The pope: “‘sola fide’ is true”

The pope has declared 28 June 2008 to 29 June 2009 to be the “year of St Paul”, in celebration of the 2000th anniversary of the apostle’s birth. To that end, the pope is teaching about St Paul in his weekly audiences in St Peter’s Square – and one of the most interesting (and heartening) aspects of these teaching sessions are B16’s citations of Martin Luther.

On Wednesday of this week, for example, Pope Benedict spoke of the relationship between justification by faith and the believer’s acts of love – an issue at the heart of the Reformation. The linked article deserves to be read in its entirety, as Benedict outlines how we have been freed from the Law, but not from “doing good”, and how it is Christ who “makes us just”.

He continues:

Being just simply means being with Christ, being in Christ, that is all. The other precepts are no longer necessary. Luther’s expression ‘sola fide’ is true, if faith is not against charity, against love. To believe is to see Christ, to trust in Christ, to become attached to Christ, to conform to Christ, to his life.

So here we have the pope affirming that “sola fide” is true, “if faith is not against charity, against love”. But that is precisely what the Lutheran confessors were affirming all along: that faith is not against love, but rather love is the natural outworking of faith (“We, too, say that love should follow faith” – Apology, Art. IV, 111).

Now we can perhaps take more issue with the pope’s next sentence, where he defines belief as not merely trusting Christ’s promises, but being “conform[ed] to Christ”. We would want to say – and it’s crucial that we are able to say – that being conformed to Christ is a consequence of saving faith, not a component part of it. As Revd J.R. Hermeneut (who drew my attention to the linked article) put it, “at the end of the day, it must suffice to say ‘But I’m baptized!'”, without having to fret about whether we are sufficiently conformed to Christ to be assured of God’s favour towards us. But compared to the sharp divisions that existed between Rome and the Reformation, this is small potatoes: and it is Rome that has moved, at least in its perception of what Luther was saying.

There is still plenty to object about in the Roman Catholic Church, and in the office of the papacy. But let’s not minimise this: by the grace of God, we have now reached a point at which a pope is able to say, “Luther’s expression ‘sola fide’ is true”. That is not everything, but it is a good thing, and something to be grateful for.

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13 Responses to The pope: “‘sola fide’ is true”

  1. Of course, the Pope DID NOT say Luther’s position on faith alone is true. He added a huge “if” to it. He said it is true only if we say that faith is not alone but that we are justified before God through our works of love.

    While I appreciate some aspects of the Pope’s remarks, we still have, at the end of his remarks, a view of faith that is not the Biblical understanding of faith as “trust” but rather faith defined as activity, yes, activity made possible only by God’s grace, but nonetheless same view of faith as Rome has held since Trent. Hence, the Pope concludes: “by love of God and neighbor, we can be truly just in the eyes of God.”

    The Lutheran Confessions explicitly, clearly and specifically reject this view of faith as for example:

    “The adversaries are in no way moved by so many passages of Scripture, which clearly credit justification to faith. Indeed, Scripture denies this ability to works. Do they think that the same point is repeated often for no purpose? Do they think that these words fell thoughtlessly from the Holy Spirit? . . . They say that these passages of Scripture (that speak of faith) ought to be received as referring to faith that has been formed (fides formata). This means they do not credit justification to faith in any way, but only to love. . . if faith receives forgiveness because of love, forgiveness of sins will always be uncertain, because we never love as much as we ought to. Indeed, we do not love unless our hearts are firmly convinced that forgiveness of sisn has been granted to us. . . We also say that love ought to follow faith . . . yet, we must not think that by confidence in this love, or because of this love, we receive forgiveness of sins and reconciliation, just as we do not receive forgiveness of sins because of other works that follow. But forgivenss is received by faith alone.” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession IV.110ff; Conocrdia, p. 100).

  2. “Being conformed to Christ is a consequence of saving faith, not a component part of it.” This, as Rev. McCain points out, is the crux of the difference. It is a difference that unfortunately, as far as substance not necessarily rhetoric, is what lets us know that they have not moved much past Trent.

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  4. John H says:

    Revd McCain: I agree that the pope is in many ways taking away with one hand (in his definition of faith) what he has given with the other (making positive noises about “Luther’s expression ‘sola fide'”).

    Though the immediate “if” added by B16 was “if faith is not against … love” – and that is what we have been saying all along. As I said in my post, the problem comes in his definition of faith, and that is a difference that has far-reaching effects.

    However, it does indicate a shift away from the mutual caricatures that have often dominated this discussion between Lutherans (and other evangelicals) and Roman Catholics. Roman Catholics have often taken it for granted that “Luther’s expression ‘sola fide'” is precisely aimed at pitting faith against love, to the detriment of the latter; Lutherans and other protestants often talk as if Roman Catholicism taught pure, unvarnished works-righteousness.

    If we can at least stop exaggerating the differences between us – while still recognising those differences as real and important – then that is progress. If the conversation moves from yelling “Antinomian!” – “Pharisee!” at each other, to one in which we are discussing whether love is a component part of faith or a necessary consequence of faith, then we have come a long way, and in the right direction.

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  9. tony foley says:

    Since the Council of Orange (5th century) and again at the Council of Trent, Catholic
    the Church has affirmed the doctrine of “Sola gratia”. What the Pope takes
    objection to is Luther’s polarisation of faith and love. For the Pope, faith
    and Love co-mingle and thus to say one has faith and yet disregard the cries
    of the poor, is simply a lie. This does not mean that I justify myself through
    works. No! But my faith is not a mere intellectual assent to a doctrine, its a
    casting out into the deep, its immersion in the person of Christ, so that I love
    as Christ loved.

  10. Dan says:

    “… it is He Who makes us just.

    “Being just simply means being with Christ, being in Christ, that is all. The other precepts (the Torah) are no longer necessary. … For this reason Luther’s ‘sola fide’ is true if it is not placed in opposition to charity, to love. Faith is looking at Christ, trusting in Christ … conforming to Christ. And the form of Christ’s life was love. … We become just in communion with Christ Who is love. … Justice is defined in charity”.

    One must always keep in mind the Catholic eagerness to find common ground (they see their strength, an affirmation of the reality of their creed, and perhaps just a touch of irony in that). But none of the emphases have changed. Notice that the justification of faith is not only in the justness of Christ, but in His making us just. And the latter part of the statement is in full consonance with the historic position of the saints–namely that faith is one with obedience. “If you love me you will obey my commandments.” It becomes, we hope, increasingly indiscernible (and here’s a mystery) whether we obey the commandments because we love Christ and each other or whether our obedience is an unconscious affirmation of that love, but none of this leaves the context of the Church (what it sees itself as), which is in part the Doctrine supporting the Life. When it comes to what commandments we are to obey there are, of course, differences with the Protestants. Contraception is a biggie (the Pope will find further common ground there with Luther…and Calvin…and Wesley).

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  12. John says:

    In Philip Cary’s work, he talks about perception and unreflective faith. Whenever the person looks at himself, he can only see the sinful nature. I even see it in my good works. But do I necessarily have to see myself the way that God sees me? I accuse myself totally and utterly before God, but also trust Christ’s word that he has given his life and holiness to me. I can’t appropriate the holiness of Christ “in my own estimation.” I can only have a knowledge of it by faith. So by my own perception, everything I do is completely marred by sin.

    I cannot witness to myself. Only another can witness to me. So while I see myself as an “unworthy servant,” is it possible that God sees me as different. Do I have to have a knowledge of my own righteousness (Luther calls it “proper righteousness”) in order to know that I am righteous? Do I have to know that I am acting with love in order to act with love? Or know that I have hope in order to have it? If I accuse myself (as people do during Catholic confession) before the Law, do I not have someone else telling me what is and isn’t sin? In my own estimation, it is all marred by sinfulness.

    And so objectively, I may be righteous, even though I can’t perceive it. I can only see that righteousness as in a mirror. But in looking in the mirror, I know that I have it, if I accuse myself before God and believe his word, “I forgive you,” “I justify you.” Is that not trusting in the mercy of Christ, as St. Therese of says? Can I unreflectively look to anything but the mercy of Christ?

    Pope Benedict said, “in hope we are saved.” But does hope feel to a person like faith? Does faith feel to a person like knowledge? And knowledge like wisdom? So unreflective vs. reflective understanding is going to completely determine your vocabulary, even though you are looking at the same ideas.

    Cary’s article has completely changed the nature of the understanding to me. I can only describe myself as “at the same time righteous and sinner” if I am righteous objectively but a sinner by perception.


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