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Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick: Louis Bouyer on the Reformation | Mark Brumley
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 workfor 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
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
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 Catholicand there would seem to be many such
these dayswhose 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
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)?
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
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
Part 1 | Part 2
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