Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Epistemology of Sola Scriptura

Van Gogh, Still Life with Bible (c.1885)

Still Life with Bible (c.1885), by Vincent van Gogh (WikiArt.org).

Protestants argue that Scripture itself is sufficient to support the doctrine of sola scripturabut a more important question to ask is if one, not having held such a doctrine before, could come to a doctrine of sola scriptura by Scripture alone.

The “Great Apostasy” thesis presumes, first of all, that “true” Christianity originated as something other than Catholic Christianity, but that Roman authorities designed to introduce “pagan” elements into the faith. (Or, in a more moderate form of the claim, gullible and lukewarm Christians — apparently, early Christians were less committed to the truth and orthodoxy of their faith, as well as less intelligent, than modern Protestants? — passively allowed pagan accretions to gradually creep into their doctrine.) Some of the usual suspects for these allegedly “pagan” doctrines include the “worship” of images and statues (“idolatry”); the “worship” of the Virgin Mary and the saints; the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (often less correctly attacked as “transubstantiation”); the understanding of the Lord’s Supper as the sacrifice of the Mass; the subjection of correct adherence to Scripture alone to “traditions of men”; and the injection of “works’ righteousness” into the true faith in justification by faith alone. In short, the presumption is that “true” Christianity was essentially Protestant, and that any other doctrine particular to the Catholic Church must have been a “pagan” corruption. But is this thesis itself sound?

I argue that this whole “Great Apostasy” claim proceeds from Protestant assumptions about Scripture, doctrine, and the Church — namely, that the Early Church held to the same understanding of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone” as a rule of faith) that later Protestants formulated; that early Christians would have interpreted the Bible in exactly the same way as later Protestants (i.e. that the Protestant interpretation is the correct one); that “true” Christians would have rejected any doctrine not defined explicitly in Scripture, according to that interpretation; and that therefore a Church that believed anything different must, by definition, be “apostate.” It proceeds from a very specific conception of “the Church” and Christian practice, defined by Protestant practice, such that, if the Church does not resemble that conception, then it must have fallen away from the truth. To accept that the Catholic Church is “apostate,” one must first accept these Protestant assumptions. The result is that this “Great Apostasy” thesis rests on circular logic: The Church was “apostate” if it did not resemble a Protestant one; in order for the Church to be “true,” it must be Protestant.

Where does sola scriptura come from? A begged question

Calvin with books

Is there any way to verify the initial assumptions of this begged question? Can we know whether the Early Church was Protestant in belief and practice? Yes, we can, by turning to the very earliest written documents of the Church outside the New Testament, composed within years or decades of the writing of the New Testament itself, if not within that very time period — though many proponents of the “Great Apostasy” would extend their assumptions to say that, if these documents do not verify their Protestant assumptions, then the Church must have apostatized even before then — before the canon of the New Testament was even closed. This stretches the credibility of our belief in a Lord who proclaimed that His Church would stand against the powers of death and that His Holy Spirit would guide His followers into all truth.

But to put a boot into this circular reasoning, I hope, let me ask: How did we, as Christians, come to our understandings of the Protestant church? Where do our understandings of these Protestant assumptions — sola scriptura and all the rest — come from? The Protestant Reformers dictated these doctrines, and professed that they were held by the earliest, “true” Christians — but how did they know they were held by early Christians, if not even the earliest extrascriptural texts can verify this claim? How did they know what they claimed to know, if no one knew it before? It is a basic epistemological as well as an historical question: since this knowledge could not have come from nowhere.

Protestants claim, of course, that their understanding of these doctrines came from reading Scripture alone — but if Scripture had been being read laboriously by exegetes and theologians for 1,500 years, and none prior to them had come to such an understanding — could they truly have come to this understanding by Scripture alone? Is this doctrine of sola scriptura so plainly written on the face of Scripture that all prior exegetes must have willfully ignored it? This is in fact what a claim of “perspicuity” entails. Or, if this understanding depends on a new interpretation, where did this new interpretation come from? If it came from any source outside Scripture alone — even, as Protestants might argue, from a special revelation of the Holy Spirit — then it contradicts the very notion of sola scriptura as Protestants defined it: stating that all doctrine is perspicuously written in Scripture, or else implied by it by necessary consequence.

Perspicuously taught?

Scripture illuminated

Scripture was illuminated a long time before Protestants came along.

If the doctrine of sola scriptura does not itself rest on circular reasoning, then it must be plainly stated or necessarily implied by Scripture. And what is it that, according to the definitions of Protestants themselves, Scripture alone must plainly, or by necessary consequence, teach? Turning to one of the most widely acknowledged statements of Protestant belief, the Westminster Confession of Faith, we find that the authority of Scripture is thus understood:

  1. All things necessary for man’s salvation, faith, and life are either expressly stated in Scripture, or implied by necessary consequence. (WCF I.6)
  2. No doctrine may be added to this at any time, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or “traditions of men.” (WCF I.6)
  3. Scripture is to be the final appeal of the Church in all controversies of religion. (WCF I.8,10)

There is more, but that’s enough for starters. It is these points in particular that give rise to Protestant prejudice against the Catholic tradition, and support conclusions about the “apostasy” of the Church. How is it that Protestants draw these tenets from Scripture? Where is this perspicuously written?

Even when so confronted, there are only a few verses of Scripture that Protestant exegetes are able to produce in support of sola scriptura. But what do these verses actually, perspicuously dictate?

“Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6)

Paul writes, in his first epistle to the Corinthian Church:

I have applied all this to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brethren, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. (1 Corinthians 4:6)

Ripped from its context, this verse appears to be sure support for the argument that the Church is not to go beyond what is written — that is, surely, Scripture — in anything she does. As a corollary, it is assumed, the Church should remain within the parameters of the doctrine taught in Scripture.

But even a closer examination of this single verse calls into question this interpretation. Why is it that Paul’s recipients should not go beyond what it is written? Is it to preserve the Church in doctrinal purity, to exclude error or accretion of unscriptural tradition, to maintain orthodoxy — as the Protestant understanding of sola scriptura would lead us to believe? No, it is that [ἵνα (hina), in order that, marking a purpose clause] none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. What, then, is Paul talking about? What is written that he is referring to? Apparently whatever is written is meant to address this matter of prideful self-aggrandizement. Has Paul previously referred to such a passage?

Sure enough, he has, earlier in the same letter — making his references explicit by similarly noting what is written:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” (1 Corinthians 1:18–19)

He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:30–31)

For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” So let no one boast of men. (1 Corinthians 3:19–21)

These references to what is written plainly refer to prideful boasting — being “puffed up.” This is the specific context of Scripture beyond which Paul admonishes his readers not to go beyond — to learn from his humility, clearly the context of 1 Corinthians 4 and surrounding chapters. This single phrase, not to go beyond what is written, separated from this context, cannot be taken as any sort of far-reaching doctrinal dictate or prohibition. This verse fails to offer the support for sola scriptura — let alone the plain, perspicuous pronouncement — that Protestants seek from it.

The matter of the Bereans (Acts 17:10–12): “Examining the Scriptures to see if these things were so”

Luke writes, in the Acts of the Apostles:

The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Beroea; and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (Acts 17:10–12)

Paul to the Bereans

The Bereans are so often held up as the picture of sola scriptura in practice, praiseworthy in their commitment to Scripture. And it is certain that they were faithful to God’s Word. But is this really the same thing as what Protestants practice? What Scriptures did the Bereans examine, and what is it that they sought in them? The word they received was the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of his coming, Death, and Resurrection. The Scriptures they read were the only ones available to them, the Old Testament (most likely in the Greek Septuagint), since the New Testament had not yet been written. And in the Old Testament, they verified the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus brought, the thrust of the gospel that Paul and Silas taught, which is what would have been convincing to faithful Jews. So it demands the question: Does the practice of the Bereans resemble the Protestant practice of sola scriptura? Does this Scripture passage offer the perspicuous support that doctrine demands?

It is plain that it does not. Does it demonstrate that “all things necessary for man’s salvation, faith, and life are plainly stated or necessarily implied by Scripture”? No, it does not: While the Bereans were able to verify Christ’s fulfillment of prophecy by Scripture, they could not have come to knowledge of Him without the preaching and illumination of Paul. Does it demonstrate that “no doctrine can be added to Scripture”? No, it does not: The message of Jesus taught by Paul, His life and mission and way of salvation, were all “new doctrine” not plainly stated or even necessarily implied by the Scripture of the Old Testament; and if the Bereans had held to a Protestant understanding of Scripture, not accepting any doctrine that went beyond it, they would have rejected Paul and the gospel of Christ. Does this passage demonstrate that Scripture must be the final appeal of the Church in matters of controversy? No, it does not address this at all. Plainly, then, this passage does not offer the support for sola scriptura that is necessary for Protestants. It does not teach this doctrine perspicuously, nor could it have led anyone to hold it who did not hold it before.

Parting Exhortations (2 Timothy 3:14–17): “Equipped for every good work”

Among Paul’s final words to Timothy were this exhortation:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14–17)

Paul ordaining Timothy

Paul ordaining Timothy bishop of Ephesus.

This is by far the Scripture most commonly cited by Protestants in support of sola scriptura. I have written at greater length about it before. Supposedly, according to the argument I often hear, this offers proof that Scripture alone is profitable for these good purposes, that Scripture alone can instruct us for salvation, that Scripture alone can complete a man to be equipped for every good work; and that, therefore, if Scripture does not equip us for it, it is not a good work. This, presumably, is meant to exclude any doctrinal element not plainly found in Scripture — since, the man of God, already “complete,” has no need of anything else.

But that reading fits neither this Scripture passage nor its context. Paul, again, is not advising the Church in doctrinal matters; he is exhorting Timothy to persevere in good works. In this, does he mean to limit the good works to which Timothy is called, or forbid him from any practice or activity? No, clearly not: he is extolling the inspiration of Scripture, all its merits and applications, and all the good works for which it can equip the believer. There is nothing prohibitory about Paul’s statement here. Does he mean to be exclusive, as if to say that Scripture alone is profitable for good works, or Scripture alone can instruct one for salvation? There is nothing about his words that imply this.

Even taken at its most literalistic, this passage does not offer the perspicuous support for sola scriptura that the doctrine demands. Does it clearly teach that Scripture teaches all things necessary for salvation and life? No, it merely shows that Scripture is instructive (it can make one wise) for salvation. Does it teach that no doctrine may be added to the plain teachings of Scripture, or that no doctrine outside such plain teachings may be believed? No, it does not speak to anything outside Scripture at all. Nor is Scripture as a means for resolving doctrinal controversy (let alone the sole means) included among Scripture’s worthy applications. This passage, like the other passages, fails to teach plainly or necessarily the doctrines and claims that Protestants make about scriptural authority.

True Scriptural Authority

The Council of Trent

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

To many Protestants, a notion of church authority rooted in sola scriptura appears to be common sense. Scripture is Holy Writ, the very written Word of God — why wouldn’t it be the Church’s ultimate authority? The suggestion of any qualification to this authority appears to be abject heresy, the placing of human authority above that of Scripture. But in fact, the Catholic view presents completely the opposite.

It is the Protestant view, paradoxically, that ultimately compromises the authority of Scripture, by subjecting it to private human interpretation. For Scripture is effectively of no authority at all to the person whose private interpretation disagrees with the one being asserted; that is, any given interpretation of Scripture is only as authoritative as the person giving it, or as the hearer himself accepts it to be. Where is the absolute, infallible authority of Scripture in this? The Westminster Confession declares that Scripture is to be the final authority of the authoritative Church; but who interprets Scripture if not the Church? Protestants themselves deny the possibility of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, being an infallible interpreter of Scripture; therefore, any interpretation given by the Church is by definition fallible and questionable. Any Christian who disagrees, who has his own divergent, private opinion, is free to dismiss whatever authority the Church claims to have, citing, ironically, the divine and infallible authority of Scripture: when in truth he appeals to nothing more than his own private opinion.

The traditional, Catholic view — the view held in all the ages of the Church up until the schism of the Reformation — is not the opposite of this; it is not a subjection of the authority of Scripture at all, but rather its affirmation. In order for His Word to continue with an authoritative voice, He appointed His Apostles to teach in His name (Luke 10:16), and this teaching mission continued to the bishops and presbyters they appointed (1 Timothy 3:2, 4:13, 5:17, 2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 2:1, etc.). Not just anyone had the authority to teach and interpret Scripture, but only those duly called by God and ordained by the Church (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Timothy 3). And He gave the Church the Holy Spirit, that He might guide her into all truth (John 16:13). For the Catholic Church too, Sacred Scripture is the highest authority, together with Sacred Tradition — the ultimate recourse in matters of doctrine and faith — but as the chaos of Protestant division demonstrates, Scripture cannot speak for itself. It is only through the authoritative voice of the Church’s whole magisterium, in accord with Scripture itself, that the Word of God can authoritatively speak.

Sola scriptura is self-refuting

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

Sola scriptura is ultimately self-refuting. The doctrine of sola scriptura demands that Scripture teach all doctrine plainly and perspicuously, or else by necessary consequence — and it does not teach itself. No reader of Scripture could have arrived at the specific requirements and conclusions of sola scriptura as defined without presuming them to begin with: the doctrine rests on circular reasoning. Moreover, to even be able to define “Scripture” — to possess a canon of inspired, authoritative, scriptural books to which to appeal — one cannot stand from Scripture alone, but must refer to the traditional agreement and resolution of Christians in the Church. And thus, to begin one’s reasoning about the Church and Christian history from a position of sola scriptura from the outset is an unjustified and prejudicial assumption. To hold the Early Church, or the Church in any age, to a Protestant, sola scriptura standard, is to place limitations upon Christians that they neither observed nor understood themselves.

The proof of this is in the history of the Church itself: Early Christians, generations upon generations of whom paid for their faith in their own blood, were certainly no less committed to the truth and purity and orthodoxy of Christian doctrine than modern Protestants; in fact, it was precisely for the cause of orthodoxy that many of them suffered persecution and even death (see especially the matter of the Arian heresy). These Christians — who held no less to a closed deposit of faith in the revelation of Scripture and Tradition than Protestants — did not accept, at any point, new and novel doctrines never before taught, let alone the corruption of their faith by visibly pagan and syncretistic doctrines injected from pagan or secular society. And yet these same Christians did not feel themselves bound by a rigid restriction to Scripture alone — which was certainly never taught by Jesus, the Apostles, or their disciples — but accepted Scripture for what it is: the divine, infallible Word of God; the continuing voice of their Lord to His Church, to teach, correct, exhort, encourage, and guide — not to shackle or condemn the rest of the Sacred Tradition of the Apostles, but to affirm it, support it, and verify it. They did not close their minds or their hearts to the development of Christian doctrine, to the flowering of the seeds planted by their Lord and His Apostles, as the Church grew in understanding and pondered upon the truth having once been revealed.

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Early Church, Apostolic or Apostate?

Duccio, Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (1311)

Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (fragment) (1311), by Duccio. (WikiPaintings.org)

The broken WordPress app misdated my last entry, and rather than break all the links I’ve already made, I thought I would share a link to it. When Protestants read the history of the early Church, do they understand the faith of those early Church Fathers to be the fruit of the Apostles, or rather the sign of a very early falling away from the truth of Christ? Examine with me the implications of these statements:

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Early Church, Apostolic or Apostate?

 

 

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Early Church, Apostolic or Apostate?

Duccio, Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (1311)

Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (fragment) (1311), by Duccio. (WikiPaintings.org)

I suppose there are only two or three ways for the Protestant reader of Church history to understand the Early Church (by which I mean the subapostolic Church, the Church of the first several generations of Christians after the Apostles). The inherent thesis of the Protestant Reformation is that the changes brought about by the Reformers in the sixteenth century were a reformation of the Church, a return to the true faith and doctrine of Christ that had been lost. So then, in reading the history of the Early Church, the Protestant can either view it as apostolic in nature: as the true, original Church, essentially as it had been received from Christ and the Apostles only years before, alive and vibrant in freshness and purity of belief, practice, and doctrine. Or, if the Protestant reads this Church and finds that it does not resemble his own church at all — that it is not the Church to which the Reformers believed they were reformingthen he must assume that the Early Church had already fallen away from the Truth; she must have already lost the true faith.

An Un-Protestant Church

El Greco, St. Paul and St. Peter

St. Paul and St. Peter (c. 1595), by El Greco.

The problem with this latter proposition is that even the earliest documents of the Church present a very un-Protestant Church. The very earliest Christian writers after the Apostles express faith in a sacramental economy, in the necessity and efficacy of baptism, in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They appeal to authority not in Scripture alone, but in an apostolic succession of bishops and a faith having been received by tradition. They evince trust from the very beginning in the intercession of saints, the primacy of the bishop of Rome, the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. So if the Protestant cannot discover a time when the Church did not clearly hold these doctrines the later Reformers considered “corruptions” — what does this mean for the belief that the Reformation was a return to a lost “purity” of faith?

The Protestant, not finding Protestant doctrine in the Early Church, must then ask: Did the Early Church fall away from apostolic truth immediately? — before even the earliest extrascriptural Christian writings? To assume this begins to stretch the limits of historical credulity. If not a single extrascriptural writing clearly supports one’s interpretation of Scripture, and one must conclude that the Church apostasized even before this time — then the Protestant is forced to denounce the earliest Christians, and every Christian since, as unfaithful to the teachings of our Lord: so unfaithful, in fact, as to have turned aside from the plain teachings of their apostolic teachers before even the death of the last Apostle. (The Apostle John is believed to have lived until around the turn of the second century, while the earliest extrascriptural documents can be dated to the A.D. 70s.) In this extreme case, is it not more feasible to consider that one’s interpretation of Scripture might be mistaken?

Looking for Proto-Protestants

Saint Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli.

Saint Augustine, a favorite candidate for being a proto-Protestant.

I do not think many Protestants come to these conclusions — that is, and remain Protestant. The far more common tack is to equivocate: to avoid reading very deeply into the Church Fathers, and when one does, to gloss over the differences; to evade the necessity of declaring either that the Fathers were explicitly Protestant (which they clearly were not) or that they they were distinctly un-Protestant. Instead, the Protestant looks for seeds of Protestant belief: if the Church Fathers were not full-blown Protestants, then they must have at least been proto-Protestants, holding nascent doctrines that would someday flower into the Reformation — in a way suspiciously similar to the Catholic conception of the development of doctrine which the Protestant would otherwise reject. Protestant apologists have collected an arsenal of quotations, taken out of context, that appear superficially to support such doctrines as sola scriptura and sola fide — and this is an easy matter to do, since both doctrines take genuine truths that were always present in the Church and carry them to unwarranted extremes. Certainly Sacred Scripture is the very, infallible, inerrant Word of God, and the Church has always held it as the highest authority; but she never held it to be an authority to stand alone. Certainly justification is by faith, and no human work can merit our salvation or even bring us closer to God apart from His grace; but no Church Father ever held that we could be justified by faith alone, with no works accompanying. Since the Fathers often emphasize both the authority of Scripture and the power of saving faith, it is an easy matter to find isolated quotations and read these errors back upon them. But no one could ever come to the conclusions of these doctrines by reading the Fathers in their full context.

A Gradual Decay

St. Vincent de Paul

St. Vincent de Paul (1581–1660), a great Catholic saint of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

A more moderate understanding of the Church’s corruption is similarly equivocal: the reader imagines that the corruptions of doctrine that brought about the Reformation were gradual, subtle, and evolving — a view that is supportable, since, it’s true, doctrine did develop. This allows the Protestant to admire and keep the many great Christians of the ages, all the martyrs and theologians and Church Fathers — finding in them many virtues and qualities of true faith, even if, and despite, their doctrine being gradually corrupted. The problem, then, becomes one of demarcation: When, if ever, did the Church become so corrupt as to be no longer viable as Christian — as to warrant a radical schism? Was it after the second, or third, or fourth ecumenical council? Was it after Saint Augustine, the doctor of grace? Or after Saint Bernard, the last of the great Church Fathers? At whatever point the Protestant draws the line, he must reject all else that follows. The earlier he draws the line, seeing less and less Protestant sentiment and more and more corruption — just as the Protestant who decides the Church was apostate from the very beginning — the more praiseworthy Fathers, teachings, and events he must cast away. The later he draws the line, the more and more development he must accept as validly Christian, the closer he brings this corruption of the Church to the time of the Reformation, and the more he must wonder why such a Reformation was justified at all. If, mere centuries or decades prior to Luther, the Church was still bearing good fruit in holy men and women, bringing them in faith to sanctification and glory, thriving in good works, even if only at the branches — what could justify uprooting and rending the entire tree? Once again, most Protestants who take this view equivocate: since they are unable to draw the line at all, they mentally place it sometime “after the last great Catholic Christian” and “before Luther.” Realizing that there continued to be great Catholic Christians complicates the Protestant’s justifications even further.

Ultimately, the Protestant is forced back to the initial question: was the Early Church apostolic or apostate? If, embracing the many great Church Fathers, he accepts that the Early Church was apostolic, then eventually he is forced to admit that the doctrines of the Reformation, to which the Reformers claimed to be returning the Church, were never apostolic at all — in which case, to what did the Reformers turn her, if not to innovation?

The Work of Christ, an Abject Failure

Christ on the Cross (1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Christ on the Cross (1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (WikiPaintings)

If, on the other hand, the Protestant believes that the Church was apostate from the very beginning, he is forced to question the fundamental nature of the faith he has received: If this Jesus is God Incarnate, how could His Church — against which He promised the gates of Hell would not prevail (Matthew 16:18); which He promised His Spirit would guide into all truth (John 16:13) — have fallen away so completely and immediately from the faith having been delivered to the saints (Jude 3)? If we are to believe that Jesus the God-Man took on human flesh to live, die, and be resurrected for the salvation of all humanity, and returning to the Father, charged His Apostles to make disciples of all nations — only for those Apostles and their disciples to immediately abandon His saving messagewe must, in all honesty, call our Lord’s salvific mission — foreordained from the beginning of the world; the culmination of ages of preparation and prophecy — a complete and utter failure. And how can we ascribe such an abject failure to God Himself?

I have heard many a Protestant claim that even though the Church of God fell into apostasy, God always preserved His true and untarnished Word in Scripture. But that begs the question: through whom did God preserve Scripture? How can the Protestant in good faith believe that the Christian Church faithfully preserved and transmitted the Scriptures, free from error and corruption, for 1,500 years, if she could not even faithfully keep the purity and sanctity of Christ’s doctrine of salvation? And if God could miraculously preserve the truth and indefectibility of Scripture for all that time, even in the hands of such a corrupt institution — why could He not also have preserved the Church?

The Faith of Abraham

The post I meant to make before I was distracted by Luther.

Rembrandt. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1635.

Rembrandt. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1635.

This Lent I’ve been re-reading the Pentateuch, since the last time I read it was before I was Catholic and before I had the benefit of Catholic Bible commentaries or an elementary knowledge of the Hebrew language. In reading the story of Abraham in Genesis, I got to thinking about the nature of Abraham’s faith:

“And [Abraham] believed the Lord; and [the Lord] reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

Justified by Faith

The Apostle Paul prominently appeals to this verse in his discourses on the doctrine of justification in his epistles to the Galatians and Romans (Galatians 3:6, Romans 4:3). It is an especially important verse to the Protestant concept of imputation, the idea that when a sinner comes to faith in Christ, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the sinful believer, “covering” his sins like a cloak rather than actually transforming him; that the righteousness of Christ is credited to his account by a forensic, legal declaration only, such that he is considered “righteous” by God’s juridical reckoning on account of Christ’s righteousness, despite God still seeing the sin that fills his life. Per Luther’s argument, even “a little spark of faith,” a “weak” or “imperfect” faith, the “firstfruits” of believing in Christ, was sufficient to bring about this imputation, counting a sinner righteous once and for all.

Marc Chagall. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1966.

Marc Chagall. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1966.

In Paul’s context, he argues that Abraham was counted righteous before God not because of any works he performed, but because of his faith in God’s promises. And, it’s true, both in the Hebrew of Genesis and the Greek of Paul’s letters, the verb translated “reckoned” is one of reckoning or perception: Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness.

But then, it begs the question: if Abraham’s faith was imputed to him as righteousness, and this imputation is analogous to a believer’s justification by faith in Christ, what kind of faith did Abraham have? Was it a “weak” or “imperfect” faith? Did the imputation to Abraham of righteousness that followed his faith belie and cover an otherwise sinful state in the man? And, once this faith was imputed to Abraham as righteousness, was he then “counted as righteous” from then on, he being unalienably in God’s favor from that point forward? If the faith of Abraham and its imputation to him as righteousness is an analogy to the justification of a Christian believer, then we should expect both the faith and the imputation to be similar.

A Total Commitment

It’s clear, however, that the faith of Abraham that was counted as righteousness was not an weak or imperfect, not an initial and insecure belief in God’s promises, as Luther would present, but instead a total commitment of his life and his destiny to God’s plan. The reference to Abraham’s faith being reckoned as righteousness occurred only after he had obeyed God and left his home far behind for a distant land. And his position before God was not that of a lost and abject sinner, but of a man who had dedicated himself in faith to total obedience to God’s commands. If his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, then surely it was because wholly committing himself in faith to God’s promise was a righteous thing to do.

Josef Molnar. Abraham's Journey. 1850.

Josef Molnar. Abraham’s Journey. 1850.

An Active Faith

And was Abraham’s reputation as righteous then permanent and irrevocable, because of his singular act of faith? Was he then forevermore in God’s favor, to be considered blameless even if he should fall away and reject God’s promises? In fact, God made a covenant with Abraham, binding Abraham to a set obligations.

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:9–10).

By the nature of a covenant, God’s promises to Abraham were contingent on Abraham’s remaining faithful to it. Abraham continued to be counted as righteous because he continued to keep his faith with God. In fact, we find very clearly, elsewhere in Scripture, that Abraham’s faith was considered righteous because it was an active faith:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:21–24).

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1603.

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1603.

The Works of Torah

What, then, was Paul talking about when he said that Abraham was justified “by faith … apart from works”? What “works” was Paul rejecting, “that none should boast”? It’s clear from Paul’s context that he refers very specifically to the works of the Law — νόμος (nomos), which in a Jewish context, referred almost exclusively to the Torah (the word θεσμός [thesmos] being the more common word in Greek for human laws, rules, rites, or precepts):

The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the Law but through the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:13).

In particular, the work of Torah with which Paul is most concerned is circumcision, which in the case of Abraham, had not even been commanded yet, when “he believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” In Paul’s context, circumcision was being preached by the Judaizers as a necessity for salvation in Christ. In other words, Christ was the Messiah of the Jews, and to become a follower of Christ, per their argument, one must first become a Jew. Not so, said Paul:

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith (Romans 3:28–30).

With a Faith Like Abraham

What Paul is saying, then, is that to inherit the covenant promises of God, one does not have or be a descendant of Abraham according to the flesh, either by blood or by circumcision (Romans 9:8). Rather, it is the children of the promise, who follow in the faith of Abraham — with a faith like Abraham — who inherit: a total commitment of one’s life and destiny; a placing of all one’s faith and hope in God’s promises; a faith active in love (Galatians 5:6).

Luther, Imputation, and Sin: Surprisingly Irrational

This was supposed to be a post about Abraham’s faith and righteousness, but instead I started reading Luther, and was unexpectedly carried away with other observations.

Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery, 1565 (WikiPaintings).

Now, I freely acknowledge that I may be missing something. Am I somehow misunderstanding Protestant theology? Please, someone correct me if I am. Because today, in seeking to understand, I’ve been reading Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, and, forgive me for saying so, but it comes across as the ravings of a lunatic. I say this not because I’m predisposed to oppose Luther; I read him because I’m seeking to understand his theology, not to condemn him as a person.

But what I read is a man obsessed with his own sin, going out of his mind to find a way how he could be acceptable to God and still be sinful; interposing every other paragraph with wild aspersions against “meritmongers” and “popist sophisters,” charging that they, “seek righteousness by their own works,” that in this they “think to appease the wrath of God: that is, they do not judge him to be merciful, true, and keeping promise, etc., but to be an angry judge, which must be pacified by their works.” Luther is the one so consumed by the thought of a wrathful God! I struggle to understand how someone so well educated in Catholic theology could so wholly and thoroughly misunderstand it — unless he either be intentionally misrepresenting it, or be genuinely mentally deranged. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue, repeatedly, that “faith killeth reason, and slayeth that beast which the whole world and all creatures cannot kill”; that reason is “the most bitter enemy of God,” a “pestilent beast,” “the fountain and headspring of all mischiefs” — to argue intentionally and consistently that faith and reason are wholly opposed, that his own theology and all true faith defies all reason, and that reason instead is the sole purview of “popish sophisters and schoolmen,” who “kill not reason … but quicken it.” I didn’t set out to write this — but really, I am shocked. I never expected Luther to be so irrational.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

So if I understand correctly, Luther argues that “God accounteth this imperfect faith for perfect righteousness” — that he even having a “weak faith,” God imputes to him the “perfect righteousness” of Christ, that he is then “covered under the shadow of Christ’s wings,” that he can then “dwell without all fear under that most ample and large heaven of the forgiveness of sins, which is spread over me, God [covering] and [pardoning] the remnant of sin in me,” and from then on God “counteth [his] sin for no sin,” indeed He “winketh at the remnants of sin yet sticking in our flesh, and so covereth them, as if they were no sin.” I knew that this was the upshot of what Protestants believed; I never knew that Luther stated it so boldfacedly! God looks on sin and accepts it instead as righteousness. And what’s more, that this a one-time, once-and-for-all, irrevocable occurrence.

I was a Protestant not so very long ago. I accepted this! Now, perhaps it’s my Lent-addled state, but I can no longer understand where Luther could rationally have derived such a doctrine, let alone how he could square it with the rest of Scripture. I suppose, by reckoning that he could be simul justus et peccator, at the same time righteous and a sinner, he can dismiss scriptural warnings against sin and judgment upon it as not applying to him, whether he actually be a wanton sinner or not, he being “righteous” by imputation: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9). But on the other hand, Paul writes, to members of the Church, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21), without regard to their having been once-justified or not.

Even more surprising than all this, though, is the tone with which Luther argues. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I could ramble on about this for some time, so I will bring this to a close. If you have any criticism, please give it. I would like to make sense of this.

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Catholic Church, Dead in “Religion”

Clio, muse of heroic poetry and history, by Pierre Mignard, 17th century.

Clio, muse of heroic poetry and history, by Pierre Mignard, 17th century.

Cardinal Newman famously stated, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” If any single sentence could sum up the reasons for my conversion, that would be it. Yet there are many, many well-educated and thoughtful Protestants, who seem thoroughly versed in the facts of the history of the Church, for whom that hasn’t been true. I’ve been thinking on this a lot lately, how and why that could be, but have up till now refrained from writing, fearful that I might stray into polemic. I pray now that God give me the graces to consider it fairly.

Learning History

My first inclination is to say that as a history major in college, I had a fairly secular and unbiased education — but I’m not sure that’s true. I did attend a public, state university, and at least in the beginning, was prescribed standard textbooks of Western Civilization, which presented a fairly balanced account of Church history. But as I progressed, most of my tutelage came under Dr. G, a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran and a medievalist, with a flair for the great men of history, who simultaneously held as heroes Luther, Erasmus, Bernard, Abelard, Peter Lombard, Gregory the Great, and Augustine. That is the stump from which my developing view of the Christian Church sprang, and if there was any self-contradiction in it, I didn’t realize it then. Dr. G also loved the great historians, and looking back, many of the ones he had us read were anything but favorable toward the Catholic Church: Gibbon, Burkhardt, Huizinga. But we also read the Catholic Friedrich Heer, and Arnold Toynbee, who probably better than anybody represents where I eventually found myself: loving and admiring whatever was great in all Christianity and every religion. (And recounting all of this makes me want to dust off my old history books.)

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I grew up a Protestant, so naturally I viewed the Protestant Reformers as heroes, as having accomplished something good; and in Dr. G’s accounts of Luther, he confirmed me in that. But the more I studied the early and medieval Church, the more I fell in love with the Church Fathers. And the more I read of the Church Fathers, the more I longed for the order and consistency of the Early Church, the sure orthodoxy each of these men affirmed and upheld, and the coherency and unity with which they viewed themselves and the whole Christian world as “the Universal Church.” Those things were clearly lacking from the churches I knew in my day. Where had they gone? I presumed, as a Protestant, that they had been lost somewhere over the ages, along with the true faith that Luther and the Reformers later sought to recover; I believed that they had been destroyed and were irrecoverable. I knew nothing of the modern Catholic Church then; I was only vaguely aware of it, that there were Catholic churches and there was a pope. I presumed, as a Protestant, who in my own upbringing had been taught a distaste for “dead religion” — that is, the regimented and ritualistic and institutional; anything that would impede a “relationship” with Christ — that “dead religion” is all that was left of the Catholic Church; that all the spiritual life had been choked out by dogma and rote and rituals and rules; by scholastic definitions and speculation.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), Philippe de Champaigne.

I wonder if this isn’t the view that many Protestant historians of the Church have: even if they have an admiration for the Early Church, their understanding of what the Catholic Church became being rooted in assumptions and prejudices and ignorances. Of course, it is my own assumption that an historian, having studied the Early Church and the Church Fathers, must admire it! I suppose there are two understandings the Protestant historian could take of the Early Church: either as something bright and new and pure and glorious, the thing that the Church today should long for and strive to recapture; or as something gradually corrupted and misled and fallen and apostate, the thing they presume had departed from the pure (and Protestant) teaching of the Apostles.

There is a lot more coming from this vein, and hopefully soon! This one’s really gushing (I wrote this all straight through in one sitting)! Stay tuned!

Resolutions

Reni, St. Peter Penitent

St. Peter Penitent (c. 1600), by Guido Reni. (WikiPaintings.org)

Hi. No, I haven’t forgotten about blogging. I’ve been pondering it every day, wondering what I should say next. I’ve written posts several times and then decided not to post them. It’s been an intense time of growth and healing and change, being broken and rebuilt. And I’ve come to a few resolutions for this new year.

I’ve been increasingly convicted about the polemic tone my blog has taken. I set out to show the world the reasons for my faith, how the Lord had guided me to the truth, and all the beautiful and glorious things about the fullness found only in the Catholic Church. But especially in the past six months or so, I’ve taken more to attacking what others believe, particularly Protestants, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I do believe that in some respects they’re wrong — but the right of Christ’s love, which we share, outweighs by worlds the wrong of their sometimes errors in doctrine. And I am put here to show that love, to love, above all, my own brother and sister, that the world may know that we are Christ’s and that He is sent by God.

So from now on I will strive to emphasize what is good and true and right about Catholicism. That will sometimes entail demonstrating what is wrong with opposing views, but I will always strive to do so in love, and to present what can build up rather than merely tear down.

Oh, and my thesis is done and approved. I defended it now about a month ago. New things are coming in my life. And it’s time to return to blogging. This morning as I was lying in bed, the Lord gave me several posts to start brewing — likely to be series, given my penchant for words. I want to pick up the Sacraments with a post on the sacrifice of the Mass. There’s still more to talk about with Baptism, and then I want to talk about Confession and Anointing of the Sick and Holy Orders. And I have the next post in my conversion story brewing. Stay tuned!

“Nuda Scriptura” and the Authority of Tradition

Bible painting

Bearing down on the thesis today. But I wanted to point you in the direction of an incisive new post by Bryan Cross, relevant to what we’ve been talking about recently, over at Called to Communion: “Sola Scriptura Redux: Matthew Barrett, Tradition, and Authority.”

In it, Bryan responds to a “Reformation Day” post by Matthew Barrett of California Baptist University at the Gospel Coalition, “‘Sola Scriptura’ Radicalized and Abandoned,” which argues that sola scriptura never meant for a total abandonment of tradition, but that Protestants should value and uphold a ‘healthy’ adherence to tradition. But as Bryan rightly points out, the proposition of submitting only to the tradition that one believes agrees with Scripture actually submits tradition to one’s own interpretation of Scripture — and isn’t submission at all. As I asked a few days ago, “What authority does your interpretation have?” To presume that one’s own understanding of Scripture is the very voice of Scripture places oneself as the ultimate authority.

In the course of Matthew’s article, I happened across a term I hadn’t seen used before, one Matthew uses to describe the position many Protestants put themselves in who abandon all else but the bald face of Scripture: nuda scriptura, “bare Scripture” — which, as I’m beginning to think more and more, most aptly describes the whole concept of sola scriptura: the Emperor’s New Clothes that no one dares admit are not clothes at all, but the thin covering of one’s own self-assurance. I have yet to hear any answers offered to my challenge: If we are supposed to hold all doctrine to the word of Scripture, and reject anything not found there, why isn’t that teaching found in Scripture? Why do we not find the earliest Christians following that precept? If the Church Fathers were such faithful adherents of sola scriptura, why did every one of them accept and teach and pass on unchallenged the many “unscriptural” teachings of tradition?

The peace of Christ to you today.

The Emperor's New Clothes

A Note on “Hebrew Roots” or “Messianic” Christianity

(Here is a note that originated as a comment to a friend on Facebook, voicing my concerns about something I’ve never spoken about here before: “Hebrew Roots” Christianity or “Messianic Judaism.”)

Arch of Titus Menorah

An image from the Arch of Titus in Rome, commemorating the Roman sack of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

I have mixed feelings about the Messianic and “Hebrew Roots” movements. (I don’t know if it’s fair to lump those together or not. I think the two have different origins, but work from similar principles.) I think it’s definitely valuable to understand the Hebrew context and roots of the Christian faith, to seek to recover valuable traditions — but at the same time, many of the people I’ve talked to tend to be anti-traditional and iconoclastic in the opposite direction, toward all established Christian tradition, both Protestant and especially Catholic.

Christianity has come down to us by way of a 2,000-year-old tradition — 2,000 years of faithful men and women who have believed and followed God and preserved and handed down the faith. And if one isn’t careful about it, this “Hebrew Roots” movement implies a renunciation of all that. It seems to be the extreme end of the attitude that was born in the Reformation: let’s go back and recover the original Christian faith; let’s find a “pure” faith, and throw away anything else that’s been added.

Reformation iconoclasm in the Netherlands.

Reformation iconoclasm in the Netherlands.

But I think it’s dangerous to separate faith from history and tradition. I think it was dangerous (and harmful) for the Protestant Reformers to separate the faith from so much of the tradition through which they had received it — so many babies thrown out with the dirty bathwater — and Protestants have been lacking some necessary elements ever since. The Protestant notion of sola scriptura put forward the idea that all one needs to have Christian faith is “Scripture alone,” so it’s only logical to suppose that if we strip away all the tradition, even the Protestant tradition, we’ll end up with what we were originally supposed to have. But that presumes that the Protestant idea was correct in the first place. I get the feeling that much of what is driving this movement is frustration with the disorder and fragmentation the Protestant tradition is in — it was the same frustration that has led me and many others to rediscover the Catholic Church — but that disorder ought to be an indication that something has gone wrong in the principles and premises of Protestantism, not in the whole of Christian tradition. It seems to be a foregone concluson among Protestants that the Catholic Church is a corrupt and unviable option; perhaps they should take a closer look at that before they dismiss it.

de la Tour, St. Paul (1620)

St. Paul (1620), by Georges de la Tour.

Yes, Jesus and the Apostles were Jews, and the Christian faith is the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy and the culmination of Hebrew tradition. Yes, the earliest Christians were all Jewish and sought to preserve their Jewish identity in addition to being followers of the Messiah. But Protestants, especially those in this “Hebrew Roots” movement, presume that the historic, Catholic Church unfaithfully put aside those Jewish traditions or overwrote them with syncretistic or pagan or otherwise compromised doctrines. And separating the faith from history, presuming that Scripture is the only source one needs, makes it easy to believe that.

But the fact is that history presents a very different story. By the beginning of the second century, mere years after the deaths of the Apostles, the Christian and Jewish traditions were already parting ways. The Jews rejected Christians as anti-Jewish heretics, and Christians came to reject Jewish traditions as subversive and anti-Christian. Christian worship on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) had been a practice since the Apostles themselves (which Scripture itself supports), and the growing Church, as Christians were expelled from the synagogues, soon fell away from also celebrating Jewish worship on the Sabbath.

To sever faith from history forgets all of that and denies it happened. To cast away the Tradition of the Church loses the whole context of the New Testament and the Early Church, and with it the authentic teaching of the Apostles on how Christian worship was to be conducted. The liturgy of the Catholic Mass even to this day clearly follows the forms of the Jewish synagogue liturgy. The “Hebrew Roots” of Christianity are not lost; they merely grew into full-grown oaks.

Hebrew Roots

On the other hand, “Hebrew Roots” and Messianic Judaism in fact adopt a fabricated tradition — an invention of someone or another’s subjective conception of how early Jewish Christians would have worshipped — since no authentic tradition of Judaic Christianity descends to us. It takes on a false form of ancience and tradition, and in fact “adds to the faith” as much as Protestants have ever accused Catholics of doing, only adding genuine novelty and invention rather than what they only presume to be. It tends to be based on a very Protestant reading of Scripture (it doesn’t cast away that tradition wholly), and suffers from the same basic fallacies: by ignoring the received tradition of the Church, it misses many of the crucial understandings and connections which early Christian writers and the Church Fathers realized and retained and have handed down to us. Even more troubling, I’ve encountered advocates of Christians returning to the observance of the Torah, the Jewish Law, when Scripture is quite clear that this is opposed to or even negates faith in Christ.

Ribera, Saint Paul (1637)

Saint Paul (1637), by Jusepe de Ribera.

Scripture is clear that followers of Jesus, particularly Gentile believers, were under no obligation to observe the Torah or maintain Jewish practices, and if anything, even for Jews, these distracted from the fulfillment and revelation of Christ. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that God, “in speaking of a new covenant, treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13). Paul told the Colossians to “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath [the principal elements of Jewish observance]. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17). In fact, the whole message of Paul against the heresy of the Judaizers was for Christians not to allow themselves to again be placed under the yoke of the Jewish Law, to seek justification with God through religious observance and not through faith in Christ. “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

The Mercy of Purgatory

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

(Today is All Souls’ Day, the commemoration of the holy souls in purgatory. As it happens, I had this post half-brewed already after a recent e-mail conversation with an anti-Catholic.)

One of the most frequent charges I hear from anti-Catholics against the doctrine of purgatory is that it “nullifies the finished work of Christ on the cross” — that somehow, the idea of purgatory implies that Jesus’s atonement was “not enough”; that sinners still have to expiate their own sins. This charge reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what purgatory is.

In fact, as Scripture itself teaches, it is the ultimate mercy:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation [i.e. you whom I planted, cf. vv. 5–8], and another man is building upon it [i.e. each of us, fellow workers of the Lord, cf. v. 9]. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10–15)

If any man’s work is burned up — even by the fire of judgment — he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Even if a man’s works are merely wood, hay, straw — materials that will not last — if he has squandered his time on this earth, and not stored up treasures in heaven (cf. Matthew 6:20) — then there is still a chance for him to be saved. How merciful is our Lord!

(At this point, I got off track and examined the passage more closely than I intended to, to reject a common Protestant counterargument — after I said I wasn’t going to. If you would like to read that, I will post it separately tomorrow(?).)

Flames

This purging fire is not a limitation of Christ’s atonement — it is an even further and deeper extension of it. Christ’s work on the cross was so overpowering, so uncontainable, that it bursts every bond of death, hell, and the grave — that it can reach to us even beyond the grave. Anti-Catholics suppose that purgatory is the application of some other power than the grace of Christ to the soul — usually, they think it is our own works or purchased indulgences or some other such? But that final purification is accomplished by none other than the same grace, the same blood, the same redemption that redeems us in life.

So why, they ask, weren’t we redeemed in life? Doesn’t this idea suppose that His redemption wasn’t enough to save us while we were alive? Here is where Protestants misunderstand. In especially the Evangelical Protestant mind, “salvation” is a one-time event, a one-time regeneration by faith, which imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, such that there is no other work to be done so far as our salvation — we are then “saved.” This tends to conflate a lot of ideas together, even from classical Protestant theology, and lose some in the shuffle. Our terminology and vocabulary is a stumbling block at this point, especially to Catholic–Protestant dialogue.

Catholics agree that in a sense, salvation is a once-and-for-all event: the irrevocable moment of our Baptism in which we are washed with the blood of Christ, our every sin cleansed, and our former self is buried with Christ, and we are raised to new life in Him. Catholics even agree that in a sense, that initial justification is by faith alone — not a “faith” of mere intellectual assent, but of faith on fire with love and raised by hope. And nothing can take away that grace; it is imprinted on our souls. But that isn’t the end of the journey. We then have a road to walk (cf. Matthew 7:13–14), a cross to bear (Luke 9:23). We have to abide in Christ (John 15:1–17) and endure to the end (Matthew 24:13, Luke 21:19). And on that journey, if we abide in His love, we will be sanctified — gradually purified and made holy.

Friendship Sunrise

Sunrise at Friendship, where four generations of my family lie buried.

Sanctification: This is a term that I think many Evangelicals have lost sight of; and many Reformed understand, but have separated it so far from justification that they fail to associate it with salvation. Catholics do not make a clean distinction between the two as Protestants have: because they are both the works of Christ’s grace, and they are both integral parts of the same process of cleansing us from sin and making us holy. But put in Protestant terms: yes, there is an initial justification in which we are saved from our sins and incorporated into Christ. And purgatory has little to do with that. As Paul himself said, one’s perishable works can be burned away and we can be saved through fire — but only if his foundation is Christ. Purgatory is only for those who die in Christ: the holy souls in purgatory are already “saved,” and they will go to heaven, without exception. Put simply, purgatory is the completion of the process of sanctification if we didn’t complete it in life.

There is a difference between the eternal guilt of one’s sins, which is wholly obliterated by Christ’s forgiveness, and the temporal effects of one’s sins, which must be purified by sanctification, that comes into play here. But this post is already too long. The difference in Protestant theology between justification and sanctification is illustrative here: even if we are wholly justified by Christ, the guilt of our sins forgiven, we still must be sanctified — for nothing impure can enter heaven and stand before God (Revelation 21:27).

Evangelical Protestants especially, but Reformed too, make a sharp, ruthless, and binary distinction between those who are saved and those who are unsaved — cleanly defined by that one-time moment of salvation. So often they lament the deaths of those who, in their judgment, were not saved, who had not experienced that salvation. But this leaves no room for the overflowing mercy of our God. It is true that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 6:44). But only God can judge our hearts; only He can know the foundation He lays. And purgatory, rather than a limitation of God’s grace, is its ultimate outpouring in our lives — bringing that final, purifying grace to those of us whose works built on that foundation were imperfect.