Grace in Protestant and Catholic Theology

 

Grace is a central teaching of the Christian faith.  Grace is a gift from God and apart from God it is not possible achieve sanctifying grace.  In this regard the Church echoes the words of St. Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9 where he writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (NRSV).  The theology of grace developed from Apostolic times to the present, but the concept of it being a gift has remained.  However, in the 16th century there was a sharp divergence in the concept of grace.  The Protestant reformers held to a different view of man that had been taught for the first 1500 years of the church.  Along with this different view came a different view of grace.  From the beginnings of the church’s history, grace has had at its center the consent of the free will of man and this view remained the same until the Protestant Reformation.

 

DEVELOPMENT OF GRACE IN THE EARLY CHURCH

            Before the development of grace in the early church can be discussed it is important to define terms.  In describing grace Dr. Scott Hahn writes that grace is, “The supernatural gift that God bestows entirely of his own benevolence upon men and women for their eternal salvation. Justification comes through grace, and through the free gift of grace the ability is bestowed to respond to the divine call of adoptive sonship, participation in the divine nature, and eternal life(Hahn Grace).  Within this definition we see the essential characteristics of what grace is.  It is a free gift that God gives us, and we have the ability to respond.  Some, especially most Protestants, would say that grace is indeed a free gift, but we do not have the ability to respond properly.

Early in the history of the church we see a correlation between faith and works.  This does not mean that the church teaches a works-based salvation like some falsely believe, but it does mean that grace helps perfect the will (STIII, Q62, A2).  St. Justin Martyr was an in his Dialogue with Trypho in the second century that grace helps us understand the will of God to do what pleases him (Roberts 258).  This concept is further elaborated upon by St. Irenaeus in his great work against the Gnostics titled Against Heresies.  St. Irenaeus also wrote in the late 2nd century about the errors of the Gnostics.  The Gnostics believed that they were saved based on secret knowledge passed down from secret teachings of Jesus.  St. Irenaeus employed a device that became known as the rule of faith.  In this rule St, Irenaeus pointed out that the true churches can trace there lineage back to the apostles, and he also gives a listing of the Bishop of Rome up until that point.  What is interesting in his explanation of grace and how it varies from his opponents.  Regarding grace St Irenaeus writes, “in the exercise of His grace, {God} confers immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love” (Roberts 331).

In both examples cited it is imperative to have faith.  Faith shows us where our hope is founded, and hope leads to charity which shows us how to love God the way He wishes to be loved (Hardon Ch. 10).  In sacred scripture there are many passages that show what it means to love God.  In the story of the rich young ruler Jesus tells the man that following the commandments on their own is not enough.  He lays down a challenge is Mark 10:21 and tells him to “Sell what you have and follow me” (NRSV).  This challenge seems superficial, but it is a statement of faith.  If we believe Jesus is who he says he is then the Christian life is more than just faith, and more than just doing good things.  Through faith grace is conferred, but to remain in a state of grace we must cooperate with the grace given, and that may mean giving up what we have to follow him.  Conversely in this story Jesus affirms the necessity of keeping the moral laws, but emphasizes that with out faith, or following as it is stated here, it will not get one to eternal life.

 

EARLY HERESIES AND GRACE

            Though the relationship between faith and works regarding the increase of grace was clearly established early in the church’s history there were heresies that arose.  One such heresy denied the existence of original sin.  Original sin is the doctrine that says because of the fall there is a stain on our souls and describes our fallen nature (CCC para 408).  As with all Catholic doctrine, original sin was seen as a teaching very early in the church’s history.  Tertullian is credited with one of the earliest references to original sin.  In his work The Doctrine of Man and Sin Tertullian makes the connection to the fall and the tendency, or concupiscence, of man to sin.  However, he also states that the soul is still a creation of the divine and it is possible for man to use free will to cooperate with God (Tertullian).

For the most part this remained the view of original sin and grace in the church for the next two centuries until a man named Pelagius started making waves.  He was a British born lay theologian who went to Rome in the late 4th century and started a movement known as Pelagianism (Cross 1257).  Pelagius started denying the established dogma of original sin.  Regarding Pelagianism Dr. Patricia Ireland writes that it is a, “philosophical theology which denies both the need for divine grace and the doctrine of the generative transmission of original sin (Ireland 38).

The ideas that Pelagius put forth were problematic to say the least.  If the tenants of Pelagianism were carried to their logical conclusion, why would Christ have to die on the cross for the sins of the world?  In Ephesians 2:5 St. Paul writes, “even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (NRSV).  The views of Pelagius regarding original sin and grace not only were contrary to this verse but were contrary to the fathers who wrote afterward.  In this system man becomes the cause of his salvation.  This is seen in the summary of Pelagianism by a disciple of Pelagius named Caelestius.  He summarized the view by saying that man was born in the same condition as Adam and did not have a tendency to sin.  He went on further say that he knew some who were spotless and never sinned (Ireland 38).

The teaching of Pelagianism was damaging and caught the attention of the great church father St. Augustine.  In 420 St. Augustine replied to the two letters of the pelagians with his and addressed it to Pope Boniface (Smither 192).  He did this to inform the Holy Father of the dangers of the heresy that was being propagated.  In response to Julian, a Pelagian teacher, erroneously stated that the Catholic Church taught that free will was taken away by the fall.  St, Augustine countered and wrote that free will remained, but what was taken away was the full righteousness to immortality in Heaven (Augustine 378).  This is remedied by grace, and original sin is washed away in the sacrament of baptism.  Regarding this Augustine writes, “All these products of concupiscence, and the old guilt of concupiscence itself, are put away by the washing of baptism (Augustine 386).  The Pelagian view saw salvation as a reward for moral behavior and discipline apart from grace (Ireland 38).  St. Augustine, and by extension the church, saw salvation as living in detachment from the world through grace.

In the 5th century a weaker form of Pelagianism began to circulate and was advocated by Cassian at Marseilles.  This was a hybrid of sorts between the views of Pelagius and St. Augustine’s strong correction of the heresy (Thein 643).  Semi-Pelagianism held that man was able initiate salvation apart from grace, and that everything that happened after salvation was the work of grace.  The central point in both systems is the ability of man to choose apart from divine grace as the cause for good human action (Armstrong 51).  This compromise of an early heresy compromised the supernatural end of man and made it an object of mere human effort (De Lubac 65).  In further response to these heresies of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, the Council of Orange was convened.  The council clarified the church’s view of original sin, the need for grace, and formally condemned Pelagianism as heresy.

 

A MATTER OF HE WILL

            With Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism defined as heresy the church’s view of grace and the will remained unchallenged for some time.   St. Thomas Aquinas reiterated this view in his masterful work the Summa Theologia where he writes, “grace may be taken in two ways; first, as a Divine help, whereby God moves us to will and to act; secondly, as a habitual gift divinely bestowed on us” (STII, Q111, A2).  However, in the 16th century an event occurred which changed the church and the world.  On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg Germany.  This event sparked the Protestant Reformation and it would not only sever the unity of the universal church, but the unity of grace and free will.

The reformers provided a new definition of the will and grace.  For the first 1500 years of the Christian era it was believed that sanctifying grace was given to man and man had the choice of whether to accept it or not.  By continuing to cooperate with the grace of God one is transformed into the image of Christ and increases in holiness.  Martin Luther, and later John Calvin, introduced the concept of total depravity.  This is the concept that man is no longer able to use his will to accept grace because of the fall.  Since the fall man’s nature is so corrupt that he is not able to merit anything in the sight of God (Ryrie 341).

The definition above is quite tame compared to that of Martin Luther.  In his work The Bondage of the Will Martin Luther was in a heated debate with Erasmus.  Erasmus held to the Catholic view that grace is presented by God, and man has the free will to accept or deny it.  Martin Luther took exception and described Erasmus’s pamphlet on free will as a diatribe.  Martine Luther writes regarding free will “free choice is already vanquished and prostrate” (Lull 168).

John Calvin built upon Luther’s concept of depravity.  John Calvin write am influential book titled Institutes of the Christian Religion which became known as the first systematic theology of Protestant thought.  Regarding total depravity Calvin writes, “Therefore man’s own wickedness corrupted the pure nature which he had received from God, and his ruin brought with it the destruction of all his posterity” (Calvin 23.8).  So far Luther and Calvin seem to be on the same page, but this is far from the case.  Calvin would elaborate on his theory of depravity and add to it his doctrine of predestination.  God willed the depravity of man as an act of his divine will and will save whom he wished to save.  With these developments the role of efficacious grace was done away with, at least in some Protestant circles.

At this point it may be helpful to clarify some terminology regarding grace.  Sufficient grace is a grace that does not involve consent.  This is a grace that does not need the cooperation to produce God’s desired effect.  The issue that is disputed by the reformers involves efficacious grace.  This is actual grace that is feely consented with by man to produce the desired effect.  The reformers denied the freedom of the will in regard to efficacious grace.  By contrast Catholic theologians have always upheld the freedom of the will and efficacious grace (Pohle 222).

This denial of efficacious grace would cause havoc with other doctrines as well.  Historically the church taught original sin, and how through it we had a sin nature, but we were still able to use our will to cooperate with the graces that God bestowed.  This allowed one to grow in holiness and be further conformed to the image of Christ.  Sanctification was a process by which we pursued Christ and allowed his to change us through the moral virtues and thee three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.  Regarding this concept Dr. Patricia Ireland writes, “Through the efficient grace merited by the obedient will of the Son of the cross, the sinner summons the courage to bend the afflicted will towards heaven and responds in freedom to accept God’s call to an everlasting, radiant life” (Ireland 21).  This was the view of St. Augustine, St. Irenaeus, St. Justin Martyr, and many others through history until Luther.

In Luther we find the doctrine of imputation and the idea holiness was not something that was a process, but that it was spontaneous.  The will is mute and does nothing to help develop virtues or fruit of faith.  In Luther’s view Christ is our righteousness and all that he is ours.  All fruit of faith is as a result of being saved and not a response to grace.  The concept of reward and merit become warped in this view as man really does not have to live a Christian life to share n the kingdom.  This is where an irony enters into Luther’s thought process.  In his work Two Kinds of Righteousness he, on one hand, says that faith alone is all we need to be transformed into the image of Christ.  However, just a few paragraphs later he implores hi readers to ask God for the grace needed to live a life of obedience (Lull 139).

 

CATHOLIC AND PROTESTANT VIEW OF PREDESTINATION

            The concept of total depravity brought forth an even more extreme doctrine of predestination.  The Catholic church has always taught predestination, but it is different from its Protestant counterpart especially in reformed circles.  The Catholic view utilizes efficacious grace as a means by which God directs an action.  St. Thomas Aquinas states regarding predestination, “Hence the type of the aforesaid direction of a rational creature towards the end of life eternal is called predestination. For to destine, is to direct or send. Thus, it is clear that predestination, as regards its objects, is a part of providence” (ST1, Q23, A1).  God works outside the confines of time and knows how each of us will respond to efficacious grace.  This does not make grace any less important, and it certainly does not mean that God is subject to man.  Quite the contrary actually as God knows us in such an intimate way that he directs us to act by sending graces.  He directs, and he guides, but we must cooperate.  In the catholic view man is predestined to freedom to love and serve the Lord (Denzinger 81).  Anything we do originates in God.

The Protestant view of predestination is quite different from the Catholic view.  In developing their view, the reformers sought to protect the sovereignty of God.  This is admirable, and it is something that surely must be defended.  However, the pendulum shifted so far to the opposite side that predestination did not look like anything that had previously.  In discussing predestination, the Protestant reformer John Calvin wrote, “The supreme Disposer then makes way for his own predestination, when depriving those whom he has reprobated of the communication of his light, he leaves them in blindness” (Calvin 24.12).  Calvin goes on to say that God only enlightens those whom he predestined to be saved (Calvin 24.17).  To Calvin if one is not predestined to Heaven then they are predestined for hell.  This view not only varied from the Catholic view, but also from the view of fellow reformer Martin Luther.

Luther, though he did not focus on predestination, did teach that some were predestined for heaven.  One of the many differences between Luther and Calvin is that Luther did not believe that anyone was predestined for hell.  Salvation is predestined to those who seek God.  It is here that Luther, not only seems to contradict himself, but diverts quite strongly from Calvin.  In his Lectures on Genesis Luther writes regarding Calvin’s view, “For thoughts of this kind, which investigate something more sublime above or outside the revelation of God, are altogether hellish. With them nothing more is achieved than that we plunge ourselves into destruction” (Lull 526).  Predestination is reserved for those who seek God, who are baptized, and seek the sacraments.  However, according to Luther the will is so depraved that one is not able to seek these things on its own.

Our Protestant brethren who adhere to the view of Calvin reject the notion of efficacious grace.  Though it may seem that Luther had believed in a type of efficacious grace, that thought comes to an end when the imputation of Christ is discussed.  Christ died for us and our dung covered souls are covered with a robe of righteousness that was purchased for us on the cross.  When God the Father looks at us on judgement day he sees Christ as a result, and not our depraved souls that are unable to change.  This view is incapable, and historic, view of the Catholic church that shows a way of perfection.  Through efficacious grace the church teaches that grace is infused and sanctification is process that takes place over time.  Not a once and for all type of event.  Regarding this Dr. Ireland writes. “Sanctification is incompatible with the Catholic teaching on the way of perfection as integral to unity with God” (Ireland 19).

 

CONCLUSION

            The topic at hand is one that has written about for centuries, and one that has filled many volumes.  The Protestant view of grace has some merits, and at times can be convincing.  However, it is fleeting and appeals to one’s emotions.  Christians are a people of the truth, and if we are going to seek truth we must seek it with zeal.  It is appealing to see grace, salvation, and sanctification as a one-time judicial type vent where we are judged righteous based on Christ’s merits.  However, according to Luther and Calvin this does not change a man from the inside out.  Man is still covered with dung, but merely has the appearance of being clean.  In trying to illustrate his point Luther wrote to his protégé Melanchthon, “No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day” (Lull 457).

The view of the Protestant reformers regarding grace were revolutionary, but not in a good way.  They disregarded the constant teaching of the church from the time of the apostles and developed a brand of belief that made their lives easier to live.  The Catholic teaching regarding efficacious grace has remained constant since the earliest days of the church.  The grace of God is an unmerited gift, God presents grace through various means including the sacraments, man makes the choice whether to cooperate with the grace, and as a result of cooperating man merits and becomes more like Christ.  Man is transformed to holiness over time.

 

 

WORKS CITED

Armstrong, Dave. More Biblical Evidence for Catholicism. Dave Armstrong, 2007. Print.

Augustine of Hippo. “A Treatise against Two Letters of the Pelagians.” Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings. Ed. Philip Schaff. Trans. Robert Ernest Wallis. Vol. 5. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887. Print. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997. Print.

Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000. Print.

Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church 2005: n. pag. Print.

Denzinger, Henry, and Karl Rahner, eds. The Sources of Catholic Dogma. Trans. Roy J. Deferrari. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1954. Print.

Hahn, Scott, ed. Catholic Bible Dictionary 2009: n. pag. Print.

Hardon, John.  History and Theology of Grace.  Ann Arbor, MI:  Sapientia Press, 2005.

Ireland, Patricia.  Guardian of a Pure Heart.  St. Augustine on the Path to Heaven.  New York: Alba House, 2009.

Lubac, Henri De.  A Brief Catechesis on Nature & Grace.  San Francisco, CA:  Ignatius Press, 1984. Print.

Lull, Timothy ed.  Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings.  Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2005.  Print.

Pohle, Joseph, and Arthur Preuss. Grace, Actual and Habitual: A Dogmatic Treatise. Toronto: W. E. Blake & Son, 1919. Print. Dogmatic Theology.

Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Vol. 1. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885. Print. The Ante-Nicene Fathers.

Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. A Survey of Bible Doctrine. Chicago: Moody Press, 1972. Print.

Smither, Edward L.  Augustine As Mentor.  Nashville, TN:  B&H Academic, 2008. Print.

Tertullian.  The Doctrine of Man and Sinhttp://www.tertullian.org/articles/roberts_theology/roberts_08.htm, accessed September 19, 2018.

Thein, John. Ecclesiastical Dictionary: Containing, in Concise Form, Information upon Ecclesiastical, Biblical, Archæological, and Historical Subjects 1900: n. pag. Print.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. London: Burns Oates & Washbourne. Print.

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