Fussy Certainty

The interview with Brad Gregory about his latest book on Martin Luther revealed a fundamental difference between Roman Catholics and magisterial Protestants. Around the twenty-minute mark, Gregory starts to challenge Luther’s quest for certainty of salvation in ways that would make you think the Notre Dame professor had been reading Scott Clark’s, Recovering the Reformed Confession. According to Gregory, Luther was on an illegitimate quest for certainty or freedom from doubt, especially considering all the ways (acts of devotion) the church had for helping Christians along the path of salvation.

But here’s the thing, Luther wanted to know that he could stand before the judgment seat of God as a righteous man. The best Rome could do was get Luther to purgatory. He had no assurance he would go to heaven (this was a time when all Roman Catholics worried about sin and damnation). And so, the idea that a sinner could be righteous through faith, having Christ’s righteousness imputed to them, was not part of some illegitimate quest for certainty. It was what every single person should want who knows God is holy and humans are sinful. Who will stand on that great day? Not how do I get through this life so that I can endure millennia of purging my remaining sin?

Which leaves us with two rival certainties. On the one hand, Roman Catholics have the certainty that comes through trust in the church:

the Catholic Church enjoys some Divine guarantees, but they are not numerous. Christ promised to be with the Church to the end of time, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against her. This means essentially that the Holy Spirit will not permit the Church’s Divine constitution to be lost (such as the disappearance of the Catholic hierarchy), that the fullness of all the means of salvation will always be available in the Church, that the Church’s sacraments will always be powerful sources of grace, that the Church’s Magisterial teachings will be completely free from error, and that the Church will remain the mystical body of Christ under the headship of Our Lord Himself, as represented here on earth by His Vicar, the successor of Peter.

A Roman Catholic knows that the institutional church won’t fail even if he or she doesn’t have assurance about the eternal destiny of their body and soul.

On the other hand, Protestants who affirm justification by faith, have certainty that their sins are and will be forgiven thanks to the work of Christ. Here is how Luther put it in his commentary on Galatians (excerpted here):

This I say, to confute that pernicious doctrine of the sophisters and monks, which taught that no man can certainly know (although his life be never so upright and blameless) whether he be in the favor of God or no. And this sentence, commonly received, was a special principle and article of faith in the whole Papacy, whereby they utterly defaced the doctrine of faith, tormented men’s consciences, banished Christ out of the Church, darkened and denied all the benefits and gifts of the Holy Ghost, abolished the true worship of God, set up idolatry, contempt of God, and blasphemy against God in men’s hearts. For he that doubteth of the will of God towards him, and hath no assurance that he is in grace, cannot believe that he hath remission of sins, that God careth for him, and that he can be saved.

Augustine saith very well and godly, that every man seeth most certainly his own faith, if he have faith. This do they deny. God forbid (say they) that I should assure myself that I am under grace, that I am holy, and that I have the Holy Ghost, yea, although I live godly, and do all works. Ye which are young, and are not infected with this pernicious opinion (whereupon the whole kingdom of the Pope is grounded), take heed and fly from it, as from a most horrible plague. We that are old men have been trained up in this error even from our youth, and have been so nusled therein, that it hath taken deep root in our hearts. Therefore it is to us no less labor to unlearn and forget the same, than to learn and lay hold upon true faith. But we must be assured and out of doubt that we are under grace, that we please God for Christ’s sake, and that we have the Holy Ghost. ‘For if any man have not the spirit of Christ, the same is none of his’ (Romans 8:9).

I don’t know why anyone would choose to lose Luther’s version of certainty to gain Gregory’s confidence in an institution that has not always been so worthy of trust.



Rod Dreher continues to acquire material for his next book — the one on the Benedict Option. (Make that Benedictine Option and I’m there — like yesterday.) And he posts this from a Protestant pastor who supports the notion of some kind of cultural resistance:

I just wanted to let you know that your writings about the Benedict Option have moved me deeply. Your thoughts, plus the guidance of the Spirit, led me to propose a youth discipleship class for the teenagers in our church to our Pastor — a proposal that he quickly endorsed.

A line that you had in a recent blog post “If they’ve heard anything from the Church, it’s something like, ‘Don’t do this because the Bible says not to’ — which is not enough in this time and place.” is exactly what we are trying to combat. It is almost word for word what a youngish (~25) member of our church told me a few weeks ago. She said that when she was growing up and would ask if she could do something that was verboten, her parents would tell her, “No, you can’t do that.” “Why?” “It’s against our religion.” No further explanation was given.

So we are putting together this class and starting it with hard questions. Why do you go to church? Would you go to church if your parents didn’t make you? Is God important to you? Why?

From there, it will lead into discussions about our doctrines, the importance of prayer, how to pray, how to read/study/meditate on the Bible, holiness, how to handle failures, etc. When we start discussing the things that the Lord hates, we aren’t just going to point at the Bible and say, “God says no, so don’t.” One of the questions we will keep bringing up is, “God said don’t do X or that he hates X. Why would God say that?” We want them to be able to put those admonitions into a larger framework.

Why did God say that? Wasn’t that the Serpent’s question to Eve (of course, in a figurative way, vd,t)? Why isn’t a thus saith the Lord sufficient for not doing something? Does this pastor really think he can go behind the curtain of God’s prescriptive will and come back alive?

Speaking from my own experience, parental instruction not to do something, backed up by serious consequences for the backside at younger stages and coping with parental disapproval at later ones, was an effective moral code. Did I observe it? Of course, not. Now that the parents are in the grave (and not eavesdropping on everything I say or think), I can admit that the first movie I saw in a theater was Straw Dogs. How did a 14-year old get pass the ticket taker? I looked old for my age. What did I tell my parents, who specified that their boys were not allowed to go to movies? I told them I went to the Mall, which was sort of true. But on the whole I broke at least 2 commandments that night — the fifth and the ninth — and if you’re keeping score at home with Greg the Terrible, watching this movie likely broke the seventh as well.

But the lesson here is not how to fool fundamentalist parents. It is that a firm set of moral guidelines, even without elaborate moral reasoning apart from the appeal to authority, was as remarkably good way to grow up. I obtained a clear sense of living inside or outside that moral code and I couldn’t blame anyone but myself if I got caught and had to face the music.

It seems to me in a just sayin’ way that if you want a real Benedict option, it is not to turn adolescents into people who can compete with Benedict XVI or Alasdair MacIntyre on virtue ethics. It is rather to create a moral universe akin to Benedict’s monastery where those who belong to the community have a clear sense of what’s right and wrong on the inside and how that differs from the world outside. In other words, respecting authority is more important than explaining why authority is important.

Postscript: this was NOT my experience:

Sadly, in spite of my Christian upbringing, no one ever told me what was wrong with the hook up culture. In fact, sex before marriage was encouraged by much of my Christian family and by the unanimous agreement of my Christian friends, who both mentioned preventing unwanted pregnancies, but never voiced the option of abstinence. What is worse, I never heard about the topic of sex in church. It was not until my involvement with a Christian campus ministry that I heard someone speak against premarital sex using biblical teaching.

This being my experience, I urge the Church, particularly parents raising children in the Church, to speak out on this issue and embrace the God’s intention for sex. Parents, do not make your child wait until he is a legal adult to hear about it from someone else. Talking about it may be awkward, but it could save your child from making a huge mistake and dealing with a lifetime of baggage for it.

Jay and Ellen Hart didn’t talk about the mechanics but Don and Darryl knew full well that sex outside marriage was verboten (inside marriage, well, okay, if you must).

What do Thoman Jefferson, Abraham, and Joe Paterno Have in Common?

(all about) Me.