Soli Deo Gloria: A Catholic Perspective

Mar 3rd, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Articles

The “five solas” of the Reformation are often seen as uniquely Protestant, and to be sure, most common applications are. But examining the underlying principles of the solas from a Catholic perspective is an important task for Reformed-Catholic reconciliation. And while worthier attempts would fall short of doing justice to even one of these, in this two-part series, we will examine both Soli Deo Gloria and Sola Gratia. We begin by asking, “To Whom is Glory Due?” This seems to be the underlying question of these two components of Protestant theology. Is any aspect of our salvation, no matter how small, due to something other than grace? And if our salvation is due, in some respect, to something other than grace, does that something then share in the glory due to God alone?


I. How Soli Deo Gloria and Sola Gratia are Related
II. Will God’s Glory be Shared?

I. How Soli Deo Gloria and Sola Gratia Are Related

Although this first part will focus on the principle of Soli Deo Gloria, it is helpful to understand how this principle and the principle of Sola Gratia are related. In his Institutes, John Calvin writes, “Let us remember, therefore, that in the whole discussion concerning justification the great thing to be attended to is, that God’s glory be maintained entire and unimpaired . . . . ”1 Elsewhere he writes, “we never truly glory in him until we have utterly discarded our own glory. It must, therefore, be regarded as an universal proposition, that whoso glories in himself glories against God.”2 If this were the extent of his concern regarding the principle of Soli Deo Gloria, he would not be in disagreement with the Catholic Church.  But in his commentary on the synoptic gospels, Calvin refers to the parable of the Pharisee and publican.3 He calls attention to the fact that the Pharisee begins his prayer by saying, “God I thank Thee.”  Calvin observes:

For this thanksgiving, which is presented exclusively in his own name, does not at all imply that he boasted of his own virtue, as if he had obtained righteousness from himself, or merited any thing by his own industry. On the contrary, he ascribes it to the grace of God that he is righteous. Now though his thanksgiving to God implies an acknowledgment, that all the good works which he possessed were purely the gift of God, yet as he places reliance on works, and prefers himself to others, himself and his prayer are alike rejected. Hence we infer that men are not truly and properly humbled, though they are convinced that they can do nothing, unless they likewise distrust the merits of works, and learn to place their salvation in the undeserved goodness of God, so as to rest upon it all their confidence.4

And so it does no good to quote the Catholic Catechism saying, “Our justification comes from the grace of God,”5 or “Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us,”6 if Christians in the Reformed tradition object on the ground that the Catholic Catechism also says, “Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us.” But this is not a quotation from the council of Trent or Vatican I or even Aquinas; this is St. Augustine!  At this fateful point where Reformed theology and Catholic doctrine collide with uncompromising force, the Catholic Church unambiguously preserves the ancient and precisely Augustinian doctrine, and this should not be lightly dismissed by anyone who claims that the Bishop of Hippo was a forebearer of Reformed soteriology.7

Let us examine Calvin’s observation of the Pharisee’s prayer. Calvin appears to be concerned that the Pharisee is stealing some of the glory due to God alone.  Indeed the Pharisee appears to be appropriately thankful, even attributing his salvation to God’s grace. Calvin, it seems, would argue that the Pharisee assents to the equivalent of (Roman) Catholic theology by maintaining that his good works, while being gifts from God, in some way contribute to his salvation. While, given the circumstances surrounding the Reformation, Calvin’s concern is eminently understandable, there appears to be a subtle but important misunderstanding of the authentic Catholic framework in which grace is to be understood; namely, he assumes that human participation of any kind in one’s salvation detracts from God’s glory.

It doesn’t take much creativity to see Calvin’s point, so it would be an exaggeration to accuse him of doing violence to an obvious interpretation. Yet it doesn’t quite fit.  Calvin’s commentary seems to be reading a 16th century controversy into a first century text.  A plain reading will demonstrate that the Pharisee is not subtly wrong in theology but, rather, overtly wrong in orientation.

Firstly, Luke 18:11 prefaces the Pharisee’s prayer by saying that it was “about himself,” which should alert the reader to his true error. He is not at all making a theological claim that God’s grace has enabled and effected the good works of his life, for that would be a prayer about God’s grace and not “about himself.”  If we are to accept the text at face value, the prayer is about himself; this is his fundamental error.  It does no good to say “I pray to God” when you only pray about yourself.  You cannot communicate with God without both love and humility, and as C.S. Lewis said (at least of eros), the fundamental dynamic of love is a gaze that is fixed on the other.  As is usually the case when this dynamic is lost, the Pharisee is guilty of pride. Lewis also said that a proud man cannot know God because he “is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you”.  The Pharisee does not know God because he has neither love nor humility.8

Secondly, and more fundamentally, to participate in that which is caused by another does not steal glory from the cause, particularly when the participation itself is caused.  For example, a patient does not detract from the glory due to his doctor by participating in physical rehabilitation, even though the doctor is the initial cause of both his recovery and the rehabilitation itself. Calvin appears to disagree, saying, “man cannot claim a single particle of righteousness to himself, without at the same time detracting from the glory of the divine righteousness.”9  Another crude example may suffice to prove the Catholic point.  Suppose a rich man charitably offers to purchase a home for a homeless man. The homeless man accepts the offer with gratitude and receives the free gift.  Now it becomes apparent that the house is a wonderful gift, but the homeless man does not have the skills to maintain this lifestyle.  The rich man then goes on to offer to pay him a sustainable salary for a certain task (which in reality does not benefit the rich man).  He trains the homeless man for the job and takes care of all his basic needs.   Now this is an image, albeit crude and insufficient, of the gift of salvation.  The rich man initiated it through no merit on the part of the homeless man.  He further sustained the gift by training the man, teaching him, and employing him.  Now does it detract from the ‘glory’ due to the rich man that the homeless man participates in this gift?  To begin with, the homeless man accepts it.  Further, he endures through the training and the perhaps painful lifestyle change.  He continues to work at whatever he was hired to do.  Would it have been more glorious for the rich man if the homeless man had been completely paralyzed?  We might think more highly of the rich man because providing care would require more effort, but this shows only the insufficiency of the analogy and not of the underlying point.  The fact is that the homeless man’s participation in the gift not only does not steal glory from the rich man, but is precisely what the rich man wants!  Like the rich man, God initiates, enables, and sustains; we cooperate.  The provision of all the needs of a paralyzed man is worthy of glory.  But to change a man’s life (which can only happen through participation) is even more glorious.

Effects do not detract from their cause; rather the greatness of a cause is revealed through its effects. If the effect of God’s grace is that men cooperate in His salvific work (i.e. they live in obedience to the gospel), cooperation itself remains an effect and as such does not detract from God’s glory.  But if men do not cooperate with grace in the way Augustine claims they do, then how can God’s grace effect any righteousness in men since obedience to the gospel requires love,10 and love requires full consent?  God wants a bride for His Son, not a robot. To develop this point much further would require a discussion on monergism and synergism that would far exceed the humble aspirations of this article (though such a discussion is certainly forthcoming).  So we ask the reader to grant this point provisionally if needed.

With these arguments and Calvin’s point regarding the Pharisee in mind, a point of no light irony emerges; the Calvinistic liturgy is the one that thanks God for justification11 and the Catholic liturgy is the one, beginning with the penitential rite and the Kyrie Eleison, and progressing through the repetition “Domine non sum dignus” (complete in the Latin rite with a literal beating of the breast), that has always said, as the Agnus Dei does, “Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.”

Let us take a closer look at the role a Christian has in relation to God’s grace.  Jonathan Edwards writes:

If it be indeed so, as the Scripture abundantly teaches, that grace in the soul, is so the effect of God’s power, that it is fitly compared to those effects, which are farthest from being owing to any strength in the subject, such as a generation, or a being begotten, and resurrection, or a being raised from the dead, and creation, or a being brought out of nothing into being, and that it is an effect wherein the mighty power of God is greatly glorified, and the exceeding greatness of his power is manifested; then what account can be given of it, that the Almighty, in so great a work of his power, should so carefully hide his power, that the subjects of it should be able to discern nothing of it? Or what reason or revelation have any to determine that he does so? If we may judge by the Scripture, this is not agreeable to God’s manner, in his operations and dispensations; but on the contrary, ’tis God’s manner, in the great works of his power and mercy which he works for his people, to order things so, as to make his hand visible, and his power conspicuous, and men’s dependence on him most evident, that no flesh should glory in his presence, that God alone might be exalted, and that the excellency of the power might be of God and not of man, and that Christ’s power might be manifested in our weakness, and none might say mine own hand hath saved me. So it was in most of those temporal salvations which God wrought for Israel of old, which were types of the salvation of God’s people from their spiritual enemies. So it was in the redemption of Israel, from their Egyptian bondage; he redeemed them with a strong hand, and an outstretched arm; and that his power might be the more conspicuous, he suffered Israel first to be brought into the most helpless and forlorn circumstances.12

Edwards maintains that God’s grace in the soul is entirely the effect of God’s power and thus is in no way “owing to any strength in the subject.” According to Edwards, man is not a cooperative agent in the origin or efficacious power of God’s grace. This is in harmony with Catholic doctrine, if the grace in question is antecedent grace. Yet, we can see from the Catholic Catechism quoting the Council of Trent that it does not follow from the above, our not being cooperative agents in the origin of grace, that we are entirely passive recipients of grace.  Man’s part “is expressed by the assent of faith” and is not inactive on account of our ability to reject God’s grace.13  The one submitting is supremely active in his act of submitting.  An inactive man cannot submit to another; he can only be possessed or puppeted, neither of which are willed actions on his part.

What Edwards seems to be saying here though, is that since man does not contribute in any way to the origin or power of God’s grace, to acknowledge man as anything but an entirely passive participant would be to steal glory due to God alone.  Edwards’s underlying concern is quite right.  He wants to show that our salvation is entirely dependent on God’s gift of grace, which, when we are dead in our sins, can in no way be merited or even desired by us. In that respect heaven remains a gift and God’s grace remains gratuitous!  The Catholic Catechism teaches this as well when it says, “By giving up his own Son for our sins, God manifests that his plan for us is one of benevolent love, prior to any merit on our part: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” God “shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”14 This is why the principles of Soli Deo Gloria and Sola Gratia are so closely related: The gift of salvation is wholly undeserved (“while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”15). For this reason, it is a grave error to believe that man merits even a small portion of his salvation apart from grace; this, we affirm. Yet, it is not true that active participation or cooperation (as explained above) detracts from God’s glory.

One standard objection to the notion of cooperating with grace is that since we are “dead in our trespasses in sin,”16 we cannot cooperate in God’s gift of salvation.  There is obviously a sense in which this is true, but we shouldn’t get too carried away here.  Because of our fallen nature, we cannot save ourselves.  No one is denying this.  And because of our created nature, we cannot brush our teeth or smile or even sin on our own.  To say it clearly, we cannot exist on our own; we live, move, and have our being in and through Him.  This shouldn’t makes us think less of grace; it should make us think more of cooperation.  For we know at least two fundamental things about our actions: 1) that we cannot do anything without God, and 2) that we really do things.  God allows us no less cooperation in eating breakfast than He does in salvation.  Neither are measured in terms of the percentage of who, between God and man, does what part (again, this requires a discussion of monergism). Now it is no more difficult for God graciously to give man the ability to chew his eggs in the morning than it is for God graciously to enable him to merit salvation through cooperation.  God does not do 20% of the work while enabling men to eat breakfast and 100% of the work when offering them salvation.  What God does in each, He does 100% and what man does in each, he does 100%.  Man’s real cooperation in salvation does not steal God’s glory any more than does the fact that a man truly eats his own breakfast.

Some readers might be surprised to find some agreement on this point between Calvin and the medieval Catholic Church.  Calvin says:

There cannot be a doubt, that every thing in our works which deserves praise is owing to divine grace, and that there is not a particle of it which we can properly ascribe to ourselves. If we truly and seriously acknowledge this, not only confidence, but every idea of merit vanishes.17

Whereas Aquinas says:

man’s merit with God only exists on the presupposition of the Divine ordination, so that man obtains from God, as a reward of his operation, what God gave him the power of operation for, even as natural things by their proper movements and operations obtain that to which they were ordained by God . . . .18

I want to highlight the agreement between the two rather than the difference.  Neither Aquinas nor Calvin admit merit on the part of man except by God enabling that merit.  Aquinas says, while unambiguously affirming merit on the part of man, that this merit presupposes God’s grace.  We cannot continue on this point any longer without causing redundancy in the next paper on sola gratia, but it should be clear that the Catholic Church, as Aquinas says, affirms merit on the presupposition that it is not possible except by God’s gratuitous gift.  The Reformed tradition does not say that man is incapable of good works at all. It says that man is only capable of good works by God’s grace.  There are important differences here, but there is less difference between us than we might think.

Clearly, then, it does not follow that man’s active cooperation detracts from God’s glory.  If submission is an act of the will and the subject does not contribute in any way to the origin or power of that to which he is subjected, then that sort of cooperation does not result in any stolen glory. If man set himself up beside God as the author of his own salvation, this would be stealing glory from God.  But to reiterate, that is not Catholic soteriology, which teaches that even our opportunity to cooperate with grace is itself a gift from God. If we understand Soli Deo Gloria as allowing that cooperation gives greater glory to God, then Soli Deo Gloria is compatible with the Catholic doctrine of justification.

II. Will God’s Glory be Shared?

Notice after Edwards speaks of glory due to God alone, he immediately supports that principle by showing God’s interaction with Israel. God’s glory, as revealed to man, is supremely manifested by His acts of redemption.  We might have expected the Scriptures to begin speaking of “God’s glory” from creation, and although God’s glory certainly is revealed by creation, it is not insignificant that Scripture first explicitly refers to glory as such when Moses and Aaron speak to Israel, saying, “At evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord.”19  Edwards is right to draw this connection — God’s glory is revealed most fully by His redemptive interaction with His covenant people.  Later, God makes it clear to His people that it was not because of anything they possessed that they were chosen,20 lest the Israelites misunderstand God’s gratuitous relationship with them.

Now there is indisputably a Biblical sense in which God’s glory is shared with His redeemed.21 We see this particularly in Romans where Paul says, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him,”22 and in 2 Thessalonians, “God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”23 And so there is some sense in which God’s glory is shared in a way that does not detract from it.  In other words, Soli Deo Gloria must be understood in such a way that it is compatible with the sharing of glory as described in these verses, and insofar as we wish to affirm it, we must also clarify it in the light of what the Scriptures say about the redeemed sharing in God’s glory.

What we gather from Scripture regarding the sharing of God’s glory is that God reveals the fullness of His glory through His covenants. Under the Old Covenant He reminds the covenant people that salvation is gratuitous.24 The covenant people learn through the Law that they cannot be justified by the Law,25 but God does not say, “You can’t pay for it, so do nothing and I’ll just give it to you.” He surprises everyone with a New Covenant, fulfilling, not abolishing, the Old. In it God the Son shows His disciples that, although salvation is a free gift, they must cooperate: “now take up your cross and follow Me.”26 Finally, He says to the Father, “The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.”27

It is worth noting briefly that the way in which we come to share in God’s glory, according to these passages of Scripture, is precisely by sharing to some degree in His suffering.  For God’s children, suffering precedes glory.  His covenant people, then, are those who, moved by His grace, live a life of obedience to the gospel and are gratuitously given a share in His glory. The glory is still uniquely His, and His covenant people are still undeserving and not even glorious among men. Yet by His grace they shall be raised to share in a glory that exceeds not only what they could have hoped for but what they could have imagined. We should be careful to note that the authors of the New Testament saw no contradiction in maintaining that we shall share in His glory, since those same authors emphatically repeated: “to Him be the glory.” Therefore insofar as Soli Deo Gloria is understood as referring to the ultimate source and ultimate orientation of all glory, and is thus compatible with our sharing in His glory, not as taking glory from Him but as manifesting His glory through our active participation in His gracious gift of salvation, the authors of Scripture could indeed have affirmed it.28

So neither the biblical concept of God granting men a share in His glory nor Augustine’s theology of man’s cooperation with God’s grace are in conflict with Soli Deo Gloria’s underlying concern that no glory be stolen from God. For this principle of the Reformation is rightly concerned with maintaining God’s unique glory and His entirely gratuitous interaction with His covenant people.  Perhaps the great irony in this discussion is the fact that if we wanted to glorify God, participating in salvation is precisely the thing we would want to do!  Because we truly cooperate, it is by ‘carrying our cross,’ doing charity ‘unto the least of these,’ and, succinctly, obedience to the gospel, that God is glorified in our lives.

We have seen from the Scriptures that God can and does share His glory (it is God who does the sharing, not us the stealing!) and that is because His glory is not a limited quantity that can be divided.  God’s glory is unlimited, and far from detracting from it, when shared it is demonstrated all the more.  We cannot steal God’s glory, because He offers it to us freely through participation in His gift of salvation.

The next paper will continue these thoughts as it deals with the principle of Sola Gratia.  We have demonstrated that there is substantial common ground between Reformed theology and authentic Catholic theology in this regard.  And to this end I quote that old hymn which still rings sweetly in my ears and agrees with my soul: “To God be the glory, great things He has done; So loved He the world that He gave us His Son.”29

[Please comment on this article under this blog post.]

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.13.2. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Luke 18:9-14. []
  4. John Calvin, Commentaries on Matthew, Mark, Luke, Luke 18:9-14. []
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1996. []
  6. CCC 2003 []
  7. Protestant scholar Alister McGrath openly admits as much, saying, “it will be clear that the medieval period was astonishingly faithful to the teaching of Augustine on the question of the nature of justification, where the Reformers departed from it,” and later, “The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification – as opposed to its mode – must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum.” Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 1.185-187 (1986) (emphasis in original), available here. []
  8. 1 John 4:8. []
  9. John Calvin, Institutes, 3.13.2. []
  10. Matthew 22:38-40. []
  11. See, e.g., Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Directory for the Public Worship of God, ch. 2.9. On the other hand, the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, Appendix F, in what is a wonderful prayer for the dedication of a church building, says: “We give thanks unto You for Your infinite mercies to us, and, in particular, for the gift of Your Son to be our Saviour. We praise You for the Church of God, of which He is the only Head and King and of which we are humble and unfaithful members. We acknowledge that we are not worthy to receive from Your hand the blessings of Your common grace; and especially do we recognize the abundance of Your great goodness in granting to us, through Your particular grace, membership in the Church Universal, the mystical Body of Christ.” If the liturgies in question made consistent use of prayers like this, it might refute my point. []
  12. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, 139-140. []
  13. CCC 1993. []
  14. CCC 604 []
  15. Romans 5:8. []
  16. Ephesians 2:1. []
  17. John Calvin, Institutes, 3.15.3. []
  18. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2.114.1. []
  19. Exodus 16:6-7. []
  20. Deuteronomy 7:7-8. []
  21. In addition to the quotes given, see also: 1 Corinthians 2:7; 2 Corinthians 4:17; Colossians 3:4 (“glory” here should not be read as synonymous with “Heaven”); 2 Timothy 2:10; Hebrews 2:10; 1 Peter 5:1-4. []
  22. Romans 8:17 (RSV). NIV says “share in His glory.” []
  23. 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 (RSV). Likewise, the NIV translation says, “share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” []
  24. Deuteronomy 7:7-8. []
  25. Romans 3:20. []
  26. Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27. []
  27. John 17:22. []
  28. That there is a unique glory had only by God as the ultimate source and end of creatures, a glory not shared by God, can be seen in Isaiah 42:8 and 48:11. []
  29. Fanny Crosby, To God Be the Glory. []
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