We’ve looked at the Council of Trent in several comments I’ve made in this series of blogs. More particularly we’ve looked at what the Council said about justification by faith alone. Now I would like to come to the simple and most straightforward question in the continued warfare that exists between extremely conservative Catholics and Protestants.
What did the Council of Trent say about justification?
The Council of Trent is often quoted as saying: “Let anyone who says that we are saved by faith alone be anathema.” The actual quote says: “If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Session VI, Canon 12). When you read this statement as an all out attack on faith and grace you have replaced “nothing else than confidence in divine mercy” with “faith” itself. I do simply not accept this unfortunate substitution as an equivalent statement and neither do serious theologians who have studied the Council. “Nothing else than” is an extremely important qualifier in the statement. I do not have any significant discomfort with this statement of the Council of Trent so long as it is read carefully and in proper context. I grant that pronouncing people (or church groups) as “anathema” sounds harsh to the 21st century ear, but this matches the flavor of the mid-1500 on every side in the debate.
We’ve seen how some evangelicals argue that no progress can be made toward unity, and the end of the bitter Reformation wars of nearly five centuries, until the Catholic Church repents of such statements so until the Church formally renounces what it said at Trent there can be no common ground at all. They preach a false gospel and, in the process, attack Protestant understanding totally.
The answer to this can be seen in The Joint Declaration (1999), which provides a really excellent response.
But can we agree that Trent intended to anathematize the Protestant Reformers? And can we also agree that the Catholic Church has evolved away from this hardened position over time? The problem, say those who read Trent in the most negative light, is one where repentance is needed, not doctrinal evolution and the reworking of the language of the sixteenth century. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: “The Catholic Church must repent of Trent, of the claim to papal infallibility, and of many other things, or we can have no dialogue with them about anything that touches the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” People like me, Protestants who are saying “the war is (or should be) over,” are actually throwing away the hard fought gains of the Reformation. I am, in the words of some who have written against my statements, denying the faith and thus betraying my own history and that of the Reformed Church.
It is at this point that I would like to ask a different, but equally important, question: “What should the Protestant Church repent of that arose in this same time period and how should we respond to the bloody Protestant wars and carnage that shredded Europe and the peace of those times?
Should Protestants repent of fundamentalism? What about biblicism? Maybe the prosperity gospel? Or how about the now popular Moral Therapeutic Deism that we have taught our young people in the twentieth century? The list could goes on and on and on.
To which another replies, “But not all Protestantism was involved in those bad things. It is not a single institution you know.” I agree totally but this raises another host of problems for serious Protestants. Our view of authority almost invites more schisms that are deep, bitter and longstanding.
In the comments that I began responding to in these blouson writer added, “My point is that papal infallibility prevents repentance, most importantly of Trent, which was a repudiation of the Gospel.” He adds, “I’m not aware of any Protestant doctrines which forbid repentance. The difference is that Protestant errors were not the official teachings of Protestantism, and are criticized by other Protestant streams. The Catholic positions mentioned earlier are its official teachings.” This represents a very common way of thinking among conservative evangelicals who are not engaged in ecumenism in any face-to-face sense.
Blogger Michael Mercer correctly notes that, “The Roman Catholic Church is a much bigger tent and much more diverse than some of these comments recognize.” You bet it is! Once you meet Catholics from all over the world, and experience their faith lived, you will see this to be profoundly true.
Appeals are very often made to Galatians 1:6-9. Hardly ever is a serious attempt made to contextualize what Paul was specifically referencing in his unique anathema. It was clearly not the Catholicism of the sixteenth century since the problem Paul faced was related to a Jewish concern within the early church.
One critic of ending these wars has said, “Grace alone, and faith in God’s grace alone drives the train.” And still another writer says, “I am increasingly hearing people say things like, ‘If your life doesn’t display a submission to Christ in your behavior, you’re in fact not a Christian.'” While this may have a spark of James in it (or Trent, for that matter) I think it really gets away from grace and becomes spiritual-bullying, even works-righteousness, while we are bodily proclaiming grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Meanwhile many evangelicals continue to denounce Catholics for what’s perceived as their stand on the matter of faith vs. works. They see this Catholic stand as an “us versus them” battle. Someone rightly added, “As we know, Luther couldn’t stand the Epistle of James. It’s not surprising that we, as his descendants, can’t relate to that offending parts of the Council of Trent.” This is true, so very sadly true.
A strong Lutheran answered all this by writing: “He sanctifies us, lock, stock and barrel. We do . . . nothing. Northing benefits us in the eyes of God toward our justification . . . or sanctification. Maybe that is why St. Paul wrote, ‘He who began a good work in you, will wait for you to complete it.'”
Wait a minute . . . is that right? The debate goes on. We saw a recent split in The Gospel Coalition, a conservative defender of Protestant anti-Trent theology of there ever was one, over this very issue of grace and sanctification. One side said the other was preaching a gospel without full repentance and the requisite of works that follow closely upon true faith.
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The problem with Canon 12 is that it is obscure, because it doesn’t actually address the Reformers’ doctrine of justification by faith alone. Indeed, it caricatures the Reformation doctrine.
For Calvin justifying faith is far more complex than a mere ‘confidence in divine mercy’, though it involves that. Faith, essentially, “embraces Christ, as offered to us by the Father…for righteousness, forgiveness of sins, and peace [as well as], sanctification.” (Institutes 3.2.8).
The later Larger Catechism’s definition of saving faith accurately reflects the thinking of the Reformers and demonstrates that faith is more than confidence in divine mercy:
Q. 72. What is justifying faith?
A. Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.
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John, this is an outstandingly clear and helpful article. Thank you.
There is a good bit James in Trent and in Calvin, though tweaked differently; not to mention the Lordship Salvation battles in Protestant World.
And without Love none of this matters to God.
John Ross — I don’t think it’s fair to say that Trent “caricatures” Reformed doctrine on justification.
What Trent does is, with great precision, define what is heretical to believe regarding justification.
Trent’s goal, especially in its “Anathemas”, wasn’t to be a Reformed catechism, it was to teach Catholics what they may not believe.
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Ben Tertin – this looks interesting in light of your recent article on Cajetan.
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