Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Crimson Catholic

Jonathan Prejean (“The Crimson Catholic”) has responded to my two-part series on Sola fide. I don’t know if this means that I’m moving up in the world, or he is moving down! :-)

Let me say that Prejean’s reply is a pleasure to read—calm, cool, collected reason. A refreshing contrast to Sippo’s demagoguery or Armstrong’s tragedy queen histrionics. Let us hope that both of us can maintain this lofty level of discourse, should it continue.

<< But I think that it's also important to note that Regensburg did actually clear up a miscommunication on at least one point: whether God was the sole cause of the works that Catholics consider justifying. The answer to that question is "YES," God's grace is infallible at obtaining its intended effect to apply Christ's merits to a person. Note the statement of Regensburg: "By the Holy Spirit the human mind is moved toward God through Christ and this movement is through faith." The condition of whether grace is resisted or not is the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which moves and excites the will toward assent to grace (Trent on justification, Canons III-IV). Thus, the Father bestows Christ's merits by the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Spirit, while permitting grace to be resisted in those who lack such inspiration, thus condemning them by their own sin. While the will is active in the process of justification, it in no way thwarts God's ultimate sovereignty in the process regarding predestination and election. >>

This bristles with a veritable briar-patch of difficulties:

i) Prejean seems to be using The Conference of Ratisbon to gloss the Tridentine doctrine of justification. Taken by itself, and Prejean offers no supporting argument, this commits the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. The fact that this Conference preceded Trent does not imply that Trent formally codifies or ratifies any of the formulations floated at Regensburg. In fact, the Church of Rome generally prefers to conduct interfaith dialogue at an informal level since that does not officially commit it to whatever the dialogue-partners happen to agree on. Even at an Ecumenical Council, there are preliminary debates over one bishop’s draft language and another bishop’s draft language. What is actually finalized is frequently a linguistic and theological compromise which differs from either.

Prejean needs to offer a separate argument showing, by direct historical evidence, that the Tridentine Fathers did, in fact, make use of Regensburg in their preliminary deliberations and/or final formulations.

ii) Was there “miscommunication” on this point? If there was miscommunication, then it must be a case of mutual miscommunication, for Trent anathematizes a number of theological propositions which it clearly identifies with Protestant theology. In some instances, at least, it accepts the Protestant characterization of Catholic doctrine as accurate for purposes of reaffirming traditional Catholic doctrine in the teeth of the contrary Protestant positions. So the thesis of “miscommunication” can only be underwritten at the cost of attributing error to Trent.

iii) But let us assume, for the sake of argument, Prejean’s own interpretation. From a Reformed standpoint, the key distinction is that saving grace is qualitative, not quantitative. To quantify grace by saying that grace is resistible for some, but not for others, or that grace is resistible at one stage of the process but irresistible at another phase, is beside the point as far as Reformed theology is concerned. For we still end up with synergism rather than monergism. When all is said and done, man remains a free variable in the economy of salvation.

iv) By the same token, Reformed theology doesn’t regard justification as a “process.” That’s the point. Justification is a divine act, not a historical process. Sanctification is a process.

v) True, the will is active in the sense that justification is contingent on faith, and faith is a human mental act. But Reformed theology would say that the object of grace is passive in regeneration, and that faith is a reflexive result of regeneration. So you still have no synergism.

vi) What does it means to say that the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Spirit, moves and excites the will “toward” assent to grace. Does it always and actually secure such assent, or does it merely move the will “toward” assent, without necessarily securing its assent?

vii) This form of words also suggests a transitional state when the will neither giving nor withholding assent, but in a neutral state short of either assent or nonassent. From a psychological standpoint, Prejean has postulated a highly artificial state of mind—something that isn’t quite “A” or “non-A.” Sounds like psychobabble to me.

viii) And while Prejean speaks of “prevenient grace,” the actual imagery is not of the will moving from grace to faith, but moving towards a state of grace. Human assent is not a direct result of grace. Rather, the will must consent to grace in order to assent to grace. Grace is not the cause of the state of grace, but the consequence or end-result of human assent.

ix) Finally, perhaps Prejean can explain how the old categories of predestination and election, in which “permitting” grace can be resisted by those who, due to their non-elect status, lack “prevenient grace,” is consistent with the paradigm-shift from exclusive to inclusive ecclesiocentrism in Vatican II and post-Vatican II theology.

For documentation, see my “Solus Christus?” and “From nulla salus to tota salus” essays in the May 05 archive.

Prejean might object that my appeals to the Reformed standpoint simply beg the question in favor of Reformed theology. If so, I’d reply that:

i) We can’t begin to say who is right or wrong in the conflict with Rome until we are clear on the differences.

ii) In my essay I offered an exegetical defense of the Reformed doctrine of justification. And I’ve posted a number of other essays, by others, and me defending Reformed theology from Scripture. So I’m not simply assuming the truth of the Reformed faith without benefit of argument.

<< It is for that very reason, however, that I think we are obliged to learn from the Reformers themselves about what the remaining differences were after Regensburg. >>

With all due respect to the Reformers, my primary obligation is to learn from Scripture, and to learn from the Reformers insofar as they learn from Scripture.

<< The real question is what produces the voluntary reception of the gracious action. >>

No, the real question from a Reformed standpoint is whether the grace of God is efficacious or not.

<< We know only that, contra Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, it is not something that one can work to earn or deserve by performing natural works so as to solicit God's grace. >>

From a Reformed, and Pauline, standpoint that is not good enough. Note the restriction to “natural” works.

No, the question is whether “any” works of the law can solicit or earn or deserve God’s gracious favor. The Reformed answer emphatically in the negative.

<< The Catholic interpretation of this verse is that "sin" refers to a "sin offering," so that we are quite definite in saying that this has a causative sense (Christ obviously didn't crucify Himself). Indeed, a significant objection that Catholics have to imputed justification is that the use of this passage (and the similar "made a curse" in Galatians) to demonstrate the "reverse imputation" of sins to Christ either contravenes the natural sense of the verb or blasphemously retains it (so that Christ literally became a sinner). >>

Prejean is confuses imputation with identity (“So that Christ literally became a sinner”). The whole point of imputation is that it involves a relation between two parties, and not strict identity.

As to the Catholic interpretation of 2 Cor 5:21, there are weighty objections to Prejean’s identification of “sin” with “sin offering” in this verse:

<< The word hamartia does not have the meaning of “sin offering” elsewhere in the NT, and if Paul intends that meaning here, then he uses the word with two quite different meanings in the same sentence. In the first instance he states that Christ did not know sin, and there is no indication that he intended a quite different meaning for the word “sin” in the second instance. If Paul had intended to use the noun in a quite different sense of “sin offering,” it would have been more fitting to use the verb “presented” or “offered” rather than “made.” “Sin” also contrasts with “righteousness,” and interpreting the word as “sin offering” destroys the parallel structure of the sentence:

[A] Christ who knew no sin
[B] God made him sin
[A] We (Who are sinners)
[B] Become the righteousness of God

D. Garland, 2 Corinthians (Broadman 1999), 300-301. >>

And again:

<< It remains true that:

i) hamartia does not bear the meaning “sin offering” anywhere else in Paul or the NT.

ii) Paul here probably construes hamartia in a more personal, interrelational sense than is represented by “sacrifice for sin” or “victim for sin”:

iii) one might have expected a verb such as proetheto (cf. Rom 3:25) or edoken or etheken if hamartia signified “sin offering; and

iv) if hamartia is parallel to dikaiosune theou, it is more likely to bear a judicial or forensic sense than a sacrificial or cultic meaning.

M. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans 2005), 453. >>

Moving on:

<<). The Catholic formulation of merit comes straight out of the Scriptural language of reward-punishment in the context of eternal life (see, e.g., Rom. 2:6-28, Matt. 25:46). >>

I’ve responded to this line of argument elsewhere:

<< Notice, yet again, Deavel’s bait-and-switch scam. If Paul has no problem saying that we are justified by works, then what doesn’t he just say so? But Paul, in the very passage cited by Deavel to prove his point, never uses that language. He doesn’t say that we are justified by works, but that our works figure in the final judgment, where the damned are punished according to their evil deeds while the redeemed are rewarded according to their good deeds.

In Reformed theology, sanctification is a necessary condition of salvation, but not a condition of justification. There is nothing in the passage to overturn that view. Deavel doesn’t seem to have a very secure purchase of the position he is opposing.

The carrot-and-stick approach is a basic feature of Biblical pedagogy. Rewards are an incentive to good behavior, while punishment is a deterrent to bad behavior. There is nothing here about merit.

There is nothing wrong with commending good works. But the question at hand is, what is the function of good works? Do they make us right with God? Deavel did absolutely nothing to show that Jesus is addressing the same narrow issue as Paul is addressing. >>

Moving on:

<< Likewise, the notion of congruent merit arises in cases where people give a reward that is fitting but in no way obliged by action. It is strictly gratuitous; no rule or promise obligates it. One could count innumerable occasions on which someone is not strictly entitled to receive something, but gifts are fittingly given (birthdays, graduation, Christmas, etc., etc.). Obviously, one also could give gifts out of affection without some occasion, and even that would be congruent merit, fitting to the love the giver has for the receiver. The point of congruent merit is that it describes the merit of the receiver based on the regard of the giver, not on any concept of earned reward. In the cases of condign and congruent merit, the language of merit is rightly used without any question of strict justice between the giver and the receiver, so that the receiver "earns" the reward. >>

Unless I’ve missed something, Trent, of itself, never draws a formal distinction between condign and congruent merit. This distinction is a makeshift apologetic ploy to take the sting out of the notion that we merit God’s grace. So Prejean needs to defend the category of congruent or quasi-merit as an authoritative gloss on Tridentine usage.

Prejean offers no pre-Tridentine precedent for this usage. At most, he comes up with some pre-Tridentine precedent for some possibly analogous ideas in Augustine and Anselm.

But not all tradition is Sacred Tradition. The purpose of an ecumenical council is, in some measure, to sort out mere tradition from Sacred Tradition.

One cannot, willy-nilly, pluck something out of church tradition which was never formally ratified at an Ecumenical Council and assume, with no further ado, that this supplies the interpretive grid. There are no controls on such an appeal.

If this preunderstanding is essential to the meaning of Trent, why didn’t the Tridentine Fathers make that explicit? And in the absence of hard evidence, how does Prejean know that this was an unspoken assumption of their canons and decrees? How do you document an unspoken assumption? What you can’t show, you don’t know (as Neusner is fond of saying).

I’d add that we’re often admonished by Catholic writers that the preunderstanding of a conciliar degree is not normative—indeed, may even be a culture-bound mistake. The only thing that’s binding are the formal definitions.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this distinction is valid, congruent merit is unscriptural on its own grounds. As I’ve explained elsewhere:


i) When you cite Rom 2:6-7, you are turning good works into meritorious works. But Rom 2 does not make that equation.

ii) As I said before, rewards and punishments may be motivational rather than meritorious.

vi) The fact that God makes a promise, and keeps his promise, does not imply that the object of his promise merited its fulfillment. For example, a D.A. may cut a deal with a hit-man to turn state’s evidence against his mob boss in exchange for immunity and witness protection. If the D.A. keeps his word, it isn’t because the hit-man merited immunity and witness protection.

iii) There is a fundamental asymmetry between reward and punishment, merit and demerit. To say that a sinner cannot merit a reward is not to
say that a sinner cannot (de)merit a just desert. The damned are worthy of judgment in a way that the redeemed are unworthy of grace. To say that one is deserving of his fate does not imply the same for the other. All men, as fallen men, are deserving of damnation. >>

Moving on:

<< It is in our unwillingness to abandon the Scriptural language of reward and punishment that we look to a way to make that language meaningful. >>

The bone of contention is not with Scriptural language, but with unscriptural inferences from Scriptural language.

At this point I’ll skip over some of what Prejean has to say since it reiterates or piggybacks on matters I’ve already addressed thus far.

<< Part of justifying one's exegesis is to make certain that one does not contradict what one knows of Scripture from elsewhere. The notion of a legal fiction in this instance is that it attacks God's own justice. The entire notion of "legal fiction" is that it is something superfluous if we could judge the cases truly on their merits; to say that God is using one would, from the Catholic perspective, be impugning God's ability to judge cases rightly. >>

Where is elsewhere? Exegetical and systematic theology are concentric. You begin by interpreting a given writer on his own terms, by his own usage, and his own literary allusions and intellectual debts. We interpret Paul by Paul, not by Matthew or James.

After you interpret each writer individually, based on his own corpus, you are then, and only then, in a position to move to the second-order stage of theological synthesis—systematic theology.

Even on its own grounds, where does what we know of Scripture from elsewhere contradict the principle of imputation? Where does Scripture say or imply otherwise?

<< Indeed, even with our fallible means, it is perceived as unjust when someone perceived to be guilty goes free; imagine the much greater outrage if the jury could not plead human fallibility. So you've unintentionally hit on exactly the Catholic objection: to accuse God of resorting to a legal fiction is to impute either fallibility or dishonesty to God. As an omniscient and perfectly truthful judge, God literally cannot utter a judgment that is not objectively true, and the Scriptural witness to the truth of God's utterances is quite simply undeniable. >>

All that Prejean has done here is to interpolate what he regards as a necessary condition of just judgment. That is not a condition he can find actually stated in the text of Scripture. He merely assumes that it must be so. Notice that there is absolutely no actual exegesis to back up his claim. So he’s begging the question.

<< This is a valid objection, but it weakens the argument for imputed justification substantially. If sin is solely a matter of one's legal standing, that would make the person actually righteous, not righteous by imputation. On the other hand, if sin is ontological, then the judgement would either be false or the person would have to be made righteous. In either case, the person would be righteous in his own right, not by virtue of imputation. >>

This is a very confused statement. What is the contrast between actual sin and ontological sin? If it’s actual, it’s personal. That makes it ontological.

I don’t know what he means by “solely a matter of one’s legal standing.” In Reformed theology, sin has two sides to it: (i) subjective corruption and (ii) objective guilt. Sanctification answers to (i) while justification answers to (ii).

To say that we are guilty in our own right does not imply that we are righteous in our own right. These are not convertible propositions.

A Christian is actually or ontologically sinful. What he is not is actually or ontologically righteous. Sin has degrees—righteousness does not, not in terms of being right with God. The standard of divine acquittal is perfect righteousness, not partial righteousness.

Actually, it’s the Catholic position which is a falsehood. For it makes partial, personal righteousness deputize for actual and absolute righteousness. These are hardly commensurate.

<< If the divine law says that a kinsman can voluntarily pay a price to redeem someone, that justice can be satisfied by either punishment or payment, then Christ's merciful sacrifice also satisfies justice (as St. Anselm argued). The point is that if salvation is a matter of legal standing, and the law says that payment sets someone free from the sentence, then the person is actually righteous (there's no need for imputation). >>

This is confused on two grounds:

i) It fails to distinguish between subjective corruption and objective guilt. A payment may acquit you, but it doesn’t make you actually righteous. Indeed, it assumes that you are actually unrighteous, which is why you must make restitution in the first place.

ii) It fails to distinguish between first and second-party manumission. If a second party redeems the debt, then that, by definition, involves a vicarious satisfaction of the debt. The debtor didn’t pay it himself. He is not actually just. Rather, the action of the kinsman redeemer is imputed to his account. That’s the whole point of penal substitution.

<< This response fails against the Catholic argument for two reasons. First, original sin in Catholic theology is actual, not imputed. Second, we reject the idea that demerit is imputed to Christ in any respect; our interpretation of "made sin" and "made a curse" and "bore our sins in His body" is strictly that He was a sacrificial offering for those purposes, not that they counted in any way against Him. Consequently, Catholic theology uniformly rejects all three forms of imputation. >>

i) Yes, the nature of original sin is a dividing line between Calvinism and Catholicism.

ii) Calvinism doesn’t deny that Christ functions a sin-offering. But that is a feature of vicarious atonement, and vicarious atonement assumes a distinction between the actual righteousness of the Redeemer and the actual unrighteousness of those on behalf of and in whose stead redemption is made.

<< : I agree with this statement, but I'll note that it is entirely routine for people to view sola gratia and sola fide such that this would be an issue of sola fide rather than sola gratia. >>

Sola gratia is the general principle, of which sola fide is a special case. We are justified by faith alone because, in Pauline theology (and elsewhere), we are saved by grace alone; and since we’re sinful, our own works cannot solicit or merit God’s favor. And faith is faith in another, the resignation of all spiritual self-confidence, as we trust solely in the sole and sufficient merit of Christ for salvation.

<< I find that difficult to believe, given the Canons of the Council of Orange. >>

To my knowledge, these were never ratified at an Ecumenical Council. This was just a local council.

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