Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick: Louis Bouyer on the Reformation | Mark Brumley | IgnatiusInsight.com
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
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 Reformations 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
Churchs 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
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
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 Gods 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 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 Bibles 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,
doesnt involve a change in man; and sanctification, which transforms
us. Yet, argues Bouyer, this systematic distinction isnt biblical.
In the Bible, justification and sanctificationas many modern Protestant
exegetes admitare 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," doesnt love God
or doesnt 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 Bibles authority is supreme in the sense that neither
the Church nor the Churchs Tradition "trumps" Scripture.
But that doesnt 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 Churchs
authority and Tradition simply doesnt follow from the premise of Scriptures
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 Bibles
authority extended only so far as the individual believers interpretation
of it allowed.
The Catholic Church and Reformation Principles
As we have seen, Bouyer argues for the Reformations "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 theologythe decadent scholasticism of Nominalism.
The negative principles of the Reformation necessarily led the Catholic
Church to reject the movementthough 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 (mans
ability to save himself) and denying things Protestantism began by affirming
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
Catholics have responsibilities as well. One major responsibility is to
be sure they have fully embraced their own Churchs 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 Catholicwhich includes fully embracing
the positive principles of the Reformation that Bouyer insists are essentially
Catholiccan 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 Gods 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
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.
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