When Catholics and Protestants engage in the polemics of theological polarities they quite often misrepresent one another. In the process they miss the deeper fruit of real ecumenism in doing confessing Christian theology. Non-theologians often do this more poorly because they adopt the views they have been taught by their favorite teachers and then treat them as the gold standard.
One of the central issues between Protestants and Catholics has always revolved around the subject of God’s grace and our(human) response to divine grace. We can very easily get the wrong end of the stick in this debate. On one side we separate the life of the Spirit from the salvation of God. This can be seen in a number of Protestant and evangelical responses to grace and works. Donald Bloesch noted: “To separate the life of the Christian from the salvation of God is to divorce ethics from religion. It was precisely this non-ethical religion or religiosity that was attacked by the Old Testament prophets and by many saints and reformers through the ages” (The Christian Life and Salvation, 14). This direction often leads to extremes of ceremonialism or antinomianism. An example of the latter can be seen in American evangelical tendency to separate the Lordship of Christ from his actual saving work, suggesting that we can accept Christ as our Savior and later, if we grow, accept him as Lord.
The biblical prophets did not call for ritual sacrifices but for the sacrifice of obedient lives. Jesus clearly placed emphasis upon inwardly loving rather than the kind of outward performance that was in accord with formal acts of piety. Modern evangelicalism has even tended to separate the gospel of grace from the concerns of daily Christian living. The “once saved, always saved” notion, which seems to remain widely popular, is an aberration of grace. But this particular aberration is consistent with this biblical distortion. Add to this the popular notion of “carnal Christians” and you have a very deadly mix.
The other basic error is to make the Christian life the cornerstone of salvation. In this case we end up with a religion of ethical culture. Our salvation can even appear to be dependent upon our human works, albeit our works united with God’s help! In this error right conduct is more important than divine grace! This often results in moralism and/or legalism. Salvation is finally won by some form of obedience to the law. Bloesch added, “Such works-righteousness is to be found not only in humanistic liberalism but also in much conservative Protestantism, despite its outward adherence to the message of free grace” (14).
How does this second error happen in real life? If our salvation is made contingent upon our acceptance of a particular confession of faith, or the “right” way to interpret Scripture, we have fallen into the trap (or the sphere) of legalism. Some forms of post-liberal theology fell into the trap of making salvation equal “neighbor-love and humanization.” In every such instance salvation was severed, in some way, from its transcendent basis in God alone.
Roman Catholic theology sought to guard against the two errors by upholding divine initiative (grace alone) in salvation while stressing the human agency in cooperation. This theology made a strong plea for “meritorious works.” While this has been popularly labeled as “salvation by works” the claim is, strictly speaking, false. Catholic theology has never taught something this clearly opposed to the grace of God in the good news. Polemical writings aside this is slanderous and wrong. But Catholic scholastic theology did teach a cooperation in the operation of grace through which man cooperated in justification on the basis of prevenient grace. Thus Donald Bloesch rightly noted, “[Man] can merit salvation and even make satisfaction for sins but only with the assistance of grace” (15). The tendency here, one now acknowledged by much modern Catholic theology, is toward a synergism in which we are saved by grace and works. Catholic theologians have sought to avoid a “works based salvation” by stressing a parallelism between the divine and human action. What is needed, concluded Donald Bloesch, is “a paradoxical unity of action” (15). I like that expression and I agree with it. It must be acknowledged that this paradox has been grasped by many Catholic theologians, especially in the last century. In our present ecumenical era fresh attempts have been made to restate the grace of God in ways that avoid this problem. This is one of the great fruits of serious, academic ecumenism. It is also a fruit of trans-denominational Bible study, both academically and in popular neighborhood Bible study groups.
Reformation theology, and most of the modern heirs of this Western tradition, have sought to avoid this problem but bringing together divine grace and the works of faith and love by seeing the latter as an effect, or the fruit, of the former. In this emphasis the Christian life is only a sign of our salvation; the effecting of our salvation is by the sacrifice and work of Christ alone (solus Christus). Karl Barth went so far as to stress the sole efficacy of the atoning sacrifice of Christ alone. Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr remained closer to the Reformation tradition by seeking to include the decision of faith in the event of salvation. Yet these men all saw the works of love and obedience as a sign and a by-product of faith rather than as a means of our salvation.
My own view remains firmly rooted in the understanding of the Reformation. The only adequate foundation for the Christian life is the justification of the ungodly. The basis of our salvation is solely the free grace of God. Yet because I am ecumenist, and seek to do the ecumenical theology, I try to learn from the two sides of this historic tension. With my late friend Donald Bloesch I believe that we can employ these categories and at the same time move beyond them to fresher ways of seeing the whole truth. This is precisely where ecumenical theology becomes so important. In dialogue with the whole church we can begin to see fresh ways in which we can ground salvation in God’s grace alone while we also seek to better understand a fuller understanding of the Christian life, a life of ongoing transformation.
Donald Bloesch notes: “The Reformers talked much of a ‘holy gospel’ and a ‘holy faith’ but very little of holy persons. They sounded the call to repentance, but they neglected the call to perfection. Their emphasis was on the sinfulness and helplessness of man apart from God, not on man’s ascent towards sainthood made possible by the Holy Spirit” (The Christian Life and Salvation, 16). The Reformers lived in a time when a doctrine of “evangelical perfection” could not be easily talked about. Later, John Wesley would take this concern quite seriously. (Regardless of what you do with his doctrine of perfection you cannot ignore the impulse behind his concern!)