Justification and the Roman Catholic Church
Trevin Wax: You mentioned earlier Hans Kung. How would you distinguish your views on justification from that of official Roman Catholic teaching?
N.T. Wright: Well, it’s a nice question as to what official Roman Catholic teaching really means these days.
I remember once, after there’d been an official agreement on the doctrine of salvation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, I went to do a public debate with Ted Yarnold who’s one of the great Catholic theologians at Oxford, sadly dead now. We went off to a big ecumenical gathering in Reading, between Oxford and London, and we chatted in the car about who would speak first. I said, “Well, you’re the senior here. You better go first and lead off.” So he did. He began by saying, “Let’s just remind ourselves what the doctrine of justification is. It is that there’s nothing whatever we can do to earn God’s favor. It must come entirely from God’s grace. And the only thing that we can possibly do is nothing of ourselves, merely believe in the astonishing goodness and grace of God.” And I stood up and said, “We might as well go home because obviously we’re on the same page here. If your chaps had been saying this 400 years ago, we mightn’t have got into all this problem.”
I think there’s been an enormous amount of misunderstanding. I have met many Roman Catholic theologians who will emphasize as much as any good Protestant preacher that everything comes from the love and grace of God.
The problem again and again has been terminological. And of course at the Reformation, there were many in the Roman system who just didn’t get it and who had been so corrupted by some of the nonsenses that were going on in the late medieval period that they really did believe you had to do all these extra bits and pieces and works of supererogation. And it was hooked into the doctrine of purgatory and all of that.
But in terms of the sovereign grace of God, you’ve got that in Thomas Aquinas just as you’ve got it in John Calvin. I think it’s time to stand back and take a much longer, harder look at what’s going on.
There’s a great deal about Roman Catholicism that I basically disagree with. For instance, the doctrine of Mary which… I have studied that stuff and I simply don’t think that has any mileage at all biblically, theologically, and I’ve got some friends who are very disappointed that I say that. So I’m not saying, let’s go and agree with Rome for the sake of it. But I’m saying that actually, though Rome did get completely twisted up a few hundred years ago, the way things are now, there’s room for all kinds of dialogue and I find an open readiness.
What I don’t find however is the meaning of justification in Galatians 2, because in Galatians 2 the meaning of justification is: if all those who believe in Jesus are declared to be in the right, they belong at the same table. And Rome still balks at that. “We will not have Eucharistic fellowship until you’ve all signed up and agreed on this and this and this.” So, I bang on about this to my Roman friends and say, sorry… according to justification by faith, we ought to be sharing the Eucharist. What’s wrong with that? And they, of course, get worried about that.
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