Initial Justification & “Faith Alone”: Harmonious?

Initial Justification & “Faith Alone”: Harmonious? April 27, 2016
Madonna and Child with Sts. Peter and Paul (1608-1609), by Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Initial justification is not at all by works in the sense that it is not the equivalent of Pelagianism, according to Trent’s Decree on Justification, ch. 8. We can do nothing to earn it. And in initial justification, there is no time to do any work; it is a gift purely of grace, initiated by God. Works had nothing to do with it, as the Decree says.

Fernand Prat, S.J., a renowned biblical exegete and theologian, wrote:

Let us now return to Paul’s own declarations. That of the Epistle to the Romans is the simplest: ‘Man is justified by faith without the works of the Law.’ The requirement of the argument as well as the order of the sentence makes the emphasis fall on the last words of the statement which resolves itself into two propositions: ‘Man is justified without the works of the Law, independently of them’ — the principal proposition; ‘Man is justified by faith’ — an incidental proposition. It will be remarked that the Apostle here is not concerned with the part which works play after justification. They they are then necessary appears from his system of morals, and that they increase the justice already acquired follows from his principles; but in the controversy with the Judaizers the debate turns chiefly on FIRST justification — namely, on the passage from the state of sin to that of grace. The works of the Law are neither the cause nor the essential condition, nor even, in themselves, the occasion of it; and according to the most elementary principles of the Pauline theology one could say as much of natural works done before justification, and with more reason. But note well that St. Paul does not say that faith is the only disposition required, and we know by other passages that it must be accompanied by two complementary sentiments: repentance for the past and acceptance of the divine will for the future.

The second text is: ‘Man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.’ By making St. Paul say that man is not justified by works alone, but by works joined to faith, we get a meaning diametrically opposed to his doctrine and exactly what he fought against in the case of the Judaizers. The essentially complex phrase must be resolved thus: ‘Man is not justified by the works of the Law; he is justified only by the faith of Jesus Christ.’ Whether the faith of Jesus Christ is the faith of which he is the author, or the faith of which he is the object — faith in himself, his person, and his preaching — matters little; in either case it is the sum total of the Christian revelation, the Gospel as opposed to the Mosaic Law. We remark as before, that it is a question of works anterior to justification, and that the absolute necessity of faith does not exclude the other dispositions required.

(The Theology of St. Paul, tr. by John L. Stoddard, Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Bookshop, 1952, vol. 1 of 2, 175-176, emphasis added in one place: “FIRST”)

[Fernand Prat. S.J. was a Professor of Scripture. He was one of the first consultants to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and editor of the Etudes Bibliques. He helped to prepare many of the decisions regarding Modernism, leading up to its condemnation in 1907, and was involved in the planning of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome]

Note that his phrase “first justification” is precisely synonymous with “initial justification.” Whatever phrase Protestants use, in my Roget’s Thesaurus, “first” is listed as a synonym of “initial” and “initial” is listed as a synonym for “first.” As long as Catholics explain what we mean by it, I don’t see anything wrong with using the term “initial justification”

[I was getting criticism from a Catholic, to the effect that I was compromising Catholic doctrine and accepting aspects of a specifically Protestant faith alone viewpoint]

We’re no more bound (i.e., not absolutely, with no exceptions whatever) to the exact terminology of Trent than we are bound to the exact terminology of Holy Scripture (“Trinity” and “Hypostatic Union” immediately come to mind). Both the words and the doctrines develop all the time, and the situations we find ourselves in demand fresh approaches, without yielding one bit on any point of orthodoxy. St. Paul said “I have become all things to all people, so that by any means I may save some.”

St. Paul cited pagan poets and philosophers on Mars Hill, in Athens, in order to make a connection with his hearers. He took what they knew and proceeded to build upon the truth that was in them, up to Christian theology and the gospel. He even utilized an idol of sorts as an illustration of a point and a witnessing tool: the altar “to an unknown god.” All this despite there being nothing in the official decrees of the Council of Jerusalem just two chapters earlier giving Paul warrant to use such shocking language . . .

I submit that the same applies with Protestants. I grant that if the phrases “faith alone” and “grace alone” are used at all, that they must immediately be defined in a Catholic manner, with the contrast sharply emphasized. But the general principle of finding common ground in both doctrine and language, insofar as possible without any compromise, is a very biblical and conciliar one. E.g., the Decree on Ecumenism from Vatican II:

9. We must become familiar with the outlook of our separated brethren. Study is absolutely required for this, and it should be pursued in fidelity to the truth and with a spirit of good will . . . In this way, too, we will better understand the outlook of our separated brethren and more aptly PRESENT our own belief.

11. The MANNER and ORDER in which Catholic belief is EXPRESSED should in no way become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren. It is, of course, essential that the doctrine be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism which harms the purity of Catholic doctrine and obscures its genuine and certain meaning. At the same time, Catholic belief must be EXPLAINED more profoundly and precisely, in such a way and in such TERMS that our separated brethren can also really UNDERSTAND it.

Note that the Council didn’t say,

The language of Catholic belief from the Council of Trent must be explained more profoundly and precisely, whether it is in terms our separated brethren can understand or not.

Likewise, in the statement in Lumen Gentium, 67, referring to Mariology:

Let them carefully refrain from whatever might by WORD or deed lead the separated brethren or any others whatsoever into error about the true doctrine of the Church.

I think it is wise to choose our words very carefully, depending on who we are talking to at the moment, and to exercise a considerable amount of flexibility, because people aren’t simply walking dictionaries or lexicons, and 1563 (like 1611, or even 1870) is not 2002.

Protestants, of course, deny that justification is a process at all, so “initial justification” can hardly be a “Protestant term.” And since it is a process in Catholicism, and can be repeated, applying “initial justification” as a description of the chronologically first instance (a non-technical term) not only should not be controversial; it is simply common sense, and not contrary to Trent at all, as far as I can see. Trent teaches the concept in the above sense; it just doesn’t have the exact term, which is no big deal. Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., uses similar terminology:

Adults are justified for the first time either by personal faith, sorrow for sin and baptism, or by the perfect love of God, which is at least an implicit baptism of desire.

(Modern Catholic Dictionary, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1980, “Justification, Theology of,” 302, emphasis added)

Also, Vatican I would appear to refer to a justifying faith without works, in some fashion:

Wherefore faith itself, even when it does not work by charity [Gal 5:6], is in itself a gift of God, and the act of faith is a work pertaining to salvation, by which man yields voluntary obedience to God Himself, by assenting to and cooperating with His grace, which he is able to resist (can. v).

(Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, ch. III, “Of Faith”)

Lastly, the article on the Councils of Orange in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910), mentions “Operation of grace in initial justification or baptism.” (vol. 11, 267)


Meta Description: There is a surprising convergence of opinion when Catholic initial justification is compared to Protestant imputed justification.

Meta Keywords: Catholic soteriology, Faith Alone, grace, grace alone, heaven, imputed justification, infused justification, Justification, merit, Salvation, sanctification, soteriology, initial justification

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