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Was The Joint Declaration Truly Justified? | An Interview with Dr. Christopher Malloy | Carl E. Olson | Part Two | Part One

IgnatiusInsight.com: You have been broaching an issue that touches on my initial question. I was asking about what you make of the many claims emerging recently that justification is no longer a church-dividing doctrine. But you have been noting that there are different traditions in Lutheranism. How does this affect my question and your answer?

Dr. Malloy: Yes, to get an accurate answer to your question--do we agree on sola fide?--we need more than my initial response, which included attention to the Catholic meaning of sola fide. We need to pay attention to the following question: "Which Lutheranism? Whose Luther?"

Perhaps there are so many stripes of Lutheranism because of Luther's tendency to "weave" together sundry lines of thought that are to some extent distinguishable and separable, though he marshals them together to a certain end. Let me note, briefly, a few wonderful lines of Luther's thought. He wishes to emphasize God's grace. He wishes to take sin seriously. He wishes pastorally to steer a middle course between presumption and despair--this is the path of true faith that works through love. He wishes to focus on Christ, not on the self. At times--and this I find quite Catholic on a point disputed for centuries--he argues that if a believer does not consent to some inclination to sin, then he has not sinned. The implication would appear to be (if we isolate this strand of thought) that no repentance of this occasion is necessary or fitting. These and other concerns of his are in themselves quite amenable to Catholic faith and to Catholic pastoral practice. Notwithstanding, a reader may easily take from him other lines of thought quite at odds with Catholic faith. I have noted some already and will note others below.

Leaving Catholic Lutherans aside for the moment, I am not certain that most Lutherans mean by sola fide what Catholics have to mean if they employ this phrase. In fact, I am quite concerned that many people--even many Catholics and perhaps some of those who have recently become Catholic--are under the misimpression that, since the JD, Catholicism now holds that humans stand just before God by "faith" apart from charity and apart from observance of the commandments. Many high-caliber theologians have contended that Catholicism has changed some of its dogmas on justification. Catholics are rightly horrified to think that some have gotten this impression. Indeed, some theologians imply by their work that Catholicism now holds that if a man were to commit what orthodox moral theologians identify as a "mortal sin" (objectively grave matter, with knowledge and full assent of the will), he would not necessarily lose the grace by which he is considered just. Such an implication is most certainly contrary to the dogma and to the entire tradition of Catholicism. Somehow, these people have gotten the misimpression that Catholic faith has altered. My book is, in large part, intended to correct such misimpressions. Catholic faith cannot be altered--not even by the Pope--though it can develop.

IgnatiusInsight.com: A Catholic theologian whose doctoral dissertation was on Lutheranism told me that one of the challenges is that when we speak of Lutheran theology or doctrine, we are faced with several possibilities, including what Luther wrote, what his immediate followers believed, what traditional Lutheran statements of faith have said, and what Lutherans today believe. How much of an issue is that? Is there a contemporary "Lutheran position of justification"? If so, what is it? Does it differ from what Martin Luther taught?

Dr. Malloy: That theologian is right on the money, and the issue is very important. When the JD states that the Catholic presentation of justification in the JD does not conflict with the Lutheran teachings of the Reformation era, the reader may ask, "Which teachings, according to which readings?" This question has not been faced with sufficient rigor. The "Official Catholic Response" makes note of it; the JD attends to the issue in its third endnote; still, serious discussion has yet to take place.

There are Lutherans who criticize some of the traditional teachings of the Lutheran confessions. The Finns and the great Lutheran theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, are foremost examples. Unfortunately, the JD does not acknowledge this intra-Lutheran situation. Nor are these contemporary Lutherans peripheral to the dialogue--they are some of its central proponents! Does this imply that many Lutheran proponents of the JD would reject some of the traditional teachings of Lutheranism? If so, do they agree with the JD in its implicit claim not to contradict any of those traditional teachings?

Moreover, when one dialogues with Lutherans who accept "all" of the traditional teachings--the various texts enshrined in the Book of Concord--one encounters many different points of view. Some claim to read these texts in ways that accord with what I have outlined of the Catholic teaching. Others read these texts as diametrically opposed to the Catholic faith. Others fall somewhere in between, noting a number of real and substantial disagreements.

The upshot is this: We do not have a consensus of interpretation on the very identity of Lutheranism. Therefore, the JD's claim to reconcile Lutheran and Catholic positions on justification begs the question: Which Lutheranism?

One of the chief arguments of my book is to show, according to a somewhat straightforward reading of these texts, a reading that has not been absent among Lutherans over the centuries, that the Lutheran communions and Catholicism originally taught contradictory theses on justification. If my contention is true, then the Catholic Church and those Lutheran communions following such a reaching of these texts can never come to full communion on this issue unless one or the other changes its doctrine. By "change" I mean "alteration" and not organic development. Yet, the JD implicitly excludes the need for any alteration, any retraction of past doctrines. This is one of the chief difficulties I raise in my book. So far, the only incisive response to my argument is but a question: "Which Lutheranism?" Now, if that question is raised in earnest, I will have succeeded with one of my intentions--to foster a fruitfully critical reflection on the truth of the ecumenical situation. Indeed, I hoped my book would elicit just such a question.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Was the Council of Trent, in its decrees on justification, most concerned with Luther's ideas, or did it address a range of Protestant teachings?

Dr. Malloy: The Decree on Justification deals with many issues. We find condemnations of Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, mindless Epicureans, etc. Catholics and Lutherans were at one in fighting such aberrations.

Despite a lamentable lack of reformation texts at the Council, Trent enjoyed the presence of many very competent thinkers conversant with the issues, thinkers who could understand a body of thought and its implications. Contemporary historicists have attempted to corner the market on truth, thereby depriving theology of the transcendence of thought. I believe John Paul II and Paul VI--by no means "ahistorical" thinkers--give theologians solid grounds to fight such historicism and relativism.

In any case, what is noteworthy is that at the Council of Trent, a number of theologians present held views that can readily be discerned to be "compromise" positions between a) what became Tridentine Catholic teaching and b) common elements of certain Lutheranisms--I will call the latter "traditional Lutheran teaching". By "traditional Lutheran teaching" I use a place-holder to designate one way of reading the Lutheran heritage, granting of course that many scholars argue that there are sundry and contradictory ways of reading that same heritage, some going all the way back.

Foremost among the theologians seeking a compromise at Trent was Seripando, a papal legate. At the Council, he put forth a view on justification that has been called "double justice". His position implied two formal causes of justification. He argued that the human person stands "just" before God both by his interior, infused righteousness and by Christ's own righteousness attributed to him through the acquitting favor of God. Seripando's position had the following logical correlate: The justified person cannot truly merit eternal life and is not therefore worthy of heaven--even though God has begun to renovate him interiorly. The implication is clear: The justified person would, if judged by God, be worthy of hell. Only a few outstanding saints might be exceptions to the rule. Hence, the justified person needs yet another justice by which to be considered just--the justice of Christ, imputed to him.

The Council of Trent decidedly rejected this theory of double justice. The interior justice infused by God, together with the obedience issuing therefrom, suffice the Christian before the judgment seat of God. Of course, one may have to atone for venial sins and outstanding debt in Purgatory, but such atonement is not at all akin to the non-imputation of still present, damnable sins. Since a number of readings of Lutheranism are even further from Catholicism than is double justice, therefore, the Council of Trent also anathematized the positions found in such readings. To demonstrate this point was yet another aim of my book.
Of course, the issue "Which Lutheranism?" returns. If there are readings of Lutheranism--and of the Lutheran confessions--that do not conflict with Trent, these readings escape the bite of that argument. I would rejoice to see such readings of Lutheranism clearly put forth. This would forward the ongoing ecumenical dialogue, to which we are all committed.

IgnatiusInsight.com: If you had to put it as concisely as possible, what do you think are the incompatible elements between Catholic and Lutheran understandings of justification?

Dr. Malloy: Again: Which Lutheranism? If there is a Lutheranism that does not conflict with the full substance of Trent's teachings on justification, I rejoice with all my heart. Such a Lutheranism would give grounds for escaping one of my critiques of the JD. My book raises other questions regarding the contents of the JD itself, which I see as quite ambiguous. Given the non-binding character of the document, Avery Cardinal Dulles and the late great Leo Cardinal Scheffczyk contend that Catholic theologians are free to critique the document. Many Catholics of various perspectives agree that the document has weaknesses; some have argued that the document has basic flaws.

It is my hope that the critical questions that others and I have raised will be addressed. In a sense, however, these ambiguities and flaws would be of much less importance to me and other critics if a clearly identifiable Lutheranism that is compatible with Trent could come into focus. For instance, if (as one of my Lutheran interlocutors contends) the metaphysical teachings of Trent are held by many Lutherans, then one need not worry much about any flaws of the JD except insofar as they might issue in ambiguity and confusion. Perhaps one could clear up such matters with another document that is carefully crafted.

But your question is about the remaining incompatibilities. I can address this question by rephrasing it: What are the incompatible elements between Catholicism and the "other Lutheranisms" that do conflict with Trent?

First of all, other Lutheranisms--as would be clear if they were asked to express themselves metaphysically--hold that Jesus Christ's own righteousness justifies us "formally" by being imputed to us. That is, God "legally declares" that Jesus' righteousness is ours, even though, metaphysically speaking, his righteousness remains alien to us, outside of us.

Second, therefore, such Lutheranisms hold that there still remains within us true sin. This "true sin" can be any of the following: a will bent on mortal sin (in Catholic terms), venial sins, and even the mere inclination to sin that precedes free will assent. Each of these sins is labeled "true sin". Further, each of these is considered to be "per se damnable". That is, God could damn us because of these sins. That means that in my own interior being, I am a mortal sinner before God, even if one considers only my "inclination to sin", concupiscence (Rom 7). Yet, despite this still present damnable sin, I escape punishment because this sin is not "charged" against me. Instead, Christ's own righteousness is declared to be mine.

Third, therefore, I cannot truly merit eternal life. Even "after" being justified, I cannot, in a good work wrought in true charity, merit eternal life. To the contrary, even my good works are condemnable as sins truly mortal in their nature.

These are three massive points of disagreement between some Lutheranisms and Trent. Such Lutheranisms, of course, also hold many things in common with Trent, such as a rejection of Pelagianism, the primacy of God, the centrality of Christ, the beginnings of sanctification, the importance of God's will. That is, even these Lutheranisms truly hold that the justified person is "also" and "at the same time" sanctified. However, such Lutheranisms emphatically distinguish the "formal cause" of justification (Christ's own righteousness) and the "formal cause" of sanctification (sanctifying grace). Moreover, such Lutheranisms also hold that this sanctification is insufficient. They would radically disagree with the following beautiful statement of Trent on Baptism: "In those reborn, God hates nothing because there is nothing damnable in those who have truly been buried with Christ by baptism.... They are made innocent, spotless, pure, blameless and beloved sons of God" (Fifth Session). Seripando fought that statement mightily, but he lost the battle, and he dutifully acquiesced to the Church.

Let me close with an observation about a wider but related issue. What did Christ do for our salvation? Some Lutheranisms espouse a theory of "penal substitution". Jesus truly became sin itself so that we would no longer be legally charged with sin, if we have faith (itself a gift). Such Lutheranisms take 2 Cor 5:21 as a critical text: "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (see also Gal 3:13). Of course, Catholic tradition denies that Paul is using the "proper literal sense" here. Rather, Paul is speaking by "metonymy", signifying the effect by way of the cause. That is, Paul says that God made Jesus to be "sin" not to mean that Jesus became sin itself but to mean that Jesus took on a number of the effects (curses) of sin--suffering and death (see, e.g., Augustine, Contra Faustum, XIV). After all, Paul is also speaking by metonymy at the end of this verse, for we humans do not become the very righteousness of God himself. Paul speaks of the effect by way of the cause--the righteousness of God that causes our own created righteousness (see, again, Augustine, Conf, XII, #20). We become a "new creation" (2 Cor 5:17), not the very essence of God, though we are being divinized, made like him, for he shall appear to us (1 Jn 3:2). Against certain proto-gnostics (see Raymond Brown's commentary), this is the reason we purify ourselves (1 Jn 3:3), for one cannot see the Thrice Holy God without spotless holiness (Heb 12:14). Hence the eschatological urgency in Paul's exhortations to us to be blameless at Christ's coming (Phil 1:10 and 2:15; Eph 1:4; Col 1:22f; 1 Thess 5:23); his insistence that those who violate the law will not inherit the kingdom (Galatians 5:19-21; 1 Cor 6:9-11); his reminder that we shall be judged by our works (2 Cor 5:10). Although without grace such works cannot make us just (Rom 3-4), yet with such grace, we are healed and we can walk.

Christ became sin itself; Christ became human, bearing suffering and death for us. These are two very different and incompatible ways of reading Paul on atonement. So, too, there have been very different and incompatible readings of "by faith" in Rom 3:28. Whereas Catholic tradition sees "by faith" as synecdoche for "faith, hope, love, and grace" (Rom 5 and 1 Cor 13 parceling out what is compact in Rom 3), some Lutheranisms see "by faith" as meaning "by this trusting faith alone" to the exclusion of the charity by which we love God above all and satisfy the demands of the law (and much more).

Thanks much for your interview. God bless you richly.

• Do you have comments or questions about this interview? Share them on the Insight Scoop blog.

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