Friday, July 10, 2009

Trent on Justification - Chapter One

Trent's teaching on Justification is found in its Decree on the subject, which you can find online here. It's probably worth observing at the outset that – at least so far as I can tell – it is not possible to read the Decree as [Demi-Semi-Hemi-Kinda-Sorta]-Pelagian or "works-based" in any way, unless the one doing so is just ripping pull-quotes from it, ignoring the context of the full Decree. That this is so becomes immediately apparent from the very first chapter, entitled:

On the Inability of Nature and of the Law to justify man.

Okay, full stop right out of the starting gate. If nature and Law provide no means by which a man may justify himself, how is it possible for him to do so? By nature he lacks the means, and by observance of the Law he can't do it either. Immediately we see then that any sort of Pelagianism or legalism is excluded.

The holy Synod declares first, that, for the correct and sound understanding of the doctrine of Justification, it is necessary that each one recognise and confess, that, whereas all men had lost their innocence in the prevarication of Adam-having become unclean, and, as the apostle says, by nature children of wrath, as (this Synod) has set forth in the decree on original sin [discussed here – RdP],-they were so far the servants of sin, and under the power of the devil and of death, that not the Gentiles only by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter itself of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated, or to arise, therefrom; although free will, attenuated as it was in its powers, and bent down, was by no means extinguished in them. [§1; emphasis added]

I suppose I could end this series right here, if all we wanted to do was see that the "Catholics think they can save themselves by their works" nonsense is exactly that. We have to be more precise than this, of course (and we shall be). But this nicely sums things up: we cannot save ourselves. Period.

I think it's worth also drawing attention to the fact that "…free will, attenuated as it was in its powers, and bent down, was by no means extinguished." It's necessary that we see this because we cannot be justly held accountable for actions we do under compulsion, but also because later we shall see what St. Thomas has also said: namely, that our justification requires a movement of our free will.

How does St. Thomas measure up against this chapter? Just fine. As we have seen, he insists that we cannot merit justification by merit – neither by nature, nor by anything that we do: to merit it by nature is beyond our powers, and we are prevented from meriting it by our deeds precisely because we are obstructed from doing so by sin (not to mention the fact that deeds are of course something that we do by nature – which, as we just said, is insufficient for the attainment of justification).

We must ask, then, how it is that our critics say that we think that we "save ourselves." Clearly Trent taught nothing of the sort, and the pull-quotes that they like to use to supposedly say otherwise must be understood in the light of this chapter (to say nothing of their immediate context, which likewise does not permit their false interpretation). We cannot save ourselves. We are saved by grace.

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