Summary: Faith, above all, is a gift of God. Now it’s a gift that he pours out liberally on all humans, but it will not save our souls unless we cooperate with it.
Thursday of 28th Week in Course 2017
Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues
Our readings today say the same thing in different ways. St. Paul’s letter to the Romans was really the first work of systematic theology. It positions the saving work of Our Lord in the context of a contest between what we know as faith and works. But most folks, partly because of the Protestant revolution and its teaching, don’t understand the two words very well. That’s what led Luther to call the letter of St. James an “epistle of straw,” because St. James says that faith without what he calls works is meaningless.
Faith, above all, is a gift of God. Now it’s a gift that he pours out liberally on all humans, but it will not save our souls unless we cooperate with it. God gives faith, but we must receive it and act on the gift. If we do, we cannot boast about it because even our act of acceptance requires the grace of God to “fuel” the acceptance. By faith we believe what we cannot prove by our reason alone. Our reason, Romans tells us, can come to the realization that God exists and that we owe Him our existence. But only the twin gifts of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit can transform us into images of Christ, fit for the kingdom of God, and empowered to do the works of God here on earth and in heaven.
When St. Paul speaks of “works of the Law,” he is speaking of these scribes and Pharisees that Jesus is constantly contending with, and their false preaching. They taught that by following all six-hundred plus prescriptions of Torah, they would be holy and godly and saved. So what they were really teaching is that most of humanity is condemned, because not even Paul could do it all. And the Pharisees and scribes and Sadducees would eventually fail even the test of keeping Torah, because like their ancestors, they plotted and brought about the death of the One Truly Holy Messiah.
So the word “works” means, for the ex-Pharisee Paul, keeping kosher and Sabbath and all the minutiae of Jewish practice. But for St. James, “works” are deeds of prayer and self-sacrificial giving that flow from keeping the primordial law–love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. But if someone, simply picking up a Bible and reading it, tries to reconcile these two ideas without knowing that “works” can mean two different things, confusion can reign. And it did in the knowledge-deficient universities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
You may recall that John Wycliffe was an English scholar who taught at Oxford and thought that the troubles of the fourteenth century were evidences of God’s anger at sin, especially clerical sin. He was particularly troubled by the wealth of the Church; he thought that all clergy should live in poverty. He wrote a book On Civil Dominion, about 1374, in which he argued that the king should seize all the property of the local church, and force the poverty he proposed for priests and bishops. Now the politicians and pope took notice. The pope, of course, officially condemned much of his writings in 1377. But many of the politicians liked the idea. It was a time of turmoil. The famous Black Prince, heir to the English throne, died in 1376 and King Edward III followed the next year, leaving a ten year old Richard II in their place. The infamous John of Gaunt, his uncle, became quite powerful and used his influence to help Wycliffe in his battle with the clergy. It was a nasty time that includes a bloody peasants’ revolt four years later. It was a bad time for reasoned, calm, politically uninvolved theological discussion.
In time, Wycliffe essentially created the majority of the Protestant heretical doctrines: All true doctrines are revealed only through Scripture. Some are predestined to heaven, others to hell. The Church is invisible–the collection of those predestined to be saved. The secular ruler is supreme over all, including the clergy. One either goes directly to heaven or to hell; there is no need for the elect to be purified of their residual attachments to sin. Clerical celibacy is not proper. Pilgrimages are a waste of time, and it’s also a waste to ask for the intercession of the saints. Monasteries and religious orders should be suppressed. And the substance of bread and wine are not transformed into the substance of the resurrected Christ, so Eucharist is just symbolic, not real.
The ideas were already out there. All that was needed were huge corruption in the Church, a charismatic leader, and willing politicians. But God wills all to be saved, and His plans for the Church were for its purification, not its destruction. More to come next time.