In light of the Decrees of Trent, wouldn’t we still have to say that official Catholic doctrine on the matter of justification rises to the level of error so serious that it amounts to ‘another gospel’ – thus warranting an apostolic anathema?
The most helpful book I’ve read on this topic has been Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment by Anthony Lane, Professor of Historical Theology at London School of Theology. Tony Lane is a fine scholar (it’s a T&T Clark book, so if you buy it, do so when you still have a sizable chunk in your book budget). Here are a couple of Professor Lane’s conclusions, which I agree with and have found helpful.
Is the positive exposition of the Tridentine decree compatible with a Protestant understanding?
“No. When the difference in terminology is taken into account and when allowance is made for complementary formulations the gap turns out to be considerably narrower than is often popularly supposed, but a gap there remains.”
Do the Tridentine canons condemn the Protestant doctrine or only parodies of it?
“Many of the canons do not directly touch a balanced Protestant understanding, but a number clearly do. The verdict of The Condemnations of the Reformation Era (a joint ecumenical commission which met in the early 80’s) is as much a statement about the intentions of the churches today as a statement about the intentions of Trent and the Lutheran confessions.”
According to Lane’s conclusion, disagreement between the Catholic and Protestant understanding of justification remains, although it may not be as profound as we tend to think. Still, giving the binding nature of Trent’s decrees, evangelical Protestants remain in the crosshairs of the Catholic Church’s anathematizing canons. To the extent that Catholics operate according to this Tridentine framework (i.e., defining their position over and against justification by faith alone), they appear to be skating on the same thin ice as Paul’s Galatian interlocutors and in imminent danger of falling into the frigid water of “another gospel.”
Yet, we must realize that many Catholics, including Pope Benedict himself, don’t understand justification in this Tridentine light. For instance, in the Pope’s sermon on justification in Saint Peter’s Square on November 19, 2008 he said, “Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason Luther’s phrase: ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity in love.” A week later on November 26 in the Paul VI Audience Hall the pontiff continued this emphasis, “Following Saint Paul, we have seen that man is unable to ‘justify’ himself with his own actions, but can only truly become ‘just’ before God because God confers his ‘justice’ upon him, uniting him to Christ his Son. And man obtains this union through faith. In this sense, Saint Paul tells us: not our deeds, but rather faith renders us ‘just.’”
Lest you think the Pope’s statements were an out of turn, momentary flash in the pan, you can also read them in his recent book Saint Paul (Pope Benedict XVI. Saint Paul. [San Francisco: Ignatius Press], 82-85). This same note is hit by many Catholic theologians, particularly those like Beckwith who identify as evangelical Catholic.
Of more immediate concern to me is the penetration of the biblical gospel—the message of divine grace accessed through faith alone—into the hearts of Catholic people who haven’t a clue why Jesus died, much less how salvation is appropriated. Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft describes this problem:
“There are still many who do not know the data, the gospel. Most of my Catholic students at Boston College have never heard it. They do not even know how to get to heaven. When I ask them what they would say to God if they died tonight and God asked them why he should take them into heaven, nine out of ten do not even mention Jesus Christ. Most of them say they have been good or kind or sincere or did their best. So I seriously doubt God will undo the Reformation until he sees to it that Luther’s reminder of Paul’s gospel has been heard throughout the church” (Peter Kreeft. “Ecumenical Jihad.” Reclaiming The Great Tradition. Ed. James S. Cutsinger. [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997]. 27).
This is the concern of Holy Ground—that the grace of God in salvation remains central. When talking with Catholics, there are myriads of potential rabbit trails. We may enter into a conversation to talk about how Jesus provides life with meaning and suddenly find ourselves enmeshed in a debate about the apocrypha or Humanae Vitae. Sometimes it’s right to broach these subjects, but too often we do so at the expense of the gospel. This is tragic. What does it profit a person if he explicates a host of theological conundrums without focusing attention upon the death and resurrection of Jesus? In all of our discussion with Catholics we must consider, celebrate, and bear witness to the splendor and majesty of our Savior, the one who died, rose, and now lives.
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