Thursday, April 27, 2017

Grace First or Grace Alone? Good Gracious!

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the culmination of important and much-needed reforms of the Late Middle Ages but also the flashpoint for the unfortunate fissure of Western Christianity. Like fish in water, most of us were raised in a world wet by this unhappy division. We don’t know any different. We assume notions about “the other” through the same cultural matrix that informs our views about privilege, punctuality, poverty and pizza. “Catholics believe in salvation by works and Protestants proclaim salvation by grace.” Right? (sigh)

Well, we’ve come a long way since 1517. While differences remain, we’ve straightened out a lot of the nonsense about works righteousness, ringing coins and souls springing from purgatory. Today Protestants and Catholics acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are children of one Father, members of one Body, cleansed by one baptism, united by one Spirit, proclaimers of one faith, disciples of one Lord, evangelizers of one world, redeemed by one Savior, Jesus Christ. “We are all in the same boat and headed to the same port!” Pope Francis says. “Let us ask for the grace to rejoice in the gifts of each, which belong to all.”[1]

However, in the latest edition of Christianity Today, the subject of grace (of all things) seems to rear the ugly head of division yet again. And quite unnecessarily, I might add. The article features two contributors - one from the Catholic perspective and another representing the Protestant tradition - who have been asked to reflect on the nature of grace. Hence the title – “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us.”

I was eager to read the article, even more so when I discovered that the initial reflection was written by Bishop Robert Barron. Barron, a brilliant systematic theologian and adept ecumenist, offered a characteristically even-handed and conciliatory treatment of the Reformation, particularly in light of the Second Vatican Council. Extending the ecumenical olive branch, Barron notes:

Vatican II valorized a number of themes dear to the hearts of the Reformers: the primacy of Christ, the need for ardent evangelization, the central place of the Bible in the life of the church, using both bread and wine in Communion, the priesthood of all believers, etc. And it expressed its fervent hope for the unification of all those baptized into the body of Christ.[2]

“For this,” Barron continues, “both Protestants and Catholics should give thanks.” True to the Catholic tradition, Barron takes nothing away from the primacy of grace in the economy of salvation but his argument hinges on how Luther interprets “being”.[3] Does human cooperation with grace take away from or magnify God’s primacy and glory? This is the question Barron posits as the essential kernel. No mention of human “merit”, no suggestion that we have anything to boast about when it comes to salvation. It’s all by grace.

So it was particularly confusing (ok, disheartening) when the Protestant contributor strikes a notably different tone, immediately picking up the tired bone of Pelagianism. He states:

Our main objection to Catholic theology is the implication (if not straightforward claim) that merit other than Jesus’ own comes into play in the sinner’s reconciliation and right standing with God. . . All [Protestants] agree that, whatever the case may be, there can be no talk of human ‘merit’ and no ground for boasting of salvation.[4]

Hold on. What? Merit? Boasting? As a student of Catholic theology myself, I wondered what resources were informing his understanding of Catholicism.

While there are necessary distinctions to be made about efficient and instrumental causes of salvation, both Protestants and Catholics agree that God’s gift of grace through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the whole kit and caboodle of Christianity. The heart of our common message has been, and will always be the same, God’s love revealed in the crucified and risen Christ. We’re not talking about “merit” here. That case was closed definitively in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: “Together we confess, by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s work and not because of any merit of our own, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”[5] Pope Francis further clarifies, “No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift [as salvation]. God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him.”[6] Catholics don’t depend on our efforts toward salvation any more than we go around boasting about our cooperation with God’s grace. Good gracious!

Barron started his essay by citing Yves Congar, French Dominican, ecumenist and major architectural contributor to Vatican II (which Cardinal Dulles referred to as “Luther’s Unfinished Council”).[7] Congar suggested that if both sides had not given in to exaggerations and over-reactions, there would be no split in the Western Church. Such is the poignant lesson today.  

Jesus calls us to loving communion, to abide in one another as we abide in Christ. To heal the divisions in the one body we must listen to one another, truly listen. We must not give into the temptation of opening old wounds, stirring old controversies, and harboring uncritical prejudices. “How do we proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation after centuries of division?” Pope Francis asks. Through an open posture of good will. Through a faith that seeks understanding. By seeing a separated brother to be loved, not a contested argument to be won. By “losing our lives” for one another so that the world may believe in the power of God’s reconciling mercy.[8]

We are one in Christ. I pray that by God’s grace we can all live into that mystery as we commemorate (for the first time in history) the Reformation together.

[1] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 99.
[2] Bishop Robert Barron, “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us,” Christianity Today (April 2017), 44.
[3] The underpinnings of Luther’s notion of being rest in nominalism, a philosophical movement of the late medieval period championed by William of Ockham. Ockham asserts that God and creation are categorically univocal, meaning that God is one being (albeit “supreme being”) amongst other beings. This unintentionally posits a sort of ontological competition between God and humans, a zero-sum game when it comes to grace and glory. Accordingly, human “cooperation” with grace, as presented in the Catholic tradition, is said to compromise God’s absolute primacy in the economy of salvation.
            Catholicism, on the other hand, grounds its notion of being in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas presents God, not as one being amongst others, but the sheer act of being itself, the very agency through which all creatures have their existence. This understanding sees human cooperation with grace not in competition with God’s being but exemplifying and magnifying it.
[4] Roger E. Olson, “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us,” Christianity Today (April 2017), 45.
[5] The Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), 15.
[6] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 112.
[7] Notre Dame theologian Richard McBrien notes, “By any account, Yves Congar is the most distinguished ecclesiologist of this century and perhaps of the entire post-Tridentine era. No modern theologian’s spirit was accorded fuller play in the documents of Vatican II than Congar’s.”
[8] Lk 9:24; Jn 17:23.