Today’s re-cycled Reformation post deals again with the issue of certainty in the Christian life (see Romans 5:1 and I John 5:12-13). If you have been paying attention to previous posts, these first two quotes will look quite familiar to you:
In the heat the Reformation, Luther said some very damning things about Rome:
“What kind of church is the pope’s church? It is an uncertain, vacillating, and tottering church. Indeed, it is a deceitful, lying church, doubting and unbelieving, without God’s Word. For the pope with his keys teaches his church to doubt and to be uncertain… It is difficult enough for wretched consciences to believe. How can one believe at all if, to begin with, doubt is cast upon the object of one’s belief? Thereby doubt and despair are only strengthened and confirmed.” (Luther, 1530, quoted at the beginning of one of the chapters in Hendrix, Scott, Luther and the Papacy, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981, italics mine).
Or try this one:
“There hasn’t been a more destructive teaching against repentance in the Church (with the exception of the Sadducees and the Epicureans) as that of Roman Catholicism. In that it never permitted the forgiveness of sins to be certain, it took away complete and true repentance. It taught that a person must be uncertain as to whether or not he stood before God in grace with his sins forgiven. Such certainty was instead to be found in the value of a person’s repentance, confession, satisfaction, and service in purgatory.” Luther, Martin. Antinomian Theses, Disputation #4, 1938 (translated by Pastor Paul Strawn) Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, Inc., 2005 (The whole book is available for free at: http://www.lutheranpress.com/)
Was Luther right for being so harsh in his assessment? What does Rome say about this issue today?
Officially speaking, Rome offers up Joan of Arc for our consideration in its most recent catechism:
“…according to the Lord’s words “Thus you will know them by their fruits” – reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.
A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.'”58 (see here)
I’d say that is a very clever answer! Presumably – this is the model we are to remember and live by. Historically speaking, one of the ways the powers-that-were thought they could prove Joan was a heretic (evidently) was by finding out whether she thought that she really had forgiveness, life and salvation, or as the Roman Catholics would say, that she was in a “state of grace”.
Up until the recent past, this kind of attitude would have been labeled the “sin of presumption” – Roman Catholics knew that to be a strong Christian actually meant that you doubted whether you yourself were saved. For example, right around the same time that Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Church doors in Wittenberg, the theologian Johann Altenstaig (in his Vocabularius theologiae, Hagenau 1517) was saying that the devil led people astray by making them think there was good evidence for being saved. “No one, no matter how righteous he may be”, Altenstaig said, “can know with certainty that he is in the state of grace, except by a revelation”. Likewise, Cardinal Cajetan, a few weeks before confronting Luther at Augsburg, wrote that “Clearly almost all come to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist in reverent fear of the Lord and uncertain of being in grace. In fact theologians praise their continuing uncertainty and ordinarily attribute its opposite to presumption or ignorance” (both quotes from Cajetan Responds, a footnote from p. 269 and p. 66)
However, nowadays, among some Roman Catholic apologists the definition of this “sin of presumption” seems to have narrowed quite a bit! I think that we can readily understand why this is the case. If you are trying to appeal to evangelical Christians, for example, telling them they can’t be certain that they are in a stable and secure relationship with God is not a winning argument. As such, several RC apologists now, distinguishing between different kinds of “certainties” (see here to see how they approach this) will say that the certainty of one’s current status before God need not always be in doubt (see here, for an example of this)
I can understand this impulse, because it clearly is a biblical one. One needs only to look at undeniable passages like Romans 5:1 and I John 5:12. The only problem is, as best I can tell, is that they are rewriting their history. Early on, the great Scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas had said that certainty of one’s “state of grace” was at best “conjecture” (i.e. only “guesswork” due to inconclusive or incomplete evidence – hence the reason this was a good way to nail Joan). When Cardinal Cajetan, in his meeting with Luther in 1518 essentially told him that one could never be sure “one’s contrition was sufficient to effect the forgiveness one hoped to receive” (Hendrix, Scott, Luther and the Papacy, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981, p. 62), Luther – amazed at this position – never looked back. When the Pope backed up Cajetan’s views when he condemned Luther in Exsurge Domine, nothing more was needed to convince the Reformer that he was dealing with the Antichrist.
After Cardinal Cajetan confronted Luther over his “presumption” (i.e. his confidence that he really was in a state of grace) at Augsburg in 1518, his tracts over the next 14 years show that there was no moving on this teaching that the faithful could not be certain. One gets the definitive sense that through conjecture the pious and devout were to conclude, from the evidence, not that they were in a state of grace, but the opposite! And Cajetan, I have recently learned, was more or less Luther’s most thoughtful, irenic, and dare I say, “liberal” opponent (and the top expert on Thomas Aquinas of that day)! In spite of the consensus that no one could be certain about this issue (admittedly due to William of Ockham’s overwhelming influence), there were some Franciscans who followed Duns Scotus, arguing that a person did not need to “doubt whether his disposition was sufficient for justification through the sacrament [of penance]”, but could rather be confident of meriting God’s grace by sorrow over their sin. But even their view did not hold sway at Trent (Antonio Delphinus, O.F.M., Pro cetitudine gratiae praesentis (Concilium Tridentinum, XII, 651-658), which came down on a formulation that seems to have left Duns in the dust, and Thomas reigning supreme. (see Cajetan Responds, footnote 14 on p. 267).
Not long ago, I heard an interesting story from the Lutheran pastor Rolf Preus. He talked about being at a conference where a highly informed and capable ecumenical Catholic scholar was convincing many Lutheran pastors that Rome and Wittenberg were not far about on the matter of justification by faith. He seemed to be saying all the right things – that is, until one pastor asked him the first Kennedy Evangelism Explosion question: “If you died today, do you know for sure you’d go to heaven?” This question threw him off, and at this point he evidently sputtered and flailed and didn’t know what to say. This convinced the pastors that for all the other words they had heard that sounded so good to their ears, there were still significant differences that remained.
Again, many modern RC apologists would not be so tongue-tied over a question like this… in fact, they have ready answers. I contend that they are new and innovative answers though – deviating from Rome historically – even if they don’t want to believe that it is true.
It truly is amazing to be reminded that Martin Luther, from Vatican II onwards, seems increasingly to be vindicated by modern Roman Catholic theologians….
“[Catholic theology] has to ask in a more unbiased manner about the contemporary consensus with the Luther of that time who has already formulated, sometimes in an uncanny way, so much of what is also today self-evident to the Catholic sense of faith” (Otto Pesch, quoted in Sobolewski, Gregory, Martin Luther: Roman Catholic Prophet, p. 50)
True, I would say.
So how can we sum all of this up? Well, some modern RC apologists, rather than embracing the Joan of Arc model, are at once doing a right thing and a wrong thing. The right thing they are doing is insisting that when a Christian who sees his sin says the words “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” they really should believe the words they speak, and receive the real peace with God that Christ delivers. In other words, they should be as infants, who in simple, unassuming, unpretencious, and unreflective faith receive the wonderful words of absolution freely, and resist alternative voices that tell them not to be formed, shaped, and driven by these words. The wrong thing they are doing is insisting that this is what St. Thomas taught – or what Trent taught – or even what Rome currently teaches.
Ecumenically speaking, all of this means that Rome would have to admit that they were on the wrong side of history on this most important of issues, and that Luther was fundamentally right. If this were to happen, it would truly be a wonderful miracle! Alternatively though, they could double down on the issue, which would continue to alienate those it calls “separated brethren”. Either way, all the word games in the world will not hide the fact that ultimately, a choice will need to be made.
P.S. – Any RC apologists reading this – If I’m wrong, please show me why. I certainly am open to hearing where I may have gone off the rails here – historically, or otherwise.