Blog Template Theology of the Body: The Rhema Word and Catholic Justification

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Rhema Word and Catholic Justification

One of the saddest and most destructive fruits of that theological child of the Renaissance- otherwise known as the Protestant Reformation- is the error of solfideism. You've heard this before- "faith alone." On one level, it makes sense. We Christians believe that we are saved by Christ alone, and a living, obedient faith perfected in love is the means by which we join ourselves to His final and victorious work on our behalf. The problem is that a certain defector decided at a certain time to alter Christian doctrine to state that the finished work of the Second Person of the Trinity does not provide for the re-creation of the fallen universe and the fallen human creature. Given this depleted understanding of the Atonement, all that's left is faith.

In a gravely diminished way, the innovative Reformers required their following to confess that Christ's finished work merely authorizes a new legal category. Thus, rather than confessing with triumphant joy that in Christ all things are made new, the Reformation's solfide claim amounts to a sheepish summary that in Christ, God merely 're-names,' 'declares' and 'pretends' with regard to the fallen world, such that He can justly 'pronounce' us holy- as though we were, while in reality we are not. This doctrine defied what Augustine, Aquinas, and the Fathers had always confessed: that God's declaration was never merely a judgement, but a re-creation, an inscription on the soul of the baptized that made him, in fact, a new creature.

You see the difference. Catholic doctrine had held for centuries, with the Scriptures, that the power of Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection is sufficient to penetrate the human heart, soul, and body, transforming the will and the affection for the proper adoration of God, such that the fallen, snivelling, diseased creature might be re-made and fashioned ready for the rigors of Heaven. The Protestant revolt edited the Gospel according to a miserly anthropology that muttered about how the depravity of the human heart was just too great for the glory of God ever to get in; the most that regenerate humanity could hope for was to link himself to the ever external merits of Christ "by faith alone" such that God might pronounce him worthy of eternal life at the last day.

So: when Prots hear that "Catholics are trying to work their way to Heaven," they are reflecting on centuries of the Christian faith in a terribly distorted way. We believe that God has re-made us in Christ, by Christ, and for Christ, and is re-making us; accordingly, we wish to cooperate with His gracious work in our hearts by our external actions, so that cooperatively, we assent to His will that we may enjoy Him forever by preparing to enjoy Him forever, now. With every ounce of our lives we wish to express that "thy will be done." So we work with Him; we are, after all, His living, choosing workmanship. The Catholic's Protestant brothers, on the other hand, are required to believe that God cannot re-make us in Christ until the very end; accordingly, though obedience is still somewhat required of the believer, there is no consistent reason or need for cooperation or preparation. The Creator and nuptial Lover of the human soul is rendered nothing more than a (benevolent) Judge by the Reformer's all-consuming emphasis on an omnipotent human depravity. Thus since God cannot re-make, He will only declare.

One recalls the problem of mere utterance with regard to God's presence- for instance, those saying "Lord, Lord" at the last day are in some trouble if He does not recognize something of Himself within.

These variations between Catholic and Protestant doctrine were recently summarized nicely in a discussion at Taylor Marshall's excellent blog: "Augustine, Justification, and Imputation." One of the Reformed contenders insists that the Biblical terms for God's "justifying" of the sinner always refer to that which is purely declarative or juridical, and never to that which is ontological or real. In other words, the Reformed thinks that the apostolic writers are thinking like Calvinists: since God cannot re-make the sinner into a truly righteous man, He will only declare him righteous, "as though" he were just, though in reality he remains unjust.

I am struck by the impossibility of upholding this doctrine of the pure declaration of justification from the words of Scripture.

First, as Taylor comments, the sense of declaring righteousness (what God does for us, in Prot parlance) is, Biblically, something that humans do for God. Clearly, it would be absurd, blasphemous, etc. to say that in so doing, humanity is merely imputing righteousness to a God whom they have chosen to pretend to be righteous, though He is not so in reality. Rather, it is clear that when humanity "declares righteous" in Scripture, they are describing a true reality with factual accuracy.

Secondly: Biblically, God does not speak without simultaneously creating. From the beginning, God calls things that are not as though they were... and they become so. "Let there be" is followed by "and it was so" reality. Cf light, sun, moon, stars, trees, hippopotami, and our good friend Adam. In the same way, it is most commensurate with our belief in the declaring and creating God to hold that, in the words of baptism whereby God declares us righteous, God simultaneously creates a new reality in the regenerate soul, such that we attain the mark of Christ's righteousness that will infallibly grow into more and more of the same. God's Word is that which becomes flesh.

And lastly, our Greek word for the day: rhema. Pentecostals and televangelists love this word because they like the idea of "speaking things into being by faith" (see Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinne vis'a vis your bank account, second lake house, etc). The idea is that a faithful declaration effects a new or altered reality- that our words, especially our prayed words, have real and creative power. One is supposed "to speak things into being." I'm not so sure about the implications of this Pentecostal theology, though it sure sounds like a lot of fun. What I want to point out is that St. Paul loves this word. Throughout the New Testament, rhema means 'utterance' or 'declaration,' a statement much like The Statement anticipated by Prots at the last day: the Father is hoped to say, "on account of my Son's suffering and death for your sake, I hereby pronounce you mine," or something like that. St. Luke also loves this word in his Gospel account of the life and saving death and Resurrection of our Lord. But in Luke's Gospel, rhema is used to convey its second, and predominant meaning: here, rhema refers to a created entity, a concrete reality, a thing as real as incarnate human life itself, such that God would be hoped to say "on the real effects of my Son's suffering and death for your sake, I see that you are become mine." The rhema term itself conveys what the Catholic Church has always understood about justification and the sacraments: God's creative word does not return to Him void, but accomplishes in reality what He sends it to do.

That's why Catholics believe that God does not verbally justify the sinner without simultaneously making all things new within him. That's why we reverentially practice the sacraments that Christ instituted as heavenly realities rather than as mere juridical signs, whereby the washing of Baptism really washes, and the food of the Eucharist really feeds (you can see, given the Greek's dual sense of word and reality, how silly it is to think that "this is my body" does not mean what it says).

In sum: perhaps catholicity may very well be summarized in that great phrase, "a little less talk and a lot more action..."