Protestant Critique of Catholic

It’s been going on for almost 400 years now. Luther unleashed an understanding of the gospel and of justification in a way that criticized the Catholic understanding. It could be said, however, that Luther pushed Augustine against Aquinas, but that would not be entirely accurate.

Regardless, Alan J. Spence, in his new book (Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed), pits Augustine over against Aquinas in some notable and even trenchant ways. Here’s a sketch of his sketch:

First, Augustine taught that it was all of grace. In fact, it can be said that “God acknowledges and rewards the love that he instils in us” (55). That is, God prompts grace and love and obedience and then rewards his own promptings of the same.

Do you think there is a distinction of the ground of justification and glorification? How do you understanding the language of “reward” in the New Testament?

Second, Aquinas doesn’t see it this way, and herein lies one of the core differences between classic Catholic and classic Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed at some level) theology. Spence’s presentation:

1. Aquinas equates justification with forgiveness of sins (ST 1.2 q.113, article 1). Righteousness then is about reconciliation with God.  This leads to the view that justification involves an infusion of grace.  Free will involves God’s act to make it free (but it is not independent of God) and this entails faith and repentance. 

2. Aquinas, and this is the big point of Spence’s sketch, clearly distinguishes justification (forgiveness) from glorification. Justification is wholly undeserved mercy. But eternal life (glorification) is granted to the righteous for their loving actions in this life. Eternal life then becomes a reward for loving actions. (This is not simple justice but relative, congruous justice.) All of this then looks like this: mercy generates faith and this leads one into the state of grace, and participation in grace becomes — my term — somewhat dialectical between God and the righteous person so that loving actions are rewarded by God.

An issue here: Gary Anderson has a very good book on the biblical and Jewish notions of sin (Sin: A History) wherein he probes the metaphors of how the Bible/Judaism understood the implication of sin: it shifts from burden to debt, and that means forgiveness shifts from load released to reward/debt cancelled. One possible implication then is that reward language needs to be seen in its history and not necessarily as some kind of one-to-one correspondence to ontological realities. That is, debt and reward are a way of talking about sin and its forgiveness. Jewish “works” when tied to rewards — and Jesus does this often — is not so much about merit but about a fertile context for understanding relationship to God. Anderson’s book, I am saying, is a way of untangling some of this later development.

3. Early Christian and Medieval theology got into the issue of mortal sin. (This got inordinately complex at times and baptisms were postponed until just before death.) In general, Aquinas’ view of justification gets into this discussion. Mortal sin jeopardizes eternal life and this leads to the doctrine of penance, which involves contrition, confession and satisfaction (and this is where Luther’s theology became very polemical). This then leads to the church’s priest being able to absolve a person of sins (so the church becomes central to forgiveness). Purgatory gets involved too.

4. But let’s keep the big picture in mind: Aquinas’ distinction between justification and glorification, and the grounds of each, leads him away from Augustine, who sees it all as God’s own self-reward (my term). Spence admits this is not unlike Romans 5:1-2 where Paul distinguishes justification from glorification.

I’m not with either Augustine or Aquinas here so I have no dog in this fight. But Spence’s own critique of Aquinas ignores what Heb 6:1-8 says as he claims Augustine’s greater stability over Aquinas. I agree with Spence that Aquinas needs to think more in terms of faith when it comes to “mortal” sins. The issue for me is the mortal sin idea and the pursuit of restoration. IF it is mortal, there is no repentance (as Hebrews says); IF repentance and absolution are possible, it is not mortal.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    A couple notes from a layman.

    I heard it expressed as Protestants feel that those who are justified are also sanctified while Catholics say the sanctification are, inherently, the works by which we are judged, and they come, that is sanctification comes, over the rest of your life. Is that the same, just subbing out glorification for sanctification?

    And I thought Hebrews 6 was more like the unforgivable sin of sinning against the holy spirit and less about committing serious sins for which we must actively repent. They are mortal unless you do…..

  • scotmcknight

    DRT, you may be right. I don’t know how Heb 6 lines up with the mortal sin issue, and have assumed Heb 6 and the sin against the Spirit (unforgiveable) in Matt 12 are more or less the same.

  • Ben Steel

    To my knowledge in the Summa, Aquinas does not use the Heb text in relation to the discussion on mortal sin.
    As for the shift Aquinas makes away from Augustine, in language yes, but I wouldn’t say Thomas is any less dependent on grace, as God infuses into us through gifts of faith hope and charity in order that as Thomas shows, our nature may be perfected through grace (Summa Theologiae I, q.1, a.8 reply obj 2.
    As for the justification/glorification split insofar as the type of grace given the recipient has a different object and function (justification/forgiveness of sins vs. positively making a person fit for the kingdom of heaven) it would seem that Aquinas would differentiate between those species of grace.

  • http://c-far.blogspot.com/ josenmiami

    I am assuming that in point number 1, paragraph 6, you meant to say “Augustine” instead of “Aquinas”? otherwise, I was a bit confused by that part.

  • scotmcknight

    josenmiami, Aquinas is right (I’m summarizing Spence, of course).

  • John W Frye

    Scot, you summarized like this: “Justification is wholly undeserved mercy. But eternal life (glorification) is granted to the righteous for their loving actions in this life. Eternal life then becomes a reward for loving actions.” So, in that view I am thinking that “justification” in itself does not “assure” one of eternal life. Correct? Justification places one in a cooperative relationship with God, and IF one chooses not to cooperate (live the Jesus Creed) with God, one cannot expect *ipso facto* to be glorified, i.e., enter into eternal life. I think there needs to be some wiggle room so that Hebrews 6 is a biting reality.

  • dopderbeck

    Hmmm.. To echo a bit of what Ben (#3) said, I don’t think I’d agree on such a sharp distinction between Augustine and Aquinas. That sounds pretty historically reductive to my ears.

    There are, of course, multiple kinds of “Thomisms” as well as multiple kinds of “Augustinianisms” — that is, both Augustine and Thomas were such profound and prolific thinkers that there is more than one way to interpret and appropriate what they work is about, and more than one way in which their work influenced subsequent theologies even with Catholicism.

    I do tend to agree that Scholastic / Analytic Thomism became overly fixated on these fine distinctions like the one between “venal” and “mortal” sin, and that this lead to a juridicial penitential system, indulgences, etc. And those things to me are represent a real problem with Catholic theology even today.

    To be fair, however, modern Catholic theology tends to focus more on intent than form with respect to “mortal” sin. That is, most modern Catholic theologians would say something is a “mortal” sin only if the sinner fully understands the implication of the sin and does it anyway. So, for example, a person who uses birth control (which the RCC still holds is a “mortal sin” and “intrinsically evil” even for married couples) in excusable ignorance of the fact that this is a “mortal” sin may be committing only a venal sin. And there is, as you might expect, wide-ranging and vigorous debate among “traditionalist” and other kinds of Catholic thinkers today concerning exactly what might comprise excusable ignorance — for some more “liberal” Catholics, it seems that almost nothing could really ever be a “mortal” sin. When you suss all this out, it’s not really all that different in effect from Reformed efforts to resist antinomian tendencies — but what most conservative Reformed thinkers would say is that someone who persistently and knowingly and willfully engages in serious sin is evidencing the fact that he or she does not really have saving faith. Is the difference here really that vast?

    In any event, for High Scholastic legalism and casuistry, I would tend towards placing more of the “blame” not squarely on Thomas, but on the nominalists who came after Thomas and divorced Medieval theology from its metaphysical / participationist roots — roots which in fact tie Aquinas to Augustine. Yet I would also place some of the “blame” on Augustine, for some of the moves he made away from the framework of the Greek Fathers.

  • scotmcknight

    John, that appears to be right from Spence’s summary.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Justification places one in a cooperative relationship with God, and IF one chooses not to cooperate (live the Jesus Creed) with God, one cannot expect *ipso facto* to be glorified, i.e., enter into eternal life.

    Yeah, that’s more or less what I would say.

    I’ve been told that the Eastern Orthodox (and particularly a guy named St. John Cassian, who I need to read more of), were even stronger on this stuff, and on the importance of our free choice to cooperate with God.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: That is, most modern Catholic theologians would say something is a “mortal” sin only if the sinner fully understands the implication of the sin and does it anyway

    ‘Consent of the will’ also plays a role- thus in certain cases culpability can be reduced or eliminated if one is acting under the influence of addiction, psychological compulsions, depression, or other factors that attentuate free will.

  • Chris White

    Wow! @10

    Complicated. With a myriad of factors that can attenuate the soul how could one ever be sure?

    I do believe God wants us to cooperate with him in our sanctification and that cooperation is a reflection of our faith (trust) in him. I don’t see how one not cooperating in the sanctification process can make a valid claim of being justified (being a believer in Christ) and then claim any portion of the inheritance with have with him.

    I do think that the ethos of our culture or world system has distorted what rewards mean in the Scripture as easily seen by the health/wealth TV preachers.

    If we serve God here, in faithful obedience, there is some kind of correlation with what rewards will be in the new heaven/earth. I don’t know what the rewards will be and it really doesn’t matter. I do know the rewards will have nothing to do with satisfying the current desires of the flesh.

    Peace.


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