Saturday, August 01, 2015

Justification, Continued

In my last post, I wanted to lightly touch on the Catholic and Reformed doctrines of justification, so we might be aware that the difference is not a trifling one. In general, the educated Catholic--of which there are too few, sadly--knows that he or she must give unyielding, unqualified assent to much more than that which appears in the ecumenical creeds--the Apostles' and the Nicene--in order to suppose that he might possess the virtue of faith. Therefore, even if we supposed incorrectly that the Catholic and Reformed mean the same things in giving their affirmation to those creeds, we would still be divided. We are divided over charity; that is, the fundamental theological significance of it. In crude terms, the Reformed person locates the goodness of God's sovereign mercy in the divine electing will; the Catholic locates the same in the sacraments of the New Covenant.

They are efficacious signs, for the Catholic. There are 2 ways to be denied salvation, for the Catholic: to refuse to receive the sacred signs, or to deny their power, whether by profession or conduct. It seems to me, on the other hand, the Reformed essentially has one answer for the one who is denied salvation: "You were not appointed for it."

This is why I felt safe in writing elsewhere, "What we were fighting about is the sacramental life versus an historic faith, with due respect, that is at its core anti-sacramental." It is not to say that the Reformed lack the words, "sacrament" or "grace." Far from it. But there is a wide gulf between believing, "This sign is my salvation" and "This sign confirms for me that my salvation has been assured." To coherently call it a "means of grace" in the Reformed tradition, one would have to be clear that the celebration of a sacrament is an occasion through which the believer receives a grace of perseverance; anything else violates the prior commitment to the Reformed understanding of the sovereignty of God. The experience of faith and repentance may be quite a meaningful one, at a personal level for the Reformed believer. In reality, however, everything he says and does toward that end falls out necessarily from the reality of his election. Though trembling before the mystery of Providence hidden in the divine mind, the Catholic must and does say that a sacrament can change a destiny.

Thus, I think it fair to say that the Presbyterian version of the "Oxford Movement" is built on an incoherence. It either leads back to holy mother Church--for without the disagreement concerning sacraments and free will, there was no theological reason to leave--or it finds itself at odds with its own received theological tradition. The latter would be a reason to reject it as an innovation, but--what a truly evil result!--the reality of Sola Scriptura leaves no effective institutional means to enforce that determination!

If it suits you, prayerfully consider these things before the Lord. Thank you for reading.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

What Is Meant By "Justification By Faith Alone"?

We were asked about this in our Reformed and Catholic dialogue group; one PCA elder mistakenly believes that yours truly does not understand his position. Well, when I was in fact Reformed, the words from Chapter XI of the Westminster Confession of Faith were my own:

 Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
II. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.

[Me again] This is shockingly clear. If this is true, Roman Catholicism cannot be, soteriologically speaking. They are denying the very basis for co-operation in salvation, which is "faith formed by agape," which is made possible by infusion, according to the Catholic Church. What is the motivation for denying this synergy, this co-operation? The prior commitment of what we might call "total inability," from the so-called "5 Points of Calvinism." I hesitate specifically to use its more familiar title, "Total Depravity," because it introduces confusions that often serve to misrepresent the Reformed position on this point. In any case, the Reformed assert that the Fall has so profoundly affected man that none of his faculties are free from the taint of sin. That is the Reformed meaning of the term, or shall we say, one accepted meaning within the tradition. I myself did not subscribe to the popular notion that humanity, or one person in particular, was maximally wicked all the time. In any case, this accounting of the situation on the whole makes perfect sense, if the supposition about the human nature post-Fall is correct. If man is unable to co-operate with God in his own salvation, the sacramental system that suggests and commends this co-operation is a farce. In basic terms, this is heresy according to the Catholic Church, because that supposition is not correct.

A few notes here, before we turn back to Catholic theology. We should notice the denial of infusion in the first paragraph. We should notice that pardon of sin happens immediately; that is, without any ecclesial or sacramental mediation that is standard Catholicism in every age. "Accounting and accepting" is synonymous with the imputed righteousness of Christ; he accounts you righteous, when in fact you are not, according to this document. What's the Christocentric motive for this assertion? God does this because you *can't* do it, even if you wanted to. When in His good pleasure, he saves you, you are supposed to understand that any pursuit of holiness that you undertake is all "to the praise of His glorious grace." This is where--if you will pardon the insensitivity--Catholics and Reformed must temper their joy at concurring that grace is primary, because we mean different things. For the Reformed, grace is the flip-side of sin; it is God being and doing everything we are not; it is essentially the favor which denies our disfavor. The work of grace in the life of a believer is evidence of His sovereign mercy, above all else. There is only participation in the most indirect sense, that the elect are willed to receive that which Christ deserves in strict justice. This is why these men added, "not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone."

Let's make the Catholic point, and then explore. Salvation is almost entirely about what God has "wrought in them." In a certain sense, sanctification and justification are the same thing, in the Catholic mind, not simply tending toward the same end, which is God. Let's chat with CCC, 1993, and see what she has to say:

Justification establishes cooperation between God's grace and man's freedom. On man's part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent:
When God touches man's heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God's grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God's sight. (Their emphasis, not mine)

 [Me talking] Faith is assent to what God has revealed; giving that assent invites us to conversion; it is not synonymous with conversion in toto. That's the difference. The Holy Spirit gives charity or agape, which constitutes saving or living faith when present. The Catechism says 2 things here which sound absurd to the Reformed: 1. Man is not passive when touched by the Holy Spirit; and 2. he can reject whatever inspiration the Holy Spirit has given, and even the Holy Spirit Himself, and finally, at that.

Your average intelligent Reformed person believes that article II here in his Westminster Confession answers the challenge posed by the Catholic in regard to charity and sanctification,--and the charge of antinomianism that often follows,-- because they affirm, "and is no dead faith, but works by love." Not so, actually, because it doesn't describe "dead" faith at all, or suggest it as a real possibility. Because the man cannot co-operate in the Reformed system, agape can't be a necessary ingredient in justification; it can only be the fruit or result of what has already occurred. In the justified, I understand that agape comes with the faith which alone justifies. This is why the Reformed must question whether election has taken place; man cannot do or undo what is taking place. In any case, there is a real soteriological difference between the Catholic and Reformed, and it will not do to suggest that I or anyone else are exaggerating it for divisive purposes. I find it ironic that the same person who dares to suggest that our difference is not significant will at the same time profess the Reformed soteriology as a reason not to be Catholic! I hope and pray that the dissonance of that contradiction will lead him and others to re-consider the whole matter, and seek full communion with the Church.

The Circle Of Life

Certain self-appointed lecturers of conservatives and the pro-life movement have charged that by switching the discussion back to Planned Parenthood in the midst of the outrage over Cecil the Lion, we are deflecting. You get this charge a lot with other things, if you point out the selective outrage of the Left. I admit that the gaping hole in their moral vision angers me, not least because moral superiority is the means by which they shift the discussion in their favor in other contexts. Here's my personal key: Do I actually care about the other things, or do I just want the shaming to stop?

No; I actually care about innocent, dead babies, dead lions killed by trophy hunters, sub-standard wages, criminal justice reform, and dozens of other things. If we're talking about structural racism and violence in policing, it is deflection to yell out, "All lives matter!" just to make yourself less uncomfortable. I actually agree with that.

But I don't grant to a certain kind of progressive his assumption that he cares more than I do. In fact, my argument is, "What a pity, that the correctness of your moral stance, and the passion with which you express it here, cannot also be applied elsewhere!"

You bet I get angry about the self-righteous hectoring of people who can't even see the evil of killing children, and, rather than condemn this monstrosity of Planned Parenthood, want to fret about where people will be screened for ovarian cancer, while calling me an "anti-choice zealot," whatever that means. This is like pointing out that Ted Bundy put up a lemonade stand once. That is deflection.

Not only should we not do evil that good may result, we shouldn't assume that Justice is a balanced scale. It's not, with respect to good and evil. God will never write like a Times columnist: "His was a complicated legacy..."

I think otherwise decent people who support and work at Planned Parenthood are disquieted by being compared to a serial killer. Good; the moral force of that needs to be felt by everyone. It's the truth.

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

No Compelling Moral Vision

You know, I might have been a liberal, if a few things had gone differently when I was younger. One reason why I don't get angry about the GOP lapses from Catholic Social Teaching is that very few even know what it is. It's still pretty new to me.

And abortion is that thing for me that blows all that liberal righteousness away. You wanna talk to me about food stamps, and you're not even sure a baby is a baby! I like moralistic crusading zealots, but they'd better be right. (This is why Mark Shea is intolerable, God bless him. He's joining in their chorus against student loans today; sorry guys, your moral credibility died in 1973.)

I'm pretty sure I'm not against a national heath care system, at least in theory. Naturally, it's just going to be a means to enrich certain lawyers and doctors at the expense of everyone else, on top of implicating all of us in killing more defenseless children. Please tell me more about how the GOP hates poor people. Whatever our failures to address poverty as an issue of justice, we're not killing them.

The very engine of progressivism at its best was Christianity; your "Christian" president is attempting to purge any real faith from public life, and suing nuns for being faithful to the gospel. Please tell me more about the immorality of George W. Bush. (Actually, you can say plenty, and I wouldn't stop you, but you'd better be right.)

There's some snark here, and some real anger, but it's the bitter taste of betrayal. The party of William Jennings Bryan is now the party of death and birth control pills.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Not Shocked About Planned Parenthood, Revisited

I'm going to take a few minutes to clarify some things in my last post. I do not intend to suggest that, in light of Planned Parenthood's sale of human organs, there is no opportunity to re-examine the central moral questions underlying the whole matter. If someone is moved to reconsider, whether by the videos, or by the sight of fellow citizens marching in the streets, I rejoice. I am well aware, however, of the reality of political co-option and subversion. There are quite a few politicos perfectly willing to grab the outrage of this moment to great personal benefit, without considering the morality of abortion as such. Voicing that cynicism may well have dampened the joy and hope that an opportunity for conversion should bring.

One of the holiest people I know was converted by a line in Humanae Vitae; nothing in there was directly relevant to her experience. But you can encounter Jesus even when you least expect Him.

May our prayers be added to theirs, those who do battle in peace right now, for the recognition of the most primordial of all rights: the right to life.

Not Shocked About Planned Parenthood

I'm sure many are grateful that political momentum has built to de-fund them; I'm not. Abortion is wrong anyway. Why are they being funded at all?

Why should I be astonished that a more unsettling evil has been taking place? The dignity of a human being has already been transgressed in the murder that is their business. Philosophically, a grave moral evil has been justified on account of the circumstances, or the intention of the people involved. Once the character of acts in themselves is disregarded, almost anything can be justified, either by appealing to other good that may result, or to the fact that one person or another does an action without malice.

People have tolerated grave evil in our society, because they imagine that growing up poor or sick would be worse, or because they have done their own evils. It's hard enough to bear my own burdens. Where do I get off, telling people what to do?

Do we have souls? And is the nascent life in the womb a person? If we answer "yes" to both, then firstly, no suffering in this life would compare to bliss in the next, and secondly, if this life is a person, abortion exceptions are incoherent and stupid.

The reverse is also true. You can hardly fault the pro-choice side for feeling like these weird middle positions are incoherent and stupid, too. I think we have euphemisms and exceptions and things because we know the answers to the questions are "yes." Keep the ugly business out of sight, and I'll keep the moralists off our backs, OK?

Nothing would make me happier than to be accused of being a "liberal" for the sake of children, mothers, and families, by the way. I'll take that liberal retort, and flip it. You haven't met enough consistent pro-lifers, Mr. Liberal.

What they're actually saying is, "You're probably right. But this situation is impossibly hard, and it's not being addressed." What if it were? Would it be safe to talk about the immorality of abortion again?