Justification: The Basic Difference Between Catholics & Protestants

Over the coming months, the doctrine of justification will be subject to a great deal of scrutiny. The 500-year commemoration of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses is seizing public attention, and, more than any other subject, justification is in the limelight. Whereas recent years have tended to focus on diverse interpretations in biblical studies (e.g. new readings of Paul and the Law), this upcoming year will view the subject along a historical-theological line, particularly the one that cuts across the Catholic and Protestant divide. Against this backdrop, I would like to ask a specific question: what is our basic difference?

According to Alister McGrath, the leading characteristics of the Protestant understanding of justification during the sixteenth century were threefold: First, justification involves a “forensic declaration that the Christian is righteous,” that is, a change in one’s legal status before God (as opposed to a process of internal renewal by which one is made righteous). Second, there is a “deliberate and systematic distinction” between the forensic activity of justification and the internal process of sanctification or regeneration. Third, “justifying righteousness or the formal cause of justification” is alien, external, and imputed.[1]

On the other side of the ecclesial divide, the Roman Catholic Church responded to Protestant arguments by convening the Council of Trent (1545-1563) where it defined its doctrine in its Decree on Justification (1547). Rejecting the Protestant view of “faith alone” grounded in the forensic imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the Roman Church chose to emphasize the “process” of justification (beyond baptism) whereby the gift of righteousness is internally “infusedthrough her Sacraments, a process expressed in moral virtues and good works as the necessary condition for man’s final absolution.[2] As for the contemporary significance of Trent’s teaching, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., explains that the “theology of justification in Roman Catholic teaching has undergone no dramatic changes since the Council of Trent.”[3] The Reformation is apparently not over.

When comparing the Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant doctrines of justification, there is recognition that the fundamental difference between the two positions comes down to the “formal cause.”[4] By way of definition, the formal cause is an intrinsic component of a subject, the fundamental reality that makes it what it is. Taking its cues from Aristotle’s list of four “causes,”[5] the Council of Trent explicated justification’s formal cause as follows:

Finally, the one formal cause [on which justification is based] is the justness of God: not that by which he himself is just, but that by which he makes us just and endowed with which we are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and are not merely considered to be just but we are truly named and are just….[6]

The Protestant Reformers were also interested in defining justification’s formal cause.[7] For example, in his Locus on Justification, Peter Martyr Vermigli expresses general agreement with the overall causal framework of Trent in terms of the “final” cause (the glory of God), the “efficient” cause (divine mercy), and the “meritorious” cause (the death and resurrection of Christ).[8] Vermigli then explains that the point of contention is particularly the “formal cause.”[9] Unlike Trent, which defines this cause in terms of the righteousness with which one is counted and made just, Vermigli, with Reformed Protestantism, limits the strict sense of justification to the forensic reckoning of righteousness.[10] He thus states: “Therefore, we say that justification cannot consist in that righteousness and renewal by which we are created anew by God. For it is imperfect because of our corruption, so that we are not able to stand before the judgment of Christ.”[11] Peter Toon helpfully summarizes how basic is this difference among Catholics and Protestants:

On the formal cause of justification, that by which God actually pronounces and accepts a sinner as righteous, there had never been agreement. The traditional Roman Catholic position was that at baptism God infuses into the soul his divine grace and that this grace purifies the soul. On seeing this infused righteousness in a human being God accepts him or justifies him. This new grace of the soul is thus the formal cause of justification and is at the same time the means of sanctification. With this view Protestant scholars had no sympathy. They argued that once God’s grace enters the soul it becomes a human righteousness and no human righteousness is sufficient in quality to be the basis for justification and full acceptance with the eternal God. So they pointed to the external righteousness of Christ the Mediator and argued that his righteousness was imputed or reckoned to the Christian as the formal cause of acceptance of justification. Within both of these camps, the Roman and the Protestant, there was a limited variety of teaching within the fixed limits of either the infused, inherent righteousness or the external righteousness of Christ, as the formal cause.[12]

The Catholic Church remains nervous about grounding justifying grace in nothing more than God’s favor, as Protestants believe. This concern animates the Catholic insistence that justification is more than a matter of reckoning Christ’s righteousness (imputation) but must necessarily involve a process of internal renewal in which the grace and merits of Christ are poured into people’s hearts (infusion), thus making them increasingly justified. As the Catechism states it, “Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life” (CCC 2027).

This is where we find our biggest difference. Protestants point to the problem of sin, which prohibits people from meriting the smallest measure of divine grace. Because the most impressive displays of human righteousness are unworthy of God’s glory and favor, no one can ever rely upon human merit. Instead, it is only the perfection of Christ’s righteousness that constitutes the ground or ultimate basis of acceptance before God, a righteousness that is accounted to sinners as a gift. Justified persons are clothed in Christ, on the basis of which God embraces us as fully righteous. Unlike Catholic theology, in which the decisive verdict of God’s acceptance comes at the conclusion of life following the accumulation of sacramental grace and merits, Protestants emphasize the decisive moment when people believe in the gospel apart from works. They are justified by faith alone, and their perfect standing before God results in new life as children of God, a life that then blossoms with good works by the internal renewal of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Alister McGrath, “Forerunners of the Reformation? A Critical Examination of the Evidence for Precursors of the Reformation Doctrines of Justification,” Harvard Theological Review 75 (1982):219-242; (idem, Iustitia Dei, 212-213). Berndt Hamm’s conclusions support this taxonomy vis-à-vis the formal cause (192), imputation (194), and distinction of justification from sanctification (196). The Reformation of Faith in the Context of Late Medieval Theology and Piety: Essays by Berndt Hamm (ed. Robert J. Bast. Leiden: Brill, 2004). For the historical antecedents to these characteristics, see A.N.S. Lane, Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment (London: T&T Clark, 2002), 138-140.

[2] Chapter seven of the Decree on Justification explains “What the justification of the sinner is and what are its causes.” Tanner, Decrees, 673.

[3] Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. “Justification in Contemporary Theology,” in Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, ed. H. George Anderson et al. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985), 256. I take Dulles’s word “dramatic” to mean “substantive.” According to A. N. S. Lane, even if the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) is taken into account, the positive exposition of the Tridentine decree remains incompatible with a Protestant understanding, even though the gap is narrower than it was previously. Anthony N. S. Lane, Justification by Faith, 223.

[4] Edward Yarnold, “Duplex iustitia: The Sixteenth Century and the Twentieth,” in Christian Authority: Essays in Honour of Henry Chadwick, ed. G. R. Evans (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 208; Lane, Justification by Faith, 72; John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, 3rd ed. (London: Rivingtons, 1874), 343; Peter Martyr Vermigli, Predestination and Justification: Two Theological Loci, trans. and ed. Frank A. James, III, The Peter Martyr Library 8 (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2003), 159, Peter Toon, Evangelical Theology, 1833-1856: A Response to Tractarianism (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1979), 145-146.

[5] In seeking to explain the “why” of a thing, that is, its cause, Aristotle explains changes of movement in terms of its material, formal, efficient, and final cause. Physics 2:3 trans. Philip H. Wicksteed and Francis M. Cornford. Loeb Classical Library. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 1:128-31.

[6] Tanner, Decrees, 673. The causal scheme of Trent, which develops the final, efficient, meritorious, instrumental, and formal causes, varies somewhat from the Aristotelian taxonomy.

[7] Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 61. For an explanation of how John Calvin’s causal scheme relates to Trent, see Lane, Justification by Faith, 68-72.

[8] In this section, Vermigli does not mention Trent’s “instrumental cause,” namely, the sacrament of baptism. This would have been another point of sharp disagreement since Martyr is concerned to uphold faith as the sole means of appropriating the divine forgiveness. Romanos, 1252 [159].

[9] Ibid.

[10] Outside of his response to Trent’s causal framework in which he identifies justification’s formal cause as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (1251-1252 [159]), Peter Martyr does not explicitly address the causa forma.

[11] Vermigli, Romanos, 1251-1252 [159].

[12] Peter Toon, Evangelical Theology, 1833–1856: A Response to Tractarianism. (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1979), 145-146.

 

3 Comments

Leave a comment
  • In regard to this paragraph:

    ” The Protestant Reformers were also interested in defining justification’s formal cause.[7] For example, in his Locus on Justification, Peter Martyr Vermigli expresses general agreement with the overall causal framework of Trent in terms of the “final” cause (the glory of God), the “efficient” cause (divine mercy), and the “meritorious” cause (the death and resurrection of Christ).[8] Vermigli then explains that the point of contention is particularly the “formal cause.”[9] Unlike Trent, which defines this cause in terms of the righteousness with which one is counted and made just, Vermigli, with Reformed Protestantism, limits the strict sense of justification to the forensic reckoning of righteousness.[10] He thus states: “Therefore, we say that justification cannot consist in that righteousness and renewal by which we are created anew by God. For it is imperfect because of our corruption, so that we are not able to stand before the judgment of Christ.” ”

    As a Catholic, I’m appreciative of this distinction, and indeed (as the old saying goes) “3 out of 4 ain’t bad.” This, along with all of the meat (or in my estimation, lack thereof) in sola scriptura are the two engines that keep Reformation theology alive.

    Upon learning Trent, reading the Catechism in its entirety on this topic (not only CCC 2027, but that whole section), contrasting with the Church Fathers, all while considering the Scriptural verses put forth to justify this position (not to mention the omission of the Scripture that challenges it), I simply can never and will never come to terms with this particular objection of Reformed theology to Christ’s Church.

    G.K. Chesterton put it perhaps most succinctly in his work, “The Thing”:

    “Happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory … we are all kings in exile.”

    Kings in exile. That is to say, God created us to be Adam and Eve. Humanity did have the capacity to be free from sin and to live with the sanctifying grace of God in its heart, because our first parents were created as such. The Fall took that away from the moment Eve was deceived by the serpent and misled Adam until the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.

    The idea of forensic justification without the necessity of the inner renewal of the soul is repugnant to the believing Catholic. Specifically this line:

    “Therefore, we say that justification cannot consist in that righteousness and renewal by which we are created anew by God. For it is imperfect because of our corruption, so that we are not able to stand before the judgment of Christ.”

    To suggest that our corruption is so complete that not even God can enact a true renewal to sanctifying Life in the soul, that we would be so imperfect due to the Fall that our first parents, Adam and Eve, that we would exist in a state that not even God can restore us from, so he had to throw a “blanket of righteousness” over it instead, is a theological slap in the face of our All Loving, All Powerful Creator, His Son who redeemed us and the Spirit who fuels that renewal.

    The formal cause suggested above effectively eliminates the need to live the Christian life.

    Instead of “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”, we would have “If any man will come after me, I’ve already taken up the cross. As long as he believes, he’s guaranteed his salvation.”

    There would be no judgment of nations in Matthew 25. Instead of “Then he shall answer them, saying: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me. And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting.”, we would have “Then he shall answer them, saying: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me. But since you’re totally depraved anyway, as long as you accepted me as your personal Lord and Savior, I’ll still credit you as righteous, regardless of whether or not you responded to God’s grace by loving your neighbor.”

    I’m not suggesting that any of this is possible apart from the grace of Jesus Christ, nor that works can merit any sort of righteousness apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Trent condemns that idea just as harshly as the “faith alone” idea – see the first anathema of the very same session.

    I am saying that by being united with the Body of Christ as St. Paul speaks of in his first letter to the Church at Corinth, he speaks not just metaphorically but mystically; metaphysically. He speaks of the foot, the hand, the ear, the eye. When the hand of one with sanctifying grace alive in his or her soul, a soul fused to the Body of Christ, reaches out to help a fallen member of the human family in need, inspired by divine charity, that is not a human work; it is a work of Christ. And can a good work of Christ fail to be meritorious?

    The proof text of chapter 2 in St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus often is shared to be a knockout punch to the Catholic soteriology. “See? Salvation by grace through faith [alone], not of works, so you may not boast.” But the 10th verse is often omitted from the proof text:

    “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus in good works, which God hath prepared that we should walk in them.” The question becomes, what happens when our response to this grace is a failure to “walk in the good works God has prepared.”?

    I’m on my soapbox about this because of the effect the Reformation has had on our Church, Chris. Yours and mine. Because it’s the same Church. And Christ prayed in the 17th chapter of St. John’s Gospel for that Church to be one, as He and the Father are one. St. Paul admonishes us in the 3rd chapter of his first letter to Corinth, the 5th chapter of his letter to the Church at Galatia, and elsewhere that it is unthinkable for Christ’s Church to have sects, dissensions, factions, rivalries, etc.

    I am honored and privileged to share the message of Christ crucified alongside you to those who don’t yet know. I mean that deeply and truthfully, from the very bottom of my heart, and I mean it also in regard to all who take the name “Christian.” But while we work together in that direction, to bring Christ to those who don’t yet know Him, we maintain an imperative responsibility to reclaim the unity in our doctrine that existed from the time of Christ through 1054 before splintering into two, and in 1517 before splintering into two thousand (and then some) in the 500 years since.

    That doesn’t mean my own Catholic Church is perfect. Far from it, in fact. It’s had saints and sinners since the beginning. But if we’re to speak of true unity, we can’t leave Peter because of Judas. My Evangelical friends live a life of holiness in a more transformed manner than many of my Catholic friends. Lots of my Catholic friends fall under that dreaded title of “Sacramentalized but not Evangelized.” They need, as we all do, to continually reorient their lives toward Christ. But that doesn’t mean that the Sacraments aren’t what the Church as perennially said they are, or that they can’t be physical vehicles of divine grace when the faithful are properly disposed to accept them as such. As a result, our Protestant churches need to, eventually, stop being branches and return to the one trunk, the Church, and receive that same grace from the Sacraments. But I dare say they won’t do so until they begin to see some Christ-like qualities spring about from the spiritual deadness they see in Catholic pews on many Sundays, I think that renewal is coming about quicker than you might think.

    As we continue on this journey, I have to remain open to talking about the many things that divide Christians – the nature of the Sacraments, our request for intercession from Mary and the Saints, Apostolic Succession, the Papacy, and the rest. But ultimately it’s fruitless to discuss those until we overcome our differences on the pillars of sola fide and sola scriptura,

    The first, when taken to its logical end, eliminates any sort of material need to cooperate with God’s grace, apart from intellectual belief. Sanctity and holiness are a nice thing, but entirely optional as it comes to spending eternity with God. It’s a doctrine that I wish could be true, because it would make things a whole lot easier, but leading people to presumption, that is, false assurance of salvation has the potential to lead many souls to peril.

    The second, when taken to its logical end, ensures they we will become more and more divided between now and Christ’s second coming, because a book (even one which is God-breathed, divinely inspired) cannot be self interpreting. It begets an interpreter. And when each person with a Bible in hand believes their interpretation to be the Truth, we’ve only seen the beginning of the possible splintering in these first 500 years. In fact, Martin Luther (who I think was well intentioned, at least at first) would roll over in his grave if he saw the calamity that’s resulted from the development of sola scriptura over the centuries to the present. St. Peter was Inspired to foresee this (see chapter 1 of his first letter, verse 20-21), and, ironically, it is under his patronage and that of his successors that our true unity will ultimately have to come, if we are to trust Christ’s promise about the gates of hell not prevailing.

    Anyway, I’ve digressed quite a bit on this long comment, and I think we can rest assured, Chris, that there will be a lot of ink spilled and a lot of tired typing fingers as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Here’s to continued evangelism to bring those who don’t know Christ into the fold, and continued ecumenism on our end to smooth out the cracks that Satan has caused in our one Church.

    God bless you,

    Dan

  • I have noticed you don’t monetize your blog, don’t waste your traffic,
    you can earn additional cash every month because you’ve got
    hi quality content. If you want to know how to make extra bucks,
    search for: Mrdalekjd methods for $$$

Leave a Reply to FirstRudy Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>