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Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick | Mark Brumley | Part Two | Part One

3. Sola Scriptura: Melanchthon, the colleague of Luther, called justification sola gratia, sola fide the "Material Principle" of the Reformation. But there was also the Formal Principle, the doctrine of sola Scriptura or what Bouyer calls the sovereign authority of Scripture. What of that?

Here, too, says Bouyer, the Reformation’s core positive principle is correct. The Word of God, rather than a human word, must govern the life of the Christian and of the Church. And the Word of God is found in a unique and supreme form in the Bible, the inspired Word of God. The inspiration of the Bible means that God is the primary author of Scripture. Since we can say that about no other writing or formal expression of the Church’s Faith, not even conciliar or papal definitions of faith, the Bible alone is the Word of God in this sense and therefore it possesses a unique authority.

Yet the supremacy of the Bible does not imply an opposition between it and the authority of the Church or Tradition, as certain negative principles adopted by the Reformers implied. Furthermore, the biblical spirituality of Protestantism, properly understood, is in keeping with the best traditions of Catholic spirituality, especially those of the Fathers and the great medieval theologians. Through Scripture, God speaks to us today, offering a living Word to guide our lives in Christ.

Thus, writes Bouyer, "the supreme authority of Scripture, taken in its positive sense, as gradually drawn out and systematized by Protestants themselves, far from setting the Church and Protestantism in opposition, should be the best possible warrant for their return to understanding and unity."

The Reformation was Wrong

Where does this leave us? If the Reformation was right about sola gratia and sola Scriptura, its two key principles, how was it wrong? Bouyer holds that only the positive elements of these Reformation principles are correct.

Unfortunately, these principles were unnecessarily linked by the Reformers to certain negative elements, which the Catholic Church had to reject. Here we consider two of those elements: 1) the doctrine of extrinsic justification and the nature of justifying faith and 2) the authority of the Bible.

1. Extrinsic Justification. Regarding justification by grace alone, it was the doctrine of extrinsic justification and the rejection of the Catholic view of faith formed by charity as "saving faith." Bouyer writes, "The further Luther advanced in his conflict with other theologians, then with Rome, then with the whole of contemporary Catholicism and finally with the Catholicism of every age, the more closely we see him identifying affirmation about sola gratia with a particular theory, known as extrinsic justification."

Extrinsic justification is the idea that justification occurs outside of man, rather than within him. Catholicism, as we have seen, holds that justification is by grace alone. In that sense, it originates outside of man, with God’s grace. But, according to Catholic teaching, God justifies man by effecting a change within him, by making him just or righteous, not merely by saying he is just or righteous or treating him as if he were. Justification imparts the righteousness of Christ to man, transforming him by grace into a child of God.

The Word, Church and Sacraments in Protestantism and Catholicism by Rev. Louis Bouyer is a theological classic. Like The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, Fr. Bouyer's longer work on the same topic, it seeks to foster unity and deeper understanding among Christians by comparing the Catholic and Protestant views of Scripture, Church authority, and the Sacraments. Bouyer, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century and a convert from Protestantism, contributed significantly to the movement out of which came the Second Vatican Council's efforts to promote Christian unity. In The Word, Church and Sacraments, he shows how Catholic teaching is often misunderstood by Catholics and Protestants alike, and how this teaching is fundamentally compatible with key positive elements of Reformation thought. He also examines the main points of disagreement between Catholicism and Protestantism, and demonstrates how Catholicism, properly understood, maintains the theological balance necessary to uphold some of the main truths on which Catholics and Protestants agree.

The Reformation view was different. The Reformers, like the Catholic Church, insisted that justification is by grace and therefore originates outside of man, with God. But they also insisted that when God justifies man, man is not changed but merely declared just or righteous. God treats man as if he were just or righteous, imputing to man the righteousness of Christ, rather than imparting it to him.

The Reformers held this view for two reasons. First, because they came to think it necessary in order to uphold the gratuitousness of justification. Second, because they thought the Bible taught it. On both points, argues Bouyer, the Reformers were mistaken. There is neither a logical nor a biblical reason why God cannot effect a change in man without undercutting justification by grace alone. Whatever righteousness comes to be in man as a result of justification is a gift, as much any other gift God bestows on man. Nor does the Bible’s treatment of "imputed" righteousness imply that justification is not imparted. On these points, the Reformers were simply wrong:

"Without the least doubt, grace, for St. Paul, however freely given, involves what he calls ‘the new creation’, the appearance in us of a ‘new man’, created in justice and holiness. So far from suppressing the efforts of man, or making them a matter of indifference, or at least irrelevant to salvation, he himself tells us to ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’, at the very moment when he affirms that ‘. . . knowing that it is God who works in you both to will and to accomplish.’ These two expressions say better than any other that all is grace in our salvation, but at the same time grace is not opposed to human acts and endeavor in order to attain salvation, but arouses them and exacts their performance."

Calvin, notes Bouyer, tried to circumvent the biblical problems of the extrinsic justification theory by positing a systematic distinction between justification, which puts us in right relation to God but which, on the Protestant view, doesn’t involve a change in man; and sanctification, which transforms us. Yet, argues Bouyer, this systematic distinction isn’t biblical. In the Bible, justification and sanctification–as many modern Protestant exegetes admit–are two different terms for the same process. Both occur by grace through faith and both involve a faith "informed by charity" or completed by love. As Bouyer contends, faith in the Pauline sense, "supposes the total abandonment of man to the gift of God"–which amounts to love of God. He argues that it is absurd to think that the man justified by faith, who calls God "Abba, Father," doesn’t love God or doesn’t have to love him in order to be justified.

2. Sola Scriptura vs. Church and Tradition. Bouyer also sees a negative principle that the Reformation unnecessarily associated with sola Scriptura or the sovereignty of the Bible. Yes, the Bible alone is the Word of God in the sense that only the Bible is divinely inspired. And yes the Bible’s authority is supreme in the sense that neither the Church nor the Church’s Tradition "trumps" Scripture. But that doesn’t mean that the Word of God in an authoritative form is found only in the Bible, for the Word of God can be communicated in a non-inspired, yet authoritative form as well. Nor does it mean that there can be no authoritative interpreter of the Bible (the Magisterium) or authoritative interpretation of biblical doctrine (Tradition). Repudiation of the Church’s authority and Tradition simply doesn’t follow from the premise of Scripture’s supremacy as the inspired Word of God. Furthermore, the Tradition and authority of the Church are required to determine the canon of the Bible.

Luther and Calvin did not follow the Radical Reformation in rejecting any role for Church authority or Tradition altogether. But they radically truncated such a role. Furthermore, they provided no means by which the Church, as a community of believers, could determine when the Bible was being authentically interpreted or who within the community had the right to make such a determination for the community. In this way, they ultimately undercut the supremacy of the Bible, for they provided no means by which the supreme authority of the Bible could, in fact, be exercised in the Church as a whole. The Bible’s authority extended only so far as the individual believer’s interpretation of it allowed.

The Catholic Church and Reformation Principles

As we have seen, Bouyer argues for the Reformation’s "positive principles" and against its "negative principles." But how did what was right from one point of view in the Reformation go so wrong from another point of view? Bouyer argues that the under the influence of decadent scholasticism, mainly Nominalism, the Reformers unnecessarily inserted the negative elements into their ideas along with the positive principles. "Brought up on these lines of thought, identified with them so closely they could not see beyond them," he writes, "the Reformers could only systematize their very valuable insights in a vitiated framework."

The irony is profound. The Reformation sought to recover "genuine Christianity" by hacking through what it regarded as the vast overgrowth of medieval theology. Yet to do so, the Reformers wielded swords forged in the fires of the worst of medieval theology–the decadent scholasticism of Nominalism.

The negative principles of the Reformation necessarily led the Catholic Church to reject the movement–though not, in fact, its fundamental positive principles, which were essentially Catholic. Eventually, argues Bouyer, through a complex historical process, these negative elements ate away at the positive principles as well. The result was liberal Protestantism, which wound up affirming the very things Protestantism set out to deny (man’s ability to save himself) and denying things Protestantism began by affirming (sola gratia).

Bouyer contends that the only way to safeguard the positive principles of the Reformation is through the Catholic Church. For only in the Catholic Church are the positive principles the Reformation affirmed found without the negative elements the Reformers mistakenly affixed to them. But how to bring this about?

Bouyer says that both Protestants and Catholics have responsibilities here. Protestants must investigate their roots and consider whether the negative elements of the Reformation, such as extrinsic justification and the rejection of a definitive Church teaching authority and Tradition, are necessary to uphold the positive principles of sola gratia and the supremacy of Scripture. If not, then how is continued separation from the Catholic Church justified? Furthermore, if, as Bouyer contends, the negative elements of the Reformation were drawn from a decadent theology and philosophy of the Middle Ages and not Christian antiquity, then it is the Catholic Church that has upheld the true faith and has maintained a balance regarding the positive principles of the Reformation that Protestantism lacks. In this way, the Catholic Church is needed for Protestantism to live up to its own positive principles.

Catholics have responsibilities as well. One major responsibility is to be sure they have fully embraced their own Church’s teaching on the gratuitousness of salvation and the supremacy of the Bible. As Bouyer writes, "Catholics are in fact too prone to forget that, if the Church bears within herself, and cannot ever lose, the fullness of Gospel truth, its members, at any given time and place, are always in need of a renewed effort to apprehend this truth really and not just, as Newman would say, ‘notionally’." "To Catholics, lukewarm and unaware of their responsibilities," he adds, the Reformation, properly understood, "recalls the existence of many of their own treasures which they overlook."

Only if Catholics are fully Catholic–which includes fully embracing the positive principles of the Reformation that Bouyer insists are essentially Catholic–can they "legitimately aspire to show and prepare their separated brethren the way to a return which would be for them not a denial but a fulfillment."

Today, as in the sixteenth century, the burden rests with us Catholics. We must live, by God’s abundant grace, up to our high calling in Christ Jesus. And in this way, show our Protestant brethren that their own positive principles are properly expressed only in the Catholic Church.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Has The Reformation Ended? | An Interview with Dr. Mark Noll
Evangelicals and Catholics In Conversation, Part 1 | Interview with Dr. Brad Harper
Evangelicals and Catholics In Conversation, Part 2 | Interview with Dr. Brad Harper
Thomas Howard and the Kindly Light | IgnatiusInsight.com
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance: An Interview with J. Budziszewski | IgnatiusInsight.com
Thomas Howard on the Meaning of Tradition | IgnatiusInsight.com
Surprised by Conversion: The Patterns of Faith | Peter E. Martin
Reformation 101: Who's Who in the Protestant Reformation | Geoffrey Saint-Clair
The Tale of Trent: A Council and and Its Legacy | Martha Rasmussen

Mark Brumley is President of Ignatius Press and associate publisher of IgnatiusInsight.com.

An former staff apologist with Catholic Answers, Mark is the author of How Not To Share Your Faith (Catholic Answers) and contributor to The Five Issues That Matter Most. He is a regular contributor to the InsightScoop web log.

He has written articles for numerous periodicals and has appeared on FOX NEWS, ABC NEWS, EWTN, PBS's NewsHour, and other television and radio programs.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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