Eck vs. Protestantism Chronicles: Good Works

Eck vs. Protestantism Chronicles: Good Works May 31, 2024

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Johann Eck (1486-1543) was a German Catholic theologian, who was arguably one of Martin Luther’s two most important and formidable debate opponents, along with Erasmus (I’ve compiled several of his devastating replies to Luther as well). He was ordained as a priest in 1508 and in 1510 was installed as a professor of theology at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria: which lasted for thirty years. He mastered both Greek and Hebrew and had a prodigious memory, boundless energy, and very considerable debating skills. He famously engaged Luther for eighteen days in the Leipzig Disputation of July 1519.

Eck’s argumentation might be said to be one of the quintessential examples of the Catholic theological and polemical response to the Protestant Revolt up to the opening of  the Council of Trent in 1545. This is one of many excerpts from his best-known and principal volume, Enchiridion of Commonplaces Against Luther and Other Enemies of the Church. It first appeared in 1529 and eventually went through 91 editions. I will be using a later edition from 1541 (translated by Ford Lewis Battles, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1979; now in the public domain).

Eck’s words will be in black; my interjections in blue, and citations from Luther and other famous Protestants in green. I use RSV for scriptural citations.


Proposition 1: That faith does not suffice without works, and works are something meritorious for eternal life, [from divine foreordination] and God’s accepting grace.

[“The Lord had regard for Abel and his gifts; for Cain and his gifts. He had no regard . . . And the Lord said to Cain: … If you do well, shall you not receive? But if ill, shall not your sins forthwith be present at the door?” [Gen 4:4-5, 7].]

The Lord said to Abraham: “I shall be your exceedingly great reward” [Gen 15:1].

“Behold, his reward is with him” [Is 40:10].

“There is a reward for your work, says the Lord” [Jer 31:16].

“Sow for yourselves in justice” [Hos 10:12]

“The wicked makes an unsteady work, but to him who sows justice there is a faithful reward” [Prov 11:18]. “Glorious is the fruit of good works” [Wisd 3:15]. “The just shall live for evermore; and their reward is with the Lord” [Wisd 5:16]. “God will render to the just the reward of their labors” [Wisd 10:17]. “You who fear the Lord, believe him, and your reward shall not be made void” [Ecclus 2:8]. “Whatever your hand is able to do, do it earnestly” [Ecclus 9:10].

“Mercy makes a place for every man, according to the merit of his works. . .” [Ecclus 16:15].

“I shall keep myself from my iniquity. And the Lord will reward me according to my justice” [Ps 18:24f]. [Ps 18:24: “Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.”] . . .

“The Lord will render to you for your work, and you will receive a full reward of the Lord God of Israel, to whom you have come. . [Ruth 2:12].

“Be comforted and let not your hands be weakened,” that is, works, “for there shall be a reward for your work” [2 Chr 15:7].

“He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit unto life everlasting, that both he who sows, and he who reaps, may rejoice together” [Jn 4:36].

“Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven” [Mt 5:12]. And again:

“Be glad in that day and rejoice; for behold, your reward is great in heaven” [Lk 6:23]. If reward, therefore, and merit, to whom is reward owed? For these terms are to be interchangeably used in a relative sense, where one cannot be understood without the other.

“Take heed that you do not do your justice before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you shall not have a reward with your Father, who is in heaven. Therefore when you do. . .” etc. [Mt 6 : If]. 

“Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” [Mt 7:21].

“Whoever shall give to drink to one of these little ones a cup of cold water, he shall not lose his reward” [Mt 10:42].

“Call the laborers and pay them their hire” [Mt 20:8], and previously: “I will give you what shall be just” [Mt 20:4].

“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” [Mt 19:17]. “I hungered and you gave me something to eat” etc. [Mt 25:35].

“Come, blessed of my Father, receive the kingdom which has been prepared for you from the beginning of the world” [Mt 25:34].

“And they who have done good things, shall come forth unto the resurrection of life; but they who have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment” [Jn 5:29].

“You are my friends, if you do the things that I command you” [Jn 15:14].

“God will render to every man according to his works” [Rom 2:6].

“Glory and honor … to everyone who does …” [Rom 2:10].

“For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” [Rom 2:13].

“Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor” [1 Cor 3:8].

“We must all be manifested before the judgment-seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, that each one may receive the proper things of the body, according as he has done, whether it be good or evil” [2 Cor 5:10].

“For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward . . . .” [1 Cor 9:17].

“… Abounding always in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” [1 Cor 15:58].

“That which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, works for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory” [2 Cor 4:17],

“What things a man shall sow, those also shall he reap” [Gal 6:8].

“Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that you shall receive of the Lord the reward of inheritance” [Col 3:23f].

“That you may walk worthy of God, in all things pleasing, being fruitful in every good work” [Col 1:10].

“To me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” [Phil 1:21]. If gain, therefore merit.

“With fear and trembling work out your salvation” [Phil 2:12].

“God is not unjust, that he should forget your work, and the love which you have shown in his name, you who have ministered to the saints” [Heb 6:10].

“And do not forget doing good and sharing, for by such sacrifices God’s favor is obtained” [Heb 13:16].

“Look to yourselves, that you lose not the things which you have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward.” [2 Jn v. 8]

“Little children, let no man deceive you. He who does justice is just, even as he is just” [1 Jn 3:7].

Note here: works good of their own kind are acceptable to God and deserving of eternal life. This is to be understood concerning living works, that is, those that proceed from the beginning of a spiritual life, which is grace and love. Righteous men, being alive, do such works out of faith working through love [Gal 5:6]. But it is otherwise concerning dead works (because they do not proceed from grace and love) however good they may be of their own nature, such do the impious do, namely, fornicators, adulterers, and such like, works not of grace. (This contradiction according to the Apostle’s statement he implies to fall under merit.) “But if by grace, it is not now by works: otherwise grace is no mere grace” [Rom 11:6]. . . . 

[S]inners ought to be advised that without delay they carry out whatsoever their hand can do; they are not to turn aside or draw back from good works . . . and especially that they exercise works of piety . . . toward the true Catholic poor, according to the principle: “Give to the merciful and do not support the sinner; benefit the humble and give not to the impious” [Ecclus 12:5f]. Daniel so advised Nebuchadnezzar, saying: “Therefore, 0 King, let my counsel be acceptable to you, and redeem your sins with alms, and your iniquities with works of mercy to the poor . . .” [Dan 4:24] [should be 4:27: “Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you; break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your tranquillity.”] . . . 

Proposition 4: Faith is a work.

“What shall we do, that we may work the works of God? Jesus answered: This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” [Jn 6:28f]. And again: “If you are the children of Abraham, do the works of Abraham” [Jn 8:39], but the chief work of Abraham was faith: “Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him as justice” [Gen 15:6]. Note that faith is reckoned among works.

Proposition 5: It is not enough to believe.

“Going, therefore, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching (not only to believe, but also) to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” [Mt 28:19f].

It was not sufficient for the blind man that he spread clay upon his eyes, but he had to go to the bathing pool of Siloe [Jn 9:6].

“Therefore, let us work good to all men, especially to those of the household of the faith” [Gal 6:10].

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my race, I have kept the faith. As to the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord the just judge will render to me on that day” [2 Tim 4:7f].

“For unto you it is given for Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” [Phil 1:29]. . . .

[Objection] “The just man lives by faith” [Rom 1:17]: therefore not by works.

[Reply] What Augustine says is an undisputed fact: this heresy (it is not new, but very ancient) has arisen from Paul’s words badly understood. We admit that the just man lives by faith, because faith is the foundation of the spiritual edifice, for it is the substance of things hoped for. But what the heretic assumes from faith itself, lacerates and falsifies the text, because nowhere does it say that the just man lives by faith alone.

[Objection] “He who believes in the Son of God is not condemned” [1 Jn 5:10].

[Reply] To believe in God with the use of Scripture, includes cleaving to God through love, according to Augustine [In I Jn. Tr. 10]. The younger theologians call this “formed faith.” It is clear from St. Paul: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith that works by love” [Gal 5:6]. Note: Paul does not say any faith whatsoever suffices, but that faith which works by love.

[Objection] “Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him as righteousness” [Gen 15:6]

[Reply] St. James answers: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, offering up Isaac his son upon the altar? Do you see that faith cooperated with his works; and by works faith was made perfect? [James 2:21f]. Further on: “Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only?” [James 2:24].

[see also my papers:

Justification: Not by Faith Alone, & Ongoing (Romans 4, James 2, and Abraham’s Multiple Justifications) [10-15-11]

Abraham: Justified Twice by Works & Once by Faith [8-30-23]

Abraham and Ongoing Justification by Faith and Works [National Catholic Register, 9-19-23]

Abraham’s Multiple Justifications by Works & Faith: Quick Summary of Biblical Proofs [Facebook, 10-4-23]

Abraham’s Justification By Faith & Works (vs. Jordan Cooper) + Catholic Exegesis Regarding St. Paul’s Specific Meaning of “Works” in Romans 4 [3-1-24] ]

[Objection] “He who hears my words and believes him who sent me, has eternal life” [Jn 5:24].

[Reply] Christ said: “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” [Mt 5:16]. And St. Peter in his canonical epistle urges the faithful in these words: “Having your conversation good among the Gentiles: that whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by the good works, which they shall behold in you, glorify God. . .” etc. [1 Pt 2:12].

[Objection] Love is the fruit of faith. Therefore faith alone suffices.

[Reply] He assumes this falsely, because love is a fruit of the Spirit, not of faith, and similarly faith is a fruit of the Spirit. Paul says: “But the fruit of the Spirit is, love, joy, peace, patience” etc., “faith, modesty” [Gal 5:22f]. “If I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” [1 Cor 13:2]. Through this Augustine, On the Trinity, 15:18, proves that faith does not necessarily have love attached to it.

[“. . . faith working through love” (Gal 5:6) might be thought to imply at the very least an equal importance of love and faith (rather than love originating from faith), if not love’s superiority, as do several other passages: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13); “your work of faith and labor of love” (1 Thess 1:3); “your faith and love” (1 Thess 3:6); “put on the breastplate of faith and love” (1 Thess 5:8); “the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 1:14; cf. 2 Tim 1:13); “your love and faith” (Rev 2:19).]

[Objection] “We are all become as one unclean, and all our justices as the rag of a menstruous woman” [Is 64:6].

[Reply] Jerome answers: the prophet is speaking of the comparison of the righteousness of the law, and of the righteousness of the Gospel, for compared with the Gospel, legal purity is uncleanness. Augustine says [On the Perfection of Righteousness]: “our righteousness compared with divine righteousness is not righteousness, just as Christ says: ‘No one is good but God alone’ [Lk 18:19], because our goodness, compared to God, is not goodness.”


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Photo credit: Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889), by Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Summary: One of a series of posts documenting the Catholic apologetics efforts of Johann Eck (1486-1543) against various Protestants. This entry addresses good works.

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