Justification may therefore be described as both event and process. It is event, for in Holy Baptism God absolves the sinner of all his sins and regenerates him in the Holy Spirit. It is process, for in Holy Baptism God establishes a friendship with the believer, a friendship that can be strengthened and deepened as the believer conforms himself to Christ through prayer, sacrifice, and good works, but which can also be injured or lost through grievous sin and impiety.In thinking of this distinction between a mere act of assent and a process of growth in love and obedience, I am often reminded of a distinction drawn by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his ethical writings between acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty. Imagine two shopkeepers, Smith and Jones, who both own small shops in the same shopping district and who both charge fully just prices for their goods. In reasoning about whether or not to charge just prices, Smith thought to himself:
If I charge unjust prices for my goods, I shall lose business, because Jones is charging just prices for his goods, and his shop is close enough to mine that my customers will go to his shop instead, and this may result in my losing my shop and livelihood. Therefore I will charge only just prices, thus competing with Jones and saving my own skin.But Jones reasons to himself this way:
If I were a customer looking for these sorts of goods, and if this were the only shop around, I would want the shopkeeper to charge me a just and fair price, since otherwise I might not be able to buy these goods and if these goods are necessary to my well-being I might begin to fare rather badly if I could not obtain them. Therefore I will charge only just prices, since that is what I would expect of anyone else.Kant characterized the difference between Smith and Jones this way. Smith's reasoning was basically egoistic: he did, in the end, do his duty, but he did not do it because it was his duty, rather, he did something that was fully in accordance with duty, that is, it was consistent with what his duty happened to be, but his motivation was not to do his duty but to save his own skin. Jones, by contrast, did something that was his duty to do, and his reason for doing it was simply that it was his duty to act that way, since it was what he himself would have expected from anyone else.
The person who merely assents to God's will, without willing it himself, is more like Smith than Jones, that is, he merely accepts a certain teaching or a certain way of life as a necessary condition of some kind, but there is no evidence available in the mere acceptance of the teaching or way of life that there is a concomitant metanoia, that essential "changing of one's heart" that goes along with true conversion. As Fr. Kimel notes, "Even the devils believe and tremble." It is, then a necessary condition upon justification that one believe, but clearly it is not a sufficient condition. There is also required a certain essential attitude towards life in Christ, and that attitude, that inner motivation, will express itself in more ways than simply in terms of intellectual assent to certain propositions. It will, by its very nature, express itself in how we live our lives, in terms of the things that we do.
When I say "by its very nature" I am appealing to a certain kind of necessity, a kind of necessity that Aristotle discussed in his treatise Posterior Analytics. At 73b10-16 Aristotle notes that we may speak of something being the case per se when it
holds in itself--for example, if something died while being sacrificed, it died in the sacrifice since it died because of being sacrificed, and it was not incidental that it died while being sacrificed.In Aristotle's day, to sacrifice an animal meant to cut its throat, but one did not merely cut the throat with a slit, so as to make the animal bleed, one cut the throat in such a way that it was inevitable that the animal would bleed to death. If the animal did not die from blood loss, it was not a sacrifice. Dying, then, is a necessary consequence of the sacrificing of the animal, it is a part of the very essence of sacrifice, even though the sacrificial cutting is not itself identical with the animal's dying.
In the case of Christian belief, there is an analogue to this that, thankfully, need not necessarily involve dying or even the loss of blood (though on the other hand, it may possibly involve both of those things). It does involve action of some kind, it involves living one's life in a particular way, more like Jones than Smith, even though the two lives may, in some respects, be indistinguishable. But if Jones acts a certain way because of his motivation, there are bound to be cases where his choices differ from Smith's. So, too, the Christian's mode of living will necessarily differ from that of the devil, who also believes and trembles. The Christian, at the very least, will not tremble, at least not for the same reason; but there will be other differences as well.
The Christian will live a life marked by observable differences from the non-Christian lives being lived around him, as the author of St. John's first letter tells us:
But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue: but in deed and in truth.If God's love abides in you, if your motivation to act is more like that of Jones than that of Smith, then it will be as impossible for you not to do good works as it is impossible for a sacrificed animal not to die. It does not follow from this, of course, that you are saved by your good works--all that follows is what the author of the letter of St. James has told us:
Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves...Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.This is a Scriptural text that has occasioned much debate in this regard--so much so that some Reformers of the 16th century sought to exclude the letter of St. James from the Canon of the New Testament. Some of the debate over texts such as this one is nothing more than an artifact of the dangers of proof-texting. Any biblical text, taken in isolation, can be interpreted as being at odds with other texts. There used to be a cottage industry in this sort of thing. In 1874, as Quellenforschungen came to dominate philology during the rise of scientism, and the principles of textual criticism came to be applied more and more unfavorably to the Bible, John W. Haley wrote a book called An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, in which he systematically examined parallel Scriptural texts and defended them from charges of logical inconsistency, showing, in each case, how a correct understanding of either context or meaning could clear up any "alleged discrepancies". Here's what he had to say about the contrast between Galatians 3.11-12 and James 2.14, 17, 21-26:
There is no collision between Paul and James. They merely present different aspects or relations of the same great truth. Paul is arguing against self-righteous religionists, who rely for salvation upon external morality, upon mere works; James addresses those who maintain that, provided a man's belief is correct, it matters little what his conduct is; that a "bare assentive faith is sufficient for salvation, whitout its living fruits in a holy life." In a word, Paul is combating Pharisaism; James, Antinomianism. One asserts: "Works are good for nothing except as they spring from faith"; the other responds: "Faith is of no value except as it produces works." Both together affirm the inseparable connection and unalterable relation of faith and works as cause and effect.I suspect that few serious and well-educated exegetes would disagree with his analysis. What gave rise to interpretations of the sola fide principle that tended to be hostile to Roman Catholicism was no doubt a reaction to perceived abuses of the late medieval period, especially the sales of indulgences. While some of this was clearly abusive (for example, the monies raised for the rebuilding of St. Peter's in Rome was more like revenue enhancement than anything else), there is nothing theologically suspect about the doctrine of indulgences in itself.
Whatever the source of this suspicion of the "Romish doctrine" of "salvation through good works", it is interesting to note the fervor of those who wished to purge even the Scriptures themselves of any such doctrine, to the point of wanting to exclude entirely those passages deemed, well, too "Catholic". It is in this connection that we run up against that other great rallying cry of Reformed Protestantism, sola Scriptura, "Scripture alone", that is, the idea that the only legitimate teaching authority is the text of the Scriptures itself. This is a curious principle if for no other reason than its self-refuting nature. There was a movement in philosophy during the 1930s and 1940s, sometimes known as Verificationism, that held the following principle, call it principle V:
The meaning of any assertion is nothing other than the method of verification of that assertion.Principle V was particularly popular among the positivists, who thought that philosophy would be better off if it abandoned all that meaningless gibberish being done in the name of metaphysics and tried to be more like the empirical sciences. According to these sorts of philosophers, an assertion is not so much false if it cannot be empirically verified, it is downright meaningless. That means that all talk of God, morality, essences, etc., should be tossed into the dustbin of history, since none of those things can be empirically verified. The difficulty lay in the verificationist principle itself, principle V. What, precisely, is the method of its verification? There is no method for verifying such a sentence, so it, too, is meaningless, and that doesn't seem too good for verificationism.
Now we are told that the sole source of teaching authority is to be Scripture alone. Call this assertion principle S. On what authority are we to accept the truth of principle S? According to principle S, the only source of authority for the truth of any teaching is Scripture, but nowhere do the Scriptures advocate anything like principle S. The closest thing one gets to it is probably to be found in Revelation 22.18-19:
If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life....Putting aside, for a moment, the fact that the passage appears to be referring not to the Scriptures as a whole, but only to the book of Revelation, and the fact that, even if we take these verses in the way that the Sola Scriptura crowd would like to take them, it would prove to be rather embarrassing for the likes of Luther and others who wanted to remove parts of the book of Revelation from the Canon of the New Testament, there is still the even more difficult problem of the fact that the verses, if taken in the wrong way, contradict themselves, because of course as those words were being written, they were not yet in any "Scriptures", they were, in fact, being added to the Scriptures by the person writing them. The same would be true of any Biblical text taken to be proof of the Sola Scriptura principle, and so the principle is in itself incoherent and invalid.
In point of fact, none of the texts of the New Testament existed in any written form until well into the second generation of Christian history. While the Apostles yet lived their teaching was transmitted orally, and it probably remained oral for some time. The earliest New Testament text is the First Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, dating to about 50 or 51. Now, he is obviously teaching things in that letter, things that are not written in any Scriptural text because the only Scriptural texts available to him were the Septuagint and the Hebrew Scriptures, neither of which contained any direct Christian teachings. The only way to get Christian teachings out of those texts is through ampliative interpretation, precisely the thing that is condemned by the principle of Sola Scriptura.
Now, if I were going to defend this principle against this line of argumentation, I would probably say something along the lines of "When I say 'sola scriptura' what I mean is the text of the Scriptures as they stand today," but it is difficult to find any principled reason for thinking this to be a valid theological principle. It is extraordinarily ad hoc in its approach, and it presupposes that the New Testament Canon that we have today is something that somehow settled itself, independently of the Church's teaching authority. In point of fact, the documents of the New Testament derive their teaching authority not from their being part of the Canon, but rather they derive their being in the Canon by virtue of the teaching authority of the Church, which both produced them and put them into the Canon. To say that the Church's authority to interpret and teach from the scriptures disappeared once the Canon was settled is to beg the question; to say that the Church did not have the authority to interpret and teach from the Scriptures prior to the settling of the Canon is to say that nothing taught by the Church prior to the 16th century can count as authoritatively taught, including such doctrines as the Trinity and the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Presumably the defenders of the principle of sola Scriptura are Trinitarians in spite of the fact that being a Trinitarian is not warranted by Scripture alone, if by "alone" one means "independently of the Church's authority to interpret the meaning of Scripture.
If both of these principles are incoherent, what is their appeal? It is too facile to point out that we live in times in which incoherence is itself taken to be a value--all you have to do is to look at the moral relativism that pervades our materialistic culture. This is too facile because, of course, the defenders of sola Scriptura are not moral relativists--usually they are quite the opposite--and it seems unlikely that their thinking is influenced by that kind of intellectual banality. I would suggest that, on the contrary, the appeal of these doctrines lies in their perceived capacity to rule out a wide range of interpretive options right from the start. In my prefatory remarks to this post (they can be found here), I suggested that these principles are the functional equivalent of the scientific principle of parsimony: they are grand simplifications that act as even grander simplifiers, rendering difficult theological questions easy and brightly delimited within boundaries of stark black and white. Reality itself is seldom like that, but if you pretend that it is you may find reality somewhat easier to deal with. This is not an intellectual attitude that is conducive to moral relativism, but it is a kind of intellectual sloppiness and laziness nonetheless, dressed up as a desire for precision and loyalty to a text. To see just how sloppy it can become, all one has to do is to have a look at some of the defenses of the principle floating around on the internet, such as the one available here. The arguments tend to equivocate or appeal to sophistries, or to ignore reasonable alternative views, or to be extremely selective in their compilation of evidence. The principle cannot be found in the scriptures, nor can it be found in the tradition--it is, in short, the invention of an ideology, an ideology that was imposed by the cultural elites of the 16th century as part of a broader political program aimed at greater independence from Rome at a time when securing that independence was incredibly risky. If you can show that Rome usurped her authority to teach from the only authority ever intended by God, namely, Holy Writ, then you are well on your way to becoming your own magisterium. Once you've gotten rid of Rome as an interpretive guide, as Luther and the other Reformers did, you need to fill the vacuum by providing a new, Reformed guide to interpretation. Scripture all by itself will always stand in need of interpretation, otherwise there would never be any need to listen to any preacher ever again, be he Catholic or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Free Will Baptist or what have you.
It seems to me that the folks who make heavy water out of these two theological slogans are beginning to be somewhat thin on the ground--the passions of the Reformation period are long behind us--but there are still good reasons for thinking about their vapidity and the reasons for rejecting them. The close examination of deeply held convictions is always worth the effort, especially when, by means of such an examination, those convictions can be exposed for the banalities that they are.