what to think about it. We both want (and consider) our beliefs to be right, so I can't effectively claim that I am necessarily more objective about how to evaluate these developments than he is.

Admitting that the Church is contradicting itself basically justifies the existence of Protestantism and demolishes the Church's claims about itself, but admitting that Luther (and the other reformers) were wrong about the issue of Justification basically demolishes the foundations of Protestantism itself (and virtually obligates Protestants to become Catholics). I don't know how we will ever get over this hurdle, regardless of who is right. I have to believe that this may be a case of invincible ignorance on the part of devoted and reasonable Protestants, and that the Lord will overcome these divisions for us and illuminate the minds and hearts of schismatics if we just keep pursuing the truth in charity.


Kevin Davis

True, Carl. I can't dispute with you there. I also found that particular point to be an odd one to make, but perhaps Colson understands "contrary to some council" in a way left unqualified because it was just a quick magazine interview.


It seems to me that the Evangelicals are the ones whose teachings on justification have most "evolved" since Luther's time.

I have yet to see any statement of theirs in this debate that embraces Luther's stance that the Christian ought to "sin and sin boldly" as both a sign of faith in the saving power of Christ's sacrifice and as protection against the "papist" tendency to place one's faith in "works".

(By the way, can anyone show me where to find a prooftext for Luther's efficacy-of-sin stance in Paul's letters?... I didn't think so.)

Now, that said, I do still believe that this particular Cath/Prot dialogue is constructive, for at least these two reasons:

First, it does appear to be bringing earnest and thoughtful believers closer together without compromising the Catholic faith.

(And, please God, don't let us ever lose a sense of the vital importance of Christian unity.)

Second, it further undermines what Scott Hahn calls the "counterfeit" contractual Catholicism embraced my some in the pews in which they believe they earn salvation by storing up redeeming acts on earth.

To someone who actually remembers the glacial pre-Vatican gazes that passed over the gulf between Catholics and Protestants, the mutual respect of the Colson and the Neuhaus camps is itself a sign and a wonder and ought to be treasured.


As a Protestant, I'm not particularly interested in what Luther believed (or even taught). I am interested in what God has revealed to us in the Bible.

We (Protestants and Catholics) agree that salvation is a free gift of God, without regard to works (Ephesians 2:8-9) - so that boasting is excluded. Of course, we must then determine what we mean by "gift", "work", and "boasting".

I think this can be succinctly described as "imputed" versus "infused" righteousness. "Infused righteousness" says that we receive some amount of God's grace at baptism. It is then our duty to nurture and protect this righteousness through "means of grace" (church attendance, penance, receiving the Eucharist, etc.) This is how most Protestants view Catholic soteriology.

The Protestant says that a legal transaction takes place when one agrees with God that one is a sinner, repents from sin, and trusts in the: death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. At this point, we are "justified". Some say this justification cannot be lost, others say it can be overturned by an equally powerful re-commitment to sin. Regardless, Jesus' perfect life is accounted to us - our good works at this point are out of recognition for what He has done for us.


As I understand it, ecumenical work tends to move towards a shared understanding of a given theological point. The idea of going back to something, then, (either Trent or Luther) seems rather misguided if we're doing so in order to point fingers about who said the right or wrong thing first. That said, I'd give Colson a bit of a break; he seems to be speaking on a more colloquial than technical level, and his errors seem more the result of oversimplification than a real intention to twist the story. Besides, the characterizations of Luther as somehow separating love from faith are just as mangled as those that Colson presents of Trent. Two Kinds of Righteousness comes to mind as worth reading, for a start.

But all of that aside, I never understood the draw of focusing on particular personalities the way that Colson is doing here. If we want to do substantive ecumenical work, better to focus on the confessions of the Protestant denominations rather than the occasional writings of a single man, however influential he was. It's not as if we hang on the writings of Paul III in articulating this or that Catholic position on justification.

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