Sunday, June 26, 2005

Sola fide-1

Nowadays it is fashionable to claim that the Reformation was based on a massive misunderstanding. You see, the Protestants weren’t conversant in the Catholic language-game. So both sides were speaking at cross-purposes. This claim disregards the obvious fact that, by definition, the first generation of Protestants were former Catholics. They received the same theological instruction as their Catholic opponents. Calvin may even have been a classmate of Ignatius Loyola at the Sorbonne. Luther was a professor of Catholic theology. Peter Martyr was an abbot. It is special pleading to claim that the Protestant Reformers wrote as outsiders to the Catholic tradition.

For a historical critique of the theory of “mutual misunderstanding,” cf. R. Beckwith, Latimer Comment 20 (1987), 1-5.

This claim has been forward in to advance the cause of ecumenism. In the interests of interfaith dialogue, there has been a good deal of deliberate confusion fostered about the definition of this doctrine in Catholic and Protestant theology.

In order to clear the air it is therefore necessary to compare and contrast the Reformed and Tridentine doctrines of justification. This will be more in the nature of an exposition of the respective positions rather than a full-scale defense of the Reformed position.

For general treatments, cf. D.A. Carson, ed. Right with God (Baker/Paternoster, 1992); A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1989), 152-191. For a treatment with special reference to exegetical theology, cf. L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching on the Cross (Eerdmans, 1983), 251-298.

For treatments with special reference to historical theology, cf. “An Opinion on the Condemnations of the Reformation Era,” LQ 5/1 (Spring, 1991), 1-62; M. Seifrid, “‘The Gift of Salvation’: Its Failure to Address the Crux of Justification,” JETS 42/4 (Dec, 1999), 679-88.

For a treatment with special reference to practical theology, cf. R.L. Dabney, “The Moral Effects of a Free Justification,” Discussions of Robert L. Dabney (Banner of Truth, 1982), 1:73-106.

A. Definitions:

Trent defines justification in terms of the remission of sin as well as the sanctification and renewal of the inner man, through the voluntary reception of a gracious action that transforms the state of the unjust into a condition of personal and actual rectitude, enabling them to become heirs of everlasting life (6.7).

Let’s compare this with a representative definition from the Protestant side:
“Justification is an act of God’s free grace to sinners, whereby he pardons all their sins, accepting and accounting them righteous in his sight, not due to anything done in them or by them, but due only to the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, reckoned to them by God and received by faith alone,” Westminster Longer Catechism (Q. 70).

While these two definitions present points of contrast, yet owing to semantic ambiguities in their respective usage, it is not readily apparent just how far apart they may really be. Is the difference mainly semantic insofar as Trent combines justification (in the Protestant sense) with sanctification? In that case, it uses the same term to denote a broader category. It names, under one category, what Protestant theology names under two distinct categories.

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with a dogmatic category being broader than a Biblical category. A dogmatic category may be a theological construct. But as a matter of theological method, a systematic theologian should appreciate and respect the foundations and boundaries of soteric categories in their original framework before he attempts a constructive synthesis. Even if the Tridentine position didn’t suffer from any positive errors, it would still be gravely defective for failing to articulate a positive and sharp-edged summary of the Pauline category of justification, in contradistinction to his category of sanctification. One would be at a loss to recover the Pauline doctrine from the Tridentine construct. So it is not a case of classing two soteric categories under one designation; rather, we would be unable to reconstruct the Pauline category from the Tridentine statement since it doesn’t preserve the essential elements of the original.

B. Protestant position:

I will begin my comparison by laying out some of the essential elements in the Protestant doctrine of justification, which consciously coincides with the Pauline category. Catholic theologians have criticized this Pauline focal-point to the neglect of James as lopsided. However, the Protestant point of departure is logical inasmuch as the Jacobean position isn’t very relevant to the conflict with Rome. The Pauline doctrine was occasioned by debate over the terms of Gentile admission. Must Gentiles convert to Judaism in order to be party to the New Covenant? This query raised the question of their relation to the law. And that, in turn, raised the question of the Jewish relation to the law. So the Pauline analysis is already framed in expressly forensic terms as it bears on the justification of sinners vis-à-vis the vicarious work of Christ.

The context of James is completely different. He is dealing with dead orthodoxy. His main point is that (saving) faith and fidelity are inseparable. Paul wouldn’t deny that. But this isn’t what Paul means by justification. And it isn’t apposite to the conflict with Rome since neither sided denied that connection. The Jacobean position isn’t cast in forensic, vicarious, or hamartiological terms; rather, it is concerned with the probative value of good works. Moreover, fidelity is subjective, which is germane to dead orthodoxy—whereas faith is objective, which is germane to vicarious merit; fidelity is a property of the subject (=the Christian) whereas faith takes an object (=Christ); fidelity is self-referential whereas faith is self-resignful. So the Jacobean position is neither contradictory nor complementary to Paul’s. Rather, it is neutral on the nature of justification—in the Pauline sense. For further discussion, see W. Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), 731.

According to the Bible, justification is:

i) FORENSIC. In terms of semantic import, the word-group (Heb.=sadeq; Gr.= δικαιοω) is used to denote an objective sentence of acquittal rather than a subjective transformation of character (e.g. Exod 23:7; Deut 25:1; 2 Sam 15:4; 1 Kg 8:32; Job 32:2; Ps 82:3; 143:2; Prov 17:15; Isa 5:23; 43:26; 50:8; Mt 12:37; Lk 7:29; Rom 3:4; 5:16; 8:33-34; 1 Tim 3:16). In a courtroom setting, to be sure, such a verdict implies that the plaintiff or defendant is actually in the right. But that isn’t built into the meaning of the verb. And the verb doesn’t carry a causal force. In the entire OT there is only one possible candidate for a causal sense (Dan 12:3), and even there it would be referring to an exemplary rather than efficient cause.

J. Goldingay, however, offers “vindicate” as an alternative rendering, based on the common usage in Dan 7-12, WBC 30 (Word, 1989), 281. This eliminates any causal connotation.

Moreover, the sense in which there is a correspondence between the verdict and the plaintiff or defendant has reference, not to a subjective ethical quality, but to an objective ethical relation between the subject and the law, viz., that he sustains a right relation to the law.

But even if the verb were to carry a uniformly causal connotation, that would not settle the issue in favor of the Catholic claim. When Paul says that Christ was made sin for us (2 Cor 5:21), the verb (ποιεω) has a naturally causal import (“to do, make, bring about, produce, execute,” &c.), yet Paul doesn’t mean that Christ became a sinner!

When we move beyond the courtroom of justice to the throne room of grace, Paul sets this judicial verdict in studied contrast to the subject’s personal virtue (Rom 3:20; 4:5-8). The verb retains its forensic import, but in moving from the court to the Cross its range of reference is graciously extended to the undeserving.

ii) VICARIOUS. Justification is not elicited by the actual rectitude of the subject, but is bestowed from above (Rom 8:3,33; 10:3; Titus 3:4b,7). Its vicarious character in fact follows from the ethical discrepancy between the objective verdict and the moral condition of the subject.

iii) STATIVE. Justification involves the divine conferral of a righteous standing before God, in contradistinction to moral renovation. It retains the forensic character of an objective verdict, but moves beyond the negative notion of bare acquittal to a positive predication by putting the subject in the right before God (Rom 4:1-11,22-24; 5:17; 10:3; Gal 3:6; Phil 3:19).

iv) DEFINITIVE. Both in qualitative and quantitative terms, our justification is a once and for all time event. If justification is based on the sole and sufficient merit of Christ, then it is beyond augmentation or reiteration (see below). If, moreover, it is a status rather than a state of being, based on a divine act rather than an interior process, that then also entails its self-contained integrity (see above). Both of these elements imply that justification is irreversible and unrepeatable, not to mention more direct prooftexts to that effect (Rom 8:1,30-34; 11:29). So it covers a Christian’s past, present, and future sin, being both existential and eschatological in sweep (Gal 5:5).

This does not, of course, exhaust the work of Christ. In OT typology the priest not only made sacrifice, but also offered sacrifice, and offered prayer on the basis of sacrifice, in representing the people before God. So it is necessary that Christ would fulfill this typical division of labor in his self-immolation and heavenly intercession (Heb 4:14; 6:19-20; 7:21-28; 9:12,24-10:14; cf. Rom 8:34). Far from subtracting from this mediatorial role, the very perfection of his sacrifice is what warrants it. And unlike a mortal high priest who alone could enter God’s presence, and even then in replica of the reality, Christ leads his people to heaven (Heb 10:19-22).

v) SOLAFIDEISTIC. Faith is a coordinate condition of justification. It doesn’t function as a meritorious ground or synergistic prerequisite. God requires faith as a negation of the works-principle. It is set over against the merit-system (Rom 3:20-22; 4:2,16; 8:3; Gal 2:16; 3:11-12; 5:3; Phil 3:9). In particular, the works-principle is identified with law-keeping under the Mosaic dispensation. This standard of comparison is important in considering the role, if any, of personal merit in our justification:

The Mosaic law code was a divine law code. Unlike their pagan neighbors, therefore, the Jews had access to the right standard of right and wrong (Ps 147:19-20). Moreover, elect Jews acted from godly motives and godward incentives (e.g. Ps 24:4; 27:4; 51:10; 86:11; 96; 119; Jer 24:7; 32:39; Lk 1:6; 2:25,36-38). Now if devout Jews, even when operating with the right standards and inducements, could never ever be justified by works, what plainer precedent can there be to demonstrate that merit may play no part whatsoever our justification? Indeed, Paul makes himself an object lesson as the paradigm of pious law-keeping (Phil 3:3-6; cf. Acts 22:3; Gal 1:14). He was never a nominal Jew or hypocrite. He was deeply versed in God’s moral norm and zealous to comply, yet he despairs of being justified by works and disclaims any degree of self-reliance. And there is no categorical difference between the OT saint and the NT saint in this regard. The Jews were under law, but they were also under grace. They were saved by the retroactive merit of Christ (Heb 9:15). The law was never an instrument to justify the sinner but was given, rather, to awaken his sense of sin (Rom 3:20; 5:20; 7:13), to supply a standard of public and private conduct and a lay down a yardstick for assigning the varying degrees of heavenly reward (e.g. Rom 2:5-12; 1 Cor 3:12-15; 2 Cor 5:10; Heb 6:10).

One major rationale for justification by faith alone is that the merit principle is based on the principle of strict justice—where there’s an exact equality between deed and desert. But since our fallen deeds can never satisfy this inflexible standard, they properly merit punishment rather than reward. This is not an artificially high standard. Rather, it is nothing more or less than the standard intrinsic to the principle of merited reward or punishment. Strict justice doesn’t allow for any degree of declination.

Catholic theologians distinguish between strict merit, condign merit and congruent merit. Condign merit is a synergistic second-order merit obliging a commensurate reward, whereas congruent merit is more discretionary. Cf. Catholic Encyclopedia (CUA 1967), 10:202b-203a

This distinction suffers from four defects:

a) Although is applied to the Scriptural doctrine of justification, it cannot be exegeted from the Scriptural doctrine of justification.

b) It cannot be invoked to gloss the Tridentine formulation since the Tridentine Fathers refrained from drawing on such a distinction in their canons and decrees on justification, although it was available to them.

c) It falters on a fatal equivocation. The fact that Catholic theologians find it necessary to qualify the character of merit already betrays the extremity of their position. You can’t modify a concept by merely annexing an adjective to a noun (viz., extra virgin olive oil). The principle of merit cannot be modulated. To merit something, it must be owing to the subject in his own right. He must be personally deserving and his recompense must be commensurate with the claim. The same applies to demerit. Mercy and merit are contrary principles.

d) This sort of ethical hair-splitting is Pharisaical. It tries to jimmy open a few cracks in the solid front of Scripture in order to wedge in a little leeway for human merit. Paul could have introduces these qualifications if he wanted to. The fact that he’s so emphatic

Catholics charge the Protestant doctrine with being a legal fiction. This calls for half a dozen comments:

a) The only burden on a Protestant is to justify his exegesis, and not to justify the results of his exegesis. At that point the Catholic is taking issue with the propriety of God’s redemptive arrangements.

b) The Catholic category of “quasi-merit” (=congruent merit) invites the characterization of a legal fiction. So the Catholic alternative is objectionable on its own grounds.

c) It seems as if Catholic theologians are trying to extract the doctrine of justification from the form of the word, reasoning that unless the subject declared to be righteous is, in fact righteous, God’s judgment would be at variance with the truth. But this is a semantic fallacy. Take another judicial term. We declare a defendant to be either innocent or guilty. Now “innocent” is a Latin derivative which literally means “harmless.” So is it a legal fiction to declare the defendant innocent when he may be a vicious and violent individual? But this is irrelevant to the truth of the verdict. “Innocent” is a technical term in jurisprudence. It simply means that the defendant is not guilty as charged. It says nothing about his personal character. It is only concerned with his legal standing. He may be a vicious and violent individual, but as long as he is not guilty of the specific offense for which he was charged, he is innocent in the eyes of the law.

d) Justification by faith would only be fictitious if it pretended that the sinner were actually righteous. But what it means is that the good credit of Christ’s perfect righteousness is attributed to the sinner by virtue of the solidarity of Christ with his people in election and redemption. So it is not a groundless attribution. God justifies the sinner on just grounds—the merit of Christ (Rom 3:24-26).

Whether declarative righteousness is factual or fictitious depends on how the declaration is qualified. It should go without saying that the veracity of a truth-claim is relative to the terms of the claim. Since it was cast in terms of vicarious merit, the fact that the subject isn’t personally meritorious is quite coherent with the veracity of the claim. The declaration is only a shorthand expression to designate a more nuanced concept, like when a prospective father says he’s having a baby, even though it’s actually the mother who has the baby! Would a Catholic denounce the father’s elliptical idiom as “fictitious“ because it omitted reference to the maternal agent? The Catholic charge confuses word and concept. The doctrine of justification is a theological construct that goes beyond the bare meaning of a noun or verb. This is typical of theological jargon. The word “trinity” simply means “triad” or “threefold,” but there’s more to the doctrine of the Trinity than that.

What the Catholic has done is to put his own gloss on justification, and then accuse the Protestant palming off a legal fiction because it doesn’t comply with the Catholic conditions. But this is a rhetorical trick. Naturally the Protestant version of justification is inconsistent with the Catholic interpretation. But since the Protestant version never shared the Catholic assumptions, it isn’t disingenuous when it fails to meet the conditions set by the opposition. The charge is either circular or confused.

Of course, there are people who will deny that merit and demerit are commutable. At this point we must ask, are they challenging Protestant exegesis or the Protestant rule of faith? If the Bible enunciates the principle of vicarious merit, then that settles the matter as far as Protestant theology is concerned. Any further objection is a direct challenge to the authority of Scripture. That moves the debate from the realm of exegesis to apologetics.

e) Since it is God’s law that must be satisfied, shouldn’t he have the first and final say in how his law is to be honored? If God tells us that the terms of his broken law can be met on behalf of the elect by the vicarious merit of his Son, who is the Catholic to slander this as a legal fiction? Doesn’t the divine legislator appreciate the moral requirements of his law for man? The obligation of the law is an obligation to God? Isn’t God in a position to say how that obligation may be met? Doesn’t the divine lawmaker enjoy a measure of discretion in stipulating what form of recompense is appropriate? The Catholic charge is presumptuous in the extreme.

f) If alien righteousness were a legal fiction, then alien unrighteousness is also be a legal fiction. The Bible teaches a triple imputation: the demerit of Adam is imputed to his posterity, the demerit of his elect posterity is imputed to Christ, while the merit of Christ is imputed to the elect. So if the Protestant doctrine of justification were fallacious, that would further falsify original sin, and also invalidate the role of Christ as the sin-bearer for his people. Deny justification by faith and you’re committed to denying the Lamb of God, for sola fide and the Agnus Dei go hand in hand.

g) Trent’s attack on justification by faith treats theology as it were an exercise in creative writing. If you don’t like the way the story ends, you just rewrite it. But the Protestant theologian is not at liberty to write an alternative ending to revelation.

h) When the Catholic charges sola fide with positing a fictitious merit, we can counter that the Catholic posits a fictitious God. What does it reveal about his doctrine of God when his doctrine of justification amounts to saying, in effect, “Look, Lord, I can never pay you back in full, but I can pay you 59¢ on the dollar if you will agree to write off the remainder of the debt”? Does this represent a serious conception of God? Doesn’t it reduce the object of faith to a toy God, a pet God, a pocket God—no better, really—than a glorified rabbit’s foot? The notion of a God who can be bought off by petty brides is typically pagan.

While the truth of this triple imputation is an article of faith secured by the authority of God’s word, I would add that there is nothing notably counter-intuitive about it. Suppose your best friend asked if you would put in a good word on behalf of his son. Now you’re really doing it as a favor to your friend. In effect, his son is enjoying an extended line of credit for the reservoir of good will that has built up between you and your old friend over the years. I doubt there’s any society at any time or place that doesn’t honor this principle of moral transference. It’s the basis of Prov 27:10: “Do not forsake your father’s friend“ (cf. 1 Sam 20:15; 2 Sam 9:1ff.). The principle has limits, to be sure, but far from offending our moral intuitions, this kind of virtue by association is a cultural universal.

The role of faith in our justification is not the only function of faith. God has created a people to enjoy fellowship with their Maker. But in this life our fellowship must operate by faith rather than sight since the object of our duty and desire lies beyond the palpable present (Ps 17:15; Rom 8:24-25; 2 Cor 4:18; 5:7; Col 3:3; Heb 11; 1 Pet 1:8).

vi) SOLACHRISTOLOGICAL. The warrant for our justification lies in the sole and sufficient merit of Christ. (Rom 3:24; 5:9,17-19; Gal 2:21; 5:2,4; Col 2:13-14). The one-over-many structure of Rom 5:17-19 implies that individual merit is ruled out as a possible ground for justification, while the verses in Galatians are insistent on an absolute antithesis between the sufficiency of Christ and human merit. For its part, the passage in Colossians doesn’t draw any distinction between venial and mortal sin (pace Trent, 6:11).

In order to merit justification, two conditions would have to be satisfied:

a) The agent must not be guilty of personal demerit. That is to say, he must have fulfilled all of his duties to God.

b) The agent must be in a position to acquire supererogatory merit. That is to say, he must perform above and beyond his natural obligations to God.

Unfallen Adam was in a position to satisfy (a) but not (b). Only Christ was in a position to satisfy both (a) and (b). By virtue of his stainless humanity he satisfied the first condition (Jn 8:46; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet 2:22). By virtue of his economic subordination he satisfied the second condition (Jn 10:17-18; Gal 4:4; Phil 2:6-11; Heb 5:7-9).

So justification is based on the merit-system, but it is the merit of Christ and not the Christian that supplies the necessary and sufficient ground. Again, it is possible for men to perform deeds above and beyond the call of duty, but that is in relation to their fellow man, and not in relation to God (cf. Lk 17:7-10).

Of course, God can obligate himself by making a promise. In that sense we may have a claim on God. But a divine promise is strictly gratuitous. If God makes a promise, he “must” keep his promise, but that is owing to his own veracity, and not to our desert. Any proffered reward is still in the nature of a favor rather than a debt. Only Christ was in a position to earn a reward for his people.

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