Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Justification by faith (alone?)

In the epistle for today's Daily Office readings, one verse that stood out was Galatians 5:6 "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love." The key word is ἐνεργέω (energeō, Strong #G1754). It means to put into action, be effective, be operative. Most translations render it as "faith working through love." The NIV says, "faith expressing itself through love." The Amplified Bible translates it as, "faith activated and expressed and working through love."

It caught my attention because of the Reformation cry of "sola fide"--that salvation comes by "faith alone." In his commentary on Galatians, Luther insisted, "This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness." Luther's idea of forensic (or legal) justification is that God's verdict of acquittal is pronounced on the believing sinner due to his appeal through faith for God's mercy and saving grace. This does not come through any contribution of good behavior on our part, but solely through faith.

The origin of the doctrine is Luther's interpretation and German translation of Romans 3:28. He added the word allein ("alone") in his translation to help explain the passage. "We consider that a person is justified by faith [alone] apart from works of the law." Interestingly, only one of the four other German translations (Hoffnung fur Alle) found this word necessary to convey the meaning of the passage.

The addition also clashes with James 2:24 which says, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." James' famous counter-point to Paul is not that faith is not needed in receiving God's grace, but rather that it has to be a certain kind of faith--a living, active faith animated by love rather than a hollow faith in name only. Or as James puts it, "For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead" (James 2:26).

Galatians 5:6 reminds us that there is really no conflict between Ss Paul and James. For Paul makes the same point here--that real, genuine, saving faith is that which is brought to life by love. It is faith that is lived out and not just thought.
At the heart of the matter, I've always thought that the issue was much ado about nothing. I realize that may seem to disrespect those whose blood was spilled in defense of their beliefs on either side. And I mean no disrespect. I realize that there are very different theologies about justification and other related questions of soteriology. But we also have to recognize that both sides believe that the faith has to be a "living faith" as James would say, or a "faith working by love" as Paul would say. And we have to recognize that both sides insist that salvation does not come by our own merits, but as a free gift of God's grace.

The very first canon on justification at the Council of Trent says, "If anyone says that man can be justified by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema." And we should also keep in mind that when Paul talks about works and salvation, nine times out of ten, he's talking about "works of the Law" (i.e., keeping the Torah), and not simply about good behavior. It is significant that Paul's mention of faith being animated by love comes in Galatians, which is Paul's strongest condemnation of the Judaizing argument that Christians must also keep all the regulations of the Torah.


Feed Room Five said...

It is interesting that St. John Fisher and Reginald Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, accepted 'justification by faith alone.' In the case of the Bishop of Rochester this did not stop Henry from executing him. But in the case of Pole the Pope called him to Rome to account for his heterodox views, although Pole refused to comply, pleading ill health, and probably realizing that going to Rome would be even more dangerous to his well-being. The canon of justification at Trent was likely a sign of Pole's influence.

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

I've heard that Pole's view (which I don't know about in great detail) kept him out of the running to be elected pope. Of course, that was also before the definition of Trent, so I suppose the official word on the matter was still a little fluid.