Thursday, January 27, 2011

Grace and Merit: St. Bernard of Clairvaux

The quote on grace and merit from a couple of days ago was uttered by ... St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as several people guessed.

I found it striking because, without context, I would have assumed the quote was from Luther, in his younger days.

St. Bernard does not deny that merit has its role. He goes on to say:

It is enough for merit to know that merit is not enough. But as merit must not presume on merit, so lack of merit must bring judgment. Furthermore, chidren re-born in baptism are not without merit, but possess the merits of Christ; but they make themselves unworthy of these if they do not add their own——not because of inability, but because of neglect; this is the danger of maturity. Henceforward, take care that you possess merit; when you possess it, you will know it as a gift. Hope for its fruit, the mercy of God, and you will escape all danger of poverty, ingratitude, and presumption.
This quote and the previous one are from St. Bernard's Sermons 67-68 on the Song of Songs (!), and yes, as some of you surmised, I'm drawing from Ralph Martin's book, The Fulfillment of All Desire, which I highly recommend to everyone, Protestant and Catholic alike.

I think these striking quotes from St. Bernard indicate several things that have been lost to sight by many, including myself at times:

1. The emphasis on the primacy of grace in salvation found in Luther, Calvin, and other early Protestants is a legitimate point, but it is not a "Protestant" point: it is a truth that is at home in the Catholic spiritual and theological tradition. One does not have to break from Rome in order to recognize that salvation is by grace.

2. Properly understood, the Reformation slogan "sola gratia", by grace alone, is also affirmed by the Catholic Church. This is one of the reasons, for example, that some ten years ago or so the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation was able to issue a joint statement on the doctrine of justification.

3. Where the Protestant reformers erred was to deny that there is any role of merit in salvation. The problem with denying this is one of biblical interpretation. If one denies that merit plays a role in salvation, what does one do with so many passages of the Gospels like Matt 25:31-46: "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance ... for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat ..."

As Keith Green, founding father of CCM, so famously pointed out in a song years ago (this really dates me) passages like Matt 25:31-46 do not teach "salvation by faith alone" as that concept is often understood. Our works play a role in our salvation. (Ironically, Keith Green was also militantly anti-Catholic!)

4. How then to reconcile the many passages of the Gospels (as well as the Epistles! James 2:24) that emphasize the role of merit in salvation with the truth of, say, Ephesians 2:8-9? The answer is thoroughly Scriptural and Catholic: our merits, though necessary, are, in an ultimate sense, not our own, but the fruit of God's grace working in us. "For this I labor and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me." Col 1:29

Recently, someone said to me, "Most Catholics are Pelagian heretics."

It wasn't during one of my conversations with my Protestant friends and relatives.

It was a priest giving a homily at daily mass on campus at Franciscan.

I agree with him, although I would add, "Most Protestants are Pelagian heretics, too." Pelagianism, roughly understood as the idea that we can, more or less, save ourselves by being good, is a danger for all Christians, and even well-formed, theologically educated Christians can fall into subtle forms of self-reliance.

It's good that St. Bernard reminds us: our salvation is the work of God's grace, not the product of our own efforts.


Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Great post..

Sister Mary Agnes said...

OK, now I get it! Thank you for giving more context to that quote and for explaining how the first part of the quote from a few days ago does resemble Luther. I love how you explained this! I have learned a lot from these 2 posts. I also had started Ralph Martin's book a while ago and think I should pick it up again...