(This is Neil) I tend to read the reviews in Modern Theology electronically, a year late. In the July 2008 issue, the Lutheran ecumenist Michael Root reviews a book by the Dominican theologian Charles Morerod. Fr Morerod apparently wishes to argue that there is a “fundamental difference” (Grunddifferenz) between Catholic and Lutherans on justification, based on Luther’s adherence to a mistaken “philosophical theory of causality.” Basically, for Morerod, Luther sees divine and human action as mutually exclusive. Professor Root finds this unconvincing.
Along the way, Root makes some important points, not just concerning ecumenical theology (or Morerod’s book), but theology in general:
1. First, as Root writes:
Any adequate presentation of the saving work of God’s grace as understood within the Augustianian tradition requires some sense of God moving the self without violating the integrity of the self’s own action. Only thus can the faith (or hope or love) of the justified be both their own actions and also gifts of grace. [The Anglican priest and theologian] Austin Farrer, who thought about these issues as deeply as anyone in the last hundred years, used the term “double agency” to describe this relation. Divine and human agency coincide, with decisive priority belonging to the divine agent. If some such notion is not presupposed, then one is forced into unacceptable alternatives: either divine agency removes all human participation in salvation or human agency makes a contribution to salvation independent of grace. What is needed is some sense of God and creatures operating on different levels of being, so that their agencies do not compete in a zero-sum game.
So we can say that any theology, whether Protestant or Catholic, that proceeds to ignore or reject “double agency” will end up making problematic assertions.
2. Luther, Root says, considers justification to be pure gift. But he does not otherwise reject “double agency.” Even in his Bondage of the Will, Luther writes, “[God] does not work in us without us, because it is for this he has created and preserved us, that he might work in us and we might cooperate with him, whether outside his Kingdom through his general omnipotence, or inside his Kingdom by the special virtue of his Spirit” (my emphasis).
3. Consequently, Luther does believe that the sacraments communicate saving grace (when received by faith).
4. Luther’s main concern is not some “philosophy of causality.” He is concerned to say that the only righteousness that avails before God’s judgment is the righteousness of Christ. This means that his main concern is not philosophical at all, but soteriological.
Root has written elsewhere that the specific issue has to do with whether good works can merit eternal life:
Aquinas and the Council of Trent affirm merit as an eschatological concept: eschatologically there will be a true fittingness between eternal life as the end of the movement of grace and the human creature as moved by a grace that does not violate its intrinsic nature as agent. The Reformers, however, feared merit as a practical-ethical concept, as a concept that would underwrite a quid pro quo approach to the Christian life.
We might here suggest, with Root, that Lutheran theology is written from a perspective sometimes found in Catholic saints, one of self-forgetfulness. Thus Thérèse of Lisieux:
After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself (see the Catechism 2011).
I’d like to ask: Should all Catholic theology be written from this perspective? What might that mean? What would be lost?
5. Regarding ecumenical methodology, Root reminds us that we must distinguish between a relativistic denial of truth claims and a degree of relativism towards the particular language in which those truth claims are affirmed. This is an important distinction.
6. Also regarding ecumenical methodology, Root worries that the assertion of “fundamental differences” between Christian traditions often means that the “fine grain of particular disputes is lost.” This is very another important point, I think.
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