Justification: The Roman Catholic View

March 8, 2012 — Leave a comment

[This is part of the Justification: Five Views mini-series]

Last week, thanks to IVP Academic, we started our journey through Justification: Five Views. After laying looking through the chapters on historical background and contemporary debates, we’re now ready to jump into one of the actual views.

I’m starting with the Catholic view even though in the book it is last. As I mentioned, I am ordering them from least like my own view to most like my own. In reading the view though, along with the responses to the Catholic view presented in the book, I can say I am pleasantly surprised that there is some level of common ground.

Now, that being said, there is still considerable disagreement. But first, let’s talk about how this chapter is laid out. Unlike the other views, this chapter has two authors. Rather than offering a synthesis of their combined thought, they each take a different section of the chapter to unpack.

First, Oliver Rafferty presents a historical synopsis of Catholic views (notice the plural here) of justification from Augustine up through the Council of Trent. He begins the essay by noting that the latter represents “perhaps the clearest and most systematic exposition of the Catholic theology of justification” (265). As Rafferty makes clear later, the Catholic theology of justification is formulated in light of a particular view of the nature of the human will (268) and is also symbolically conveyed to the sinner through baptism (277).

As he begins to summarize the teaching on justification from The Council of Trent, he notes that it had two aims (278):

  1. To present what the Catholic Church understood to be the nature and process of justification
  2. To refute what it took to be Lutheran errors

He admits though that there was no absolute consensus concerning Luther’s view (279) and that “although free will and the necessity for grace are both affirmed, the connection between the two is not precisely worked out” (278).  He does however say “although the will is prepared by God’s grace for justification, nevertheless, the consent of human free will in cooperation with the process is essential. While faith is necessary, it is not sufficient for justification, since faith must be united to love” (280). No doubt, this synergistic persuasion is the point of departure for agreement between Catholics and Lutherans/Calvinists on justification.

In the second half of the chapter, the focus shifts to Gerald O’Collins personal journey in his understanding of the doctrine of justification. His formal training in seminary and beyond took place in the 60’s and so he has had considerable time to think about the topic from many angles. In this way, the chapter has a very personal touch to it and lets the reader see how an imminent Catholic theologian has thought his way through an important doctrine.

One distinction O’Collins highlights is that “where Luthers have traditionally stressed the justifying verdict of God passed by God on those who have sinned, Catholics (and Orthodox) have highlighted the grace received, which actually transforms sinners through the Holy Spirit” (287). He suggests that these might be examples of complementary approaches or emphases rather than mutually exclusive positions. That is certainly possible, but as I suggested above, it all depends on the notion of human will that involved before and after justification.

This underlying presupposition is one of several involved in the discussion. In his response to the chapter, Michael Horton brings up the different views of the doctrine of grace that stands behind the doctrine of justification (293). So, while we may be able to dialogue about justification itself, there still may be a significant difference between our views of human free will and grace. All of this hopefully illustrates that many, if not all, doctrines exist within a web of beliefs and modifying one necessarily affects others.

Though in the end I found much to appreciate in the Catholic view, I did not find it any more persuasive than I did before. I do however now have a better understanding of a representative Catholic position, and so in discussion I can avoid caricatures. This book is certainly more valuable for its inclusion of a Catholic view, as well as the particular way this chapter was formulated to involve historical, doctrinal exposition, and a personal, theological journey.

[Thanks again to IVP Academic for providing a review copy of this book!]


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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