Having now read this lecture, I’m deeply grateful to Fr Kimel for the recommendation. It is a belter, especially the section in which Cary compares the standard Protestant understanding of sola fide with the more sacramental and catholic understanding of Luther.
Cary, himself an Anglican, begins by pointing out that, while Luther and Calvin both taught that we are justified by faith alone (“sola fide”), there are fundamental differences in their understanding:
[W]hen the rubber hits the road and it’s a question of how we stand before God, Luther typically thinks of a different set of Scriptural promises than Calvin does, a set of distinctively sacramental promises, which have a different logic from the kind of promises Calvin and most other Protestants think about when they speak of the promises of the Gospel.
Cary summarises the usual Protestant approach to the promises of the gospel with what he terms “the Standard Protestant Syllogism”:
The Standard Protestant Syllogism
Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.
What this leads to is a requirement for “reflective faith”. This syllogism requires us not only to believe, but to know we believe. The conditionality of the major premise means that “I am in no position to say the Gospel promise is about me until I can say, ‘I believe'”. Hence for most Protestants, being able to profess conscious belief is “a really big deal”.
Luther’s syllogism, as identified by Cary, is strikingly different:
Major premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Minor premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).
The major premise is not only a word of Scripture, but is also “a sacramental word”, spoken to each of us personally by Christ, through the pastor, at our baptism. Hence it is not only a word of Christ in general, but “the word of Christ spoken to me in particular”, as an external word spoken at a particular time and in a particular place.
Crucially, and in stark contrast to the standard Protestant syllogism, the major premise in Luther’s syllogism is unconditional:
The promise applies to me because it says so: Christ says “you” and he means me. So the promise of the Gospel, on Luther’s reckoning, is inherently, unconditionally, for me.
Faith does not make it so but merely recognizes that it is so, a recognition that happens because we dare not call Christ a liar when he tells us, on that one momentous occasion, “I baptize you…” That is why the minor premise is not about my faith but about the truth of Christ.
Cary argues that this is where he thinks “Luther’s got it fundamentally right”:
What faith says, fundamentally, is “God speaks the truth.” Only secondarily, and not fundamentally, faith may also say, “I believe.” But faith may also say, “My faith is weak” or “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” or “I have sinned in my unbelief and denied my Lord, like Peter the apostle.”
Faith may confess its own unbelief. What it cannot do, if it is to remain faith at all, is stop clinging to the truth of God’s Word. For faith does not rely on faith, but on the Word of God.
This has important pastoral consequences, particularly in relation to those who suffer doubt and despair about their faith (what Luther called Anfechtung):
If you want to build people up in faith, you have to direct their attention to the Word of God, not to their faith. But don’t direct them to some general principle – direct them to their baptism, and remind them that when they were baptized it was Christ himself who, through the mouth of the minister, said “I baptize you” and he meant you in particular.
As Cary continues:
[It is] much easier to confess, “Christ is no liar” than to profess, “I believe” – especially if what that is supposed to mean is: “I have true faith in my heart, I truly, really trust in God,” etc. For this reflective faith, faith relying on itself, is how faith becomes a work, something we must do and accomplish in order to be saved.
Like our works, our faith will never be “good enough” in itself. It will never be entirely strong, sincere and unreserved. However, this is no cause for despair:
My faith is not good enough, but the one I have faith in is.
Cary concludes this section of his lecture as follows:
If you have to make a choice between the standard Protestant agony of conscience, where you must come somehow to the conclusion that you have true saving faith, and Luther’s agony of conscience, where the only question that really matters is whether God is telling you the truth – well, take Luther’s agony of conscience. It’s the right agony to have.
And in one form or another, it is the agony you’ll inevitably struggle with if you start with Luther’s premises about the nature of the Gospel. Honestly, in the end the only question that really matters is whether Christ is telling the truth. And there are indeed many, many times we find that hard to believe. Every time we sin, in fact.
This is why Article 5 of the Augsburg Confession (see previous post) is so important: because it enshrines this understanding that justification by faith must involve faith in an external, objective, trustworthy word of God, rather than an inward, individualistic focus on the state of my own heart. “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” (Romans 3:4).
(Incidentally, if anyone has a copy of Cary’s 2005 Pro Ecclesia article, ”Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant”, and would be willing to provide me with a copy, please let me know in the comments.)