Sunday, January 03, 2010

Missing the boat

Fr Alvin Kimel

“Luther may of course be wrong on the sola fide and the essential sacramentality of the gospel.”

The gospel is essentially sacramental? You wouldn’t know that from reading the four gospels, or the Book of Acts, or the rest of the NT.

If the gospel is essentially sacramental, then why didn’t Jesus belabor that priority in his many public sermons? Why isn’t that front and center in all the Pauline epistles? Or Hebrews? Or Jude? Or 1 John? Or Revelation?

“Just as he was wrong on many other matters.”

At least Luther was right on many things that Rome got dead wrong. And right on some things that really matter.

“But one has not understood the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith until one has understood why Luther insisted that justifying faith must have an external word, an embodied word, to which to cling.”

There are some people who, not matter how much theological education they have, no matter how long they live, never get it. They can never get their head screwed on straight to direct their attention the one thing that matters. Kimel is sizing up the interior décor of the boat when the key issue is whether you’re even on the right boat.

Whether or not we happen to understand Luther’s doctrine of justification is entirely secondary. What matters is whether we understand Paul’s doctrine of justification. (Or James’ doctrine, for that matter.)

“It is precisely this externality that rescues us from condemning dialectics of conscience.”

No, what rescues us is, in part, a correct understanding of how self-examination is supposed to function. As one writer explains:

But is it not legalistic to look to oneself rather than to Christ for assurance? Is this not reintroducing by the back door a subtle form of salvation by human effort? Does such scrutiny not turn a personal back in upon himself in a man-centered way when he should be turned outward to Christ?

The charges implicit in these questions would be plausible if what was being suggested was that a person must place his trust in his own state of mind or conduct or works and effort of an obvious kind. But this is not what is being said. There is a world of difference between a person trusting his own state of mind or attainments for salvation and a person paying attention to his own states of min as evidence that he has been and is converted.

Each of us has a birthday. A person may for one reason or another, such as old age or forgetfulness, forget what the year of his birth was. In his ignorance he may come to be assured that the year of his birth says, say, 1932 by being shown his birth certificate. But this does not mean that in some strange way his birth certificate becomes a substitute for his birth. His birth at a particular date in the past is fixed. A birth certificate is a generally reliable piece of evidence that his birth was on that particular date.

In a similar way a person’s conversion is one thing while his evidence that he is converted is another. In being converted he trusts in Christ for salvation from sin. This is part of what being converted means. That a person may gain evidence that he is converted, that he is trusting Christ for salvation, from his own experience.

But this does not mean that he is trusting himself for salvation. It means that what he finds in himself is important evidence that he is trusting Christ for salvation, as the birth certificate is evidence that a person was born on a particular date in the past, P. Helm, The Beginnings: Word & Spirit in Conversion (Banner of Trust 1986), 93-94.

Continuing with Kimel:

“When Luther found himself attacked by the voice of Satan, he found his peace in the simple affirmation ‘I am baptized!’”

Isn’t the problem with that “simple affirmation” screamingly obvious? Even for a Catholics?

According to Catholic theology itself, aren’t there baptized Catholics in hell? So, by the logic of his own theology, Kimel’s external assurance is false assurance. Damning assurance.

“One cannot read ‘The Babylonian Captivity of the Church’ only and think one has understood Luther on justification by faith.”

What about reading Romans or Galatians? What about accurantely understanding Paul on justification by faith?

“One must continue on and read his Small and Large Catechisms, his writings against the Enthusiasts (esp. ‘Against the Heavenly Prophets’), and his two important eucharistic tracts against Zwingli.”

Why must we continue on down that road? Why think we should go down that road in the first place?

“Evangelicals who rip the sola fide from its sacramental context create a doctrine that Luther would have roundly repudiated (see, e.g., Phillip Cary’s ‘Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant,’ as well as Robert Jenson’s discussion in Lutheranism).”

We’re not saved by putting our faith in Luther. (Or Calvin. Or Wesley. Or the pope.) We’re not justified by faith in Luther.

“As far as I know, no church formally teaches that we earn salvation by our works.”

We wouldn’t expect them to be quite that crass.

“But evangelicals have their own works-righteousness problem: when the gospel is not firmly anchored in sacrament, faith necessarily becomes the one WORK I must perform in order to be saved, and it doesn’t matter one whit if one then goes on to explain that faith is but an empty hand and nonmeritorious instrument.”

“It matters whether or not the gospel really is anchored in mechanical rituals.”

Didn’t the Judaizers anchor the gospel in circumcision? Didn’t they vest their assurance of salvation in a ceremony? All Kimel has done is to substitute one form of ritual justification for another.
And it also matters whether or not faith is a gracious disposition.

But while the old ship of Zion is pulling out of dock, Kimel is still inspecting the interior décor of the pretty ship in the adjacent slip. The classy wallpaper. And tasteful furniture. And well-stocked wetbar.


  1. "According to Catholic theology itself, aren’t there baptized Catholics in hell?"

    This is an example of an internal critique, is it not?

  2. It's not as though Catholics don't also seek evidence for their justification. Have they made the right judgment about which church is the one Christ founded? Do they actually have faith? Was their baptism valid? Are the sins they've committed since baptism mortal? Etc. They, too, look for evidence.

  3. Helm writes, “There is a world of difference between a person trusting his own state of mind or attainments for salvation and a person paying attention to his own states of mind as evidence that he has been and is converted.”

    Notice what Helm does here. He changes from “a person trusting his own state of mind or attainments for salvation” to “paying attention to his own states of mind…” He drops “attainments” (referred to as “conduct or works and effort of an obvious kind” in his previous preceding sentence) from the necessary evidence of assurance.

    I’m wondering if the dropping of “attainments” was on purpose.

    So, I guess what I'd like to know is if works are in any sense necessary for assurance from a Reformed perspective or is paying attention to one’s states of mind sufficient?

  4. Well, you can't live in sin and still properly have the assurance of salvation.