Friday, January 01, 2010

Why Kimel is not the guide to Himmel

Fr Alvin Kimel:

“First, regarding the alleged conflict between baptism and justification by faith advanced by Mr. Engwer, I would simply like to point out that Engwer’s problem is not just with the Catholic Church, but it is also with Martin Luther and the Reformation he initiated. I refer everyone specifically to Luther’s Large Catechism and his discussion of Holy Baptism. Baptism, Luther writes, is not our work but God’s work.”

i) Since Jason is not a Lutheran, it’s unclear how Luther’s position is a problem for Jason. This way of framing the issue suggests that Luther sets the standard. But why should Jason concede that point? Why not say that Jason’s position is a problem for Luther?

After all, Kimel is an Anglican convert to Catholicism, so it’s not as though Kimel ever regarded Luther as his own standard-bearer.

ii) Perhaps Kimel’s unspoken assumption is that Luther is, in some sense, the founding father of Protestant tradition, such that later Protestants must measure themselves against his examplar.

However, this assumes that Protestant identity is defined by continuity with Protestant tradition rather than continuity with the Protestant rule of faith (i.e. sola scriptura).

Protestant theology isn’t like an estate which Jason can only inherit if he pleases the old man and abides by the terms of the will. It’s not as if Luther (or Calvin, for that matter) is the custodian of this tradition.

Kimel is apparently superimposing his high-church paradigm on Jason.

iii) Of course, this doesn’t mean we can dismiss Luther’s position without a fair hearing. But his position isn’t entitled to special deference just because he said it.

Jason isn’t answerable to Luther. Luther isn’t the gatekeeper of the pearly gates. (Or Calvin. Or the pope.) Jason doesn’t need to whisper a Lutheran password to get inside.

Whether or not baptism is a work in relation to justification isn’t a question to be settled by Luther’s ipse dixit. Rather, that’s an exegetical question.

“But if they say, as they are accustomed: Still Baptism is itself a work, and you say works are of no avail for salvation; what then, becomes of faith? Answer: Yes, our works, indeed, avail nothing for salvation.”

Actually, that’s inaccurate:

i) Good works are a condition of salvation. But they are not a condition of justification.

ii) Moreover, good works are a condition of salvation in the same sense that sanctification is a condition of salvation, which is just another way of saying that no one can be saved without the Holy Spirit working in him to renew him and preserve him in the faith.

“Baptism, however, is not our work, but God’s (for, as was stated, you must put Christ-baptism far away from a bath-keeper’s baptism). God’s works, however, are saving and necessary for salvation, and do not exclude, but demand, faith; for without faith they could not be apprehended.”

i) The second sentence is basically true, although we have to make allowance for those who are saved before the age of discretion.

ii) However, the validity of the second sentence does nothing to validate the first sentence. The first sentence is just a tendentious claim.

“For by suffering the water to be poured upon you, you have not yet received Baptism in such a manner that it benefits you anything; but it becomes beneficial to you if you have yourself baptized with the thought that this is according to God’s command and ordinance, and besides in God’s name, in order that you may receive in the water the promised salvation.”

i) Baptism may well be a blessing to the faithful. But this doesn’t mean that baptism is a salvific ordinance.

ii) Perhaps Luther is alluding to certain baptismal verses that promise salvation to baptized Christians. That, however, is hardly a sufficient argument.

a) For one thing, it fails to take into account the nature of symbols and metaphors. If baptism were purely symbolic, the relationship between the rite and the promise would likewise be symbolic. Luther needs an independent argument to show that baptism is not a purely symbolic rite.

b) He also needs to square baptismal passages with other passages in which forgiveness or salvation is conferred apart from baptism.

c) In addition, he needs to harmonize his position with Paul’s argument in Rom 4, as well as his sustained argument in Galatians.

“Now, this the fist cannot do, nor the body; but the heart must believe it. Thus you see plainly that there is here no work done by us, but a treasure which He gives us, and which faith apprehends; just as the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross is not a work, but a treasure comprehended in the Word, and offered to us and received by faith.”

That would follow on the assumption that baptism is a divine work. Unfortunately, Luther is running in circles. We await a sound argument for the key premise.

“Therefore they do us violence by exclaiming against us as though we preach against faith; while we alone insist upon it as being of such necessity that without it nothing can be received nor enjoyed.”

i) To say that faith is a condition of baptism doesn’t begin to show that baptism is a condition of salvation. It’s a complete non sequitur.

ii) Since, moreover, infant baptism is the norm in Lutheran praxis (as well as Catholic praxis), his condition is at war with his practice.

Mind you, I’ve read that Lutherans subscribe to “infant faith.” That, however, is a stopgap.

“Luther rightly understood that to posit a conflict between justification by faith and the sacramental order of the Church would utterly destroy the gospel.”

i) That doesn’t follow from the passage Kimel quoted.

ii) And it isn’t compelling in its own right. It simply begs the very issue in dispute.

“Faith requires an embodied word to which to cling.”

By “embodied word” I guess that Kimel means the sacraments.

Well, Scripture certainly enjoins the faithful to put their faith in God’s word. I don’t see where Scripture enjoins a comparable faith in the font or communion wafer.

Indeed, that’s a good example of false assurance. Of shifting your faith from Christ alone, in the self-revelation of Scripture, to a mechanical rite.

“For this reason Luther saw that the anti-sacramental views of the Swiss ‘reformers’ and enthusiasts were even more dangerous than the Catholic views he was more than willing to attack.”

I take it that this is a historical allusion to Zwingli and the Anabaptists. However, Kimel has failed to lay a foundation for either charge. He’s merely flaunting his prejudice.

Even if he’s right, he hasn’t given us a compelling or plausible reason to think so.

“Second, at this point in my life I confess that the relationship between justification, Church, baptism, and union with Christ is so obvious to me that I do not know quite how to respond to exegetical arguments like the ones offered by Mr. Engwer.”

Well, that’s quite possible. Somebody can get to the point in life where he doesn’t remember how he got there. He’s changed trains and planes and busses and taxis so many times that he can’t retrace his steps.

Of course, that’s rather like a hiker who’s lost in the woods. He doesn’t remember how to get back because he doesn’t remember how he got there in the first place. Lost his bearings along the way. The landmarks are gone. And it’s getting dark. And wet. And cold.

But a mentally competent Christian should never put the Bible so far behind him that he can no longer find the trail leading back to Scripture. We’re accountable to God for what we believe about him. And his self-revelation in Scripture is the yardstick.

“Why does incorporation into the Church justify? Because the Church is the Body of Christ. Why does incorporation into the Body of Christ justify? Because to be united to the Body of Christ is to be united to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and to share in the divine life–and one can’t get any more justified than that!”

Of course, a chain of reasoning is only as strong as its weakest link. And in this case, every link is a weak link.

Which church is the body of Christ? If he means the church of Rome, where’s the argument?

And if he means the church of Rome, does this also mean that non-Catholics are not united with Christ? Does this also mean that non-Catholics are not justified?

The “body” of Christ is a metaphor. How does Kimel unpack that metaphor and relate it to Pauline justification?

Where does Paul say that we’re justified by incorporation into “the Church”? If that’s the case, then why didn’t he use that argument with the Judaizers?

Stop and ask yourself what the letter of Galatians would look like if a Catholic like Al Kimel wrote it.

“Until one grasps the profound unity of these divine realities, one will never exegete Scripture properly.”

Well, that’s a very revealing admission. (I'm tempted to say "damning" admission.) So, before you can exegete Scripture properly, you must already have a thoroughgoing soteriology sacramentology, ecclesiology, and triadology.

And, of course, you’d have to acquire that understanding apart from Scripture since you use that as a lens to interpret Scripture. But if you can do all that without Scripture, then what’s left for Scripture to do? In that event, who needs the word of God?

It’s remarkable how little of Kimel’s core theology is founded on divine revelation. It’s nice to see that so out in the open.


  1. Any Judaizer could have easily said "well, circumcision is God's work" in response to Paul's charges. Likewise, sacramentalists today think that this sort of line can shield them from the charge of legalism in regard to baptism.

  2. Luther also said:

    "Sacraments have attached to them a word of promise which requires faith... Their whole efficacy, therefore, consists in faith itself, not in the doing of a work.... Not the sacrament, but the faith of the sacrament justifies.... Thus it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added.... It cannot be true, therefore, that there is contained in the sacraments a power efficacious for justification...."