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Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick: Louis Bouyer on the Reformation | Mark Brumley

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Interpreting the Reformation is complicated business. But like many complicated things, it can be simplified sufficiently well that even non-experts can get the gist of it.

Here's what seems a fairly accurate but simplified summary of the issue: The break between Catholics and Protestants was either a tragic necessity (to use Jaroslav Pelikan's expression) or it was tragic because unnecessary.

Many Protestants see the Catholic/Protestant split as a tragic necessity, although the staunchly anti-Catholic kind of Protestant often sees nothing tragic about it. Or if he does, the tragedy is that there ever was such a thing as the Roman Catholic Church that the Reformers had to separate from. His motto is "Come out from among them" and five centuries of Christian disunity has done nothing to cool his anti-Roman fervor.

Yet for most Protestants, even for most conservative Protestants, this is not so. They believe God "raised up" Luther and the other Reformers to restore the Gospel in its purity. They regret that this required a break with Roman Catholics (hence the tragedy) but fidelity to Christ, on their view, demanded it (hence the necessity).

Catholics agree with their more agreeable Protestant brethren that the sixteenth century division among Christians was tragic. But most Catholics who think about it also see it as unnecessary. At least unnecessary in the sense that what Catholics might regard as genuine issues raised by the Reformers could, on the Catholic view, have been addressed without the tragedy of dividing Christendom.

Yet we can go further than decrying the Reformation as unnecessary. In his ground-breaking work, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, Louis Bouyer argued that the Catholic Church herself is necessary for the full flowering of the Reformation principles. In other words, you need Catholicism to make Protestantism work–for Protestantism's principles fully to develop. Thus, the Reformation was not only unnecessary; it was impossible. What the Reformers sought, argues Bouyer, could not be achieved without the Catholic Church.

From Bouyer's conclusion we can infer at least two things. First, Protestantism can't be all wrong, otherwise how could the Catholic Church bring about the "full flowering of the principles of the Reformation"? Second, left to itself, Protestantism will go astray and be untrue to some of its central principles. It's these two points, as Bouyer articulates them, I would like to consider here.

One thing should be said up-front: although a convert from French Protestantism, Bouyer is no anti-Protestant polemicist. His Spirit and Forms of Protestantism was written a half-century ago, a decade before Vatican II's decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, yet it avoids the bitter anti-Protestantism that sometimes afflicted pre-conciliar Catholic works on Protestantism. That's one reason the book remains useful, even after decades of post-conciliar ecumenism.

In that regard, Bouyer's brief introduction is worth quoting in full:

"This book is a personal witness, a plain account of the way in which a Protestant came to feel himself obliged in conscience to give his adherence to the Catholic Church. No sentiment of revulsion turned him from the religion fostered in him by a Protestant upbringing followed by several years in the ministry. The fact is, he has never rejected it. It was his desire to explore its depths, its full scope, that led him, step by step, to a genuinely spiritual movement stemming from the teachings of the Gospel, and Protestantism as an institution, or rather complexus of institutions, hostile to one another as well as to the Catholic Church. The study of this conflict brought him to detect the fatal error which drove the spiritual movement of Protestantism out of the one Church. He saw the necessity of returning to that Church, not in order to reject any of the positive Christian elements of his religious life, but to enable them, at last, to develop without hindrance.

"The writer, who carved out his way step by step, or rather, saw it opening before his eyes, hopes now to help along those who are still where he started. In addition, he would like to show those he has rejoined how a little more understanding of the others, above all a greater fidelity to their own gift, could help their ‘separated brethren' to receive it in their turn. In this hope he offers his book to all who wish to be faithful to the truth, first, to the Word of God, but also to the truth of men as they are, not as our prejudices and habits impel us to see them."

Bouyer, then, addresses both Protestants and Catholics. To the Protestants, he says, in effect, "It is fidelity to our Protestant principles, properly understood, that has led me into the Catholic Church." To the Catholics, he says, "Protestantism isn't as antithetical to the Catholic Faith as you suppose. It has positive principles, as well as negative ones. Its positive principles, properly understood, belong to the Catholic Tradition, which we Catholics can see if we approach Protestantism with a bit of understanding and openness."

The Reformation was Right

Bouyer's argument is that the Reformation's main principle was essentially Catholic: "Luther's basic intuition, on which Protestantism continuously draws for its abiding vitality, so far from being hard to reconcile with Catholic tradition, or inconsistent with the teaching of the Apostles, was a return to the clearest elements of their teaching, and in the most direct line of that tradition."

1. Sola Gratia. What was the Reformation's main principle? Not, as many Catholics and even some Protestants think, "private judgment" in religion. According to Bouyer, "the true fundamental principle of Protestantism is the gratuitousness of salvation"–sola gratia. He writes, "In the view of Luther, as well as of all those faithful to his essential teaching, man without grace can, strictly speaking, do nothing of the slightest value for salvation. He can neither dispose himself for it, nor work for it in any independent fashion. Even his acceptance of grace is the work of grace. To Luther and his authentic followers, justifying faith . . . is quite certainly, the first and most fundamental grace."

Bouyer then shows how, contrary to what many Protestants and some Catholics think, salvation sola gratia is also Catholic teaching. He underscores the point to any Catholics who might think otherwise:

"If, then, any Catholic–and there would seem to be many such these days–whose first impulse is to reject the idea that man, without grace, can do nothing towards his salvation, that he cannot even accept the grace offered except by a previous grace, that the very faith which acknowledges the need of grace is a purely gratuitous gift, he would do well to attend closely to the texts we are about to quote."

In other words, "Listen up, Catholics!"

Bouyer quotes, at length, from the Second Council of Orange (529), the teaching of which was confirmed by Pope Boniface II as de fide or part of the Church's faith. The Council asserted that salvation is the work of God's grace and that even the beginning of faith or the consent to saving grace is itself the result of grace. By our natural powers, we can neither think as we ought nor choose any good pertaining to salvation. We can only do so by the illumination and impulse of the Holy Spirit.

Nor is it merely that man is limited in doing good. The Council affirmed that, as a result of the Fall, man is inclined to will evil. His freedom is gravely impaired and can only be repaired by God's grace. Following a number of biblical quotations, the Council states, "[W]e are obliged, in the mercy of God, to preach and believe that, through sin of the first man, the free will is so weakened and warped, that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought, or believe in God, or do good for the sake of God, unless moved, previously, by the grace of the divine mercy . . . . Our salvation requires that we assert and believe that, in every good work we do, it is not we who have the initiative, aided, subsequently, by the mercy of God, but that he begins by inspiring faith and love towards him, without any prior merit of ours."

The Council of Trent, writes Bouyer, repeated that teaching, ruling out "a parallel action on the part of God and man, a sort of ‘synergism', where man contributes, in the work of salvation, something, however slight, independent of grace." Even where Trent insists that man is not saved passively, notes Bouyer, it doesn't assert some independent, human contribution to salvation. Man freely cooperates in salvation, but his free cooperation is itself the result of grace. Precisely how this is so is mysterious, and the Church has not settled on a particular theological explanation. But that it is so, insist Bouyer, is Catholic teaching. Thus, concludes Bouyer, "the Catholic not only may, but must in virtue of his own faith, give a full and unreserved adherence to the sola gratia, understood in the positive sense we have seen upheld by Protestants."

2. Sola Fide: So much for sola gratia. But what about the other half of the Reformation principle regarding salvation, the claim that justification by grace comes through faith alone (sola fide)?

According to Bouyer, the main thrust of the doctrine of sola fide was to affirm that justification was wholly the work of God and to deny any positive human contribution apart from grace. Faith was understood as man's grace-enabled, grace-inspired, grace-completed response to God's saving initiative in Jesus Christ. What the Reformation initially sought to affirm, says Bouyer, was that such a response is purely God's gift to man, with man contributing nothing of his own to receive salvation.

In other words, it isn't as if God does his part and man cooperates by doing his part, even if that part is minuscule. The Reformation insisted that God does his part, which includes enabling and moving man to receive salvation in Christ. Man's "part" is to believe, properly understood, but faith too is the work of God, so man contributes nothing positively of his own. As Bouyer points out, this central concern of the Reformation also happened to be defined Catholic teaching, reaffirmed by the Council of Trent.

In a sense, the Reformation debate was over the nature of saving faith, not over whether faith saves. St. Thomas Aquinas, following St. Augustine and the patristic understanding of faith and salvation, said that saving faith was faith "formed by charity." In other words, saving faith involves at least the beginnings of the love of God. In this way, Catholics could speak of "justification by grace alone, through faith alone," if the "alone" was meant to distinguish the gift of God (faith) from any purely human contribution apart from grace; but not if "alone" was meant to offset faith from grace-enabled, grace-inspired, grace-accomplished love of God or charity.

For Catholic theologians of the time, the term "faith" was generally used in the highly refined sense of the gracious work of God in us by which we assent to God's Word on the authority of God who reveals. In this sense, faith is distinct from entrusting oneself to God in hope and love, though obviously faith is, in a way, naturally ordered to doing so: God gives man faith so that man can entrust himself to God in hope and love. But faith, understood as mere assent (albeit graced assent), is only the beginning of salvation. It needs to be "informed" or completed by charity, also the work of grace.

Luther and his followers, though, rejected the Catholic view that "saving faith" was "faith formed by charity" and therefore not "faith alone", where "faith" is understood as mere assent to God's Word, apart from trust and love. In large part, this was due to a misunderstanding by Luther. "We must not be misled on this point," writes Bouyer, "by Luther's later assertions opposed to the fides caritate formata [faith informed by charity]. His object in disowning this formula was to reject the idea that faith justified man only if there were added to it a love proceeding from a natural disposition, not coming as a gift of God, the whole being the gift of God." Yet Luther's view of faith, contents Bouyer, seems to imply an element of love, at least in the sense of a total self-commitment to God. And, of course, this love must be both the response to God's loving initiative and the effect of that initiative by which man is enabled and moved to respond. But once again, this is Catholic doctrine, for the charity that "informs" faith so that it becomes saving faith is not a natural disposition, but is as much the work of God as the assent of faith.

Thus, Bouyer's point is that the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide) was initially seen by the Reformers as a way of upholding justification by grace alone (sola gratia), which is also a fundamental Catholic truth. Only later, as a result of controversy, did the Reformers insist on identifying justification by faith alone with a negative principle that denied any form of cooperation, even grace-enabled cooperation.

Part 1 | Part 2


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