Monthly Archives: September 2015

on Baptism and “works”

Another post drawn from Facebook conversation.  Recently, a friend posted a wry comment about reading James 2:17 for the first time, that is, re-evaluating the traditional Protestant argument that Catholic tradition had replaced “faith” with “works” in teaching the Gospel.  But the conversation soon swerved, as one poster observed in Protestant shorthand, “Read James 2:17–still believe Ephesians 2:8-9.”  Now, of course, we believe both.  However, the conversation somehow turned to Baptism, with some arguing that the teaching that Baptism is necessary for salvation proves that our works are essential to our being saved, others arguing that such a proof turned on a false theology of God’s saving work and a misunderstanding of Baptism.  I respectfully asked to put my oar in after it seemed that some of my Catholic friends were confusing themselves on the matter.

This is my response:

1) Baptism doesn’t save “as a work” anyway. People, even Catholics, frequently confuse ex opere operato efficacy of sacraments with “God has to like me because I did the right work.” But that’s a misunderstanding. Salvation is always a work of God, through and through. Our cooperation in our salvation is part of our being saved; it doesn’t make being saved “my job,” at least not in the sense that some rightly fear would contradict Ephesians 2.

2) Baptism is a work of God’s grace. That work does not begin when someone pours water on me, or when I decide I want to be baptized; it begins at least as far back as when Jesus came to John to be baptized (we say He, who was perfectly Holy and God Himself, “made clean the waters of baptism”) so as to “fulfill all righteousness.”

That work continues when Jesus instructs His Apostles to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” as they go and teach. And that work continues at every Baptism, whether it is understood fully or partially, and even if it is conducted by a heretic or wicked person, provided that a real Baptism in the Triune Name is actually performed. So when I receive Baptism, I am the recipient of a work of God in Christ Jesus that was performed by God through all those baptized and baptizing faithful, and pre-eminently by the Holy Spirit who bound all of us together and sealed us as Christ’s own People.

3) Then what does it mean that “faith wrought with his works”? Well, when Jesus Christ committed to His Church all that has been written and all that was given to the Apostles to decide for His People, pre-eminently including the text of Scripture and the faithful performance of Baptism and Communion, and certainly including their fidelity to His teaching about marriage, about the authority given to the Apostles, and about other matters clearly spoken of in the Gospels, He committed to them a body of understandings and teachings to be taken as part and parcel of their trust in Him and their loving fidelity to Him. Part of what it means to “abide in Me, and I in thee.” And so when the grace of God makes us able to respond faithfully to that teaching, a work accomplished through all the means God has at His disposal (not least faithful families, faithful teaching at Church, and His Presence in the Eucharist and other sacraments), then His work has reached the point where the mystery of our cooperation begins.

Abraham was not saved because Abraham was the sort of person who traveled across Mesopotamia to a distant land, or the sort of person who thought having a child would be possible at 100yrs old, or the sort of person who sacrificed a child. But Abraham, by the grace of God working in him and upon him, was indeed saved by following the divine Promise out to a new land, covenanting with God concerning the son Abraham was naturally unable to have, and imitating in advance the Father’s sacrifice and the Son’s substitution.

So Abraham, as Hebrews 11 clearly indicates in conjunction with Romans 4 and James 2, was saved by faith, and that faith worked in Abraham’s actual behavior, that is, in the “obedience of faith.”

4) So why do Catholics teach that “condign merit” actually does exist and contributes to our salvation? Not because we think something we do apart from God’s grace might be just as good as God’s gracious working in us! Certainly not! This view is condemned repeatedly–during the Pelagian controversy, at the Council of Orange, and with ringing clarity at Trent:

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,-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.

No, we teach this because it is the evidence that God’s work of salvation actually succeeds in His chosen People. God, by His very effective grace and power, by the work of the Cross and the favor He shows us through His Son, by the stirring within us of the Holy Spirit, is actually able to succeed in making us able, by the time we finally behold Him, to gaze at His face without shame or grief or loss (much less terror or fear). How does He do this? By actually changing our hearts, with our cooperation, so that our habits are wholly right, our actual relationships entirely purged of the effects of sin, our consciences not only cleansed of guilt but free of concern and uncertainty over our potential misjudgments.

And when someone actually is able, with no additional help, to “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” then God’s work of salvation has fully worked. Now, we do not generally achieve this degree of sanctification before death, but all the faithful will achieve it before The End. And so, rather than say that God’s work is like a speedboat circling out at sea, working mightily with us so that we move but can never reach our original goal, we say that God’s work is like a boat that actually takes us home, where we can get out of the boat and stand on the shore.

“My works” only save me *because* God’s work has saved me. Any other works would be dead, dead, dead, like Hebrews says.

The Citizens and Associations Amendment

[first posted 2012, republished because of a recent conversation]

Resolved, that the United States Constitution be amended as follows:  “The Rights and Privileges secured to the People of these United States by this Constitution shall be accorded to each natural-born or naturalized citizen as such.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of any association, nor investing any association with the Rights and Privileges of citizens.  Notwithstanding this,

Congress shall recognize, and shall require the Courts under its jurisdiction to weigh in judgment, the relative privileges and obligations accorded to each member within any association whose explicit covenants or by-laws have been agreed to by each member and published within any State; and

Congress shall have the power to regulate the mutual recognition of associations and citizens between the several States, yet not so as to invest any association recognized by any State with the Rights and Privileges of citizens.”

Christian Resistance to Lawless Power: a brief sourcebook with pictures

It is vital that we recover an understanding of law and justice which both strengthens the rule of law with authentic moral force and recognizes that unjust, tyrannical, or self-serving law can have no such force.

And it is very important that each of us differentiate between our responsibility, insofar as we have authority to act, and any temptation to disregard authority and become mobs & petty tyrants, ourselves!

First, a recent passage with very high authority, establishing the relevance of the tradition to the current situation:

In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.

(source: Considerations Regarding Proposals To Give Legal Recognition To Unions Between Homosexual Persons)

Or, as St. Augustine puts it in a dialogue:

Even Tertullian falls in line on this one:

Whenever these statements and answers of ours, which truth suggests of its own accord, press and restrain your conscience, which is the witness of its own ignorance, you betake yourselves in hot haste to that poor altar of refuge, the authority of the laws, because these, of course, would never punish the offensive sect, if their deserts had not been fully considered by those who made the laws. Then what is it which has prevented a like consideration on the part of those who put the laws in force, when, in the case of all other crimes which are similarly forbidden and punished by the laws, the penalty is not inflicted until it is sought by regular process? Take, for instance, the case of a murderer or an adulterer. An examination is ordered touching the particulars of the crime, even though it is patent to all what its nature is. Whatever wrong has been done by the Christian ought to be brought to light.  No law forbids inquiry to be made; on the contrary, inquiry is made in the interest of the laws. For how are you to keep the law by precautions against that which the law forbids, if you neutralize the carefulness of the precaution by your failing to perceive what it is you have to keep? No law must keep to itself the knowledge of its own righteousness, but (it owes it) to those from whom it claims obedience. The law, however, becomes an object of suspicion when it declines to approve itself.  Naturally enough, then, are the laws against the Christians supposed to be just and deserving of respect and observance, just as long as men remain ignorant of their aim and purport; but when this is perceived, their extreme injustice is discovered, and they are deservedly rejected with abhorrence, along with (their instruments of torture)—the swords, the crosses, and the lions. An unjust law secures no respect. In my opinion, however, there is a suspicion among you that some of these laws are unjust, since not a day passes without your modifying their severity and iniquity by fresh deliberations and decisions.

(source: ANF03. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian – Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

And, of course, St. Thomas Aquinas:

Tully says (Rhet. ii): “Things which emanated from nature and were approved by custom, were sanctioned by fear and reverence for the laws.”

I answer that, As Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5) “that which is not just seems to be no law at all”: wherefore the force of a law depends on the extent of its justice. Now in human affairs a thing is said to be just, from being right, according to the rule of reason. But the first rule of reason is the law of nature, as is clear from what has been stated above (Q[91], A[2], ad 2). Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.

But it must be noted that something may be derived from the natural law in two ways: first, as a conclusion from premises, secondly, by way of determination of certain generalities. The first way is like to that by which, in sciences, demonstrated conclusions are drawn from the principles: while the second mode is likened to that whereby, in the arts, general forms are particularized as to details: thus the craftsman needs to determine the general form of a house to some particular shape. Some things are therefore derived from the general principles of the natural law, by way of conclusions; e.g. that “one must not kill” may be derived as a conclusion from the principle that “one should do harm to no man”: while some are derived therefrom by way of determination; e.g. the law of nature has it that the evil-doer should be punished; but that he be punished in this or that way, is a determination of the law of nature.

Accordingly both modes of derivation are found in the human law. But those things which are derived in the first way, are contained in human law not as emanating therefrom exclusively, but have some force from the natural law also. But those things which are derived in the second way, have no other force than that of human law.

(source: Summa Theologica – Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

And in another place:

It is written (1 Pet. 2:19): “This is thankworthy, if for conscience . . . a man endure sorrows, suffering wrongfully.”

I answer that, Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Prov. 8:15: “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.”

Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws.

On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good, through being opposed to the things mentioned above—either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory—or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him—or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good. The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), “a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.” Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right, according to Mat. 5:40,41: “If a man . . . take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him; and whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two.”

Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, “we ought to obey God rather than man.”

(source: Summa Theologica – Christian Classics Ethereal Library)