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Two Great Heresies of the Reformation


Russell Shaw


Reading about theological controversies of the 16th century, it's easy to think them dry and irrelevant. But just as these disputes involved the clash of passionately held positions back then, so even today their influence is felt. That is certainly true of controversies focused on two central tenets of Reformation-era Protestantism — "justification by faith" and belief in Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) as the norm of faith.


One of the great blessings of our times concerns the fact that Catholics and other Christians generally are more eager to agree about such matters than fight about them. But agreement is more likely — and will be more firmly founded — if there is a clear understanding of what the original disagreements were all about.


Soon after the Reformation began, Protestantism divided into two main groups, Lutheranism and Calvinism. Belief in justification by faith commonly is identified with Martin Luther (1483-1546) and his followers, sola Scriptura with John Calvin (1509-1564) and his. But that's too simple.


Plainly there are real differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism. Perhaps the most immediately obvious is that Calvin, author of the "Institutes of the Christian Religion" (1536), a volume described as "early Protestantism's greatest theological work," was a clearer, more systematic thinker than the volcanic, changeable Luther,


Still, both Protestant bodies shared similar views about justification and the authority of the Bible. Arguably, the most authoritative account of what early Lutherans held is the Formula of Concord, definitive statement of Lutheran belief published in 1577, 31 years after Luther's death.


Even the hardiest Catholic apologist now concedes that, initially at least, Luther and his followers were reacting against real abuses and excesses in popular Catholic beliefs and practices of the time.


The manner of preaching "St. Peter's Indulgence," which was the immediate occasion of Luther's revolt, was a scandal.


The angry Augustinian professor apparently was correct in writing about Catholic: who "believe that if they buy a letter of pardon they are sure of their salvation" and "that souls fly out of purgatory as soon as money is cast into the chest."


For Luther and Calvin, though, the starting point for the idea "justification by faith" lay elsewhere —in a radical view of human nature as totally corrupted by original sin.


The Formula of Concord attributes to Luther this statement; "Our free will has no power whatsoever in virtue of which man could prepare himself for justice [that is, for the reception of God's redeeming grace] or even seek it out. On the contrary, blind and captive man gives exclusive obedience to Satan's will and perpetrates thereby things offensive to God."


Calvin says that, after the Fall, the divine image is still present in human nature, "yet it was so corrupted that whatever remains is frightful deformity." In these circumstances, so the reasoning went, people can do nothing whatsoever to help themselves. All depends on God and God's grace. And grace is, by definition, a free gift; human beings cannot merit or deserve it. All that is possible — and it is absolutely required — is faith in Christ and confidence in His merits. As the Formula of Concord puts it: "Justification calls for three things, and three things only: God's grace, Christ's merit, and faith." In response to faith, God imputes or attributes Christ's merit to us; but the merit remains entirely His —it is in no way ours.


It would not be accurate, though, to say that the early Protestants were indifferent to good works. They considered good works to be the fruit — the result and evidence — of justification by faith. The point they were at pains to stress was that good works neither preceded nor in any way merited justification.


No doubt some — but hardly all — ways of expressing the doctrine of justification by faith can be squared with orthodox Catholic belief.


As a practical matter, though, the doctrine involves problems. Its logic undercuts the idea of free will. And, as we have learned to our sorrow in the last four centuries, the notion that people are not free and responsible for what they do can pave the way for both despair and presumption. Thus the Catholic historian Philip Hughes writes: "The new religion [Protestantism] introduced . . . a whole series of vital antagonisms to perplex and hinder man already only too tried by his own freely chosen wrongdoing."


Something similar might be said of the doctrine of sola Scriptura. The early Protestants declared the authority of the Bible to .be not only supreme but solitary. They rejected the idea that divine revelation also was contained in a "tradition" outside the pages of Scripture and that both things — Scripture and Tradition — were subject to interpretation by the teaching authority of the Church.


The Formula of Concord declares the Scriptures to be the one and only rule (norma normans) for judging all doctrines and teachers of religion.


The intent, it hardly needs saying, was to exalt the authority of Scripture. But history plays strange tricks. As a Catholic commentator remarks: "After the Reformers had divorced Scripture from the living tradition of the Church, rationalists later began to treat the Scriptures as purely human documents." That is hardly what Luther, Calvin and the rest had in mind, but it happened.


This rationalistic, skeptical view of the Bible is part of the reality with which we now live (even in some religious circles, thanks to the influence of 19th-century "liberal Protestant" ideas about Scripture). But so is something else: biblical fundamentalism, which takes a highly literal reading of Scripture and refuses to accept any article of faith not explicitly stated there — a contradictory position, be it noted, since the Bible does not and cannot testify to its own authority.


Among the continuing requirements for Christian unity, Pope John Paul II points out in his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint ("That They May Be One"), is agreement on "the relationship between Sacred Scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and Sacred Tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God."


In the lifetime of Luther and Calvin, the Catholic Church responded authoritatively to the new modes of thought. The chief response was the teaching of the great reforming ecumenical council, the Council of Trent (1545-63). Replying to the idea of sola Scriptura, Trent first speaks of the revelation entrusted by Christ to His apostles.


Then it adds:


"The council is aware that this truth and teaching are contained in written books and in the unwritten traditions that the apostles received from Christ himself or that were handed on . . . under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and so have come down to us. . . . With the same sense of devotion and reverence with which it accepts and venerates all the books both of the Old and the New Testament . . . it also accepts and venerates traditions concerned with faith and morals as having been received orally from Christ or inspired by the Holy Spirit and continuously preserved in the Catholic Church."


Four centuries later, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, reaffirmed this teaching, and said: "Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church. . . . The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone."


Turning to justification by faith, the Council of Trent dealt with the question at great length and in a highly nuanced way in its famous Decree on Justification. The decree fully acknowledges the gratuitousness of God's grace — grace is altogether freely given — and the absolute need of human beings for grace in order to be "justified." At the same time, it insists that men and women have a real role to play — they have something to do — in the process of justification, and it underlines the importance of good works in earning merit.


So for example, in one of 33 "Canons on Justification" at the end of the decree, Trent teaches: "If anyone says that justice . . . is not preserved or even increased before God through good works, but that such works are merely the outgrowth and the signs of the reception of justification, not the cause of its increase as well: let him be anathema."


Generally speaking, we have left anathemas behind since then. But some theological and practical questions that exercised Protestants and Catholics of the 16th century remain to be settled. In the spirit of ecumenism, we might pray that, through trusting faith and constant good works, loyally adhering to the Word of God wherever found, we all shall come to see and repose in God's truth together.


Russell Shaw is director of public information for the Knights of Columbus

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