Wednesday, August 28, 2013

St. Augustine on the role of works at the final judgment

I like to tell my students that, after the authors of Scripture, there are three towering figures who have most influenced Catholic thought. I refer to them as the "Triple A Club": Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas.

(My colleague John Kincaid calls them the "A-Team". However, I'm not sure who Mr. T would be in his schema.)

Today we celebrate the feast day of the second, St. Augustine.

I've been reading Augustine a lot lately. Here I'd like to focus on one work of his in particular, entitled, On Faith and Works. Of course, the issue of the role of works in salvation has been mind.
As readers of this blog are probably aware, I recently contributed to a book entitled, Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment (with James Dunn, Thomas Schreiner, and Robert Wilkin; edited by Alan Stanley). The book is the latest installment in Zondervan Academic's "Counterpoints" series.

As you would expect, Dunn, Schreiner, Wilkin, and I disagree with one another on the precise role works play in salvation. However, while we have serious disagreements, the discussion is, I believe, irenic in tone. 

I hope it is illuminative for readers who are trying to get their minds around the different perspectives on the topic. I've been pleased to see it get some attention online (e.g., Michael Bird, Scot McKnight, Nijay Gupta). 

The Catholic View of Works 

My view, in brief, is as follows.

As a Catholic, I believe that grace empowers our works so that they have salvific value. Having received grace, we are able to do works that--because of grace--"count" towards our salvation. This is not Pelagianism--one is not saved by works and not by grace. The works have meritorious value precisely because they are the result of Christ living within us (Gal. 2:20).

This stands in stark contrast to the traditional Protestant view, which holds that one is saved by grace through faith alone (sola fide). Indeed, Protestants would affirm that good works are important, but (generally speaking) they would hold that they are not themselves rewarded with salvation. Good works are the necessary result of saving faith. Faith alone justifies, but saving faith is never alone.

As I explain in the book, I simply cannot accept this view. The Protestant view is correct that initial justification is received apart from works. However, after one has received God's gift of salvation, it seems to me grace is powerful enough to render our works salvific.

This, I believe, is what Paul means when he says,
"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12–13).
Of course, traditionally, the biggest problem text for the standard Protestant view is found in James:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:21-24)
James does not say that one is justified by works because they are simply evidence of one's faith. Abraham's works themselves had justifying power. Indeed, James explains that it was specifically Rahab's works that justified her (James 2:25).

Martin Luther famously understood that James contradicted sola fide. He wrote:
… in direct opposition to St. Paul and all the rest of the Bible it [the epistle of James] ascribes justification to works, and declares that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered up his son. . . This defect proves that the epistle is not of apostolic provenance.—Martin Luther*
In my view, the traditional Protestant position is inconsistent. Protestants take Paul at his word when he says that one is justified "by faith [ek pist eōs]" (Rom 5:1)--faith is the means by which one is justified. However, when James says one is justified "by works [ex ergōn]" (Jas 2:21, 24-25) the use of a preposition means something entirely different. For Paul, faith plays an instrumental role in justification; for James, it does not.

In short, I think grace is truly amazing--it can render our imperfect works salvific. Protestants say grace just isn't that amazing.

If my view (the Catholic view) is wrong it is therefore not because I attribute to little to God's grace; rather, it would be because I give it too much credit.

St. Augustine on the role of works

Back to Augustine. 

How did Augustine understand the role of works in salvation? 

Notably, Augustine wrote an entire treatise, entitled, On Faith and Works**. Here he warns about a dangerous heretical view that promised some a "false assurance":
In the first place, we feel that we should advise the faithful that they would endanger the salvation of their souls if they acted on the false assurance that faith alone is sufficient for salvation or that they need not perform good works in order to be saved. (no. 21) 
Notice that Augustine highlights two problems:
  1. The "false assurance" that "faith alone" without good works is sufficient for salvation. 
  2. That one need not perform good works to be saved at the final judgment.

Where did some get this dangerous view? Through a misunderstanding of St. Paul's teaching:
This, in fact, is what some had thought even in the time of the apostles. for at that time there were some who did not understand certain rather obscure passages of St. Paul, and who thought therefore that he had said: Let us do evil that there may come good [Rom 3:8]. They thought that this was what St. Paul meant when he said: The law entered in that sin might abound. And where sin abounded, grace did more abound [Rom 5:20]. (no. 21)  
What did St. Paul really teach?
When St. Paul says, therefore, that man is justified by faith and not by the observance of the law, he does not mean that good works are not necessary or that it is enough to receive and to profess the faith and no more. What he means rather and what he wants us to understand is that man can be justified by faith, even though he has not previously performed any works of the law. (no. 21)
Paul isn't condemning works or suggesting that only faith is a necessary condition for salvation. On the contrary, he writes that that it is not enough to profess faith and not have good works. Still, good works are preceded by faith.

This, Augustine argues, was the teaching of Jesus.
. . . I do not see why the Lord said: If you will enter into life, keep the commandments [Matt 19:17], or why, after He had said this, He listed those which one must keep in order to live a good life [Matt 19:18-19], if one can obtain eternal life without keeping the commandments, by faith alone, which without works is dead [Jas 2:14]. And then, too, how will the Lord be able to say to those whom He will place on His left hand: Go you into the everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels [Matt 25:41]? For it is evident that He rebukes them, not because they did not believe in Him, but because they did not perform good works. [Matt 25:44] (no. 25)
Is Augustine Pelagian (i.e., affirming that one can be saved by works and not by grace)? Of course, not!

Augustine believes that good works are salvific precisely because they are performed by grace. When God rewards our works, he is ultimately acknowledging the work he has accomplished in us: Then God will crown not so much thy merits, as his own gifts."***

It seems to me, Augustine's view is the Catholic view. Salvation is the result of God's grace. It is first received as a gift, not on the basis of works. However, once we have received the initial grace of justification, grace empowers us to do works that are truly salvific / meritorious in value.

For more, check out my essay in the new book.

*Cited from John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New York: Doubleday, 1962), 19.

  **St. Augustine, On Faith and Works 21 [CSEL 41.61-62; FC 27:246-48]. Translation taken from St. Augustine, On Faith and Works, trans. by Gregory J. Lombardo, C.S.C., S.T.D. (Ancient Christian Writers 48; New York: Mahwah, 1988).

***St. Augustine, Sermon 120, 10. Cited from St. Augustine, Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament, Vol. 2 (Oxford / London / Cambridge: James Parker & Co., 1845), 879.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner? The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time


In 2005, a quasi-remake of the famous 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner” was released.  Entitled “Guess Who?” it starred Bernie Mac as an African-American father who struggled to deal with his daughter’s Caucasian fiancé (played by Ashton Kutcher).  Much of the comedy of the film revolved around the clash of cultures at the dinner table.  Usually we only share meals with people like us, family members or friends from our own “circle.”  When someone from “outside” comes in, it upsets the our balance. 

If anything, Jews of Jesus day were even more careful than contemporary Americans about who they invited around their table.  The Readings for this Lord’s Day are going to conclude with Jesus calling his followers to invite people from “outside”—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—to dine with us.  This takes humility, for it requires us to recognize we are not “too good” to share as equals with those people overlooked by the rest of society.  Thus, we also observe a strong theme of humility running through the Readings.

1. Our First Reading is Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Will Many Be Saved? The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

If Jesus was walking through your town and you had ten seconds as he passed to ask any question you wished, what would it be?  “Why is there evil in the world?” “How can I be saved?” “What is heaven like?”

In this Sunday’s Gospel, an anonymous bystander gets his chance to ask Jesus one of the “big questions”: “Will only a few people be saved?”  Jesus’ answer is complex, indirect, and very well worth examining!  The Readings leading up to the Gospel help prepare us to understand Jesus’ response.

1.  The First Reading is Is 66:18-21:

Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts,
and I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

“Family Values”: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In recent decades, the term “family values” has almost become a code word for “Christian culture” in American society.  Influential Christian organizations have adopted names like “Focus on the Family” and the “Family Research Council,” and on the Catholic side of things we have “Catholic Family Land” or The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, better known as “C-FAM.”  The natural family unit—based on a husband and wife who have made an exclusive, permanent, public commitment to share a common life and raise children together—has been under such political and social pressure that at times we almost identify Christianity as a social movement to promote family life.

In this context, this Sunday’s Mass Readings can be unsettling.  Jesus says he has “not come to bring peace but division.”  Come again?  Lord, with due respect, isn’t one of your messianic titles “Prince of Peace?”  Then again, the Lord speaks of causing division and struggle within families—strife in the family unit caused by Jesus!  How can this be?  Doesn’t Jesus believe in “family values”?

1.  Our First Reading is Jer 38:4-6, 8-10:

Monday, August 12, 2013

Apologies for Technical Difficulties

Last week I went on vacation with my wife and eight kids to Pennsylvania's "Dark Area," a remote region in north central PA noted for excellent star-gazing due to lack of light pollution.  Knowing that I would be without internet access for the week, I actually wrote the reflection on the Readings for Week 19 of Ordinary Time on Friday August 2 and set blogger to publish it last Tuesday morning (Aug. 6).  Unfortunately, something didn't work right, because when I returned to the online universe today (Mon. Aug. 12) I realized it had never posted.  I apologize to our faithful blog readers for the mishap. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Judge Orders Baby "Messiah" Be Renamed

Best part: What about people who name their child "Jesus"?

And what about "Chris" or "Christy"?

That reminds me... At least one New Testament scholar I know has a messianic name.

(Hint: See the typo on the name associated with the article, entitled, "The Deliverance of God, and of Paul?")

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Staying Vigilant: The 19th Sunday in OT

[Technical difficulties prevented this post from appearing as planned last Tuesday, while I was on vacation.  I apologize for the confusion.  See post above.]

My father once served as the chaplain for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.  (U.S. Navy chaplains also serve the Marines and the Coast Guard).  I have fond memories of that beautiful seaside city.  In any event, perhaps the only bit of Coast Guard culture that I absorbed during my dad’s tour of duty was the motto: Semper Paratus, “Always Prepared,” which seems an appropriate summation of the theme of this Sunday’s Readings, which stress vigilance in the Christian life.  In fact, these Readings feel like something we might get in November, closer to Christ the King, but here they are coming to us in the middle of Ordinary Time.  Yet perhaps that’s appropriate, because it is not just at the end of our lives (or the liturgical year) that we need to be vigilant, but at all times—even and especially when its literally or metaphorically “summertime, and the livin’ is easy …”

1.  Our First Reading is Wisdom 18:6-9:

Friday, August 02, 2013

The Synoptic Problem and Ptolemaic Cosmology

There have been some rather interesting solutions to the question of the interrelationship of the Synoptic Gospels.

Most students of Gospel studies know this...

Which led to this...

Which necessitated this...

Which gave way to this...

Which was rejected in favor of something more believable, like this...

Or even this...

Which brings me back to this...

Go here (and here) for the way towards a Copernican revolution.