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Hope alone!: Christ’s roman [catholic] candles (part I of II)

08 Feb
Rome in the cleft of the rock?

Rome in the cleft of the rock?

Men like Called to Communion’s Andrew Preslar inspire me.  Not only is he, like many Roman Catholics I’ve had the privilege of talking with on the internet, a model of grace and charity, but I can’t help but sense this man is a fellow evangelical Catholic, or, if you will, a Lutheran.

That is, a Christian who knows what matters most – who has a sense of the fullness in Christ that is ours and awaits us.

Now yes, I know Andrew would remind me he is a firm Roman Catholic! (although he is pleased that I think him a Lutheran) After all, if I, in the interest of sharply distinguishing justification from sanctification (why do this?… see here), say “Christians are saved for good works, not saved by good works” or “the Christian makes the works – the works don’t make the Christian” or “the Christian reflects, not effects, their salvation” or say “we should not say good works are necessary for salvation” I don’t doubt that he would  have some issues with that!  Still, it seems that in spite of his Roman Catholicism (him: because of it!), Andrew defiantly clings to the promise that God’s forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ is surely his.  He is utterly confident – he knows in his heart of hearts – that these things Christ gives and offers can and do seal him in a state of grace in the present time.*  And this is not just based on some good feeling or intuition that he has: he believes that eternal life is his when he hears the promise of mercy that is given in the absolution provided by the called and ordained servant of the Lord (perhaps he, with me, would say that, fundamentally, the Christian lives from peace with God, and not in order to obtain said peace).

What is his evidence for believing in this way?  First we note that in his article on this subject he mentions Stephen Pfurtner’s work Luther and Aquinas on Salvation, as an inspiration.**  Although this is left unsaid in his article, Andrew, like Pfurtner, assumes that “it is clear” that Aquinas’ teaching of the certainty of hope “must involve something of the content of the Lutheran teaching on the certainty of salvation” (Pfurtner, p. 53) – and correspondingly, that Luther only “superficial[ly] understood Aquinas” (Pfurtner, p. 59 see here for Luther’s view of Rome on this issue).  In Andrew’s article and the discussion that follows he frequently quotes from Thomas Aquinas and what he would say is the Thomas-affirming Council of Trent.  For example, Session XIV, Chapter 3 on the Sacrament of Penance, at the Council of Trent, says:

“But that which is signified and produced by this sacrament is, so far as its force and efficacy are concerned, reconciliation with God, which sometimes, in persons who are pious and who receive this sacrament with devotion, is wont to be followed by peace and serenity of conscience with an exceedingly great consolation of spirit.”

This quote surely seems to have some promise for the Christian desiring comfort and confidence regarding where he stands with God!  But what about the great 16th century doctor of the Church, Saint Bellarmine, who wrote “The doctrine that in the present life men cannot attain to an assurance of faith regarding their righteousness, with the exception of a few whom God deems worthy to have this fact revealed to them by a special revelation – this doctrine is a current opinion among nearly all theologians.”  Does he not represent Rome and put the quote from the council of Trent into its true context?  Andrew explains that while Bellarmine is talking about the certainty of faith, he is not addressing the Thomas’ teaching about the certainty of hope!

Still, when a German priest by the name of Dietrich Kolde, writing in his early 1520s work Mirror of a Christian Man, states he does not know where he will go when he dies – and that this “troubles him above all” and “frequently makes his heart heavy”***, are we to assume that his experience was uncommon?  And that St. Thomas could not possibly have anything to do with this?****

This statement from the earliest times of Luther’s reform efforts is just one of many reasons I think the Trent quote above deals with the Sacrament of penance as a whole and would not preclude Thomas’ view that presumptive hope (that is “the sin of presumption”) would be that which chiefly banks on the “grace already received” in the present, as opposed to banking on God’s present and future “omnipotence and mercy”.  In other words, knowing that He is strong enough (He is an “infinite power”, see Pfurtner, 75 and 77) to – and also will – provide all the graces that we need to merit the end that is eternal life (the “infinite good”) – starting even now with the willing reception of His sacrament(s)!  This is the good news!

In other words, good workers are rewarded with the knowledge that even they to, can have a firm hope that they *will* obtain eternal life with God if they choose, by His grace, to consistently and lovingly cooperate with His grace (His “omnipotence and mercy”) – striving for perfect love for God and neighbor, starting with the necessary works of penance prescribed by the priest.  I think that this is the promise that Rome says may give peace of conscience and consolation of spirit.*****

On the other hand, when it comes to talking about penitential acts and beyond, Andrew prefers to speak like this: “forgiveness and restoration to a state of grace are presupposed by the works of satisfaction performed by the penitent, which complete and perfect the reconciliation with God and neighbor by way of the penitent’s participation in the work of reconciliation.” (italics mine)

He explains his statement in this way: genuine works of penance/satisfaction only proceed from the person who is in a state of grace.  Further, the eternal punishment for sin is removed by absolution, with the performance of penance only being needed to counteract the temporal effects of sin.  Now, I am not convinced that the absolution is a performative utterance in Roman Catholic theology (see here), but for the sake of argument, I will grant this.  What is really at issue is this: in Roman Catholic theology, what we are able to say is true about justified persons (not just “true believers” – there is a difference between these) in general – objectively and abstractly speaking – and what a particular individual can know about one’s own case, are two different things.  If it is indeed Roman Catholic theology that “when one enjoys God as an end in himself (which is like a foretaste of eternal happiness, or beatitude), he is in a state of sanctifying grace, which includes the gift of charity” (Andrew) the real question is whether one can actually know – and not just feel – this to be true of one’s self.

Andrew says “Because God’s grace precedes and is the principle of all good works done by the Christian, those who persevere in good works can enjoy a moral certitude that they have already obtained the grace of God that brings salvation.”

Is that indeed what Rome teaches?

Part II coming in a couple days

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/4117106164

* – Nothing is being said about his future perseverance in the faith.  Both Lutherans and Roman Catholics believe salvation can be lost.

**- “I must note at the outset that my thinking on this topic has been stimulated by Fr. Stephen Pfurtner’s insightful contribution to ecumenical…” – found via Google, Feb. 6, 2013.  I don’t see this in the current version of the post, which Andrew told me in our conversation he feels free to change anytime as needed.

***-Denis Janz, Three Reformation Catechisms: Catholic, Anabaptist, Lutheran (New York: Mellen, 1982), 127, quoted in Kolb and Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology, p. 35

**** read article 5 here.

***** – It seems to me that this goes hand in hand with what Stephen Pfurtner says: “Essentially, certainty pertains to knowledge, that is – in our case – to faith; not to hope, which is in the sphere of affections.  But certainty does also enter into a movement of the affections, because of its participation in the knowledge directing this and because of the inner strength and unchangeableness of the movement.  Both these belong to hope: it shares in the certainty of faith and overcomes all human inconstancy, since the Christian ‘does not hope to gain eternal life by his own power’ – for then his own weakness would also undermine the certainty of his hope – ‘but in virtue of the help of grace.  If he perseveres in this, he will obtain eternal life absolutely and infallibly.’  Thus Aquinas can extend to hope and its unfailing reliability what he has said of faith and certainty: ‘in hope also there can be nothing false,’ even if the certainty of hope does not imply any certainty of security of fulfillment.” (p. 97, Luther and Aquinas on Salvation)  Also this: “The fullness of hope with its undisturbed confidence is present only when man has become completely reconciled and at peace through friendship with God.  Nevertheless, the sinner may – indeed, he must – as long as he only believes, be certain without any reservations also of God’s saving will in regard to himself.  Otherwise, he does not rightly believe, but doubts God’s promises”. (pp. 102-103, Luther and Aquinas on Salvation).  Here, I think about how Catholic theologians have historically talked about certain persons receive a divine revelation (i.e. “the certainty of faith”) that they will persevere because God knows that they will not abuse such knowledge!

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