Sunday, February 26, 2017

Justification and Tradition

Thinking about how tradition influences the way we interpret the bible. One key between Protestants and Catholics has always been the area of justification. How are we made right with God and therefore saved? When I first had the Protestant view explained to me in Catechism class I found it very convincing. My only real question was, why are there still Catholics? I mean the bible has been available in the vernacular for centuries and I felt it had been clearly demonstrated that the Catholic position was inconsistent with the bible. So why had the Catholic position not become the equivalent of the flat earth position? Why did anyone in the modern world still think it was true?

The answer was that I was taught these particular scriptures from this particular point of view. The texts were picked for me. The words were explained to me. The problem texts were downplayed or completely ignored. It was a complex question. The people teaching it were very confident. They were people I trusted, including my father. I thought I was engaging in critical thinking but I really was not.

Later I did take a course in witnessing to Jehovah's Witnesses where they did bring up James 2 and how it appears to flatly contradict Faith Alone. We learned how to answer those questions. I still did not know that James 2:24, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone," was actually the only place the phrase "faith alone" occurred in the bible.

Really it was not until I read some extended debates on the topic between Protestants and Catholics that I started to doubt the idea that the Protestant interpretation was clearly right. Why did I spend many hours reading through such debates? Really because my emotional situation had changed. I had married a Catholic and I had met many Catholics that were good solid Christians. It made me rethink my original question. Why does anyone think the Catholic position is worth any consideration? Except this time I was at least a little bit open to the chance there might be an answer.

It does really take quite a few hours because there are many texts that need to be considered and many different arguments on each side of the debate. It is hard to give highlights but I shall try. The first step was to realise that in Galatians and Romans St Paul is not focused on the relationship between faith and works and salvation. His primary focus is on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. That does not mean what he says about faith and works is wrong. It does mean he does not give all the expected explanations of related truths.

So when he says we saved by faith and not by "works of the law" he does not explain that this faith needs to be expressed as love and that is going to mean good works. Why doesn't he explain this? Because he has the ceremonial Jewish law primarily in view. This is why his classic example of a work of the law is circumcision. He is not thinking of the 10 commandments. Otherwise he would have made clear that the life of grace can't be lived in contradiction to the moral law.

Now we need to be careful. What Paul says about being saved by grace through faith apart from the works of the law does apply to the moral law. St Augustine says so. So does St Thomas Aquinas and so does the Council of Trent. Some Catholic apologists get this wrong. Some Protestants see this in St Augustine and think he was basically a Protestant. He was not.

What is important is the order. Grace first, next a response of faith, then a response of love cooperating with grace and producing good works. They all have to be there.

As with most questions there is not just one protestant answer. Luther's and Calvin's position were quite strong on works being totally irrelevant. If you collect some of there quotes you won't find many protestants that will preach those today. In fact, most of the preaching and teaching on this I experienced as a Protestant was watered down. It makes sense. The connection between works and salvation is talked about so often in the New Testament often without the mention of faith. A lot of the difference is language. Sanctification is still important to Protestants although they would not say it is part of justification and Catholics would not. Yet the core ideas are more similar than they first sound.

The doctrine does make a difference but not typically in the way we think about salvation. It makes a difference in the way we think about related issues. Sacraments, mortal sin, penance, saints, purgatory, etc. Once you have made good works irrelevant even if they are nice then a lot of things fall by the wayside. This is typical of heresy. One major error leads to many other errors.

When we see that one new doctrine contradicts many existing, Christian doctrines we should question the one new doctrine. When it is frequently contradicted by Jesus and the New Testament writers then there is more reason to question it. Yet we don't question these things. Not really. Not seriously. Not unless or until we get in the right emotional space to face the possibility we might be wrong. To really take that seriously. If I had married within the Protestant church I doubt I would have ever gone there.

Saturday, February 18, 2017


This is the time of year where people announce they are becoming Catholic. They can do so anytime but the typical time for the sacrament is Easter and the typical time to make the go/no go decision is right around now. So there have been a few stories as there are every year. A couple mentioned that one issue for them was that they didn't know what tradition was. That sparked something in me. I had some of the same issues. When I started exploring the church I thought of tradition as a mindless "monkey see, monkey do" phenomenon. A lot of protestants still seem to have ideas like that.

What is meant by tradition? It is the whole impact of who you hang out with and what emotional attachments you have to them. What preachers do you listen to? What books do you read? What songs do you worship with? What friends do you confide in? Which opinion leaders do you respect? What stories do you connect with? 

The thing to notice here is everyone has a tradition and it is always hugely influential on your thinking. People don't think in a vacuum. They talk to each other. They influence each other. People who you love and respect will influence you more. If you are in a circle of friends where a certain thinker is hugely respected then you will have a strong tendency to go along with that line of thought. 

Often people underestimate the influence of tradition on them. They see it on other people. He is just that way because his dad is that way. He was raised to believe that. Yet when you ask the actual person about their own opinions they typically say it is not tradition. They say they have sound reasons for believing what they believe. They can list them for you. Yet that does not mean that person was not influenced hugely by tradition.

Tradition does not tell us to stop thinking. It tells us to think a certain way and gives us reasons to do so. Yet a different tradition would tell you to think a different way and give you reasons for doing that. Often the deciding factor is not which set of arguments is logically better but which set of people is emotionally more trustworthy. In fact, we rarely go against the thinking of the group we have grown comfortable with. That is tradition.

So tradition is not just people latching on to old ideas because they are old. Very modern ideas can gain a wide following simply because that is what everyone else seems to think. So someone saying that sex outside marriage is wrong because Christians have always believed that is appealing to one kind of tradition. Someone saying sex outside marriage is OK because everyone is doing it is appealing to another tradition. A modern secular tradition of thought which is not less of a tradition because it is new. In fact, many people accept it without serious question precisely because the tradition is so strong.

What we need to be clear about is that traditions can be very wrong. We can see this in the previous example. No matter what you believe about sex outside marriage you are going to believe one tradition or the other got it wrong. That is a big deal. Many people accepted a wrong answer to this important question because they listened to the wrong tradition.

Protestants talk about not letting tradition be the main guide of your thinking. They think the bible should be. That is actually humanly impossible. We don't make big life choices apart from other people. Sure the bible plays a role but often there is debate over what the bible says so you need to decide what to make of that. Tradition is always going to matter. Different people will have different opinions. Whose thinking do you trust more? That is how humans make choices. They don't just sit down with a book and ignore what everyone else thinks. They want their opinions affirmed by others before they really trust them.

In practice Protestants pick one particular set of thinkers they like. Not a bad thing to do. Yet there are many different groups who disagree with each other on many different questions. These groups used to be called denominations. Not so much anymore. People from different denominations can be very much in the same theological school of thought. People from the same denomination can be in very different groups. Yet these schools of thought are many and diverse. It really does matter that we get the right one. These are the big decisions that are supposed to transform our lives. We want to get them right.

Catholics believe God enters in to this with His grace. That He gives us something called Sacred Tradition. A certain set of people and opinions and ways of thinking that God has highlighted over time as being true. He has used the popes and the bishops of the church to do this in each generation. What this gives is a way to make decision as a Christian that is not inhuman. It gives us real people living the faith in the real world that we can trust. 

The trouble is that God pointing us to one source of truth means He is also saying a lot of other traditions have been getting things wrong. Modern society has made some real errors. Many Christian thinkers have made some real errors. So all the things we believed because they were emotionally easier now become harder. Sometimes we have to disagree with family and friends. Sometimes we have to face the fact that almost everyone we knew and trusted got this wrong. It rocks your world. 

Yet that would not happen if you chose to know and trust those who also have a commitment to this same Sacred Tradition. That is how God expected His church to work. That people would lead each other into truth and unity because we would actually be part of one body with the same head.