Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Men at Work: Cool Band, Bad Theology

Continuing our look at Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, we now turn specifically to the “negative principles” that, the author argues, constituted the Church’s real problems with the Reformation and precipitated her rejection of it.

Bouyer insists that sola gratia, sola fide (salvation by grace alone through faith alone) is perfectly within the pale of Catholic orthodoxy, and it is only when the Reformers waxed polemical that they got all negative and carried away.

The affirmation of sola fide is not content with excluding works in the Jewish sense or works done before faith is received or works done by the believer apart from the agency of faith in grace or even apart from this as the unique means giving man power to do good works. The Catholic faith could not do otherwise than take all these exclusions as its own and ratify them. [But] Luther, and Protestantism after him… declared that all possible and imaginable works are harmful, that faith itself has not to produce them for salvation, cannot, should not, do so.
Bouyer goes on to wonder at the fact that Protestants “attack the scholastic idea of faith ‘informed’ by charity, contrasted with faith without charity as living faith to dead.”

Setting aside for the moment Bouyer’s characterization of Protestantism as arguing that faith not only need not but indeed should not produce good works for salvation (a statement that is false on its face), I would like to offer a brief exegetical rebuttal to Bouyer’s claim that the Protestant Reformers went overboard on their negative statements about works.

According to Bouyer, there are four senses in which the Catholic may agree that works do not contribute to man’s acceptance by God. First, he admits Catholics agree with Protestants that “works in the Jewish sense” are inadmissible. I assume he means what some theologians call “Jewish boundary markers,” those works of the law such as circumcision and dietary restrictions that divided Jews from Gentiles. Second, Bouyer lists “works done before faith is received,” by which he most likely means the good deeds done by the unregenerate pagan before he is converted. Third are “works done by the believer apart from the agency of faith in grace.” I guess what Bouyer is referring to here are the Christian’s attempts to please God in the arm of the flesh. And the last kind of works that the Catholic would agree are useless for pleasing God is works “apart from this [Option 3] as the unique means giving man power to do good works.” I have no idea what Bouyer is talking about here.

So here’s my question: Which type of works was Peter referring to when he insisted at the Jerusalem council that Gentiles need not be circumcised since such practice would “place upon them a burden that neither we nor our fathers could bear?”

The option that seems most obvious at first is #1 (works in the Jewish sense), since the whole debate in Acts 15 was over Jewish boundary markers. But not so fast. If the Judaizers of Peter’s and Paul’s day were so meticulous about adhering to circumcision and dietary laws—even going above and beyond by fasting twice a week (Luke 18:12)—then how can Peter call these works an unbearable burden? They kept them, didn’t they? So what was the problem?

Paul says something similar in Gal. 3:10ff, arguing that the Galatians should not submit to circumcision for the specific reason that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” Now this curse is obviously not solely due to failing to keep the Jewish ceremonies since, as we have seen, the Jews kept them scrupulously (I mean, how circumcised can a man be?). And the “works” Paul is referring to cannot be works done apart from faith or before receiving grace since he is holding up his own kinsman as his foil, arguing that even faithful, circumcised, ham-shunning Jews are under God’s curse.

The only answer that seems to make any sense of these passages is that circumcision binds a man to the entire law (Gal. 5:3) and that failure on just one point is tantamount to failure on all (Epistle of Straw 2:10). In fact, Paul says as much in the verse under consideration, quoting Lev. 18:5 to the effect that the Israelites were bound to perform “all things written in the Book of the Law.” That's the kind of works that curse: not the Jewish kind, the ceremonial kind, the prideful kind, or the faithless kind. All kinds.

The conclusion of all this, therefore, is that even faithful Christians, if they bring works of any kind into the justification equation (even ceremonial boundary markers), thereby bind themselves to a law whose only function this side of the fall is to curse, accuse and condemn.

Better, in my view, to affirm what Trent anathematizes, namely, that whatever good works we perform are but results of grace received and in no way contribute to God’s acceptance of us.

If I’m wrong, please show me how.