Trent and the Gospel: A Reply to Tim ChalliesMay 7th, 2014 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
On April 16, Tim Challies, a Reformed pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario, and co-founder of Cruciform Press, published a post titled “The False Teachers: Pope Francis.” That generated much discussion, as one might imagine. I responded to it in comment #335 of “Does the Bible Teach Sola Fide?” One of the criticisms Tim received in response to that post was the following: “You do not understand the Roman Catholic view of justification; if you understood Catholic theology you would see the pope as a defender of truth rather than an opponent of truth.” So Tim responded on May 6th with a follow-up article titled “Anti-Catholic or Pro-Gospel?,” in which he seeks to show not only that he understands the Catholic doctrine of justification, but that it is contrary to Scripture. He does this by examining six canons from the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, and claiming implicitly that they are contrary to Scripture. So let’s take a look at these canons one at a time.
Tim first quotes Canon 9 from the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent:
If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema. (Canon 9)
To this he responds:
I believe that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required and nothing else needs to be cooperated with, to obtain the grace of justification. Rome understands exactly what I believe here and rejects it. (Rom 3:20-28, Eph 2:8)
Tim implies that there is a contradiction between Trent Session 6 Can. 9 and Scripture, namely (Rom 3:20-28, and Eph 2:8). But here’s why there is no contradiction. Session 6 Canon 9 is condemning the notion that nothing at all is required on the part of the Catechumen to prepare to receive the grace of justification at baptism,1 that he need not repent of his sins or pray or love God or even resolve to seek baptism. In Romans 3:28, however, St. Paul is not speaking of what is required to prepare to receive the grace of justification in baptism, but rather of the impossibility of justification by works done apart from grace. Likewise, what Trent says about the necessity of preparing to receive the grace of justification in baptism is fully compatible with the truth St. Paul teaches in Ephesians 2:8-9, according to which saving faith is a gift from God and not from ourselves, and that saving faith is not merited by works. The Catholic Church affirms that faith is a gift from God, not from ourselves, and that faith is not merited by works. So both of those passages are fully compatible with what Canon 9 says.
Then Tim quotes Trent 6, Canon 12:
If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema. (Canon 12)
To this Tim responds:
I believe this! I believe that justifying faith is confidence in God’s divine mercy which remits sin for the sake of Christ and on the basis of the work of Christ. It is this—faith—and nothing else that justifies us. (Rom 3:28, John 1:12)
Here Tim implies that according to Rom 3:28 and John 1:12, justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy. Importantly there are two differences between Tim’s conception of what justifying faith is, and what the Catholic Church teaches justifying faith is. The first difference is in the conception of faith itself. For Tim, faith is merely confidence in divine mercy. But according to the Catholic Church, faith is not only “a personal adherence of man to God,” but also, at the same time and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (CCC 150) For this reason, one point of Canon 12 is to condemn the notion that justifying faith does not include assenting to the whole truth that God has revealed (e.g. assenting to the Creed), but is only trust in His mercy. The second difference between Tim’s conception of what justifying faith is, and what the Catholic Church teaches concerning justifying faith is that for Tim, justifying faith is not informed by agape, whereas according to the Catholic Church, faith that is not informed by agape is dead faith, and is therefore not justifying faith.
So now the question is whether the two passages Tim cites support his conception of faith over that of the Catholic Church. When we turn to Romans 3:28, we find that it does not decide this question, i.e. which conception of faith (Tim’s or the Catholic Church’s) is the correct one. Romans 3:28 reads, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” That’s fully compatible with the Catholic conception of faith. So this verse does not support Tim’s position over against the Catholic teaching concerning what justifying faith is. Nor does John 1:12 decide the question. John 1:12 reads, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” This verse does not say whether believing in His Name merely means confidence in His mercy, or whether it includes assenting to the whole truth God has revealed, and is informed by agape. The verse simply does not answer the question; that’s not its purpose. So both of these verses to which Tim appeals here do not support Tim’s position over against the Catholic teaching concerning what justifying faith is. They leave the question unanswered. At the very least, nothing in these verses entails a contradiction with what Canon 12 says.
Next Tim quotes Trent 6, Canon 14:
If anyone says that man is absolved from his sins and justified because he firmly believes that he is absolved and justified, or that no one is truly justified except him who believes himself justified, and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are effected, let him be anathema. (Canon 14)
To this he responds:
This may require some nuance, because I do not believe that I am absolved from sin because I believe I am absolved from sin; however, I do hold, as the Council says here, that faith in Christ alone does absolve sin and justify sinners. (Rom 5:1)
The reason for Canon 14 is very similar to the reason for Canon 12. The Council was condemning (a) a conception of faith that did not include assent to the whole truth revealed by God and its being made alive by agape, (b) a conception of faith that made one’s own justificatory status the object of faith, (c) a conception of justification according to which a belief about one’s own justificatory status is the necessary and sufficient means by which justification is effected. When Tim replies by saying, “I do hold, as the Council says here, that faith in Christ alone does absolve sin and justify sinners,” he misunderstands this particular canon, because in this canon the conception of faith being condemned is the sort that has oneself as its object, i.e. one’s own justificatory status is the object of belief. This canon is not talking about “faith in Christ.” In support of his position Tim appeals to Romans 5:1: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here again, however, this verse does not specify whether faith is what the Catholic Church says faith is, or whether it is faith that has one’s own justificatory status as its object. The verse simply doesn’t answer that question, because the purpose of the verse is not to define what faith is. So this verse does not support what this canon condemns. And given what Tim says in response to this canon, that is, given that he misinterprets it as referring to “faith in Christ,” he may actually agree with this canon.
Next Tim quotes Trent 6, Canon 24:
If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema. (Canon 24)
To he replies:
I believe that good works—works that bring glory to God—are the fruit and proof of justification. I deny that they are in any way the cause of justification’s increase and preservation. (Gal 3:1-3, Gal 5:1-3)
Tim appeals to Galatians 3:1-3 and 5:1-3 as support for his denial that good works done in a state of grace both preserve and increase justification. So let’s look at these passages. Galatians 3:1-3 reads as follows:
You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal 3:1-3)
And Galatians 5:1-3 reads as follows:
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. (Gal 5:1-3)
These verses are not about good works done out of agape in a state of grace, but about a return to the Old Covenant Law. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul was not condemning or even referring to growth in justification through good works done in a state of grace; he was condemning a return to the Old Covenant by Christians, because that was a rejection of the New Covenant and implicitly therefore a rejection of Jesus as the Messiah who established the New Covenant in which the requirement of those ceremonial laws is done away. St. Paul’s condemnation of the teaching of the Judaizers was not for believing that works done in agape (in accordance with the moral law under the New Covenant) increase our justification, but for believing that the keeping of the ceremonial law, and thus returning to the Old Covenant and the whole Jewish law is necessary for justification.
The Judaizers were rejecting the New Covenant, in which we are justified by sanctifying grace and [living] faith in Christ, received through the sacrament of baptism instituted by Christ. But the Catholic Church affirms the New Covenant. In fact the Catholic Church is the New Israel, the Israel of the New Covenant. (cf. Gal 6:16) The Catholic Church teaches that we are justified by [living] faith in Christ, a faith that we receive as a gift from God, along with sanctifying grace, in the sacrament of baptism instituted by Christ. Tim’s assumption that St. Paul’s condemnation of the Judaizers’ doctrine applies to Catholic doctrine overlooks the role of the Covenants in the Galatian account. Tim seemingly thinks that St. Paul’s concern in his letter to the Galatians is simply excluding works of any sort from justification. It is true that St. Paul recognizes that works cannot justify. But St. Paul’s primary concern for the Galatian believers is that they remain within the New Covenant, and thus remain united to Christ. By adding the requirement of the ceremonial law they were returning to the Old Covenant, and thus nullifying the New Covenant and the sacrifice of Christ, the long-awaited Messiah and Savior. (cf. Gal 5:1ff) The Catholic Church rejects the permissibility of rejecting one’s baptism and returning to the Old Covenant for justification or salvation. From the Catholic point of view, adding the requirements of the ceremonial law would be nothing less than apostasy from the New Covenant established by the blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. So in this respect, the Catholic Church does not fall under St. Paul’s condemnation of the doctrine of the Judaizers. And likewise for this reason these verses do not support Tim’s position, or in any way oppose Canon 24.
Then Tim quotes Trent 6, Canon 30:
If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema. (Canon 30)
In response he writes:
I believe this precious truth and will fight to the death for it! I believe that at the moment of justification the sinner’s guilt and punishment are removed to such an extent that no debt remains to be discharged in this world or in purgatory before he can enter into heaven. (Rom 5:1, Col 2:13-14)
This canon is condemning the notion that sinning after having been justified does not produce a debt of temporal punishment. I have explained the basis for the distinction between the eternal debt of punishment and the temporal debt of punishment in “St. Thomas Aquinas on Penance.” In referencing Rom 5:1 and Col 2:13-14 Tim is implying that Rom 5:1 and Col 2:13-14 support his position and oppose the Catholic teaching. Rom 5:1 again reads,
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This verse is fully compatible with the Catholic position, because the debt of temporal punishment does not imply or entail not being at peace with God. The debt of temporal punishment is due to ‘horizontal’ (i.e. creature-to-creature) acts of injustice. We can be at peace with God while still owing a debt to fellow creatures. Hence this verse is fully compatible with the Catholic teaching. Colossians 2:13-14 reads:
When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
In these two verses the ‘debt’ in question is the debt of eternal punishment. St. Paul is not saying that the debt includes all debts Christians could owe to their fellow man. Otherwise Christians would never have to pay back loans to fellow humans, because the debt would already have been paid by Christ on the Cross. For this same reason, this verse is not referring to the debt of temporal punishment, and therefore does not oppose or contradict the Catholic teaching regarding the possibility of accruing a debt of temporal punishment after justification.
What is the fundamental reason underlying the disagreement between Tim and the Catholic regarding the interpretation of the verses to which he has appealed in criticism of these five canons? I have laid that out in “The Tradition and the Lexicon.”
Finally Tim quotes Trent 6, Canon 33:
If anyone says that the Catholic doctrine of justification as set forth by the holy council in the present decree, derogates in some respect from the glory of God or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, and does not rather illustrate the truth of our faith and no less the glory of God and of Christ Jesus, let him be anathema. (Canon 33)
To that he responds:
This is the heart of the issue, isn’t it? The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, as laid out by the Council of Trent, and as systematized in the canons, does that very thing—it diminishes the glory of God and the merits of Jesus Christ. It adds to Christ’s work. To add anything to Christ’s work is to destroy it altogether.
Tim’s concern is that the doctrine that man participates in his salvation takes some glory away from God, and gives it to man. This concern is based on three implicit philosophical assumptions:
(1) that God gets the most glory when God alone receives glory,
(2) that glory is the sort of thing that is lost by the giver when the giver gives it to others,
(3) that the degree of glory is determined entirely by the degree of causality exercised, such that the greater the causality exercised, the greater the glory.
But each of these three assumptions is not true. If (2) and (3) were true, then God would lose glory by creating creatures and giving them actual causal powers, since St. Paul tells us that creatures already have glory simply by the kind of nature that they have. (1 Cor 15:41) Moreover, if each of these three assumptions were true, then if God wished to maximize His glory, He would have either to avoid creating anything at all, or He would have to give only the illusion of causal powers to creatures, reserving all causality to Himself. This position is called occasionalism, and I have discussed it elsewhere.
Let’s consider what St. Thomas Aquinas says about this. Regarding our genuine participation in God’s providential governance of the world, St. Thomas argues that it is more perfect for God to give causality to creatures than to make creatures but withhold causality from them. He writes:
[T]here are certain intermediaries of God’s providence; for He governs things inferior by superior, not on account of any defect in His power, but by reason of the abundance of His goodness; so that the dignity of causality is imparted even to creatures [ut dignitatem causalitatis etiam creaturis communicet].” (ST I Q.22 a.3)
If God governed alone, things would be deprived of the perfection of causality [subtraheretur perfectio causalis a rebus]. (ST I Q.103 a.6 ad.2)
Some have understood God to work in every agent in such a way that no created power has any effect in things, but that God alone is the ultimate cause of everything wrought; for instance, that it is not fire that gives heat, but God in the fire, and so forth. But this is impossible. First, because the order of cause and effect would be taken away from created things: and this would imply lack of power in the Creator: for it is due to the power of the cause, that it bestows active power on its effect. Secondly, because the active powers which are seen to exist in things, would be bestowed on things to no purpose, if these wrought nothing through them. Indeed, all things created would seem, in a way, to be purposeless, if they lacked an operation proper to them; since the purpose of everything is its operation. … We must therefore understand that God works in things in such a manner that things have their proper operation. (ST I Q.105 a.5)
It takes a greater power to make a creature with actual causal powers than a virtual reality in which God is the only causal agent. Therefore, creating creatures that have actual causal powers gives God more glory than creating creatures that have no causal powers. Since natural causal activity on the part of creatures does not detract from God’s glory but further reveals His great power and thus enhances his glory, so also the causal activity of rational creatures in cooperation with grace does not detract from God’s glory, but likewise enhances it. Regarding our genuine participation in God’s salvific work, St. Thomas writes:
In this way God is helped by us; inasmuch as we execute His orders, according to 1 Corinthians 3:9: “We are God’s co-adjutors.” Nor is this on account of any defect in the power of God, but because He employs intermediary causes, in order that the beauty of order may be preserved in the universe; and also that He may communicate to creatures the dignity of causality [ut etiam creaturis dignitatem causalitatis communicet]. (ST I Q.23 a.8 ad.2)
Notice that St. Thomas quotes St. Paul’s statement that [the Apostles] are God’s “co-adjutors.” In the Greek this reads: θεοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν συνεργοί. “For we are God’s co-workers.” Of course St. Paul is speaking about the work of preaching the gospel and building up the Church through prayer and teaching and service. But, if man may be a co-worker with God in the salvation of others, then it would be ad hoc to claim that man may not in principle be a co-worker in his own salvation. St. Paul implies as much when he states explicitly to the Philippians that they should “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling” [μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου τὴν ἑαυτῶν σωτηρίαν κατεργάζεσθε]. (Phil 2:12) St. Thomas continues:
Now it is a greater perfection for a thing to be good in itself and also the cause of goodness in others, than only to be good in itself. Therefore God so governs things that He makes some of them to be causes of others in government; as a master, who not only imparts knowledge to his pupils, but gives also the faculty of teaching others. (ST I Q.103 a.6)
A thing is more perfect, says St. Thomas, when it can be the cause of goodness in others, than only to be good in itself. So Christ gives a greater gift, and receives more glory, when He gives us a participation in His salvific work, such that we can be co-workers with Him both in the salvation of others and in our own salvation.
All of this shows that it what is underlying Tim’s opposition to Canon 33 is a philosophical assumption that God receives more glory when God does it all Himself, and does not allow us to participate. But that’s not a safe assumption, and as St. Thomas shows, a good argument can be made for its opposite, namely, that God receives more glory when He does not do it all Himself, but instead allows His creatures to participate in His work, both on the level of nature, and on the level of grace.
Finally Tim writes:
As I read the canons of the Council of Trent I see a systematic explanation and thorough denial of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. I see that Rome understands what I believe and declares it anathema. Of course it is her right to do this, but let’s not miss some important implications: Whatever else Rome teaches, she will not teach that we are justified solely by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. If she teaches a gospel that adds to the work of Christ, she teaches a false gospel, doesn’t she? And if Francis is the head of the organization that states this as official doctrine, if he is her chief defender and propagator, I must judge him a false teacher. What else could I do?
The Catholic Church clearly does not teach what Tim believes, i.e. that we are justified by faith [as mere confidence in divine mercy, without assent in the whole revelation of God, and without agape] alone. Even the phrase faith “in Christ alone” presupposes a trust conception of faith, and does not necessarily include the “free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed,” e.g. does not include affirming the Creed. Otherwise “in Christ alone” would entail a denial of the Trinity. So even with phrases like “in Christ alone,” the disagreement is not a simple yes or no (affirmation or denial), but is rather a difference in paradigm, because the respective concepts of what justifying faith is are different. Even Tim’s claim that the Catholic Church teaches a gospel that “adds to the work of Christ” presupposes a different paradigm regarding the nature of Christ’s work. In the Catholic paradigm Christ’s work includes us, and includes our participation in it. We cannot add to it in the sense of doing something not included in it; that would be a work done apart from grace, and that sort of notion would be Pelagianism. But we can ‘add’ to it in the sense of doing something in it, through it. Christ is not the only agent of His salvation; by His work He makes us co-workers with Him, such that in Him and through Him who lives within us, we are given the gift of participating in and cooperating with His salvific work. That’s not a false gospel; that’s just the gospel. Only when one looks at it through a zero-sum, non-participatory paradigm lens does it appear to be going beyond Christ, and thus appear Pelagian. But in the Catholic participatory paradigm, real union with Christ just is the gospel.