Monday, October 6, 2014

My Catholic Mess

My Religious Studies professor  in college, Father C., saw my Protestant affiliation as an opportunity to demonstrate the fundamental difference between Catholic and Protestant theology to the class on Thomas Aquinas. We had read the Question "Whether to believe is meritorious" in Aquinas' Summa Theologica, and he naturally assumed  I would take issue with it.

In part, I wanted to have fun with Father C. He and I had  a playful friendship, and I loved throwing him off his game. But Aquinas had appealed to my pride, disarming my intellect with the comforting possibility that maybe I had contributed to my salvation after all. So when Father asked for my response to the Question, I saw a perfect opportunity to both mess with his mind and answer honesty (with my priorities decidedly in that order).

"Well Father," I began in a tone signaling my intention to draw things out, "when I started reading this question, I was prepared to disagree. But as I followed his line of reason, I realized he might be right."

Father C.'s stunned expression and ensuing loss for words sent the entire class into fits of laughter. After class, several of us assembled, gleefully recounting how stymied he had been and how I'd thrown a monkey wrench into his lesson plan. Actually, I have been chuckling as I've typed the story today.

My chuckling, however, turns to grief over my glaring  doctrinal error in Father C.'s classroom that day. That priest knew, better than I did, that Martin Luther's entire Reformation hinged on the doctrine that no human act--not even faith--can possibly merit anything from God.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. ~~Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
Luther rightly understood that Roman  Catholicism has replaced the Scriptural teaching of grace and faith with a system of works and sacraments whereby we "earn" grace. Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers took tremendous risks (some even dying as martyrs) to restore  the Biblical doctrines of grace and faith.

Sadly, I spent decades ignoring the importance of this doctrinal distinction, even long after I saw that Aquinas got it wrong. Once again, the cry for "unity" between evangelicals and Catholics demanded that I minimize the importance of doctrine. At times, largely depending on the prevailing attitude among the various evangelical circles I frequented, I might  argue that faith couldn't merit God's favor, but I avoided a dogmatic stance.

Obviously, the Lord has now shown me that I must no longer equivocate on this  matter. Aquinas taught falsely. Furthermore, in this false teaching he attacked the sufficiency of Christ's shed blood on the cross, again implying that we play a pivotal role in securing our place in heaven. And that suggestion that anything we do--including believing--could merit salvation, completely undermines the Gospel.

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