Sunday, February 26, 2017

Justification and Tradition

Thinking about how tradition influences the way we interpret the bible. One key between Protestants and Catholics has always been the area of justification. How are we made right with God and therefore saved? When I first had the Protestant view explained to me in Catechism class I found it very convincing. My only real question was, why are there still Catholics? I mean the bible has been available in the vernacular for centuries and I felt it had been clearly demonstrated that the Catholic position was inconsistent with the bible. So why had the Catholic position not become the equivalent of the flat earth position? Why did anyone in the modern world still think it was true?

The answer was that I was taught these particular scriptures from this particular point of view. The texts were picked for me. The words were explained to me. The problem texts were downplayed or completely ignored. It was a complex question. The people teaching it were very confident. They were people I trusted, including my father. I thought I was engaging in critical thinking but I really was not.

Later I did take a course in witnessing to Jehovah's Witnesses where they did bring up James 2 and how it appears to flatly contradict Faith Alone. We learned how to answer those questions. I still did not know that James 2:24, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone," was actually the only place the phrase "faith alone" occurred in the bible.

Really it was not until I read some extended debates on the topic between Protestants and Catholics that I started to doubt the idea that the Protestant interpretation was clearly right. Why did I spend many hours reading through such debates? Really because my emotional situation had changed. I had married a Catholic and I had met many Catholics that were good solid Christians. It made me rethink my original question. Why does anyone think the Catholic position is worth any consideration? Except this time I was at least a little bit open to the chance there might be an answer.

It does really take quite a few hours because there are many texts that need to be considered and many different arguments on each side of the debate. It is hard to give highlights but I shall try. The first step was to realise that in Galatians and Romans St Paul is not focused on the relationship between faith and works and salvation. His primary focus is on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. That does not mean what he says about faith and works is wrong. It does mean he does not give all the expected explanations of related truths.

So when he says we saved by faith and not by "works of the law" he does not explain that this faith needs to be expressed as love and that is going to mean good works. Why doesn't he explain this? Because he has the ceremonial Jewish law primarily in view. This is why his classic example of a work of the law is circumcision. He is not thinking of the 10 commandments. Otherwise he would have made clear that the life of grace can't be lived in contradiction to the moral law.

Now we need to be careful. What Paul says about being saved by grace through faith apart from the works of the law does apply to the moral law. St Augustine says so. So does St Thomas Aquinas and so does the Council of Trent. Some Catholic apologists get this wrong. Some Protestants see this in St Augustine and think he was basically a Protestant. He was not.

What is important is the order. Grace first, next a response of faith, then a response of love cooperating with grace and producing good works. They all have to be there.

As with most questions there is not just one protestant answer. Luther's and Calvin's position were quite strong on works being totally irrelevant. If you collect some of there quotes you won't find many protestants that will preach those today. In fact, most of the preaching and teaching on this I experienced as a Protestant was watered down. It makes sense. The connection between works and salvation is talked about so often in the New Testament often without the mention of faith. A lot of the difference is language. Sanctification is still important to Protestants although they would not say it is part of justification and Catholics would not. Yet the core ideas are more similar than they first sound.

The doctrine does make a difference but not typically in the way we think about salvation. It makes a difference in the way we think about related issues. Sacraments, mortal sin, penance, saints, purgatory, etc. Once you have made good works irrelevant even if they are nice then a lot of things fall by the wayside. This is typical of heresy. One major error leads to many other errors.

When we see that one new doctrine contradicts many existing, Christian doctrines we should question the one new doctrine. When it is frequently contradicted by Jesus and the New Testament writers then there is more reason to question it. Yet we don't question these things. Not really. Not seriously. Not unless or until we get in the right emotional space to face the possibility we might be wrong. To really take that seriously. If I had married within the Protestant church I doubt I would have ever gone there.

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