Thursday, December 17, 2009

The spinning fingerpost

Harry Truman

Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, ''On the one hand…on the other.''

If all the economists were laid end-to-end, they’d point in all directions.

On the one hand:

Dave Armstrong

I agree with Adomnan on this one, and on the "New" Perspective on St. Paul (N.T. Wright et al). I have a section on this in my first book, citing my friend Al Kresta at length.

Protestantism has traditionally taken the other perspective, which is why Wright is not a very loved figure in many circles. He dares to criticise Luther's flawed paradigm: he goes after the sacred cow of Luther's "Reformation" soteriology from within Protestantism.

Bryan Cross

Jason, Is it even possible, in your mind, that you have misinterpreted St. Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatians? You are not making any distinction between the works of the ceremonial law as part of the Old Covenant, and works of the moral law, done in a state of grace in the New Covenant, out of love [agape] for God. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul wasn’t condemning (or even referring to) growth in justification through good works done in a state of grace; he was condemning a return to the Old Covenant by Christians, because that was a rejection of the New Covenant and implicitly a rejection of Jesus as the Messiah who established the New Covenant in which the requirement of those ceremonial laws is done away. If you don’t understand the distinction between the ceremonial law and the moral law, then you have entirely misunderstood Paul’s point in his letter to the Galatians. Then your whole warrant for calling the Church’s teaching a “false gospel” is based on a misinterpretation of Scripture.

On the other hand:

Robert Sungenis

Today, many Catholics are confused as to the meaning of the phrase "works of the law." This phrase appears in such passages as Romans 3:28: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." I receive calls and letters quite frequently from people asking what the phrase really means. They read in my books what they understand as the historic teaching of the Catholic church, but then they hear some other Catholic apologist say something a little different.

Unfortunately, the meaning of "works of the law" is such a crucial area to understanding both St. Paul and the Catholic teaching on Justification, that I feel compelled to reiterate more forcefully what I have already written in my 1997 book, Not By Faith Alone.

Various Catholic apologists today, when teaching on the meaning of the "works of the law," will often explain it as referring to the ceremonial law of Israel, to the exclusion, or the virtual exclusion, of the remaining law in Israel. (The ceremonial law refers to all the ritual religious practices, such as circumcision, eating kosher foods, priestly sacrifices, seventh-day sabbath observance, etc).

Sad to say, that answer is at best a half-truth, and at worst, it is a distortion of the Catholic teaching on Justification.

One of the reasons these apologists categorize "works of the law" as referring to the ceremonial law is that they have found it to be an easy polemical tool against Protestants. Protestants say that St. Paul condemns ALL work as having any part in Justification. The Catholic apologist counters by saying that when Paul uses the phrase "works of the law" he does not mean ALL works; he only means the works of the ceremonial law of Israel.

The Catholic will then add that in Paul's confining "works of the law" to the ceremonial law, he specifically meant to exclude the moral law, such as those we find in the Commandments. Therefore, in Romans 3:28, Paul really means: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Ceremonial Law," (but all other "good" works can, and do, justify a man).

In giving this kind of answer, the Catholic thinks he has satisfactorily defended the Catholic faith and silenced the Protestant. To bolster his case, he may enlist the help of Romans 3:29 as proof that his answer is correct: "Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also." He then explains that since Paul speaks of "Jews only," then the "works of the law" mentioned in the previous verse (3:28) must be something that identifies only with the Jews but not with the Gentiles. In that he is correct, but as we will see later, the answer he gives as to the distinguishing characteristic (the ceremonial law) is only partially correct, and in being such, it is the wrong answer to this most crucial question.

In a similar vein, there are also a few Catholic apologists who have sided with the views of a new breed of Protestant exegetes. These Protestants have advanced what they call "The New Perspective on Paul." Current proponents of this new perspective are such Protestant names as James D. G. Dunn, E. P. Sanders, Alan Suggate, N. T. Wright and R. B. Hays, among others.

As for the argument that the "works of the law" applies to the ceremonial law, such that Paul is teaching that the ceremonial law cannot justify but that the moral law does justify, the first thing I would like to mention is that the Council of Trent, which is our central authoritative source on matters of Justification, NEVER used such argumentation. (Nor did they use anything close to Dunn's view, noted above). This fact becomes significant for our investigation, since during the Counter-Reformation there were certain Catholic clerics who, in opposition to the Lutherans, were trying to advance the argument that "works of the law" referred only to the ceremonial law. As it stands, the Council of Trent rejected that apologetic.
In the sixth session of the Council (where Justification is addressed), neither the words "ceremonial law," "ritual practices," nor anything of the sort are mentioned, not even one time. The only time the Council mentions the word "circumcision" is in Chapter 7 when it is quoting from Galatians 5:6 ("in Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith, which worketh by charity"), but it gives no elaboration on the usage of the term. Again, this is significant because it shows us that the Council did not think the "works of the law = ceremonial law" argument was a good, or even biblical, argument to explain the nature of Justification.

Rather than focus on the ceremonial law, the Council of Trent went right to the main, overarching issue, that is, the issue concerning "grace versus works" that I mentioned above. In the very first Canon the Council says:
"If anyone shall say that man can be justified before God by his own works which are done either by his own natural powers, or through the teaching of the Law, and without divine grace through Christ Jesus: let him be anathema."

Notice that the Council's view of "works" includes ANY kind of work, whether the work stems from one's "own natural powers" or "through the teaching of the Law." In the Council's mind there is no distinction between "ceremonial" works and "moral" works, at least in regard to how a man is justified before God.
Thus, the Council's tactic is to make an immediate antithesis between "works" and "grace." In the remaining 32 Canons, the Council continues the same argument, never once trying to settle the issue by an appeal to the ceremonial law of Israel, or an antithesis between Jew and Gentile.

The Council twice mentions the "Jews," but in neither case does it make a dictinction between the ceremonial law and the moral law of the Jews. The two references are in Chapter 1 and 2 of the Sixth Session: (1. "not even the Jews by the very letter of the law of Moses were able to be liberated (from the power of the devil and of death"; 2. "that He might both redeem the Jews, who were under the Law").
Again, in Chapter 8, Trent states: "...and are, therefore, said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith, or works, merit the grace itself of justification; for, ‘if it is a grace, it is not now by reason of works; otherwise (as the same Apostle says) grace is no more grace' [Romans 11:6]." Obviously, if Trent includes "faith" as "none of those things" which can justify, then surely moral works are included in the "none."

Now one might argue that by these injunctions Trent was merely denying Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. First, Trent never makes such a claim. In fact, the very foe they were fighting, Martin Luther, was the one accusing the Catholic Church of Pelagianism. Second, if Trent used some other kind of argumentation other than the one presented in Canon 1 and Chapter 8, namely, an argument that focused on the ceremonial law as the exclusive meaning of the "works of law," then the objection could be sustained. But such is not the case.

The point remains that Trent NEVER sought to answer the question of Justification by dissecting the Law into its constituent parts, i.e., ceremonial, moral or civil precepts. Although they had every opportunity to do so, the Council simply did not cite any verses from the New Testament that single out the ceremonial law. They only quoted from the NT passages which view the Law in its totality, since their main objective was to distinguish grace from law, not grace from ceremonies.

Logic dictates that if the ceremonial law apologetic was so crucial to the understanding of the issue of Justification (as some modern Catholic theologians claim) then Trent would have been REQUIRED to use it. They would have no right to ignore it in favor of a view which taught that the Law referred to the WHOLE law of Moses and Works referred to ANY work.

Now some might argue that the Council's focus was dictated by the particular arguments that the Reformers were advancing; and since this is not our concern today, nor was it the concern of Paul in the first century AD, then we are not obligated to use it. Let me say quite candidly, this is wrong.
First, as I noted above, the Council of Trent already ignored the "ceremonial law" argumentation which was being advanced by various Catholic clerics who were trying to answer the Lutherans.

Second, and this should come as no surprise to Catholics who know their history, the Fathers of the Church show quite clearly in their writings that there was a consensus of understanding that, in reference to how a man is justified, the words "works of the law," "works," or "law" referred to ANY work, ceremonial or moral.


  1. And the survey SAYS? "X"

  2. he goes after the sacred cow of Luther's "Reformation" soteriology from within Protestantism.

    Anglicans are Protestants?

  3. The spinning fingerpost

    I hope it spins forever. If it stops, there might be an extended middle finger pointing at the author.

  4. TUAD,

    What's wrong with you? Why do you even comment here?

  5. Beg all you want. Maybe I misunderstand your middle finger post. What gives?

  6. Mark,

    Why don't you ask for clarification first instead of hurling unfounded insults? You should be ashamed of yourself.

  7. I am actually ashamed of myself for even reading your comment. I'm sorry.

    You are even a fellow Atlantan, right?

    I guess it's just a sorry day.


  8. I took the middle finger to mean pointing at DA or Sungenis. But I could be wrong, too.

  9. It was the appearance of evil, in my judgment.

    I would advise tuad not to come before my bench! :)

  10. Also tuad, it wasn't a sorry day, it was an unloving day cause "Love believes all things"!

  11. TUAD says:

    The spinning fingerpost

    I hope it spins forever. If it stops, there might be an extended middle finger pointing at the author.


    Why don't you ask for clarification first instead of hurling unfounded insults? You should be ashamed of yourself.

    Hm, well, the fact that TUAD cites the title of the post, then mentions "an extended middle finger pointing at the author," presumably refers to the author of the post.

    But maybe that's not what TUAD meant.

    OK, so what'd you mean, TUAD?

  12. I meant that Catholics might get so angry at Steve Hays for highlighting their contradictions, they'd give Steve the finger.

    And I didn't want that to happen. Hence, let it spin forever.

    Unless it stops and ends up pointing at Mark Lamprecht.



  13. Well, as the Magisterium hasn't said that the "ceremonial law" argument is false, I guess that by Nick's comments in a previous post, Cross et. al. are within their RC rights to say whatever they want... so long as it suits the purposes of "Mother Church."


  14. there are so many things that totally wipe out the catholic church's reason, that still supports the magisterium's making unchallengable laws for believers to be led by.

    when the entire law is summed up in the 2nd commandment(love your neighbor...........) which homosexuality does not come against.

    in regards to moral law ephesians 2 :8-9 spells out pretty clearly what are works, which is "anything man boast about" anything man can boast about is anything the world can credit him for. and abiding by moral law definitely falls into that category.

    but this also is a moot discussion because as james said anyone who keeps the law but is guilty of violating one point is guilty of violating it ALL. NO HUMAN HAS EVER LIVED WHO HAS EVER KEPT ALL THE LAW.

  15. Why do Catholics insist upon the idea that whenever Paul rejects justification by works, he really means justification by works performed apart from God's grace? Where is the necessity of grace denied by the Agitators in the epistle to the Galatians?

    What Jew living in the first century denied the necessity of grace? Was Paul arguing against proto-pelagians?

  16. it appears to be the difference between living a faith thru the reasoning of the scriptures and living a faith thru a belief system that is supported by cultural tradition, where church doctrine trumps everything, and scripture verses are assigned meaning in spite of their words.

  17. in truth our greatest blessing, enabled by the sacrifice of christ is that the spirit of the triune god lives within each believer eternally.

  18. regardless of our differences, grace will eventually win out.

  19. reedit

    regardless of our differences, grace wins out. it wins out every day.

  20. Are you aware that Bryan has responded to this thread here?

    Of course a protestant theologian complaining that economists don't agree raises obvious pot/kettle issues.


    "Are you aware that Bryan has responded to this thread here?"

    We'll get to him in due time.

    "Of course a protestant theologian complaining that economists don't agree raises obvious pot/kettle issues."

    I didn't "complain" about disagreement among economists. Rather, I noted an *analogy* between economists who point in all different directions and Catholic epologists. Try to follow the argument.

  22. its interesting that christendom after 2000 years, is just beginning to embrace that the new covenant is without regulation as in deut 28.

    that apart from the 2nd commandment(the summation of the entire law of the new covenant) "everything is permissible but not everything is constructive"

    in regards, to women teaching in church, paul was saying that though it was permissible, in his churches he did not find it constructive.

    also, it has been only relatively recently, that christendom has come to embrace that one's neighbor is EVERYBODY else.

  23. this came from the grace of the holy spirit thru reasoning of the scriptures.

    all this appears to not be fully embraced by the catholic church because of the nature of the laws passed by the magisterium and that those laws are deemed unchallengable.