The Original Justice and Sin Debate

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As you might be able to tell from recent posts, I’ve been studying original justice and sin as of late, from different traditions.

What many may not know, is there is a disagreement between the Catholic/Eastern church and the Reformed church over the state of Adam pre fall and post fall. Both agree that Adam was in a state of justice and righteousness before the fall. And both agree that mankind fell in Adam.

However, the Reformers differed on Adam’s state in original justice, and especially on mankind’s state after the fall, from the Catholic church. Luther and Calvin wrote much on their disagreements on mankind’s pre and post fall states.

With that said, what is the main difference between the Catholic church and Reformed?

Charles Hodge, in his Systematic Theology, aptly lays out the disagreement here:

The doctrine of [Catholic church] as to the original state of man agrees with that of Protestants, except in one important particular. They hold that man before the fall, was in a state of relative perfection; that is, not only free from any defect or infirmity of body, but endowed with all the attributes of a spirit, and imbued with knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, and invested with dominion over the creatures. Protestants include all this under the image of God; the Romanists understand by the image of God only the rational, and especially the voluntary nature of man, or the freedom of the will. They distinguish, therefore, between the image of God and original righteousness. The latter they say is lost, the former retained. Protestants, on the other hand, hold that it is the divine image in its most important constituents, that man forfeited by his apostasy. This, however, may be considered only a difference as to words. The important point of difference is, that the Protestants hold that original righteousness, so far as it consisted in the moral excellence of Adam, was natural, while the Romanists maintain that it was supernatural.

Now what is Hodge saying here? What he is describing, is that fact that the Catholic church distinguishes between the “image of God” (man in his natural state), and Adam’s state of original justice. For them, Adam’s state of righteousness and relationship with God was something supernatural, rather than something within his nature; it was an endowment given above and beyond his natural state. Thus, Adam’s original righteousness and justice was preternatural. It was a gift of God, infused into the soul of Adam at the point of creation, which made him more than a creation; it made him a divine son with divine qualities.

What is to be noted here, is that Catholics argue that without this supernatural endowment, Adam would have been subject to death and temptation. Matter, by definition, is subject to change, breakdown, and finitude. And thus even the universe itself would be subject to constant breakdown without supernatural intervention. Adam was thus unfused with supernatural life, enabling him to live beyond his naturally created state.

In contrast, Protestants hold that Adam’s state of righteousness was something natural to him. Adam’s righteousness was the “image of God”; something he was created with. And so he was created naturally righteous, naturally immortal, naturally in fellowship with God. Had Adam not rebelled, he would have lived confirmed as he was. He possessed within himself that life and righteousness which God desired.

This disagreement, as would be expected, flows into one’s understanding of original sin. Both the Catholic and Protestant tradition agree that something fundamental happened to the entire human because of Adam’s sin. Adam fell, but from what? And how does it affect us?

Protestants, logically hold from the position that Adam was naturally righteous, that mankind fell from an upright nature. As Hodge says, Protestants “hold that it is the divine image in its most important constituents, that man forfeited by his apostasy”. In other words, the human nature became cursed and depraved as a result of the fall.

As a result, humans, while still containing the image of God in some form, are said to be born marred and defaced in their nature. Man then operates from this broken nature; and thus sinful desires, thoughts, and actions spring from this depravity.

In contrast, Catholics hold that, rather than falling into a depraved nature, mankind fell from this supernatural grace which endowed them with eternal life. Hodge says,

[Catholics] distinguish, therefore, between the image of God and original righteousness. The latter they say is lost, the former retained

Mankind lost the grace which upheld them, but the human nature is retained. In other words, human nature is not defaced; rather, it is only deprived of the grace which upheld it. Thus, mankind is evicted, as it were, from God’s life, and left to death and sin.

Catholic Taylor Marshall distinguishes the difference such:

The Catholic Church teaches that Adam and Eve were constituted in grace prior to the Fall … The Catholic Church teaches that Adam “fell from grace”; where as some Protestants teach “Adam did not fall from grace, because he wasn’t sinful and was therefore not in a state of grace.” This begs the question: If Adam “fell”, then from what did he fall? It seems that the answer is that Adam fell from nature (source)

Catholics, would then not hold to total depravity. However, they would add that human nature is wounded in several ways:

The fall of Adam and Eve brought the “four wounds” to human nature. These are enumerated by St Bede and others, especially St Thomas Aquinas (STh I-II q. 85, a. 3):
  1. Original sin (lack of sanctifying grace and original justice)
  2. Concupiscence (the eleven passions are no longer ordered perfectly to the soul’s intellect)
  3. Physical frailty and death
  4. Darkened intellect and ignorance (source)

What is notable, is that the Catholics do not understand the temptation to sin, or disordered passions, labeled “concupiscence”, as inherently sinful. Passions are disordered — given to sin — as a result of the deprivation of grace. Contrastly, Protestants teach that desires or passions for sin come from the depraved nature, and are thus sinful. Consequently, Catholics do not believe the individual person himself is worthy of wrath — rather, from a deprived (not depraved!) nature, those actions which are sinful merit punishment. Reformed thinkers believe that the human nature is inherently fallen, deserving of wrath.

So then, there is much debate over the state of Adam in original justice, and the state of mankind after his apostasy.

While we can agree on much, this teaching creates some dissonance between the Protestant and Catholic traditions.

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Charles Hodge on Differing Schemes of Justification

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Charles Hodge has an excellent (long, but excellent) Systematic Theology on Reformed Theology. One reason that it is excellent, is that he takes much of his book to examine the differences between the Reformed tradition and others.

In his excurses on justification, Hodge examines the differences between the Reformed concept of justification to that of the Catholic and Arminian tradition.

First, Hodge describes the Reformed concept of justification as,

a judicial or forensic act, i. e., an act of God as judge proceeding according to law, declaring that the sinner is just, i. e., that the law no longer condemns him, but acquits and pronounces him to be entitled to eternal life.

Hodge clarifies further by saying that justification is not,

simply pardon and restoration. It includes pardon, but it also includes a declaration that the believer is just or righteous in the sight of the law. He has a right to plead a righteousness which completely satisfies its demands.

So for a Reformed understanding of justification, there is both a negative — pardon of sins — and a positive — imputation of justice. This is because Christ, as head of the elect sinner, positions himself in his place. And in his stead, Christ endures the punishment of sin, and obeys the requirements of the law.

And so justification is an extrinsic, declarative act of God. It is an unchanging objective reality in which God “declares that notwithstanding [the sinner’s] person sinfulness (actual) and unworthiness, he is accepted as righteous on the ground of what Christ has done for him”. As Christ is righteous, so God says of the sinner.

In contrast, Hodge brings in the differing doctrines on justification, first the Roman Catholic concept. He describes this concept of justification as

subjective justification. That is, that justification consists in an act or agency of God making the sinner subjectively holy. Romanists confound or unite justification and sanctification. They define justification as “the remission of sin and infusion of new habits of grace.” By remission of sin they mean not simply pardon, but the removal of everything of the nature of sin from the soul. Justification, therefore, with them, is purely subjective , consisting in the destruction of sin and the infusion of holiness.

By this, what he means to say is that justification is not objective, extrinsic, but the opposite. It is the act of God, whereby he makes the sinner subjectively, ontologically, actually holy. That is, justification is pardon of past sins, and the positive infusion (not imputation) of the righteousness of Christ, which makes the sinner just. So what God declares to be just is actually just.

Catholic John Henry Newman says of the Roman concept of justification:

Justification is an announcement or fiat of Almighty God, which breaks upon the gloom of our natural state as the Creative Word upon Chaos; that it declares the soul righteous, and in that declaration, on the one hand, conveys pardon for its past sins, and on the other makes it actually righteous (Lectures on Justification)

By fiat of God, his creative work makes the sinner subjectively just (by participation in Christ). Hodge is right, then, when he says that Roman Catholics “unite justification and sanctification”. Because of this, justification is not objective. It is always changing (for the better or worse). The justified person, by infusion of Christ’s righteousness, can cooperate and grow in justice, or can degenerate and even sin mortally.

After this, Hodge evaluates the Arminian concept of justification. Hodge begins by explaining where Arminius differed from the other Reformers. This difference was of course over the Reformers’ concept of election. But his disagreement of election led him (more particularly his followers) to a different of understanding of justification.

Hodge says of Arminius’ concept of election,

The purpose of election [for Arminius] is not a purpose to save, and to that end to give faith and repentance to a definite number of individuals, but a purpose to save those who repent, believe, and persevere in faith until the end. The work of Christ has, therefore, an equal reference to all men. He made full satisfaction to God for the sins of all and every man, so that God can now consistently offer salvation to all men on the conditions laid down in the Gospel. This is a self -consistent scheme. One part implies, or necessitates the admission of the others.

God’s election and atonement thus change from particular and individual, to universal and open. This, of course, changes one’s view of justification. In the Reformed concept, Christ came to vicariously mediate himself for a particular select group of people by obeying in their place, and dying in their place. In Arminius’ view, Christ came to save anyone who would repent and believe (conditional election).

For this reason, he and his followers — known as the Remonstrants — regarded the atonement as merely satisfaction of justice, and justification as only remission of past sins and acceptance by God.

Hodge is dismissive of this view:

[Arminius’ followers, the Remonstrants,] denied that Christ’s work was a real satisfaction for sin, [and] they of necessity denied any real justification of the sinner. Justification with them is merely pardon.

Obviously, Hodge shows his Reformed colors in saying that the Remonstants denied a “real satisfaction”. What Hodge means to say is that Jesus’ sacrifice was general in nature. It satisfied God’s justice, but not for a specific people, as in the Reformed view. So salvation is open to all, but is not accomplished without the positive response of the individual (which puts the burden on the person, rather than God). More than that, Hodge means to point out that justification for the Remonstrants, is only a pardoning of past sins (negative), and contains no imputation or infusion of Christ’s righteousness (positive). To him, this makes justification lesser than Reformed or Catholic understanding.

Hodge explains,

As the righteousness of Christ is not imputed to the believer, the ground of his justification, that which is accepted as righteousness , is faith and its fruits, or faith and evangelical obedience.

For the Arminian Remonstrants then, justification is the pardon of past sins, and afterward necessarily requires positive Christian obedience (because there is no imputation).

And so, Hodge covers — I would say fairly well — the three main spectrums of justification. First is the reformed, extrinsic justification, which is not connected subjectively to the believer. Second is the subjective, actual, ontological justification of the sinner in Roman Catholicism. Lastly, is the pardoning justification of Arminius and the Remonstrants.