The 27th Comrade left a four-part comment in response to my last post. He’s clearly given it a lot of thought, and it warrants a thoughtful reply, but if I try and tackle it line by line, this post would be insanely long. So let me hit on a few major themes today, and then address some of the specific points he raises tomorrow.
A. “Apostolic Tradition” v. “traditions
If you look at how the term paradosis (tradition) is used in Scripture, a pattern emerges. Paradosis of human origin, so-called “tradition of men,” is viewed as a potential obstacle to right relationship with God, while the paradosis handed on by the Apostles is binding and absolute. Specific traditions of men are condemned in Matthew 15:1-9 and Colossians 2:8. In contrast, 1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6 describe the paradosis from the Apostles as absolutely binding, and we’re told to “shun” any Christians who doesn’t keep it. [I distinguish the two as “tradition” v. “Tradition”].
So how can we tell the difference? Binding, perfect Tradition is from the Apostles (who received it, in turn, from God Himself), and then it’s handed on from there. The term paradosis, and this is important, means something handed over. So Apostolic Tradition is, by definition, something passed on to you. We see the Gospel, and specific teachings, described this way in Romans 10:14, 1 Cor. 11:2, 1 Cor. 11:23, 1 Cor. 15:3, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and 2 Peter 2:21. So if you “discover” some brand-new teaching, or stumble upon some new interpretation of Scripture nobody else knows, that’s not Apostolic Tradition. It can’t be, because if you’re the only person who’s discovered it, it wasn’t something handed on (and therefore, isn’t tradition at all). If you then hand it on, it becomes a small-t tradition of men (or more specifically, a tradition of yours).
For this reason, St. Jerome said, “to have reduced heresy to its origin is to have refuted it.” If we can say that such-and-such a teaching can be traced back to a certain man, a man was never taught it by someone else or by Jesus Christ during His earthly life, we can know it isn’t part of the Apostolic Tradition we have been left by the Apostles. Sola fide, the idea that salvation is by faith alone, is first taught by Martin Luther. He wasn’t taught it in seminary or by his superiors, and when he proposed it as an article of faith, he was rebuffed. Luther himself declared that when he started out, he was quite alone in teaching this. Bingo: that’s not part of the paradosis, the Faith passed on. T27C says, “Antiquity does not determine truth; the Apostles were fighting heresy in their time,” and this is half right. Something can be a very ancient teaching and be false: there were early heretics, as he notes.* But on the other hand, something can’t be Apostolic Tradition and be new. So it can be old and wrong, but it can’t be new and right. For the same reason, when T27C says he just knows that a specific position is right, but can’t prove it logically or from existing evidence, watch out. Scripture never presents “just knowing” as a guide, and instructs us to do the opposite (1 Peter 3:15-16; see Acts 17:17 and 1 Cor. 13:11).
The early heretics, of course, did the same thing Luther did: they interpreted the Gospel in a way it had never been interpreted before. St. Francis De Sales, in Catholic Controversies, quotes two Church Fathers on the point:
S. Hilary says excellently (Lib. 2 de Trin. xviii.) “Heresy is in the understanding, not in the Scripture, and the fault is in the meaning, not in the words.” and S. Augustine (In Joan. Tr. xviii, i.): “Heresies arise simply from this, that good Scriptures are ill-understood, and what is ill-understood in them is also rashly and presumptuously given forth.”
To get back to the original point of controversy: Scripture is quite clear: paradosis of men is dangerous, while paradosis of the Apostles is binding. It never says “all Tradition is bad,” and in fact, requires Christians to be bound by some. The translators of the NIV, on the other hand, distrust all Tradition, and they translated the Bible to make it sound as if it agreed, even going to such lengths as translating the same word in contrary ways to make its give it a meaning the original text never had (this is the tradition v. teaching dispute from earlier). T27C says of this, “But their Tradition does make that distinction. When you say they are wrong, you are saying that Scripture over-rules Tradition. But that is against your position.” I’m saying Scripture overrules their manmade tradition. That’s consistently been my position, and the position of Scripture. We know their position is manmade because we know the men who started the tradition! So his conclusion, “you cannot critique that translation to support Tradition, because you would have to argue against Tradition to do it” is also false. I’ve never said, “All tradition is binding,” but that Apostolic Tradition is binding.
B. Faith doesn’t mean what you think it means
If you ask a Protestant what “faith” is, you’ll not infrequently hear: that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” This is true (it’s Hebrews 11:1), but it doesn’t mean what the people who quote it tend to think it means. If you look at Hebrews 11, every example of faith pointed to are people acting by faith, and then not falling away from the faith: “All these people were still living by faith when they died” (Hebrews 11:13). Faith is contrasted with disobedience in v. 31. The point is that Hebrews 11 isn’t just believing, but acting on that belief.
St. Paul puts it clearly when he describes “faith working in love” (Galatians 5:6). Faith works: you can’t have saving faith that doesn’t work. To say, “You have works in your scheme, while we only have faith!” is the sort of nonsense that St. James derides in James 2:18-19, the sort of worthless faith he condemned in James 2:14.
But it’s even more than that. And we know it’s more than that, because we hear that “God is faithful” (1 Corinthians 1:9, 1 Cor. 10:13, 2 Cor. 1:18; see also Deuteronomy 7:9, Deut. 32:4, 2 Samuel 22:26, Psalm 18:25, Romans 3:3, 1 Thessalonians 5:24, 2 Thes. 3:3, 2 Timothy 2:13, Hebrews 10:23, Hebrews 11:11, 1 Peter 4:19, 1 John 1:9, etc.). What could it possibly mean to say that God is faithful, if faith is simply belief? Rather, it means something closer to “trustworthiness.” And the word here is the same word (pistos) which we’re commanded to be: in John 20:27, Jesus says to Thomas (as the KJV renders it), “Reach hither thy finger, and behold My hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust [it] into My side: and be not faithless, but believing.” So the opposite of faithlessness is what the KJV translates “belief,” this same word for “faithfulness.”
So the faithful will be saved. And we break faith with God through intentionally disobeying Him. The Israelites “broke faith” with God in Deuteronomy 32:51 by disobeying. The same thing happens in Joshua 22:16, 1 Samuel 14:33. And it still happens. Deuteronomy 7:9 lays this out beautifully:
“Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; He is the faithful God, keeping His covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments.”
So our duty is to know, love and serve God, and to obey Him faithfully: it’s a Covenant. Mere belief, without anything more, is worthless. St. James says so in James 2:19 (reminding us that even the demons have belief, and it does them no good, since they rebel from the God they know), and again in James 2:26; St. Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 13:2, calling the man with faith and not love “nothing.”
Catholics believe that we’re saved by faith alone, if you understand faith in the broad Covenantal way that the Bible describes it, as faithfulness (belief, love, obedience, and devotion) to God. But if you understand faith in the narrow sense merely as “belief,” well, it’s worthless on its own. Faith, in that narrow sense, isn’t even the greatest of the three theological virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13).
C. The Catholic Church’s teaching on justification may not be what you think.
T27C’s comments on what Catholics allegedly teach, about how we have to work for our salvation, sound nothing like what the Church actually teaches. Here are a few snippets from the Catechism on point:
- CCC 1996 Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.
- CCC 2003 Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. […]
- CCC 2005 Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved. […]
- CCC 2007 With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.
- CCC 2008 The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.
- CCC 2009 Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us “co-heirs” with Christ and worthy of obtaining “the promised inheritance of eternal life.” The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness. “Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due. . . . Our merits are God’s gifts.”
- CCC 2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God’s wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.
So the Catholic position is that our intial conversion and justification is due to God’s direct action. Then, with the assistance of the Spirit (and only with the assistance of the Spirit), we can cooperate in the work of God. But since our wills are free to sin, we may also refuse to cooperate. If we cooperate, we’re rewarded for walking by faith; if we refuse, we’re punished for our sinfulness and faithlessness, for “breaking faith.” Hebrews 3:7-14 says:
So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested and tried me, though for forty years they saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”[Psalm 95:7-11]
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.
So once we’re in the state of initial justification, like the audience of Hebrews 3, once we hear the voice of God, we’re free to either accept or turn away, but what’s at stake in this decision is our etneral inheritance with Christ. I don’t see how the passage could be clearer. (Finally, CCC 2008, which comes closest to sounding like works-righteousness, is nothing more than what Paul says himself in 2 Timothy 4:6-18. I contrasted this from the works-righteousness of the Pharisees in this post.)
Tomorrow: We’ll get into the nitty-gritty, responding to a few of the specific arguments T27C raises.