“Let him be Anathema”: Not what many Protestants think it means

Giraudon, Council of Trent

The Council of Trent, 4th December 1563 (23rd session).

I do hope this can be a very short, breathless break, since my thesis is picking up momentum and I don’t want to do anything to put on the brakes. But this is something that has come up frequently in my conversations with Protestants: Many Protestants misunderstand the idea of anathema, as in the formula used by the councils of Church in rejecting various doctrines — most particularly the canons of the Council of Trent in rejecting Protestant doctrines:

CANON IX. If any one shall say, that by faith alone the impious is justified; so as to mean that nothing else is required to co-operate in order unto obtaining the grace of justification, and that it is not in any respect necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema. (Council of Trent, Sixth Session [1547], Decree concerning Justification [trans. Theodore Alois Buckley])

(For the most piercing and enlightening commentary I’ve ever read on these pronouncements of Trent concerning justification and other doctrines, you should read my dear frend Laura, a former Protestant like myself who can sweep away Protestant questions and confusion like nobody else I know.)

The Council of Trent

The Magisterium of Church, assembled at the Council of Trent.

So anathema: To translate the word etymologically and literally, it can mean “accursed”; even “devoted to destruction.” Many Protestants understand that when the Council of Trent declared holders of these doctrines to be “anathema,” it was “devoting them to destruction” or even pronouncing “eternal damnation” on them — such that Protestants think that to “anathematize” someone is to “damn them to hell.” Naturally, Protestants are rather offended by this, and rightly hold that any Church that would pronounce eternal damnation on someone is not acting according to God’s will — which is that all men should be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).

But that’s not what the council was saying at all. Through generations of use, beginning even with the usage of St. Paul in the New Testament, anathema came to mean something other than its literal, etymological meaning — particularly in Latin, and particularly in the councils of the Church. Anathema sit (“Let him be anathema”) became a legal formula, something repeated by the councils to announce a particular, traditional judgment. When the councils pronounced holders of a doctrine anathema, it marked a formal excommunication from the Church: nothing more and nothing less.

Ribera, Saint Paul (1637)

Saint Paul (1637), by Jusepe de Ribera.

Excommunication, too, is often misunderstood; even though it is a biblical doctrine that many Protestants practice (I have heard them refer to it euphemistically as “disfellowship,” but the concept is the same): to remove one who is unrepentant in sin or incorrigibly teaching error from one’s church body, as St. Paul recommended in 1 Corinthians 5, even using language evocative of anathema (“deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh”, v. 5).

But the Catholic Church’s model of excommunication is just as St. Paul’s: it is not a pronouncement of eternal damnation, but a disciplinary measure designed to motivate the sinner to repentance and reconciliation. The full verse above reads, “Deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.The goal of excommunication is not damnation, but salvation. It is the Church’s mission to love and lead the lost to salvation in Christ, not to hate or damn to hell (hello Westboro Baptist Church). Excommunication is tough love, the Holy Mother Church kicking her prodigal son out of the house until he gets his act together. And just as with the father of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32), it is the Church’s great joy to accept and embrace her lost son back as soon as he repents and seeks forgiveness (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5–11).

El Greco, Portrait of Pope Pius V (c. 1605)

El Greco, Portrait of Pope Pius V (c. 1605) (WikiPaintings.org)

“But… but… you’re making that up!” I’ve heard Protestants say. “You’re just trying to change the meaning to whitewash what the council did!” “Show me where it says that this is what it meant!” Well, simple logic dictates that the Church was not pronouncing a permanent, irrevocable damnation here: If that were so, then the Church would not have gone to such great effort to win back our separated Protestant brethren during the Counter-Reformation (notably through the efforts of the Jesuits) and ever since: If any holder of Protestant doctrines was irretrievably damned — if the Church wanted to damn him — then why bother? Many, many separated brothers, even whole countries, such as Poland and Lithuania, were brought back to the Catholic faith, and accepted with open and loving arms.

Also, for what it’s worth, the canons of the councils of the Catholic Church apply only to members of the Catholic Church: after one has formally separated from the Catholic Church and rejected its authority, then its disciplinary pronouncements have no more bearing on him. The declaration of anyone as “anathema” at the Council of Trent does not technically apply to Protestants today, only to Catholics who were espousing those doctrines. You can’t very well be excommunicated from something you were never formally a part of.

But here are a few sources explaining the meaning of anathema, not made up by me or anyone else:

ANATHEMA. A thing devoted or given over to evil, so that “anathema sit” means, “let him be accursed.” St. Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians pronounces this anathema on all who do not love our blessed Saviour. The Church has used the phrase “anathema sit” from the earliest times with reference to those whom she excludes from her communion either because of moral offences or because they persist in heresy. Thus one of the earliest councils — that of Elvira, held in 306 — decrees in its fifty-second canon that those who placed libellous writings in the church should be anathematised; and the First General Council anathematised those who held the Arian heresy. General councils since then have usually given solemnity to their decrees on articles of faith by appending an Anathema.

Neither St. Paul nor the Church of God ever wished a soul to be damned. In pronouncing anathema against wilful heretics, the Church does but declare that they are excluded from her communion, and that they must, if they continue obstinate, perish eternally. (W. E. Addis, & T. Arnold, A Catholic Dictionary. New York: Catholic Pub. Soc., 1887], 24)

And for a bit lengthier and more precise:

Anathema. — This may be a convenient place to explain the true meaning of the phrase, “Let him be Anathema,” with which these and so many other definitions of doctrine close. The word is of Greek origin, and exists in that language in two forms, distinguished by a very trifling difference of spelling, but very distinct in use. Both are derived from a verb meaning “to set aside,” and in one form (ἀνάθημα) the word is used of something precious, set aside for the service of God, such as the gifts with which the Temple in Jerusalem was adorned (St. Luke 21:5; see also 2 Maccabees 9:16). But the word occurs also in another form (ἀνάθεμα), and with this spelling it is employed to signify a penal setting aside, whether of a thing which has been used as the instrument of wickedness, or of a person who has lost his social rights by crime. It occurs in both senses, in a verse of Deuteronomy (7:26). St. Paul uses the word more than once, to signify that a person is not worthy to be admitted into the society of Christians (1 Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:8, 9).

In the language of the Church, the phrase, “Let him be Anathema,” is used in the same manner as by St. Paul, and is a form of assigning the penalty of excommunication for an offence; when used, as it often is, to enforce definitions of faith, it means no more than this; but sometimes an Anathema seems to mean an excommunication pronounced against an offender with solemn and impressive ceremonies, which, however, do not alter the nature of the punishment. As we remarked in the place cited from our first volume, no anathema or other act of a human judge can take away the grace of God from the soul, if by any error the judgment has been pronounced against an innocent man.

In one place (1 Cor. 16:22) St. Paul adds to the word Anathema “Maranatha;” and the same is sometimes done by Councils of particular Churches, but the usage has not passed into the general Canon Law. It has been supposed, but wrongly, that the addition of this word signifies that the censure will never be relaxed (Benedict XIV, De Synod. 10, i. 7). Maranatha is in truth an Aramaic word, belonging to a language familiar to St. Paul and most of his readers. It means “The Lord is at hand,” and has the same force as when this expression is used in its Greek form. (Philippians 4:5) The phrase enhances the force of that to which it it appended, by solemnly reminding the reader that Christ will come again, to judge the world. (S. J. Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed., vol. 2 [New York: Benzinger Bros., 1896], 399–401)

And for a secular source, lest you think this is a Catholic conspiracy to change history:

anathema, (from Greek anatithenai: “to set up,” or “to dedicate”), in the Old Testament, a creature or object set apart for sacrificial offering. Its return to profane use was strictly banned, and such objects, destined for destruction, thus became effectively accursed as well as consecrated. Old Testament descriptions of religious wars call both the enemy and their besieged city anathema inasmuch as they were destined for destruction.

In New Testament usage a different meaning developed. St. Paul used the word anathema to signify a curse and the forced expulsion of one from the community of Christians. In A.D. 431 St. Cyril of Alexandria pronounced his 12 anathemas against the heretic Nestorius. In the 6th century anathema came to mean the severest form of excommunication that formally separated a heretic completely from the Christian church and condemned his doctrines; minor excommunications, while prohibiting free reception of the sacraments, obliged (and permitted) the sinner to rectify his sinful state through the sacrament of penance. (“Anathema,” in Encyclopedia Brittannica)

You’ll find much the same in any other scholarly source (barring the likes of Jack Chick and Loraine Boettner).

Once again, I fail, predictably, at brevity. I’d better get back to work. I do hope this will be helpful to some seeker.

51 thoughts on ““Let him be Anathema”: Not what many Protestants think it means

  1. You’ve heard of employees having to give up their key to the executive washroom on account of some transgression. Anathema or excommunication is like losing your key to the spiritual washroom. In either case, if you contritely ask a reasonable boss for forgiveness, you’ll get it back. I am grateful for reasonable bosses and for a very merciful God. God bless!

  2. In a short lecture on Eastern Orthodoxy, one of my professors once lightheartedly said that “anathema” basically meant “Go to hell!” I love that professor, and we all got a good laugh out of her uncharacteristic use of language.

  3. So do you say an ex-communicated person loses his “call and election”, mentioned in 2nd Peter 1? Can (s)he only be regenerated through sacerdotal means?

    • I would say that excommunication is a human act of the earthly Church, and has no direct bearing on the state of one’s soul. As the above quote says, “No anathema or other act of a human judge can take away the grace of God from the soul.” Excommunication is a declaration and a warning that the Church believes the person is in dire spiritual peril of sin or heresy, but it’s the person’s choices that put him there, not the Church’s excommunication. And if the person is in a state of sin, then he needs to be forgiven — but it’s God who forgives, not any priest, though confession is the primary means Christ established for conveying that forgiveness (John 20:21-23, 1 John 1:9, James 5:16).

      Talk of calling and election can get into sticky points of theology regarding predestination, but generally speaking, a calling and election from God isn’t something one can lose. Protestant theology often doesn’t make a distinction between between being predestined to initial salvation and being predestined to final salvation — perseverance in the faith to the end of one’s life. Because being “saved” is a once-and-for-all moment in Protestant theology, there can’t be any distinction, resulting either in the idea of “eternal security” (you’ve been saved once and for all, so even if you fall away you will still be saved) or the idea that those who fall away were never really saved to begin with — both of which run into problems. Was Judas “saved”? Did he not carry out Jesus’s ministry and perform miracles in His Name? What happened to his soul when he betrayed Christ and fell away, then? Catholic theology doesn’t run into that problem. It is entirely possible to receive initial salvation — regeneration through baptism, the forgiveness of one’s sins, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit — and to serve the Lord for years, bearing good fruit — by all appearances, “saved” — and then to reject Christ and fall away. Was he predestined to be saved in the first place? Clearly he was. Was he predestined to persevere to the end? Clearly he was not. Peter speaks of “confirming one’s calling and election” through growth in virtue and works of charity. Can one who is elected to final salvation lose that election? Of course not, because God chose him before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). But by striving to grow in virtue and wisdom as Peter instructs, by bearing good fruit through love, we can confirm our election by ensuring that we remain faithful until the end.

      Also: “regeneration” is what happens at baptism, and that happens only once. If one falls into sin after baptism, it entails a loss of grace, but one remains in a regenerate state. You can lose grace and damage your communion with God and the Church, but you can’t undo the effects of baptism upon the soul. The grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is said to be a healing, a recovery, a restoration, a reconciliation.

  4. Regeneration is a wrong word and you rightly pointed out reconciliation as more proper one.

    I only brought the subject of anathema because you seemingly implied as if the Eucharist was such a simple ceremony that it didn’t have any more “strings” attached to it than the Protestant version.

    • Hmm, well, I didn’t mean to imply that it was more simple or less important than it is. In the other post, I was mainly griping about evangelical churches like the one I came out of that have lost any sense of the Eucharist’s importance at all, and wondering why that is, when it’s something so clearly commanded by Scripture and central to the worship of the Early Church. The only thing I can figure is that in throwing out the idea of sacramentality, and focusing so intently on “faith alone,” it doesn’t seem to have much value except as a symbol, and symbols and ceremonies take time away from other things they feel are more important.

      Thanks for commenting. I appreciate it and enjoy the questions! What faith background are you coming from, and where are you now?

      • Here are some additional details if you would like to know more about me and my faith.

        I was born in one of the USSR countries and both of my parents weren’t religious. I was the second child, but the only survivor as my brother died of drowning about 7 years earlier as he was pushed into a river by his cousins. The death of my brother had a devastating effect on my mother, who struggled psychological issues, depression and alcoholism, but out of desperation she one day just prayed and asked God to give her a son, and, as far as I remember, she became pregnant in two weeks. She had pregnancy complications and difficult delivery, so it is not strange I’ve had health problems since my birth. But it has also been one of the reasons that brought me closer to God.

        My first church was Pentecostal, though I’d abhorred its pastor’s foul jokes. Since then I have been to different churches, Catholic, Methodist, Charismatic, Presbyterian and non-denominational, but I r. I have Charismatic leanings, am able to speak in tongues, and have witnessed many miracles in my life — particularly my many close brushes with death during the times of carelessness and almost mortal errors — as well as answers to my prayers of desperation. But having left a neo-Charismatic church recently, I recently became aware of a troubling apostasy that has been spreading across many churches like cancer.

        To sum up my beliefs, I am an agnostic turned Protestant, a moderate Dispensationalist, premillenial, but unable to choose between pre-trib and prewrath camps. Neither a Calvinist nor Arminian, I believe in predestination and eternal security. I found your site through Steak and Bible. Th-th-th-that’s all folks!

        • Great. I’m very pleased to meet you. Sorry for the delay here; I continue to panic over my thesis and stuff. Thanks be to God for the blessings in your life and for your drawing closer to Him.

          I too come from a Pentecostal and Charismatic background. I spent some time in Methodist and Presbyterian and Baptist churches (and a few others) before coming here. I definitely affirm the miraculous gifts of the Spirit — God knows His divine healing is the only reason I’m here today. There is, you may or may not know, a still very much alive Charismatic movement within the Catholic Church, and speaking in tongues and the like is in no way contrary to Catholic teaching. As Scripture itself teaches, tongues is a charism (a gift by grace) which God gives to some (1 Cor 12:30). Some of my best friends in my parish and the teachers of our RCIA class are Charismatics.

          I’m a refugee, too, from all the chaos and confusion and general loss of the Gospel among so many evangelical groups. Steak and a Bible is definitely a good place to be hanging out if you are concerned about errors on the evangelical side of things. Julia is really sharp. I am glad you found me! As much as I love my Catholic blogfriends, it gets boring around here with nothing but nods of approval. I appreciate your piercing questions and comments and look forward to more.

  5. Hi Joseph,

    First of all, it seems as though you are erecting a straw man when you write such things as, “Many Protestants misunderstand the idea of anathema…” What Protestants and where?

    Secondly, you seem to be overly focused on Trent. But 800 years before, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia Pope Zachary (741-52) devised the formal ceremony by which the pope was to administer the anathema. Here is the ceremonial pronouncement:

    “”Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive N– himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.” (Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01455e.htm)

    Therefore a couple of things present themselves in the context of your post:

    1. The anathema was, in fact, a condemnation to hell: “…we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate…”

    2. Given the strictures of Catholic “Tradition” you would have to show that somewhere between the 8th century and Trent that the Roman Catholic Church formally modified or rejected Pope Zachary.

    What’s the topic of your thesis?

    Blessings,

    • I am not going to call people out on the mat, but this was a response to several certain people who expressed these concerns to me, and one in particular, who in fact I was quoting pretty much directly when I said “But… but… you’re making that up!” “You’re just trying to change the meaning to whitewash what the council did!” “Show me where it says that this is what it meant!” (Admittedly, I doubt he really stuttered as he was typing that.) Once again, don’t accuse me of attacking straw men when I am not, especially when you are wandering in without knowing the full context.

      I read that Catholic Encyclopedia article, too — in fact, didn’t I link to it? Well, I meant to. There’s absolutely nothing out of character in that ceremony with anything I wrote above, or even out of character with what the Apostle Paul himself wrote. Paul said, “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” “We deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.” — You know, I kind of think they are quoting Scripture there!

      You left out the part of the article, too, where it said, “Although he is delivered to Satan and his angels, he can still, and is even bound to repent. The Pontifical gives the form for absolving him and reconciling him with the Church.” I never said that an excommunication was not a condemnation — it most certainly was and is. But as I said, its aim is salvation, not damnation — this is not an irreprievable condemnation, but a disciplinary action. The operative part of the whole statement — the only part that really does anything — is the part that says, “We declare him excommunicated and anathematized.” Despite the highfallutin’ rhetoric, the Church doesn’t have the authority to consign people to hell, just to shut them out of the Church (outside of which, in the strictest sense, there is no salvation).

      So no, you’re right, nothing changed. I would be more concerned if it had changed: as usual, Catholic Tradition is consistent and continuous.

      It’s about farmers. And census records. And lots of number-crunching. Antebellum farmers in a particular northern Alabama county.

      • Hello Joseph,

        Thank you for your suggestion of the Charismatic Catholicism, which is, as far as I am aware, much closer to Protestantism, or rather Pentecostalism, than the mainstream Catholicism ever will be. However, there still remain difficult theological disagreements between my understanding of the Bible and the Catholic teachings.

        First of all, the issue of worship. I tried reading about differences in types of worship, namely between dulia, hyperdulia and latria, but the differences seem to be in technicalities, and are hardly distinguishable visually. I have read about not having other gods, but why should I even bend my knee before another man or woman? Why I should offer my prayers to a shrine, which itself is a scandalous term?

        Secondly, I find scriptural support for Marian traditions fairly weak. It mostly rests on the so-called Church Fathers and their arguments / presumptions in addition to certain councils and popes. But even if everything concerning Mary is true: Immaculate Conception, Assumption and Perpetual Virginity. What difference will it make if I do not accept those doctrines? Will I be hell-bound because I did not honor what I cannot find in my Bible? I doubt it. I tried watching the following video, but I couldn’t stomach it, especially because of a graven image of Mary… http://www.catholic.org/video/watch.php?v=7889

        Thirdly, even if I accepted that I might need to bow down and worship before depictions of saints, how will I justify that scripturally? Let’s see, um, what does Revelation 22 state?

        8. I John am he who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; 9.but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”

        There is a similar verse in Revelation 19, where John tries to worship an angel, but is rebuked. I don’t want to end up saying something like

        “As for the word which you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.” Jeremiah 44:16-17

        Soli Deo honor et gloria in saecula saeculorum amen

        • Hi Mark:

          Dulia, hyperdulia, latria — those are technical, theological distinctions that I honestly couldn’t even explain to you without looking them up. But I assure you there are definite differences in the hearts of the Catholic faithful regarding the worship due to God alone, the veneration for Mary and the other saints, and the honor given to the Church and to earthly men and women.

          There are important distinctions, too, between the gestures and actions and movements Catholics make. I can understand how it can all look like “bowing” to an outsider, but the only bowing that really ever takes place is to Christ Himself in the Blessed Sacrament and before His altar. When we bow before we take Communion, we’re bowing to Christ in the Eucharist, not to the priest. Genuflecting — taking one knee — is also done only for Christ. Kneeling (or standing) is the position one takes to pray.

          I’ve never seen anybody “bow down and worship” before depictions of saints. I’m still a newb with limited experience, but I can say that in my former parish, there were kneelers in front of the statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, so people could kneel and pray. I assure you, nobody who kneels there is thinking of worshipping the statues or even the saints they depict — they are merely praying. At my parish now, the only statues we have of the saints are small and resting on high shelves around the nave of the church. They’re not the kind of thing anybody can even kneel before, let alone “bow down and worship.” There are kneelers on every pew for the faithful to kneel down and pray — but we’re kneeling toward the altar, toward Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

          So I don’t see how the verses you cite in Revelation are particularly applicable here. Nobody “worships” the saints. The saints (and that includes Mary) are just as human as you or me, our brothers and sisters in the faith who have gone before us, who have now received their reward. We “pray” to the saints — but a lot of Protestants needlessly get caught up in that word. “Pray,” in its original sense, means only to “ask, petition, beseech, request, entreaty” — and that’s all we’re doing to the saints. Read some prayers to the saints. There’s nothing in these that resembles worship. We are asking that the saints pray for us, in the same way that St. Paul asks that other believers pray for him and “for all men” (1 Tim 2:1-6, Romans 15:30, 2 Thessalonians 3:1). If anything, Revelation supports the fact that the saints in heaven intercede for us and offer our prayers up to God (e.g. Rev 5:6-8).

          As for “graven images”: be sure to keep the biblical commandment against “graven images” in the right context. In Exodus 20:4 and elsewhere, the commandment refers explicitly to idolatry, to making artificial “gods” and worshipping and serving as a god something that is not a god. It is part of the same statement as the previous commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” It doesn’t mean “you shall not make any graven image,” ever. Such an understanding is not borne out by the very commandments of God (Exodus 25:18-22, 26:1,31; Numbers 21:8) or by the construction of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:23-35), let alone by the earliest practice of the Christian Church (or even by many Protestants today). Iconoclasm was a major struggle in the Church of the early middle ages, but the Church promulgated very early on (cf. the Second Coucil of Nicaea, A.D. 787) that because God revealed to us His image in the human face of Jesus, we may represent that image for the worship of the faithful. “The honor of the image passes to the original.” Likewise with the saints: images of the saints are representations for us of their lives and faith, as a memorial of them — human people who walked among us — for our inspiration and edification — in the same way that we keep photographs of our loved ones who have passed on from this life. Nobody “worships” the images or even the saints.

          (This tract from Catholic Answers, whom I support wholeheartedly, seems right up your alley.)

          What’s scandalous about the word “shrine”? A shrine (Latin scrinium) is literally just a box — in its original secular use, a box for keeping important books or papers. To “enshrine” is literally to put something important in a box. The words now have connotations of veneration, of keeping very important things, like saints’ relics or the Blessed Sacrament itself, in very important boxes. But it’s still just a box, or a place for keeping a box. One often speaks of shrines in reference to the places of veneration for the saints or of the sites of Christ’s life — but one also speaks of shrines to George Washington or war heroes or other such.

          I didn’t watch the video, because I don’t like videos. I don’t like people talking at me in such a way that I can’t imbibe information at my own pace or distractedly do other things. I don’t like having my attention monopolized unless I can help it. I only ever listen to audio things in the car when I can’t really do anything else. But regarding the Marian doctrines: I’d like to spend more time covering those, when I am through with my thesis and have more time, so any questions you have would be appreciated fodder. But in my own journey to the Church, I struggled with those some, too — as I’ve posted before — but in my own coming, I accepted them first not so much because I found them credible, but because I accepted that the Church was the Church that Christ founded and that it was the “pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). As I had deeper questions and issues, it helped a lot to read what the Church Fathers had to say about Mary. The doctrines of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity and All-Holiness have literally been held since the very beginning of the Church, since the days of the Apostles themselves. Such is documented. And there is nothing in Scripture to contradict those doctrines, and more than a little to support them — the further I go on, the more I find. The contrast between Catholic Tradition and Protestant reliance on an explicit scriptural statement of every single belief or practice stands with particular starkness here.

          As far as what will happen to you if you don’t accept those doctrines: You’re right; probably nothing. Mary played an important role in salvation history, and honor is rightly due to her. But Mary doesn’t save us; Christ does. To be saved, we must have faith in Christ, not in Mary. Many Protestants I’ve talked to think that the Marian dogmata are somehow contradictory to the Gospel of Christ, but I still don’t quite understand that charge. As a Protestant, I always saw them as pretty marginal and benign; and now, as a Catholic, I see them as pretty integral — not in that salvation depends on them, but in that they are beautiful and loving and glorious illustrations of the grace and mercy and love of Christ, and of the blessings of salvation that are promised to every one of us. Since they are dogmata of the Church, becoming Catholic does entail at least accepting them to the degree that one does not deny them — but nobody expects that every convert will have full faith and credence in every point of faith, only that he will embrace the Church and accept her teachings. My faith in the Marian dogmata has grown a hundredfold or so since I entered the Church, as I’ve seen the fruits of these teachings played out in the life of the Church and of the faithful.

          Also: the passage you quote from Jeremiah regarding the “queen of heaven” refers pretty much explicitly to Asherah, the Mesopotamian and Canaanite deity into whose cult the faithless Israelites so often fell (cf. Deut 16:21, Judges 6) and paired with God as his “wife.” It has nothing to do with the Virgin Mary. Mary is said to be the “queen of heaven” in a totally different sense. As the Mother of our Lord, she is blessed and honored (Luke 1:42-43, 48), and because He is King (Luke 1:31-33), she is the Queen Mother — not in any way a monarch exercising authority over Heaven. From the very earliest Church Fathers, exegetes have seen types in the Old Testament of Mary as Queen (e.g. Psalm 45:6-11).

  6. Hi Joseph,

    I didn’t attack you. I merely said it “seems like”…. Sorry if you felt attacked. That was not my intention.

    If Tradition is “consistent and continuous” then we must read Trent’s anathemas in light of Pope Boniface VIII’s encyclical, Unam Sanctam. If papal bulls are in fact “irreformable” then there is no salvation outside the Catholic church. And because anathema – according to the Catholic encyclopedia – places a person “outside” the church in the sense that they cannot receive the sacraments, participate in public worship, etc. then the anathema was – in a very real sense – a spiritual death sentence.

    Now the section of the Catholic Encylcopdia’s article that you say I “missed” does talk about the possibility of reconciliation – that’s true. But that presupposes that those under anathema live long enough to repent. What of those who die prior to repentance.

    In that case the anathema is the most severe penalty imaginable – from a Catholic perspective.

    BTW – you are still using Scripture like a Protestant! 🙂

    Good luck with you writing.

    Blessings,

    • I didn’t say you attacked me. I said you accused me, of attacking straw men. And you did. And it isn’t the first time you’ve accused me of that without warrant.

      The Church is the Body of Christ, and it is the Church whom He saves (Eph 5:23) — so truly, there is no salvation outside the Church. In the third century when St. Cyprian first said that “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” — there is no salvation outside the Church — there really was nothing outside the Church, and to be excluded from the Church certainly did mean damnation, barring God’s intervention. The situation was the same at the time of the above ceremony ca. A.D. 750, and at the time of Unam sanctam in 1302, there was still only the Catholic Church in the West. In the minds of those who promulgated those documents, yes, excommunication carried the penalty of death, unless the sinner should repent — which is always what was desired and hoped for. The Church was the only means of salvation that Christ established, but then as now, He in His mercy and grace gives salvation to whom He wills, and He is certainly not bound by the judgments of the earthy Church.

      The difference at Trent was that other believers had broken away and established their own churches. To the Tridentine Fathers, of course, Protestants were heretics, and they understood excommunication to be the severest form of judgment. But the bottom line, and my point in the post, is that excommunication is less a punitive judgment than a disciplinary and pastoral judgment. The motive in excommunicating a heretic was not to punish the heretic or damn him to hell — nobody ever wanted that. It was to separate someone from the body who threatened to lead others into error, and to motivate the sinner to repentance.

      And like any other sinner, a heretic should seek God’s forgiveness as immediately as possible, since any day could be one’s last.

  7. Hello,

    I was curious about the Catholic Church’s stance regarding the following statement of our Lord Jesus Christ:

    While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brethren! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Matthew 12:46-50 RSVCE

    It certainly wasn’t a venial sin, or was it?

    • What was or wasn’t a venial sin?

      And what about the statement? I suppose you are driving at the apparent denial of honor and affection to His mother Mary. Is Jesus being rude here? Is He dishonoring His mother? Is He saying that family doesn’t matter (or doesn’t matter to Him)? Well, none of those things, since He makes clear elsewhere that honoring one’s father and mother are very important among the commandments (e.g. Mark 7:9-13).

      Here are some comments drawn from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea, a really splendid compilation of commentary by the Church Fathers on the Gospels:

      He that delivers this message, seems to me not to do it casually and without meaning, but as setting a snare for Him, whether He would prefer flesh and blood to the spiritual work; and thus the Lord refused to go out, not because He disowned His mother and His brethren, but that He might confound him that had laid this snare for Him. (St. Jerome)

      For He said not, Go and say unto her, She is not My mother, but continues His discourse to him that had brought Him word; as it follows; But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? (St. John Chrysostom)

      And He cannot be held to have thought meanly of His mother, seeing that in His passion He evinced the most extreme carefulness for her. (St. Hilary of Poitiers)

      He did not then, as Marcion and Manichæus say, disown His mother, so as to be thought to be born of a phantasm, but He preferred His Apostles to His kindred, that we also in a comparison of our affections should set the spirit before the flesh. (St. Jerome)

      (in Luc. 8:21.) Nor does He overthrow the duty of filial submission, which is conveyed in the command, Honour thy father and thy mother, (Ex. 20:12.) but shews that He owes more to the mysteries and relationship of His Father, than of His mother; as it follows, And stretching out his hand to his disciples, he said, Behold my mother and my brethren. (St. Ambrose of Milan)

      And besides what has been said, He taught also somewhat more, namely, that we should not neglect virtue relying on any kindred. For if it profited His mother nothing that she was such, if she had not had virtue, who is there that shall be saved by his kindred? For there is one only nobility, to do the will of God, and therefore it follows, Whoso shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother. Many women have blessed that holy Virgin and her womb, and have desired to be made such mothers. What is it then that hinders? Behold, He hath set before you a broad way, and not women only, but men likewise, may become the mother of God. (St. John Chrysostom)

      Let us also expound in another way. The Saviour is speaking to the multitude—that is, He teaches the Gentiles the inward mysteries; His mother and His brethren, that is the synagogue and the Jewish people, stand without. (St. Jerome)

      For some more recent commentary, from the Navarre Bible:

      Jesus obviously loved his Mother and St Joseph. He uses this episode to teach us that in his Kingdom human ties do not take precedence. In Luke 8:19 the same teaching is to be found. Jesus regards the person who does the will of his heavenly Father as a member of his own family. Therefore, even though it means going against natural family feelings, a person should do just that when needs be in order to perform the mission the Father has entrusted to him (cf. Lk 2:49).

      We can say that Jesus loved Mary more because of the bonds between them created by grace than because he was her son by natural generation: Mary’s divine motherhood is the source of all our Lady’s other prerogatives; but this very motherhood is, in its turn, the first and greatest of the graces with which Mary was endowed.

      Additionally: Accepting His statement, is Mary not one who “[did] the will of [His] Father in heaven”?

  8. Hello Joseph,

    Thank you for providing so many quotes. What I realized while reading this passage was that Jesus was not a respecter of persons, just like His Father, subtly showing us that He was like no other man, who might have showed bias towards His mother and brethren. I think that His response was somehow connected to Luke 14:26, which says, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” This passage doesn’t talk about hating people in a conventional sense, does it?

    To be honest, I don’t believe that there is a clear distinction between a venial and mortal sin, as the Catholic Church teaches. Obviously, the sexual sins are special, because “Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the [sexually] immoral man sins against his own body”; however, God’s love can cover both mortal and venial sins. I recently heard a pastor mentioning a case, which was in line with Hebrews 6:4-6, in which a woman believer fell away from faith and couldn’t find repentance and no person could help no matter how much they tried until she just said, “Jesus help” three times. Strange, but probably true.

    I wasn’t saying that Lord Jesus ever disrespected His mother, which would make Him a law-breaker, although I made it possible to be taken that way. There are many mysteries in the Holy Bible. I always wondered why He always called Mary as “woman” rather than “mother”, for example. But as for my original intent, I was curious in seeing how you would connect the dots when there is a seeming contradiction between family traditions and His responses.

    • I forgot to respond to your question. Well, unfortunately, there is not much information about Mary in the Bible. Her last words can be found in John 2, where she says, “Do whatever he tells you,” which would imply that she obviously honored Him. However, it can’t be denied that she not only gave birth to Christ, she was as good of a mother as she could. I guess it is not yet clear to me how close Jesus and Immanuel are as names, but I don’t think she named Him contrary to the will of His Heavenly Father.

    • No, “hate” in Luke 14:26, and in Romans 9:13 (“Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated”), and in some other places (especially in the OT) means something in the Hebrew idiom that doesn’t really come across very well into English or even Greek. It’s something along the lines of hyperbole; but probably a better way to think of it is “favor” and “not favor” or “favor less.”

      Certainly there’s no difference in sins as far as the ability of God’s love and grace to wipe them away. The difference is in us. Sin has consequences; and it can’t be denied that something like murder has much greater consequences than something like shoplifting — not only greater temporal consequences, in the harm it does to others, but greater consequences to us spiritually. Sin pulls us away from God. Willfully choosing to commit a grave sin is at its heart a denial of God. In order for a sin to be mortal, it has to be a grave violation of the moral law, committed with both full knowledge of its sinfulness and deliberate consent to undertake it.

      The scriptural basis for distinguishing between mortal and venial sins is 1 John 5:16-17:

      If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin [Gk, ἁμαρτίαν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον, a sin not to death], he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal [Gk. πρὸς θάνατον]; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.

      Regarding Hebrews 6:4-5: I heard a pretty convincing exegesis of that passage not long ago by Jimmy Akin. It was on his podcast, but hey, here it is on his blog. Jimmy argues that this passage refers specifically to first century Jewish converts who apostasized and rejected Christ and went back to Judaism. They can’t be restored to repentance — they’ve effectively crucified Christ again — because they’ve cast Christ away and gone back to the very people who put Him to death. We as Catholics believe that God’s grace never fails, that there is no point we can reach, no sin we can commit, that can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). The only unforgivable sin is the one you don’t repent of.

      I have heard anti-Catholics take that passage in Matthew and Luke (“Who is my mother?”) and say, “See! Not even Jesus honored Mary! She was nothing special!” So I wanted to cover that base in case that’s what you were driving at. It’s clear that that wasn’t what Jesus was saying here; He loved His mother very much. And she was clearly somebody who did God’s will. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) She gave herself selflessly to God’s plan.

      • Hi Joseph,

        When you write, “The scriptural basis for distinguishing between mortal and venial sins is 1 John 5:16-17:” is that the “true sense” of this passage as required by the Magisterium?

        If it is would you please show me where the Magisterium has so pronounced?

        Thanks very much.

        Peace.

        • Paul:

          First, I again don’t think you’re correctly understanding the teachings of the Church regarding the interpretation of Scripture. Catholics are not dependent on the Magisterium for their interpretation of every verse of Scripture. I suspect you realize this, but I will do my best to explain it for you again. The Magisterium has spoken authoritatively on only a very small fraction of Scripture as a whole; it speaks only when there is something to teach, or especially some question to resolve. As I’ve pointed out before, lay Catholics have always published, and continue to publish all the time, their own interpretations of Scripture with the sanction of the Church. You are fond of quoting this decree of the Council of Trent to me, so let’s take a closer look at it:

          Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, [the synod] decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall, in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, dare to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures, hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though suchlike interpretations were never [intended] to be at any time published. They who shall contravene shall be made known by their ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established. (Council of Trent, Fourth Session [1846], Decree concerning the Edition and Use of the Sacred Books [trans. Theodore Alois Buckley])

          “No one, relying on his own skill, shall  . . , wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, dare to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense [Latin sensus] which holy mother Church . . . hath held and doth hold . . .” This doesn’t say “no one, relying on his own skill, shall dare to interpret Sacred Scripture.” It says that no one shall do so contrary to the sense which the Church has held and holds. Sensus means “mind, feeling, sense, understanding, idea” — not “official decree.” There is certainly a sense of what the Catholic Church teaches and holds that faithful Catholics understand without the Magisterium dictating every dot and tittle. It neither does that nor teaches anyone to expect that.

          ” . . or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.” As you are no doubt aware, there are a good many things about which the Church Fathers were not in “unanimous consent.” The things about which they were in consent — the full divinity and full humanity of Christ, the truth of the Resurrection, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the efficacy of the Sacraments, the authority and catholicity of the Church, just to name a few — form the bedrock of our faith. There are many of those things that Protestants to this day don’t even contradict. This decree speaks out against anyone who gravely deviates from the traditional teachings of Christianity — not anyone who “dares to interpret Scripture on his own.”

          In short, it’s only when someone speaks out with interpretations of Scripture that are contrary to the sense of the teachings of the Catholic Church — or even worse, against the published teachings of the Church — that there has ever been any problem. If anyone strays into error, it’s the job of the Magisterium to step in and offer correction, as any teacher should — not “to lay the smackdown” on whomever dares to think for himself. Once again, the Magisterium is a teacher, not a tyrant. No one has ever been obliged to consult the Magisterium on the interpretation of every single verse of Scripture — because again, the Magisterium has in fact spoken rarely and little. There have, after all, been only three ecumenical councils of the Church in the past 500 years. You continue to insist that I am reading Scripture in an “unauthorized” way, and “like a Protestant.” You request that I support my readings with official teachings of the Magisterium. I think, rather, that you are reading Scripture like a Catholic. Protestants don’t need any support for their readings of Scripture other than their own whims and feelings. I think you should also support your interpretation of Catholic teachings on Scripture and the Magisterium, which are contradicted by the plain fact that Catholics everywhere offer their own interpretations of Scripture all the time without restriction. Luther, I might remind you, was a Catholic in good graces prior to the Reformation, an orthodox doctor of theology educated by the Church and charged with the mission of interpreting Scripture and teaching others to interpret Scripture.

          But anyway. You wanted an official teaching on 1 John 5:16-17. Here it is.

          Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture (cf. 1 Jn 5:16–17), became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1854)

  9. Hi Joseph,

    You wrote:

    “The motive in excommunicating a heretic was not to punish the heretic or damn him to hell — nobody ever wanted that. It was to separate someone from the body who threatened to lead others into error, and to motivate the sinner to repentance.”

    I would respectfully suggest – so as not to incur your suspicion that I attack you – that you are still caught in the post-Vatican II world which is must softer than that of Catholic history taken in toto. One only needs read the story of Jan Hus to realize that the specific motive in excommunication throughout most of Catholic history was explicitly to “punish the heretic” and damn him to hell. In Hus’s case, it was to burn him at the stake.

    Was that an anomaly?

    Blessings,

    • The outcome in Hus’s case was burning at the stake, yes. But do you honestly think that’s what anybody wanted? Do you envision a bloodthirsty, murderous, power-obsessed pope and curia, whose only motive in persecuting Hus was to burn someone with a differing opinion at the stake? Why do you suppose they did that? Honestly.

      • Hi Joseph,

        Do you suppose the outcome was other than what was “wanted”? I’m not sure I understand what kind of schizophrenia underlies the disconnect between an action and its intent. Of course the Roman Catholics “wanted” to burn Hus – what other explanation is there?

        And my point is that Hus’s demise is far more indicative of the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of dissidents than the contrary. After all, it was the popes who imprisoned Jews in ghettos for 700 years and did all manner of ghastly things to them.

        At any rate, at least in the case of Hus – and I believe in many more cases like his – excommunication was certainly not an effort to bring someone to repentance.

        • Paul:

          First of all: Hus was offered repeated opportunities to recant of his support of Wycliffe and his own heretical doctrines. Wycliffe’s doctrines were first condemned by Hus’s own university in 1403, but Hus did nothing but defy those in authority over him. Hus’s own teachings were condemned by Rome in 1407, still a good eight years before the end of his life. He was excommunicated in 1412, and yet he persisted, and even increased his attacks on the Church. It was only at the Council of Constance in 1415 that he was finally convicted of heresy, Hus standing there and refusing to recant or cooperate to the Council Fathers’ faces. This timeline exhibits nothing if not patience and forbearance. It does not bear out your charge that excommunication in itself entails an irrevocable condemnation and punishment to death. Excommunication, as I argue, was a punishment both to urge the heretic to repentance, and to protect the faithful of the Church from a harmful influence.

          Second: Hus’s attacks and rebellion against the Church, and especially his support by secular authorities, such as in the case of Luther and many of the other, later reformers, were motivated at least as much by European imperial politics as they were by a desire for truth and reform in the Church. His heresy took place at a particularly precarious time in the Church ecclesiastically and in Europe politically, in the midst of the Western Schism, under the threat of the unity of the Church disintegrating entirely and of all of Europe erupting into war. Hus was by no means a benign and innocent reformer, but a defiant, aggravating instigator of rebellion and discontent, attacking the Church where it hurt the most at the very time when it could afford it least. If Hus had any love for the truth of Christ, for the Church of Christ as an institution, or for the salvation of souls — and his teachings and actions make clear that he did not — his inflammatory, unrepentant, and recalcitrant stance, as well as his timing, was, to say the least, a dumb idea.

          Third, and most important: It wasn’t the Church that put Hus to death at all. The death penalty for heresy was imposed and carried out by the secular authority, and was neither requested nor demanded by the Church. It was the common penalty for heresy imposed by secular governments all across Europe. The worst penalty the Church could inflict, or ever did inflict, was excommunication — because the primary mission of the Church, then as now, is the salvation of souls. Your charge that the Church “wanted to burn Hus” is without any merit at all.

          You didn’t answer my question: Why do you suppose anybody ever wanted to put a heretic to death? Just for kicks? Just because somebody didn’t like him? Just because he “dared to interpret Scripture by his own skill”? Why did anybody ever put any criminal to death? The death penalty primarily exists to remove a dangerous and harmful element from society. In the judgment of the secular authorities, heresy was one of the most dangerous threats to society because it threatened not only the physical well-being of the people, but their eternal salvation and spiritual well-being into eternity. In this day and age, with our newfangled ideas of “religious liberty,” such a notion is difficult to comprehend, but do try to imagine it. Particularly someone like Hus, who threatened not only the integrity of the Church and the salvation of the souls of the faithful, but the political stability of half a continent, was deemed especially dangerous. In any event, even with the death of Hus, the unrest he created resulted in wars for the Bohemian peoples for the next couple decades and untold numbers of deaths. Nonetheless, the suppression of the Hussite threat managed to stave off a permanent schism in the Church for another century.

    • Well, that depends a lot on where you’re coming from. Those who have never formally been a part of the Church (e.g. today’s Protestants) are probably in a better position than excommunicated Catholics. One is only guilty of rejecting the truth of Christ and the Church if one has known it (cf. John 15:22). But only God knows our hearts and minds. Even those Catholics who have rejected the truth for falsehood may have had mistaken ideas about the truth to begin with. We hope and pray that all people will be guided to the truth, and that even those who are not visibly part of the Church are being led to that truth. There is always hope in God’s love.

      Thanks a lot for the comment! What brings you by this way? God bless you!

  10. Hey. Well, I found your blog by doing a Google search for the “anathemas” of the council of Trent. I was looking for a specific quote and found this interesting headline (and the quote at the same time ).

    I thought, “Well, what else could they mean?” After reading the article, I totally see your point, and I completely understand what you are saying…and I agree. Motive and etymology should not be an issue on this one. But I’m afraid that if you intended the article to sort of soften the blow of the anathemas for the everyday protestant, or wanted fellow Roman Catholics to understand that the “sentence” found at Trent was not as harsh as it looks today, then I don’t think the article carries with it the intended effect. The question that I posed earlier gets at that.

    Either way, whether one turns away from the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, or never accepts it, he cannot—by the declaration of the Council of Trent—ever be considered as part of the True Church. At that point in time at least, whether the best of intentions are set forth (which I can truly see penned in the article of Trent), the individual who still says, “that by faith alone the impious is justified,” remains outside of the Church. Unless he adopts, or reacquires the Roman view, his soul is lost.

    Luther, then, is damned. And by that same token, so am I.

    Consider the source. Luther loved the Roman Catholic Church…but something was going horribly wrong. I—as well as Luther—am convinced that it was false doctrine that bore the fruit of the atrocities inherent of that day. It was Christ and the love of His Church that drove Luther’s hammer.

    • Well, then, I don’t think it’s my place or yours to judge the salvation of Luther. I am comfortable saying that he put himself in a very dangerous place. But let’s slow down. What’s your understanding of “the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification”? Read that canon above again carefully. “If any one shall say, that by faith alone the impious is justified; so as to mean…” This does not say that anyone at all who says the impious is justified by faith alone is excommunicate. There is a sense, and was then, in which it is perfectly proper and catholic to say that the sinner is justified by faith alone. Scripture is perfectly clear that no actions or “works” of our own can bring ourselves to salvation apart from God’s grace; that the unregenerate sinner is entirely unable to attain to that saving grace on his own. There has never been any dispute regarding that. This particular canon goes to a particular nuance of the debate: whether or not the sinner has to do anything at all in order to fully receive that grace; whether there’s any involvement of the human will at all. Some Calvinistic formulations of the doctrine do come close to saying that justification is entirely beyond the sinner in every way, that we are literally just mindless, willless pawns in the hand of God. But most Protestants will acknowledge that there is a point at which the sinner has to “accept Christ,” assent to that salvation — at least giving the appearance of the assent of the human will, even if that will has been moved by God’s grace (with which the Catholic certainly agrees).

      One of the essential breakdowns in communication between Catholics and Protestants is that the Protestant idea tends to conflate the whole process of justification into a single moment — such that, even if the sinner has been moved and molded by God’s grace for a long time; even if at some point he assents to that grace; even if he still has a long process of sanctification by grace ahead of him — justification is still just a single moment by faith alone. Whereas the Catholic would say that all of that is a part of justification — parts of which involve, yes, the assent of the will and the cooperation of the sinner. But Protestants hear that and react with a kneejerk, that the suggestion of any “work” at all in the process of salvation is contrary to faith alone. But Scripture itself is very clear that the sinner must cooperate and strive with God’s grace (e.g. Philippians 2:12, 1 Corinthians 15:58, 1 Timothy 6:12, Luke 13:24, John 15:4–11, 2 Peter 1:5–10, James 2:14–17, Hebrews 4:11, Galatians 5:6, etc.), even if it’s also very clear that the initial coming to God’s grace is by His grace alone and through our faith.

      The Council of Trent actually allowed a wide degree of latitude with regard to the doctrine of justification. The Council Fathers did not all agree upon the specifics of many aspects of it — a number of different theological schools were represented there — but they did agree on what it was not. The canons are usually what gets cited, but they are only a distillation; I think you might find the whole decree enlightening. So if you’re aiming to point at “the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification” as something that “unless [one] adopts or reacquires … his soul is lost,” I think you will have a difficult time nailing that down. Trent, far from declaring a fixed, monolithic view of justification, only rejected what it saw as grave errors. And I think — as you seem to have done above — you are reacting to the “buzzwords” in these canons, e.g. “if anyone shall say … by faith alone,” without fully comprehending what it is they are rejecting. Many Protestant doctrines are inconsistent with themselves and have found their way back to agreeing with the truth despite themselves! (But on the other hand, many have strayed further and further away.)

      Anyway, I do not go about judging Protestants or saying that they are damned — and neither will you hear many other Catholics saying things like that (I used to say “you will never hear any Catholic,” but sadly I recently met one who did). I was a Protestant for more than thirty years, and most of my dear loved ones among my family and friends remain Protestants. I believe will all my heart that many of them are true followers of Christ and will be saved. Protestants also make the mistake of making “justification by faith alone” the central doctrine of the Gospel, and presuming that Catholics do the same (supposing, usually, that Catholics think we are justified “by faith and works”). But I don’t think I have ever heard a Catholic (at least, not one who wasn’t an apologist talking to Protestants) even mention “justification.” Justification is what God does, to us and with us and through us, through everything we do in our walk with Him. Ironically, by making it such a rigid and uncompromising and legalistic decree, given to the sinner only “through faith,” Protestants have made it more about the sinner and his actions (having faith) than any Catholic ever has! I firmly believe that my Protestant loved ones, through loving God and striving to obey Him, through loving their neighbor and carrying their crosses, are being justified by grace through their lives, regardless of whatever nuance of doctrine they believe or don’t believe. It is what God does that matters. And our God is a merciful and loving God. Scripture is very clear that it is love (which appears in various forms some thousand times throughout the whole of Scripture), not justification (which appears about forty times, mostly in two letters of Paul), that is the central doctrine and message of the Gospel.

      Finally, with regard to who is and who isn’t “part of the True Church”: I’ll give you this quotation from Lumen Gentium (1964), the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. God bless you! What faith background are you coming from?

      The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and accept other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them rejoice in the episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion toward the Virgin Mother of God. They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood. In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end. Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about. She exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the earth. (Lumen Gentium §15)

  11. I am a catholic Christian. I hold to the apostolic and ecumenical creeds. I maintain the entirety of the statement that, “by faith alone the impious is justified; so as to mean that nothing else is required to co-operate in order unto the obtaining the grace of justification, and that it is not in any respect necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will.” Therefore, I am also made to be anathema by the Roman Catholics, or restrained from–as long as I maintain this–from joining their church.

    The whole matter was settled long ago, before we were even born. The result was the excommunication and anathema of Dr. Martin Luther and those who upheld the Scriptures with him. On every jot and tittle I stand with them today, and for my adherance to the truth regarding Christ I would gladly be persecuted today, as they were during those times, until they were either driven out, or gave up their firm resolve.

    Until you can de-anathematize Dr. Luther, I stand with him–reluctantly and unwillingly–outside of the Roman Catholic church. And if you could de-anathematize him, I would join the Roman Catholic church and begin to teach and maintain the same catholic and pure doctrine that Luther rightly fought to uphold.

    I assemble together with the rest of the faithful and catholic church on account of Christ, who is and will forever be the object of our faith–the cheif cornerstone of our, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

    Whether you join with the Roman church in maintaining Luther’s excommunication or not–regardless–I meet with you at the table of our Lord, where we are both united together in the body of our Lord Jesus Christ; receiving and partaking of his true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the salvation of our souls.

    Peace be with you,

    Christopher Jager,
    Tillamook, OR

    • Hi, Christopher. Thanks for the response. There’s one problem with affirming that particular statement and claiming to stand alongside Luther: I do not think Luther would have affirmed that statement. Here are a few quotations from various Lutheran articles:

      V. That we may obtain [justifying] faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, 2] the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear 3] the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. (Augsburg Confession)

      But as our would-be wise, new spirits assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer: It is true, indeed, that nothing in us is of any avail but faith, as we shall hear still further. 29] But these blind guides are unwilling to see this, namely, that faith must have something which it believes, that is, of which it takes hold, and upon which it stands and rests. Thus faith clings to the water, and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life; not through the water (as we have sufficiently stated), but through the fact that it is embodied in the Word and institution of God, and the name of God inheres in it. Now, if I believe this, what else is it than believing in God as in Him who has given and planted His Word into this ordinance, and proposes to us this external thing wherein we may apprehend such a treasure? (Large Catechism) [This is Luther himself writing.]

      18] 9. Also what Dr. Luther has written, namely, that man’s will in his conversion is pure passive, that is, that it does nothing whatever, is to be understood respectu divinae gratiae in accendendis novis motibus, that is, when God’s Spirit, through the Word heard or the use of the holy Sacraments, lays hold upon man’s will, and works [in man] the new birth and conversion. For when [after] the Holy Ghost has wrought and accomplished this, and man’s will has been changed and renewed by His divine power and working alone, then the new will of man is an instrument and organ of God the Holy Ghost, so that he not only accepts grace, but also cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the works which follow. (Epitome of the Formula of Conrord)

      Don’t presume that every one of the canons of Trent regarding justification was directed at Luther; remember there were a whole lot of so-called reformers running around espousing various heterodox opinions, many of which I’m pretty sure even you would reject. Don’t presume that just because it is something the Catholic Church anathematized, it is something Luther would have accepted. You really ought to read the whole decree on justification and its canons; don’t just cherry-pick something and hold it up as a straw man and say, “I reject the teachings of the Catholic Church.” It sounds as if you are defining yourself by your opposition to the Catholic Church, not by any positive formulation of doctrine — which is a problem for many Protestants. If the basis of your doctrine were only “whatever the Catholic Church rejects,” you would be a mess — because affirming the opposite of every one of these canons on justification at once would put you in all kinds of self-contradictions! You cannot stand with “them” (the Protestant Reformers) on “every jot and tittle,” because “they” could not even stand with themselves! The Protestant Reformers themselves disagreed on many, many points — and they themselves were the fathers of the chaos and disunity that has resulted in some 40,000 distinct Protestant denominations today. Regarding your stand with “their” upholding of the Scriptures: Good luck with that.

      Don’t presume, either, that Luther was excommunicated because of his views on justification. Justification was, contrary to what Protestants tend to think today, only a minor part of the Protestant dispute with the Catholic Church — because, as I said, the Catholic Church fully affirms that justification is solely by God’s grace through faith, apart from any human works or efforts — and it always has. Read the decree. Luther’s doctrine of justification was entirely reconcilable to Catholic understandings — and in fact, it has been reconciled. No, Luther was excommunicated primarily because he rejected the Catholic Church and its teaching authority; he rejected the authority of the papacy, and proclaimed the pope the Beast of Revelation and antichrist. And, my sincere apologies to Dr. Luther, but we can’t reinstate him until he takes those mean things back.

      Again, don’t make the mistake of presuming that the Catholic Church holds you “anathema.” No one holds you as “accursed.” You, presumably, have never formally been a part of the Catholic Church. You are more than welcome to be a part of the Catholic Church, and I do invite you. If the doctrine of justification is your only dispute the Church, then you are nearly here already. You seem to acknowledge the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. You affirm being a part of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” What faith community are you a part of? And are you sure that it is apostolic? Or one? One with whom, and regarding what? I do welcome you as a brother in Christ, as did the Vatican II Fathers — but this “invisible” unity with all believers is not at all the unity that Jesus desired when He prayed that we would be “One, as He and the Father are One” (John 17:21), or as Paul exhorted, that we “agree, and that there be no dissensions among [us], but that [we] be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). I think we have dropped the ball on that one; but I pray every day that our unity in Christ can be restored.

      God bless you and His peace be with you.

      • Hello again,

        Thank you for your gracious response, but please allow me to clarify the statements that I made in my last comment, as I do not wish to remain obscure.

        First off, when I said that, “On every jot and tittle I stand with them today,” I was referring to Luther and “those who upheld the Scriptures with him,” namely, his fellow brothers—the ones who would later be called Lutherans. I certainly do not hold to the confessions of the other reformers, although some of what they say we can track with—though we would approach it much differently.

        And let me further clarify—if you didn’t already know this about those who would call themselves “Lutheran” today—that I am not a member of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), but an aspiring member of the LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod). Most assuredly, the LCMS holds to the original confessions of Luther and the early Lutheran fathers. The ELCA is Lutheran in name only. The LCMS broke away from the LCA (what is now the ELCA), because of the rank heresy and submission to culture that was taking place, and transforming the confessions/liturgy itself.

        Second, I was not at all asserting an “invisible” unity, but a unity that actually unites us, in body and spirit, to each other through the body of Christ in the Eucharist.

        16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread, (1 Corinthians 10).

        If we all participate and are united in the one body and shed blood of our Lord, then are we not also united “horizontally” with each other as well, in Him? We are all members of one body in Him:

        12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ, (1 Corinthians 12).

        Thirdly, and let us be clear, I have indeed formally been a part of the catholic Church. But I have not formerly been a part of the Roman Catholic Church. Just to clarify my position.

        Fourth, if I have somehow misunderstood the quotation that I originally looked up for a direct quote, (which I am certain I have not misunderstood), then I admonish you to correct me and debate the topic with me. I know you encounter many who take a “straw man” approach and like to beat up that man as they glory in their own self-gratification. They indeed “cherry pick” and accuse those things that they do not understand. Although I do admit that I did not read the entire announcement of Trent to the bitter end, I must say that I did read the entire segment on justification, as well as, I think, the whole section concerning the Sacraments, and several other sections as well. (I will eventually read the document in its entirety.) I found it very encouraging concerning many of the tenants that it upheld. However, as much as I rejoiced at hearing those articles, I was equally appalled and dismayed by some of the other tenants. For instance, the “anathema” found in the Thirteenth Session, Third Chapter; Canon II, dealing with Transubstantiation.

        We Lutherans maintain that the true body and blood of our Lord is really present in the Sacrament, but He is, “in, with, and under,” the bread and wine. In all actuality, there are 4 parts present. Body and blood, that remain both in, with, and under the bread and wine respectively. There is really bread and wine, as we can see, but there is also body and blood, as our Lord has promised and declared. (And, yes, I do know of, and have read Thomas Aquinas’ work on the Eucharist).

        While this Lutheran doctrine does not teach “consubstantiation,” and we Lutherans readily deny the accusation, it also does not maintain “transubstantiation.” For this, also, we are accursed by the declarations of Trent, (insofar as to mean that we can neither join, nor be reconciled to, the Roman Church.)

        You say that you welcome me into the church…but how can you welcome me when—upon my joining the church—I would only be anathematized. After all, the Canon does say, “If any one shall say…[then] let him be anathema.” However, I am among those do, “say.” Thus, even if I were to join the Roman Church, I would only be rejected. Either way, the end result is the same—I am excluded from, “The Church,” as the Roman Catholics believe it to be, regardless of what the Vatican II Fathers seem to say.

        I do not wish to prolong this entry, but I must make a proper defense and bring clarity to the entire situation, since there is more in your last response that needs to be corrected concerning what Luther would or would not accept.

        Again, let us be clear. Luther did not reject, “the catholic Church,” and its teaching authority. He properly maintains the authority of the Word of God, wherever it is taught and preached—both Law and Gospel. What he rejected was the establishment and abuse of the Roman pope’s office, and the notion of that pope’s inherited apostleship at all. In essence, what we’re getting at is papal authority and apostolic succession. This is the authority that he rejected—especially because of the abuse and misuse of God’s Word by those who were seated in that office, to the extent that he declared the Roman Pontiff to be none other than the beast of revelation. (And let’s hold off on the Matthew 16: 13-20 debate, unless we really want to spend the time going over it. Trust me, I’ve heard all of the weak and modern evangelical arguments that attempt to refute the Roman position, and I think those arguments do a horrendous job of explaining the passage—falling into even greater error and ultimately leaving both you and I completely frustrated.) Moving on…

        Indeed, Luther was rejected for his protests on justification, as well as several other issues. Indulgences were just the tip of the iceberg. More significant than his 95 theses was the document of the “1518 Heidelberg Disputation.” The entire document may be read in its entirety here ( http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php ) and does a good job of portraying what was being called into question by those (not everyone) who opposed Dr. Luther. Here is a quick editor’s note from the Lutheran site concerning the events surrounding the document:

        Following Luther’s proposal for a disputation on the subject of indulgences, the Augustinian Order, to which Luther belonged, was generally supportive of his views. The head of the order in Germany, Johannes Staupitz, called for a formal disputation to be attended by the leadership of the order, in which Luther would be provided a chance to expand upon his concern. The disputation took place at the meeting of the Augustinian Order, in Heidelberg, in April 1518. Luther’s opponents had been hopeful that Luther would be silenced, but Staupitz wanted to give Luther a fair hearing, since he was generally sympathetic with Luther’s views. At the meeting, Luther put forward a “theology of the cross” as opposed to a “theology of glory.” The disputation is, in many ways, more significant than the 95 theses, for they advanced Luther’s growing realization that the theology of late Medieval Roman Catholicism was fundamentally and essentially at odds with Biblical theology. As a result of the disputation, John Eck proposed a debate between himself and representatives of Luther’s views, which was held in Leipzig from June to July, 1519.

        To get at the heart of the issue on justification between us Lutherans and you Roman Catholics, it’s not a matter of “if” one is justified, but “when.” To this end, we believe the Roman Catholics confuse and mix the biblical teaching regarding justification and sanctification, as is evident in the quotes that you did confuse from Luther and the others. While one grows in sanctification—having already been justified—that person actively, “cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the works which follow,” his or her involvement in an already accomplished, completely passive justification—as the quote included.

        To bring the point home, the council of Trent goes on to declare, in Canon XXIV:

        “If any one shall say, that the justice received is not preserved, and also increased in the sight of God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification received, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.”

        In other words, the justification received by the Roman Catholic is not fully received, but only in some lesser amount. Good works, credited to the person as a member of Christ, serve to increase the justification of the said believer until their justification merits eternal life. Hence we find the necessity of purgatory, the treasury of merits, and the like.

        Lutherans do believe that our justification is complete in the here and now, and that it, by itself, is enough to save a person on its own, as connected to a faith that is also alone; having been worked into the believer, “respectu divinae gratiae in accendendis novis motibus.” God does the entire work, and we are completely passive in the whole thing, until we are renewed, regenerated, and have a, “new will… an instrument and organ of God the Holy Ghost, so that he not only accepts grace, but also cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the works which follow.” Indeed, good works are the fruit of justification and of a faith that is alive.

        To sum up: we are wholly and passively justified, being made active in good works unto our sanctification.

        So when the quote that started this whole thread reads, “so as to mean that nothing else is required [on the part of the individual] to co-operate in order unto the obtaining the grace of justification” (emphasis mine), we can be sure that Rome and Luther are in stark disagreement. Again, as I’m sure you well know, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Nevertheless, I thought it necessary to at least distinguish and make certain Dr. Luther’s actual position on the Canon.

        Thanks again,

        Christopher Jager
        Tillamook, OR

        • Hello again, Christopher, and welcome, brother. One of my dearest friends and a new Christian is a member of the LCMS, and I’ve been consistently surprised and impressed at how closely it does follow the Catholic tradition. And Ken Ranos who comments here is a pastor in the ELCA. And I’ve talked to him before about the ELCA’s submission to culture.

          [I realize the below is awfully long so I’m going to insert some headings for the sake of organization.]

          On Christian Unity

          Again, for what it’s worth — and I’m sure you realize, since you seem well-versed in the matter — not even all Lutherans agreed with each other. So with whom is it you agree? I’m not an expert, but I understand (from McGrath’s book on justification) that even Melanchthon and the next generation after Luther departed from Luther’s doctrines in significant ways. When one presumes that tradition is something that man can selectively redact and revise according to his own opinion (which, by the way, is the very definition of heresy), then there’s nothing to prevent the next person from revising it further or from presuming that his opinion is worthy of supplanting tradition. And that’s exactly what has happened in the Protestant tradition. What makes you so certain that Luther was right and everyone else, even the whole received tradition of the Church, was wrong?

          Regarding Christian unity through the Eucharist: you certainly have the correct and Catholic interpretation, but you should be aware (and probably are) that since the earliest times (cf. St. Ignatius of Antioch, ca. A.D. 107), the Church has held that the only valid Eucharist is that celebrated by a validly ordained bishop in a valid line of apostolic succession, or an ordained priest subject to his authority. And as I understand it, the LCMS has neither bishops nor apostolic succession. I do pray that we have true unity in Christ, but I don’t see how that can be possible without a return to valid Holy Orders.

          I don’t recognize the existence of a “catholic” Church apart from the foundation laid by Christ and the Apostles. And the Church established Orders and their validity through apostolic succession precisely to ensure the integrity and sanctity of the faith and the unity of the Church. As St. Ignatius tells us:

          See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles. And reverence the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do any of the things appertaining to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful either to baptise or to hold an “agapé” without the bishop; but whatever he approve, this is also pleasing to God, that everything which you do may be secure and valid. (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 9)

          And this is not a “Roman” idea, but a “Catholic” (universal) idea, held by the whole Church, in the East and West, in Palestine, Syria, Asia, Greece, Africa, and Italy — wherever there were Christians — since the very beginning. And just because Martin Luther and others didn’t like that does not give them the right to dismiss whole articles of the universal faith at their whim, nor does it make the communities established in their names valid and formal parts of the One, True, Catholic and Apostolic Church just because they say so. If one wants to even claim the title of “Apostolic,” one should make an effort to hold to the doctrines the Apostles taught. If one wants to strive toward a “Catholic” unity, one should strive for unity in adherence to the faith received and held by the universal Church. St. Paul admonished us that “there be no dissensions among [us], but that [we] be united in the same mind and judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10) — and let us not kid ourselves. That is not the unity Protestants have with anyone.

          On Eucharistic Theology

          I am not an expert on Eucharistic theology or Aristotelean physics — so I have been a bit bothered at times, too, by the rigidity with which the medieval and Reformation Church sought to define and enforce catholicity and orthodoxy in those Eucharistic definitions. But I do understand that neither these definitions nor the anathemas that follow from them were the fruit of arbitrary or petty disagreement, but designed to combat real abuses and heresies. The essential problem with the Lutheran Eucharistic doctrine, as I understand it, and as opposed to transubstantiation, is the lack of permanence in the consecration of the elements — that the bread and wine are only the Body and Blood of Christ during the course of the liturgy, and since the bread and wine remain, they then afterward revert to being bread and wine. Which is not an idea supported or supportable from either Scripture or Tradition, which teach quite clearly and unambiguously that the bread and wine are His Body and Blood. And this very easily can result in abuse, disrespect, even desecration, of the Body and Blood of Our Lord. For example, I heard from a Lutheran friend how after church they gave the leftover Hosts to children “to snack on.” I know this is not the attitude of most Lutherans, but if your theology leaves the door open to abuse, someone will abuse it.

          On Anathemas

          Once again, for the third or fourth time: you are not “accursed” by anything the Council of Trent or any other council of the Church ever taught. For one thing, that is neither the intent nor the product of an “anathema.” For another, you were not alive in the seventeenth century, nor have you ever formally been a member of the Catholic Church. Hence, these pronouncements of excommunication do not apply and have never applied to you. If you were a member of the Catholic Church and proceeded to teach these doctrines, then they might be said to apply to you. But one cannot very well cut off a member that was never a member to begin with — and that is all these pronouncements effectively do. They do declare these doctrines heretical (which they are) — and no Catholic Church would admit you if you persisted in teaching them. But you yourself are not “accursed.”

          Luther’s Rejection of the Church

          And once again: there is no Catholic Church apart from the foundation established by Christ. And Luther did reject that Church. Arguments regarding the papacy are irrelevant here. Even if one does not accept the primacy of the pope, the Tradition of the Church received from the Apostles themselves is explicit that one is not a member of the Church unless one follows a successor of the Apostles. You suggest that the pope inherited “apostleship.” No, the pope did not — but the pope, like all bishops, inherits his episcopal authority from the line of bishops first consecrated by the Apostles themselves. If Luther didn’t like the pope, he could very well have joined with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which affirms a valid episcopal succession but not the primacy of the bishop of Rome. But no. Luther rejected not only the Church of Rome, not only the Latin Church, but the very idea of the Church — everything ever believed by every Christian everywhere about the authority of the bishop to teach and to pastor the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1–5). Whitewash it anyway you may, appeal to the “authority of the Word of God” — but the fact is indisputable that the Lutheran conception of the Church was an innovation, with no foundation at all in anything that been received or had ever existed before in Christian history — but was imagined out of whole cloth by Luther himself.

          Regarding indulgences: the Church had been aware that there were abuses in the practice of indulgences for a long time. Luther’s theses were nothing new. What was new was his impatience, obstinance, and brazen audacity to challenge authority and reject the entire foundation of the Church when it didn’t comply immediately with his demands. And concerning Luther’s conception of “biblical theology” — again, this is “biblical theology” as Luther himself interpreted it, not as the Magisterium of the universal Church, or the Church Fathers or bishops, or any other authority anointed by God had ever understood or taught it.

          On Justification

          Forgive me for saying that Luther was not rejected because of his views on justification. What I meant was that he was not rejected solely because of his views on justification. His views on justification were reconcilable to Catholic doctrine. But such was impossible once he rejected the very authority of the Church to teach doctrine.

          Regarding this supposed separation between justification and sanctification: You should be aware that this, too, is a doctrine Luther never held, but one adopted after Luther’s death by Melanchthon (cf. McGrath, 3rd ed., Iustitia Dei 226–227, 252–253). So no, I am not sure it is I who am confusing Luther’s theology — particularly not in the quote by Luther himself. He is clear enough in his words. Be careful not to read later doctrines into documents whose authors had no conception of them. Luther himself taught that Baptism was necessary for salvation — which, from the very start, is “something else required in order unto obtaining the grace of justification.”

          And regarding this separation: I think it is you, in making such an unscriptural separation, who are misunderstanding the Catholic doctrine of justification. Yes, the initial justification, in Baptism, is total and transformative and irrevocable — complete and fully received. The faithful believer’s every sin is washed away; he is buried with Christ and raised again to new life in Him; he is incorporated into the Body of Christ. The grace of Baptism — every single act of Christ, by His Blood and through the Holy Spirit — is more than enough to save, to obliterate every trace of sin in the believer’s soul. And if that were the end of his life then and there, he would be saved. The problem is that people sin. And when we bruise ourselves in sin, we need Christ’s forgiveness and healing and grace again — as we do always. Just because we receive a continual outpouring of His mercy and grace does not mean that we didn’t receive more than enough of it in the first place. There is no “not fully received.” I don’t know where you get that understanding. You also misunderstand the concept of merit and purgatory and the whole kit and caboodle. I am more than glad to help you understand better, of course. 🙂

          What Catholics Actually Believe About Justification

          Though I do not think there is any real distinction between justification and sanctification in the order of salvation — the outpouring of the grace of Christ brings both in the believer, by the same process, which transforms us and makes us righteous before God — I do think making a distinction in those terms is helpful in trying to explain this to Protestants. Yes, in the initial justification of Baptism we receive a total regeneration by Christ’s grace; it transforms us and gives us new life and leaves an indelible mark on our souls. But if we fall into sin, we are still responsible for those sins. The idea that justification justifies all a believer’s sins forever such that the effects of sin can no longer touch him is neither scriptural nor realistic. Certainly anyone who has ever sinned can say that when we sin we are bruised and battered and shamed. We lose His grace — not because His grace is somehow deficient, but because we have cast it away. We are no longer held in His embrace because we turned from Him and rejected Him. And we need repentance and healing, a fresh outpouring of His love and grace. And in this are the graces of the three most important Sacraments (in my humble opinion): Baptism, Confession, and the Eucharist — the principal modes of His pouring His grace into the lives of His sheep. And this is justification. This has nothing to do with “good works” or “merits” or any other such. We do these things not to try to “merit” His favor, but because we desperately need His healing touch in our lives.

          And through these same Sacraments, we grow in His grace — and we are gradually changed, refined, purified. In the language of Trent, this is an increase in justification, but in language Protestants would understand, this is sanctification. And what of the role of good works? You seem to be under the impression that we somehow have to “store up enough good works” to “purchase” eternal life. But such is plainly unscriptural and Catholics believe nothing of the sort. Eternal life is a gift of God’s grace, entirely undeserved favor, for no merit or qualification of our own — Scripture is clear. But Scripture is also clear that “He will render to every man according to His works,” that “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6–8), that it is for our works that we will receive a reward (Matthew 5:46; Matthew 25:31–46; Mark 9:41; Luke 6:23; Colossians 3:23–24; Revelation 11:18, etc.). So how does that work? How can salvation be a reward for our works (which Scripture clearly attests it is) and also a gift of grace (which Scripture also clearly attests it is)? Our works are a gift of God’s grace. By living and walking in the Spirit, by growing in Christ, we will do good works, as the fruit of our faith, birthed through His grace; and in those good works, in faith working through love (Galatians 5:6), we further our sanctification — we continually grow in His grace and are filled up with His love, and perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). So what is this about us meriting salvation with our works? Again, as Scripture itself says, we will be rewarded for our works — but only those which we do through Him and He through us. As St. Augustine said, when God crowns our merits, he crowns only His own gifts. We don’t have to live our lives in a panic, trying to do “enough” good works to merit our salvation — for we in ourselves never can. It is only through living and walking in Him — bearing His fruit — that we can be saved.

          I think the Tridentine Fathers explained it well (again, you should read the whole decree on justification):

          Unto men, therefore, who have been justified after this manner, whether they have preserved uninterruptedly the grace received, or have recovered it when lost, are to be set the words of the Apostle: Abound in every good work, knowing that your labour is not in vain in the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58); for God is not unrighteous to forget your work, and the love which ye have showed in his name (Heb. 6:10); and, cast not away your confidence, which hath a great recompense (Heb. 10:35). And, for this cause, unto them who work well unto the end (Matt. 10:22), and hoping in God, life eternal is to be proposed, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Jesus Christ, and as a recompense which is to be faithfully rendered to their good works and merits according to the promise of God Himself. For this is that crown of righteousness which the Apostle asserted was, after his fight and course, laid up for him, to be given to him by the righteous judge, and not only to him, but unto all that love his coming (2 Tim. 4:8), For, whereas Jesus Christ Himself, as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches, continually causes his virtue to flow into the said justified, which virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows after their good works, and without which it could not in anywise be pleasing and meritorious before God, we must needs believe that to the justified nothing further is wanting, but that they be accounted to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and truly to have merited eternal life, to be obtained also in its due time; if so be, however, that they shall have departed in grace: forasmuch as Christ, our Saviour, saith: If any one shall drink of the water that I shall give him, he shall not thirst for ever; but it shall become in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life (John 4:13, 14).

          In short: It’s not anything we do, but what He does through us. As you yourself say, “good works are the fruit of justification and of a faith that is alive,” unto our sanctification. We could not agree more.

          Regarding purgatory: It exists solely (to put it simply in Protestant terms) for the completion of sanctification, for those who have already been justified. For nothing unclean shall enter heaven (Revelation 21:27).

          I do invite and welcome you back to the Catholic Church. But again, catholicity and unity entail orthdooxy. Until that day, I do nonetheless embrace you a Christian brother.

  12. “It exists solely (to put it simply in Protestant terms) for the completion of sanctification, for those who have already been justified. For nothing unclean shall enter heaven (Revelation 21:27).”
    And there is the rub, and the crux of the matter.

    However, this is your blog, and I will not muddle it any further. I only offer my appreciation of the discussion, and my apologies for adding confusion and uncertainty toward my own position. I’m afraid I have done you a disservice.

    Grace to you,

    Christopher Jager,
    Tillamook, OR

    • Really? Out of that whole discussion, you take my throwaway comment about purgatory? I literally typed that in seconds just before I pushed the button; I spent many hours on all the rest. If you want to talk about purgatory, we can talk about purgatory. But do not dismiss the whole of Catholic doctrine over one poorly understood, marginal idea.

      You’ve done me no disservice. I am here to share and help. The only disservice would be for you to walk away now when you still have questions.

      May the peace of Christ be with you.

  13. The the “crux” of the matter entails the nature of justification, sanctification, and the effects thereof. Purgatory was hardly the beef, but only a product thereof.

    I did get to reading the decrees, and they were very enlightening indeed.

    Again, thank you for the discussion and the engaging conversation.

    I bid you adieu,

    Christopher Jager
    Tillamook, OR

  14. if anathema is, as I understand your thinking, equivalent (more or less) to excommunication, and excommunication is to be cut off from “Holy Mother Church; and as Rome teaches there is no salvation outside same church, pray, tell me then as a Protestant how has Rome avoided pronouncing damnation upon me?

    • Hi! Thanks for the comment, and welcome! To your questions: First, I would distinguish between the word anathema and the phrase, as it came to be used, anathema sit — the phrase being a legal and liturgical formula with a specific connotation apart from the word by itself. Nobody, in declaring anathema sit, wishes to say the person is “accursed” or “damned” or any other etymological understanding of the Greek word.

      Second, it was Martin Luther and the other Protestant leaders of the sixteenth century — who were formal members of the Catholic Church — who were excommunicated from the Church — not in order to “damn” them, but in order to send a disciplinary message that unless they turned from their errors, they were bound for destruction.

      So unless you are currently a member of the Catholic Church, no, you are not “under an anathema” and you have not been excommunicated. You cannot be expelled from something you are not formally a part of.

      Third: you should understand what the Church means by extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation” (a phrase first coined by St. Cyprian in the third century, many centuries before there was any such thing as a Protestant). Scripture itself teaches that it is through the Church — the Body of Christ — that we are saved (cf. Ephesians 5:25–29). And to be cut off from that Body is surely to be cut off from Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1–5). And though the Church on earth has the authority to exclude members from her earthly fellowship, it is ultimately Christ who is our judge (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:4). Even Protestants recognize these principles.

      As to the Catholic Church’s understanding of extra ecclesiam nulla salus in light of her relationship to our separated brethren: no, you are not certainly “damned,” because there’s a sense in which you’re not really “outside.” I think this analogy to the “ship of salvation,” a common and ancient metaphor for the Church, is apt. Protestants were on board the ship for 1,500 years and ate with us and fellowshipped with us in peace and unity. Then, in the sixteenth century, your party mutinied and built a raft, taking with you our food and gear and provisions, provided by our Captain, Who is Christ. Now, though you are on a whole bunch of rafts (some 40,000!), you still subsist on the same life-giving provisions given by Christ, and though you are overboard, you are still (most of you — some have gotten lost or even sunk their rafts) in the water around us, hanging on, moving in the same direction, toward His Kingdom.

      Here is a quote from Unitatis Redintegratio (1965), the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism. It’s lengthy but very good and hopeful, and will demonstrate what I wrote above:

      Even in the beginnings of this one and only Church of God there arose certain rifts (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18–19; Gal. 1:6–9; 1 Jn. 2:18–19), which the Apostle strongly condemned (cf. 1 Cor. 1:11 sqq; 11:22). But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church—for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church—whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church—do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. The ecumenical movement is striving to overcome these obstacles. But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.

      Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.

      The brethren divided from us also use many liturgical actions of the Christian religion. These most certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community. These liturgical actions must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation.

      It follows that the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church. (§3)

      And so I do embrace you as a brother! God bless you and the peace of the Lord be with you!

      • Thank you for your Irenic response.

        But it leaves the core issue unresolved; namely how the Reformation began.

        Are we counted just as believers because we are infused with Christ’s righteouness when we receive the sacrament of Baptism into the Roman Catholic church, or are we counted righteous, because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us at the moment God by grace regenerated us and enables us to believe into Christ Jesus?

        As the Apostle Paul put it, Abraham was counted righteous by his act of faith, and that before circumcision.

        Were this dispute to have never occurred, there would have been no excommunicants because of it.

        Nevertheless it has occurred. One or the other position can be the correct one, but not both.

        I am fully persuaded that the Reformer’s position is more fully supported by the fullness of Scripture. Since Scripture cannot be broken, I will stand on my faith that Jesus is the Christ; my Lord, Savior and God. If God has drawn me to Christ, no one is able to snatch me from His hand.

        God bless you!

        • Thank you for your kind response also. Actually, Catholics and Protestants have come a very long way in resolving our differences regarding justification, especially insofar as the Lutheran understanding is concerned. We have, over the centuries, tended to talk past each other, misunderstanding each other’s positions and saying much the same things apart from differing language and emphases; but in recent times we’ve made great strides in clearing some of the confusion. In 1999, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which marks a general understanding and acceptance of each other’s doctrines, and the non-applicability of most of the Reformation-era condemnations of each other. (With regard to imputation, see §§22–24. Overall, the agreement is complete, in all but one or two sticking major points.)

          Looking at your description above: I think you may be overstating the disagreement between the “infusion” of grace and the “imputation.” The “infusion” of grace (the pouring of love into the believer’s soul, cf. Romans 5:5) is the traditional, Augustinian understanding of justification, to which Catholic teaching has generally kept. But the Catholic Church has never made justification a doctrine of such insurmountable importance as the Protestant churches have (“the doctrine by which the church stands or falls,” as Luther said); as such, the only time I’ve ever even heard of the “infusion” of grace is in dialogue with Protestants.

          The Council of Trent condemned a number of errors that it perceived to have severe consequences for the salvation of the believer’s soul; but it didn’t absolutely condemn a doctrine of “imputation” per se — only certain statements and implications of that doctrine. I think a major sticking point concerning “imputation” and “infusion” is due to conflations and separations and confusions of terminology. The Catholic Church does not deny that there is a legal, forensic aspect to justification, as the Protestant Reformers taught. But is this all that happens in justification — an external, topical imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, such that the believer doesn’t actually receive anything of Christ’s grace or love or justice into his soul?

          At this point Protestants and Catholics tend to talk past each other. The later Protestant Reformers drew a hard distinction between the concepts of “justification” and “sanctification” where none had been drawn before; the Catholic Church, following Augustine, refers to the whole process, including initial justification and progressive sanctification, as “justification.” Catholics thus speak of “growing in justification,” which seems to Protestants to be a contradiction of their doctrine that “justification” is nothing but a once-and-for-all forensic declaration. They then incorrectly accuse Catholics of teaching “works’ righteousness” in the idea that one can “increase in justification” through receiving the Sacraments and doing good works in love — when what Catholics really mean, in the language of Protestants, is that through those things they increase in sanctification — which is an idea I think most Protestants would accept. Likewise regarding the “infusion” of grace: I don’t think any Protestant would question the idea that in sanctification the believer becomes truly just by the transforming power of Christ’s love in his life. So I think placing this idea of a single and sole “imputation” of Christ’s righteousness as the opposite of the “infusion” of His love presents a false dichotomy.

          Again, I think you may be losing something in translation by placing Protestant terms in opposition to Catholic terms in your understanding of “regeneration.” You present that “the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us at the moment [when] God by grace regenerated us and enable[d] us to believe in Christ Jesus,” and place this in opposition to the Catholic belief in baptismal regeneration. Certainly Scripture teaches, and every Catholic believes, that it is only by God’s grace and the gift of faith He gives us that we are able to believe in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–10, Romans 8:30, 2 Timothy 1:9) — what we call prevenient (i.e. “coming before”) grace, the grace that comes before we believe to enable us to believe. But Paul says that “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ [is] for all who believe” (Romans 3:22) — not that they are righteous because they believe, or are able to believe because they are righteous. Not even Scripture teaches that “regeneration” is what occurs at the moment a believer comes to faith, or that “regeneration” itself is what enables us to believe in Christ Jesus. The only two times the word “regeneration” (παλιγγενεσία, palingenesia) occurs in the New Testament are in Matthew 19:28 (“in the regeneration [i.e. the regenerated world], when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne”) and Titus 3:5 (“he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit”) — an explicit reference to regeneration through baptism. Further, Paul speaks of death and rebirth in Christ only in connection with baptism (Romans 6:3–5, Colossians 2:12); Jesus Himself speaks of baptism as being “born again of water” (John 3:3–6). These are the very images from which the Church drew its understanding of “regeneration.” Regeneration, then, is something separate from the moment of coming to faith in Christ, and something separate from the grace that gives us that faith.

          The Catholic Church teaches that we are justified by faith in Christ in baptism. This appears to Protestants to be a contradiction — how can something be by faith and also in a “work”? Why does Paul say that we are “justified by faith” and never mention baptism? But he does mention baptism: he takes for granted that every one of recipients has been baptized (cf. Romans 6:3, Galatians 3:27). Paul understands that it is through baptism that we are “raised with Him … that we might walk in newness of life” and “united with Him.” Baptism is the understood context of being “justified by faith”: cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11, “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Protestants (speaking in particular of those in the Calvinist tradition; Lutherans share the Catholic belief in baptismal regeneration) believe baptism to be a “work of the Law,” a work of human effort by which we strive to justify ourselves, but Scripture presents it as a work of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus Himself washing us with water and the Word (Ephesians 5:26). Peter (also evoking the imagery of regeneration, the old being put to death and the new made alive in Christ) presents that “baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal [Gk. request or pledge] to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).

          Baptism is a grace given to us by faith, a work of the Holy Spirit, but one we must assent to — just as Abraham’s faith would not have been credited to him as righteousness if he had not risen up and acted in faith by leaving his home in answer to God’s promise. The “faith” of the Bible is not mere intellectual assent, but a wholehearted trust and fidelity and giving over of the whole self. The Apostle James tells us that Abraham’s faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works (James 2:22). This is why he was counted righteous — yes, before circumcision, the primary “work of the Law” Paul was writing to reject — but after he had left behind everything of his old life (Genesis 15:6). As you yourself acknowledge, this was an act of faith — just as baptism is the act of faith that Jesus commanded, that Paul calls the “circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:10–14), and that every Christian convert recorded in Scripture immediately undertook upon believing, as part of the same move of the Holy Spirit — moved to faith by grace, regenerated in baptism by washing with water and the Word (cf. Acts 2:38, 22:16, etc.).

          So, in sum: no, I don’t think the divisions created by the Reformation are insurmountable. I have faith that Christ will return His Church to oneness. We have already made great strides with our Protestant brothers and sisters in overcoming our differing understandings of justification — which I think owe more to misunderstandings than anything else. Is it not a case of “one or the other being correct,” but of accepting that the whole of Scripture is true, and that one can’t take phrases and verses out of context and ignore the rest. I would be interested to hear how you think the “Reformers’ position” (which one? they did not all agree) “is more fully supported by the fullness of Scripture.” 

          God bless you, and His grace and peace to you!

      • Jesuit historian Norm Tanner points out in his book on church Councils that in the medeval ages,councils like Florence,Constance,Lateran,Lyon & by its extension Trent were not hailed as Ecumenical by popes & people alike because they DID NOT contain the Eastern church,also Trent did not include the reform churches.After trent,a deception campaign by Bellarmine caused the books to hold them as Ecumenical.Remember in the first 1,000 years there was NO PAPAL PRIMACY over the whole church & most councils deemed Ecumenical were hailed in the East.

        • Hi, Kim. I don’t see how any of this is at all relevant to the topic of the article, but okay, I will humor you. One historian’s opinion is just that, a single opinion. Most historians, though, acknowledge that when the second-millennium Western Church speaks of a council being “ecumenical” it refers to the whole Western Church and that Eastern and other Christians do not acknowledge it as such. What makes a council authoritative is the consensus of bishops, not necessarily its perfect completeness, and if the Western bishops agree in communion, then that’s certainly valid and authoritative for the Western Church. I would point out, though, that the Council of Florence in fact included many Greek Christians and came very close to achieving a restoration of the Eastern Schism (at least a partial one). The Council of Constance took place under such messy circumstances that most historians are confused about how to handle its ecumenicity and authority — but most conclude that by its finish, legitimate papal rule was restored and it can be termed a valid ecumenical council. Protestant leaders were invited to the Council of Trent; and though I don’t know this for certain, I think it highly likely that the Eastern Churches continued to be invited to subsequent ecumenical councils in the West, even as a matter of form.

          Finally: Most Eastern Christians acknowledge (as the historical sources are clear) that the bishop of Rome did have a primacy of honor, a place of “first among equals,” from the very beginning. Papal primacy is a very different argument than the supremacy that, it’s well acknowledged, developed later in the Western Church.

          When you start accusing anyone, especially historians, theologians, or other academics, of “deception,” you immediately lose my attention. I don’t have any interest in addressing conspiracy theories.

          Peace be with you.

  15. Would you be interested to engage in a low-level debate on the simple veracity of Christian faith. I am by no means scholarly or theologically trained, only a simple man of simple faith… which leads me to my first question. I read the lengthy debates on your blog here, I am infinitely impressed with the knowledge and ferocity with which you have presented you viewpoint (the foregoing debate on justification for example), your Protestant counterparts did equally well. So here is the question(s): how is it that highly educated, well meaning Christians spend so much time and energy splitting hairs over what amounts to (forgive the expression) small potatoes? The simple gospel message is simple and straightforward for all who are willing to grasp, isn’t it? Do we all need PhD’s to be able to piece together the history and symbolism found in the Bible and church teaching? Doesn’t the Bible instruct us to have simple faith like a child? In summary, you can outwit, out-talk and out-debate me any day of the week but does that make you and your ilk more deserving in the eyes of God? In other words, why do you bother with all the scholarly stuff when you could be helping the sick, poor and needy with your time and talent?

    (Disclaimer: I have read lots of “scholarly” blogs and have often wanted to ask this question though I never found the nerve. It was your clear and calm writing style that gave me the courage.):)

    • Sorry to be so slow in replying to this. The comment got lost in some shuffle. But thanks for the comment. Depending on the question and the forum, I might be interested in such a discussion.

  16. Pingback: I want to understand the Catholic faith so.... - Page 48 - Christian Chat Rooms & Forums

  17. Pingback: Claim 1: Catholicism Denies the Gospel (Part 2) – Thomas Creed – Doubt to Belief

  18. Pingback: Apologia Response to Tim Challies, “Why I am Not Roman Catholic” | Lover of the Light

  19. Pingback: Deformation – Part 1 of 2 by Richard Metzger – Catholic Today

Leave a Reply