143. Where Does Pope Francis Stand on the Doctrine of Justification?

November 1st, 2017

“Here I stand”: these are the famous words spoken by Martin Luther in front of the Diet of Worms in 1521.Questioned about his convictions as they had been outlined a few years before in the 95 Theses, Luther stood firm on the truth of the Bible and its good news: sinners can be justified by Christ alone through faith alone. It was clear to all what he believed.

The Council of Trent (1545-1562) was the official response of the Roman Catholic Church to the issues raised by the Protestant Reformation. By rejecting the tenets of the Protestant understanding of the Gospel and declaring its proponents anathema, Trent endorsed the view that sinners could not be justified by faith alone; instead, Catholicism insisted on an ongoing journey of good works punctuated by the sacraments administered by the church. Where Trent stood was and is crystalclear.

In recent decades, though, the situation has become blurred. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ)– signed by mainstream Lutherans and the Church of Rome– introduced ambiguities in language, juxtaposition of terms, and theological nuances that make it difficult to understand where the signatories stand incomparison to Luther’s and Trent’s viewpoints. After the Declaration, Rome’s position on justification is harder to ascertain. This ambiguous context is Pope Francis’s framework when he speaks on the topic.

The essence of human existence?

In the ecumenical ceremony that commemorated the Reformation in Lund (Sweden) in 2016, Pope Francis made a perfunctory reference to the doctrine of justification. In a generally positive comment on Luther, the Pope argued that “the doctrine of justification expresses the essence of human existence before God”, thus seeming to be in accord with what Evangelicals might say on the doctrine. Recognizing justification as something essential is surely a pointer toward its primary importance for the Christian life. But notice that the Pope speaks of the essential role of justification in “human existence” in general, not just in the Christian life. The context of this statement does not restrict it to Christians, nor to believers in Christ or disciples of Jesus. The Pope is not referring to the essence of the Christian life, but to human existence as a whole.

Here is the ambiguity. Does this mean that justification is essential for all human beings regardless of whether or not they are Christians? Does it mean that justification is a constitutive component of life in general, a defining mark of the existence of all men and women? Does it mean that all those living a “human existence” are essentially justified? Certainly this is not the meaning that either Luther or the Council of Trent gave to justification. For Luther, there was a sense in which justification could be defined as “the essence of human existence before God,” with the caveat that this would refer only to those who have received the grace of God by faith alone. In other words, justification is the essence of the Christian life, not of human life in general.

On the surface, then, the Pope’s comment on justification seems to be very biblical and indeed very Protestant. At a closer look, though, things are not as clear as they appear. While affirming the importance of justification, Pope Francis seems to confuse it with a universal property that all human beings share. If this is what the Pope meant, we are very far from what both Luther and Trent stood for. Indeed, we are very close to a universalist, all-embracing, humanistic “gospel” that betrays the biblical Gospel of salvation in Christ alone by faith alone for those who repent and believe.

Faithful to one’s own conscience?

Arguably, what Pope Francis said in Lund on justification is generic and can be interpreted in different ways. It is not possible to say for sure that this is what he had in mind. Therefore it is important to look for other references to justification in his thought selsewhere and give him another chance to explain what he means.

Here is another quotation that is worth pondering. In his widely acclaimed 2013 Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, the programmatic document of his pontificate, Francis writes that “Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live justified by the grace of God” (n. 254).This section of the Exhortation deals with ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue in the context of mission. According to Pope Francis, non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (n. 244), Jews don’t need to convert (n. 247), and with believing Muslims the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (n. 252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium, n. 16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are linked to“the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (n. 254).

Justification according to the Pope seems to be receivable by following one’s own conscience. It is still “by God’s gracious initiative” (although not necessarily by His grace alone), but it is no longer by faith – even by faith alone. It is through the conscience that men and women are linked to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, i.e. the work of Christ as it is re-enacted at the Eucharist, the chief sacrament of the church. Faith in Jesus Christ is gone. The Gospel appears to be not a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead a vehicle to access a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind through the conscience.What about faith in Jesus Christ? What about His justice being credited to the sinner? Are, therefore, all human beings justified ultimately by following their conscience? By grace but not by faith?

At this point, it becomes clear that the Lund reference to justification being “the essence of human existence”  was purposefully and intentionally designed to mean that justification defines everyone’s life, not only that of the believing Christian. This reference in The Joy of the Gospel makes it abundantly clear that the Pope, while using the language of justification, has radically altered its meaning and made it synonymous with a universal existence embracing the whole of humanity. He is using the word in an ambiguous way, but a closer inspection reveals its non-biblical content.

Is Pope Francis’ justification what Luther stood for? And, more decidedly, is this what the Bible teaches about justification? As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, with its recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we know where Luther stood and, in contrast, we know where Trent stood. Where does Pope Francis stand? He is saying radically different things. Therefore, before listing Pope Francis as a friend of the Evangelical faith, we must understand what he is saying on his own terms. Beyond commonalities in the use of words, he belongs to a different world.

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142. “The Clay of Paganism with the Iron of Christianity”: Cornelius Van Til’s Critique of Roman Catholicism

October 1st, 2017

This is an excerpt of a much longer paper soon to be published in Rerum Novarum: Neo-Calvinism and Roman Catholicism, James Eglinton and George Harinck, eds. (Edinburgh: Bloomsbury, forthcoming).

In the book of Daniel (chapter 2), Daniel tells us that King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in which he saw a great statue. This statue had several parts made of different materials, but the narrative is particularly interested in describing its feet. They were made “partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron”. The text goes on to associate some distinctive properties to both materials: the iron speaks of “firmness”, while the clay is materially and metaphorically “soft”. The statue’s feet were partly strong and partly brittle (3:42). After describing the feet, Daniel becomes the interpreter of the dream. The mixture of iron and clay gave the statue a very weak foundation because iron and clay don’t hold together. The statue therefore seemed powerful and looked frightening, but in reality it stood on shaky legs and weak feet. It was going to be broken into pieces by a stone that was “cut out by no human hand” (3:34) and carried away by the wind.

Interestingly, Dutch philosopher and theologian Cornelius Van Til (1896-1987) used the metaphor of the mixture between “clay” and “iron” to describe his view of Roman Catholicism.

Clay and Iron in Roman Catholicism

Van Til argued that “Romanists mix a great deal of the clay of paganism with the iron of Christianity”.[1] The result is a religious framework in which a variety of different materials merge so as to form a composite and complex system of thought which is neither mere paganism nor mere Christianity: it is a synthesis of both, a combination of different materials. These metaphors suggest the idea that Roman Catholicism is not a random encounter between different elements, but rather a sophisticated mélange whereby clay and iron are joined together in something unique, distinct, and new.

This point is worth unpacking. Van Til argued that the fundamental nature of Roman Catholicism is not the on-going, organic development of the early form of Christianity, as John Henry Newman’s account of Catholicism suggests.[2] On the contrary, it is characterized by a structural combination of Christian and non-Christian features that lies at the very heart of the Roman Catholic fabric. The theological task of a Reformed apologetic is to detect this combination, assess it, and constructively criticise it against the background of a Reformed worldview. The ultimate constitution of Roman Catholicism is, for Van Til, marred by the co-existence of Christian and non-Christian elements.

Shifting the focus from categories to contents, Roman Catholicism is, for Van Til, the historical outcome of a process of assimilation of non-Christian and pagan thought-products by what used to be authentic Christianity, which has led to a radical transformation of the latter. Actually, Van Til went so far as to argue that Roman Catholicism is, strictly speaking, “a deformation of Christianity”[3] itself, whereby non-Christian presuppositions and pagan connotations are given a Christianised status and contribute to shaping the whole system in ways that depart from the original outlook. Thus, the Christian “iron” and the pagan “clay” are constitutive parts of the system and are the two legs maintaining the system. Or, in Van Til’s terms, “the concrete blocks may be those of Christianity, but the cement is nothing other than the sand of paganism”.[4]

What is important to underline here is that, according to Van Til, the combination of “iron” and “clay” is to be found everywhere in the Catholic system, perhaps not always in the same measure and balance, but nevertheless throughout the whole spectrum of its theological horizon. The point of difference between the Reformed and the Roman Catholic systems is not in one particular locus on only a few isolated doctrines (e.g. ecclesiology, Mariology, soteriology), but rather is traceable in all loci. The synthesis may be less evident or consistent in some domains than others, but it is to be found everywhere because of the constitutive composite nature of Roman Catholicism. For Van Til, there may be “formal” occasional agreements with the Reformed view, but a closer scrutiny will highlight the presence of iron and clay scattered everywhere beyond the surface of apparent convergences.

The Roman Catholic “Aristotle-Christ” and “Kant-Christ”

Van Til’s view of Roman Catholicism can be summarized in this way: Roman Catholicism is a dynamic and evolving synthesis of Christian and pagan elements. The iron and the clay stand intermingled, forming an inextricable combination that mars the whole fabric of the system. The most established forms are the Aristotle-Christ synthesis and the Kant-Christ synthesis. In the Middle Ages, the Church’s reliance on the writings of Aristotle ended up suffocating the Catholic Christ. In modernity it is Kant who has become the destroyer of the Catholic Christ. There is a significant difference between these syntheses, but also substantial continuity because of the stability of the overarching system that supports them. Roman Catholicism does not stand on Christ alone, but on Christ plus something else.

According to Van Til, the system is governed by a thoroughgoing et-et (both-and) epistemology that needs – indeed requires – the supplementation of Christ with something else. In Van Til’s way of putting it, “the former Aristotle-Christ synthesis and the former Kant-Christ synthesis have joined hands to form the Aristotle-Kant-Christ synthesis”.[5] Modern Catholicism is therefore “a synthesis of medieval essentialism and modern existentialism”.[6] There is no epistemological safeguard that is granted by the Solus Christus principle, but the catholicity of the system makes it possible to expand it in various ways, depending on historical circumstances.

Limits and Insights

Methodologically speaking, Van Til’s systemic approach sometimes prevented him from dealing more extensively with Catholic sources and allowing them to speak for themselves. He often seemed to deductively presume what Catholicism holds, rather than actually following the train of reasoning of individual Roman Catholic theologians or the official Magisterium. Less attention was given to important details and nuances than was granted to the big picture. Moreover, from a theological point of view, he did not invest as much energy in studying post-Vatican II developments as he had done in exploring Thomistic Catholicism. Because the Second Vatican Council is only touched on superficially and selectively, Van Til’s post-Vatican II perspectives are only sketched briefly and are in need of further elaboration in order to become plausible.

Nonetheless, his apologetic method, which looked for the “heart” of a religious worldview in order to figure out what is at stake as far as its basic orientation is concerned, is an asset that cannot be underestimated. Much ecumenical dialogue focuses on minutiae and loses sight of the big picture. Going back to Daniel’s dream, Van Til helps to see the vision of the big statue as a whole and to notice its intrinsically weak foundation if iron and clay are to be found in its legs. This is not only true for Roman Catholicism, of course. Every Christian tradition needs to ask itself to what degree iron and clay are mixed in its building blocks and to be self-critical about the Gospel sustainability of its foundation.

What Van Til argued is that although there is considerable diversity in its forms of expression, Roman Catholicism is a basically unitary reality whose underlying tenets can be discerned. In dealing with Roman Catholicism, especially in times of mounting ecumenical pressure, evangelical theology should go beyond the surface of theological statements and attempt to grasp the internal frame of reference of Roman Catholic theology. Any analysis which does not take into account the fact that Roman Catholicism is a system will fall prey to a superficial and fragmented understanding of it. In this task Van Til was, and continues to be, a voice that may not sound ecumenically friendly, but is nonetheless prophetically true.

[1]  Defense of the Faith, 221.

[2] e.g. Newman’s classical work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (London: James Toovey 1845).

[3]  Christian Apologetics, 41; DF, 71 (italics in the original).

[4]   DF, 221.

[5]  Christian Theory of Knowledge, 185. Later in the same book, Van Til writes: “the (Catholic) church has enlarged the vision of herself and of her mission by means of adding the Kant-Christ synthesis with which neo-orthodox Protestantism operates to its own Aristotle-Christ synthesis”, 192.

[6]  CTK, 193.

 

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