Faith Alone

Of all the questions I’m asked when I speak about Catholicism, this one is always asked: “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 sometimes 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.

One will naturally ask, “How can the Pope affirm faith alone?” Lane provides helpful groundwork for understanding the reason when he writes, “The canons [of Trent] were deliberately not addressed against specific people and the statements condemned were derived from second- or third-hand compilations of the statements of the Reformers, taken especially from the earlier years of the Reformation and not seen in their original context” (Anthony Lane. Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment, pp. 104-105). Thus, unlike Alexander V’s papal bull against Wycliffism in 1409 or Leo X’s Exsurge Domine against Luther in 1520, Trent’s Canons were aiming into a mist of hearsay (not to be confused with the word heresy). Moving forward in history, even to the present, Catholic theologians have said, in effect, that because the bishops of Trent didn’t accurately understand Reformation teaching, the object of their canons were different from what truly was or is Reformed theology. Accordingly, the preamble of the Joint Declaration, an official ecumenical document endorsed by the Vatican in 1999 with the Lutheran World Federation, says in paragraph seven, “…this declaration is shaped by the conviction that in their respective histories our churches have come to new insights.” The “new insights” about which the Declaration speaks is the realization of Trent’s misguided critique of Reformed doctrines such as justification by faith alone. This, it seems, is the view that guides the understanding of Catholic theologians like Pope Benedict.

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.

PS The above photo is one I took at St Paul’s Cathedral Outside the Walls. When you visit Rome, make sure you get there. It’s out of the way, but worth it. Here are two more from the visit. Espresso, pastry & Paul. Amen

 image P6290128

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. Chris,

    The Tridentine canons condemn only the claims stated in the canons. And the authority of the canons does not depend on whether those claims were in fact affirmed by any person. Nor does it depend on the bishops’ degree of understanding of the Protestants’ theological positions. It should also be pointed out that those canons are infallible dogma, so the Church has no authority to overturn them. The Church continues to grow in her understanding of justification, but she cannot do so by going against anything that has been infallibly declared, including the canons of the sixth session of Trent. Pope Benedict’s statement last November about justification, is fully in keeping with Trent. Nothing he said is contrary to what was taught at Trent. Anyone who claims otherwise, doesn’t understand Trent.

    You say this in passing, but why exactly, do you think that the Church’s dogmas regarding justification are “another gospel”? In other words, how do you know that it is not precisely the positions anathematized in the canons of Trent that is “another gospel”?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  2. Though interesting, it would be good to have a follow-up on what is meant by “narrow gap.” I know that a blog post may not be sufficient to answer but it is of importance to understand. It would seem that Roman is in a tight spot if Trent is dogma that cannot be changed. If what Benedict says is what he believes, I think it would do a lot for them to find a way to “clarify” Trent for a better understanding of justification.

    If the gap is so narrow, what really is the differences that ought to keep us apart? It does not seem to be clear here.


  3. Thanks Bryan. You say that Pope Benedict’s statement in November is fully in keeping with Trent. Maybe you can help me understand this better. Following is Trent’s canon 9 followed by the pontiff’s statement:

    CANON 9: “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”

    Pope Benedict: “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.”

    Trent seems to be saying (in my words) ‘faith alone, doesn’t quite suffice,’ while the Pope states explicitly that it does. What am I missing?

  4. Bryan, One Catholic apologist with whom I spoke about this months ago explained the disconnect by suggesting that it was liberal, pro-ecumenical members of the Curia who put the words “faith alone” into the Pope’s manuscript. That’s one way of explaining it I suppose.

  5. Chris,

    I’m chuckling a bit, about that last comment (regarding members of the Curia inserting that into the Pope’s manuscript).

    When Canon 9 of the Sixth Session of Trent refers to “faith alone”, what is particularly in view is the time period between coming to believe the good news (by hearing it), and being baptized. In Catholic theology, the sanctifying grace through which we have the virtues of faith, hope and agape, comes to us through the sacrament of baptism. We first come to believe the good news, and have love for Christ, by hearing the gospel. (Trent acknowledges this in Session 6 Chapter 6.) But in the sacrament of baptism, faith, hope and agape are deepened; they are made to be firmly planted dispositions in our soul. In baptism they become theological virtues. (See Session 6 Chapter 7.) In baptism we are ingrafted into Christ (cf. Rom 6), and faith, hope, and agape become part of who we are, not just acts we do. Canon 9 is condemning the notion that merely believing the message about Christ is entirely sufficient for justification, and that repentance (as a preparation for baptism) and baptism itself are not also necessary for the justification we receive through the sacrament of baptism, wherein belief in Christ is made to be the virtue of faith.

    Pope Benedict’s statement from November of 2008, when you read it in context (Here’s the link) shows that he is talking about what St. Paul means by “works of the Law.” St. Paul had been blameless according to the Law. (Phil 3:6) But he did not have a friendship with God; he was actually fighting against God. He was not walking in grace or agape. Upon encountering Christ, he came to see all his legal righteousness as rubbish. He sought to be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of his own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith. (Phil 3:9)

    Pope Benedict says that in understanding St. Paul’s distinction between righteousness derived from the Law, and righteousness from God on the basis of faith through grace, a common subsequent error was that of thinking that being freed from “works of the Law” meant being freed from the moral law, from ethics. And that would entail libertinism. But, says, Pope Benedict, to be freed in Christ from the “works of the Law” does not mean liberation from ethics, or from good works. It is to be freed from the “Judaic observances and prescriptions” that served as the wall between the Jews and the Hellenic culture in which they lived. But St. Paul came to see that Christ broke down that wall, and nullified the need for these Judaic observances and prescriptions.That’s when Pope Benedict says:

    The wall is no longer necessary; our common identity within the diversity of cultures is Christ, and it is he who makes us just. 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. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love. So it is that in the Letter to the Galatians in which he primarily developed his teaching on justification St Paul speaks of faith that works through love (cf. Gal 5: 14).

    Paul knows that in the twofold love of God and neighbour the whole of the Law is present and carried out. Thus in communion with Christ, in a faith that creates charity, the entire Law is fulfilled. We become just by entering into communion with Christ who is Love. We shall see the same thing in the Gospel next Sunday, the Solemnity of Christ the King. It is the Gospel of the judge whose sole criterion is love. What he asks is only this: Did you visit me when I was sick? When I was in prison? Did you give me food to eat when I was hungry, did you clothe me when I was naked? And thus justice is decided in charity. Thus, at the end of this Gospel we can almost say: love alone, charity alone. But there is no contradiction between this Gospel and St Paul. It is the same vision, according to which communion with Christ, faith in Christ, creates charity. And charity is the fulfilment of communion with Christ. Thus, we are just by being united with him and in no other way.

    So when Pope Benedict says “no further observances are needed”, he is talking about these Judaic observances and prescriptions. He is not adopting a liberine or antinomian position. Rather, faith informed by charity fulfills the moral law, because love fulfills the law. (cf. Rom 13:8, Gal 5:14, James 2:8) What is necessary for justification, says Pope Benedict, is being with Christ and in Christ. And when Pope Benedict says that “faith alone is true, if it is not opposed to charity in love” he is saying that those having living faith (i.e. faith informed by agape), are justified. In Catholic theology, agape is what makes faith to be living faith. Without agape, faith is dead. And no one can be justified by dead faith. Pope Benedict is not saying that repentance is not necessary as a preparation for baptism, nor is he saying that baptism is not necessary for receiving sanctifying grace, and the virtues of faith, hope, and agape, and ingrafting into Christ. The faith by which we are justified is one we receive in baptism, and made alive by the agape that turns away from sin (i.e. repents) and fulfills the whole law. That is why what Pope Benedict is saying in this teaching from Nov 2008 does not contradict anything said in Canon 9 of the Sixth Session of Trent.

    I hope that helps explain how the two things you quoted fit together.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  6. Thanks Brian and Tom. So is the Pope speaking about faith that is before baptism or after? If before, then I get that–it is first actual grace, which is entirely a gift. If after, then I might get that, but I’m still a little confused. If the Pope were to say, for instance, in good Augustinian fashion, the ground of our faith is God alone i.e. monergism, and therefore it’s not a product of human volition, that would be called faith alone. Otherwise, I’m not sure I get the following statement (sorry, it’s my slowness, I’m sure). “Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices” To my ears, especially with the Pope’s mention of Luther, this sounds like an affirmation of Sola Fide.

  7. Chris,

    When Pope Benedict is speaking about faith here, he is talking about faith as a theological virtue. So he is talking principally about post-baptismal faith. (However, a person can receive the benefit of the sacrament of baptism even prior to receiving the sacrament. In such cases, the person already has the three theological virtues prior to his baptism, though he has nevertheless received them through his baptism, in anticipation of his baptism, as it were.)

    But it does not matter, with regard to your question, because in Catholic theology even the faith that comes at the moment one first hears the gospel, before that faith becomes a virtue rooted in the soul, is still not produced monergistically. There is an actual grace called operative grace, and this preveniently moves the will. But it does not necessitate the will. The will can resist grace. In order to come to faith, the person must respond positively to that actual grace, which then becomes cooperative grace. These are St. Augustine’s terms: operative grace and cooperative grace. St. Augustine writes:

    “God by cooperating with us, perfects what He began by operating in us, since He who perfects by cooperation with such as are willing, beings by operating that they may will. He operates that we may will; and when we will, He cooperates that we may perfect.” (De Gratia et Lib. Arbit. xvii)

    In Catholic theology, all faith, except that produced in the infant, who does not yet have use of his intellect and will, requires the free cooperation of the person who comes to faith.

    To understand what Pope Benedict is saying in “Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices” we have to understand the role of agape in being with Christ and in Christ. No one can be in Christ and with Christ, without having agape. That’s what Pope Benedict is saying in the rest of that paragraph. So, a person who has faith-informed-by-agape is justified. The key point of dispute between Catholics and Protestants, viz-a-viz sola fide, is whether justifying faith is informed by agape, or not. Christopher Malloy, in the article Tom linked to above, points out that Luther denied that agape is what makes faith to be living [and hence justifying] faith.

    I wrote about that in January of 2009, in a post titled “Justification: Divided Over Charity“, and then again this past October in an easier-to-understand post titled “A Reply from a Romery Person.”

    I hope that makes it clearer.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  8. Thanks Bryan. I think so. The difference then is the ground of justification. From the Catholic point of view it’s real righteousness in one’s soul, agape, the presence of sanctifying grace which is enjoyed by those who are in a state of grace (which constitutes the ground), versus the Protestant view which is based on imputation–the forensic declaration of one’s righteous state. The latter is considered by Catholics to be a legal fiction (though you might use nicer words than that) and the former is real “faith” upon which one is justified. Am I getting closer?

  9. Exactly. The ‘legal fiction’ charge has been the standard Catholic objection to the Lutheran/Reformed claim of justification on the basis of imputed (but not infused) righteousness. Because it is impossible for God to lie, in Catholic theology God only counts as righteous that which is actually inherently righteous. That’s because in Catholic theology the relational problem between man and God necessarily depends on the internal condition of man. If a man has sanctifying grace and agape, then his relation with God is one of friendship and he is justified. But if he does not have sanctifying grace and agape, then he is not a friend of God, and God cannot say that he is just, without first making him just.

    But when Protestants think about being inherently righteous, they tend to think about having perfectly kept every law, and having not wayward thoughts, and they tend to think that that is impossible, and so find forensic imputation much more plausible than this impossible standard of perfect righteousness that God expects of us. So, for example, they find vices in themselves after baptism, and take that as evidence that they are in fact unrighteous, and that provides the attraction of simul iustus et peccator. Yet in Catholic theology the law is fulfilled by those having agape, and venial sins (by definition) do not remove agape from the soul. Our righteousness before God (as friends of God) is not determined by whether we commit venial sins. So, while at the Judgment we are judged for all that we have done in the body, yet, our justification only depends on whether we have agape or not. Not having the mortal-venial distinction makes many Protestants conceive of the Catholic life as one of losing justification many times a day. And that seems (rightly) ridiculous to them. But in Catholic theology it is agape by which we fulfill the law, and mortal sin (in which agape is lost) is not something we should (ordinarily) be committing on a daily basis.

    So, I agree. This Protestant-Catholic disagreement regarding sola fide comes down to the role of agape in the ground of justification.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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