The following dialogue took place in January 2015, the third such conversation between Monsignor Tom Coogan of St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church and Pastor Kris Baudler of St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Bay Shore, New York. Msgr. Coogan has requested a forum at St. Luke's to present the Catholic position to the congregation. An invitation is gladly being extended.
Thanks again for your welcome and insightful explanation of Roman Catholic thinking with regard to scripture, tradition, and several other topics. As you noted, we could “go on and on” with this conversation. I very much like your idea of you coming to talk to the people of St. Luke’s, as letters and e-mails have their obvious limitations. Perhaps we could take it one step further and include a Q & A or make it a truly ecumenical conversation (not a debate!) in mutual Christian love for greater understanding for all in attendance. There would be no “winners” or “losers,” but only what the Holy Spirit imparts to each of us as he sees fit. Some of our members asked if they could submit questions to you on cue cards in advance. If you’d suggest a couple of dates and times that might work for you, we can take it from there.
But as I have your attention for the moment, allow me to offer a few quick comments to some of the points you’ve just raised. (By the way, so you know, I’ve been sharing our dialogue with the wider congregation here at St. Luke’s. They’re very appreciative of it and are intrigued by such a unique and frank exchange of ideas. St. Luke’s, as you probably know, has a fairly large percentage of former Roman Catholics or present Catholic family members.
On the issue of purgatory, I’ll leave you to explain it when you come here. For us it isn’t a matter of proof-texting a theory that we believe cannot be proof-texted, but one of the total theology of the gospel. You will need to be able to harmonize the teaching of St. Paul with this latter day Roman theory, which frankly, Lutherans see as an impossible task.
In the matter of the primacy of Peter (via Mt. 16), you write:
“Again, we Catholics would make the claim that our interpretations of Sacred Scripture, which vary from yours in many cases, are based on plain reading, informed by Sacred Tradition, with the authoritative understanding (when multiple are possible) being given by the Magisterium.”
Our difficulty with this is that we cannot see a textual basis for claiming there can be multiple understandings of what Jesus is saying to Peter and the apostles. A “plain reading” of the text, as far as we can tell, is wholly unsupportive of the Catholic position, regardless of your Magisterium’s interpretation of it. The Greek couldn’t be any clearer. As I noted earlier, it is syntactically impossible to confuse the dative feminine singular noun of the “rock” of Peter’s confession (that Jesus is Lord) on which Christ will build his church and to which he refers — with the nominative masculine singular noun of the “pebble” that is Peter, without violating all of the basic rules of Greek grammar known to man. What special grace of insight does the Magisterium possess that allows it to violate the grammar known to every entry level student of Koine Greek? How are they more blessed in their “interpretation” than you and I are in our baptism (not to mention academic credentials)? Are they to be believed simply because they say so? Does Catholicism require the complete abandonment of reason and education for its own dictation when it comes to hermeneutics? Has your Magisterium never erred? As I mentioned earlier, the length of a tradition isn’t a reliable barometer, ecclesiastical error having its own lengthy tradition. St. Peter, the first great magister of the Church of Jerusalem (and “first pope” according to your tradition), did himself err mightily in his clash with Paul in Galatians 2, which required not only Paul’s stern rebuke, but the Lord’s direct intervention to prevent the collapse of the early church (Acts 10). I’m including a brief section from Herbert C. Alleman’s New Testament Commentary, [Philadelphia: The Muhlenberg Press, 1936], 511-512 which addresses some of these issues, including your thought that, “We Catholics do not maintain the total depravity of humans, but rather, as revealed in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, we understand that we are good, but fallen, and so weak in the face of temptation.” (How you manage to square that with Paul’s “No one is good, no, not one” is beyond me.)
To Alleman on Galatians 2:11-18. “The inspired pen of Paul clearly sets forth what took place on the occasion of this memorable visit. At first, Peter made no difference between the Jewish and the Gentile Christians, but had fellowship with the Gentiles and even ate with them. He seems to have remembered the lessons taught him in the tenth chapter of the Acts. However, when certain strict Jewish Christians came to Antioch from Jerusalem, ‘he drew back and separated himself, fearing them that were of the circumcision.’ The outstanding example of Peter was contagious; and the ‘rest of the Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that even Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation.’ The defection of Barnabas was especially noteworthy, for he is spoken of in Acts 11:24: “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” One can form some idea of the consternation aroused in the church at Antioch by his conspicuous act of dissimulation on the part of prominent men like Peter and Barnabas. One can imagine the wounded feelings and the bitter disappointment of the Gentile members of the church. A situation was created which threatened to divide the church in the very beginning and to make impossible the realization of the great objective of the Gospel as expressed by Christ in his great commission. A master-hand was needed in this crisis to direct the ship of the infant church; and Paul, with the voice of authority and conscious of his apostolic mission, sprang into the breach, rebuked the guilty ones and clearly set forth the truth that the Jewish Christians, like their Gentile brethren, were ‘justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law.’
In v. 18 Paul accuses Peter and his associates of being transgressors, for, by their inconsistent conduct in aligning themselves with the Judaizers, they were again setting up the law and its requirements, which were clearly set aside and destroyed in the principle of justification by faith. Peter had learned this principle by supernatural teaching in the tenth chapter of the Acts; and he had clear proof of this principle of justification in the fact that while he was yet preaching in the house of Cornelius ‘the Holy Spirit fell on all them that heard the word’ (Acts 10:44). Now by his example at Antioch he is teaching: ‘Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1). In so doing he is building up again those things which he destroyed and proves himself a transgressor (v. 18). By his heroic conduct in meeting the crisis at the church at Antioch in reprimanding the inconsistent act of Peter, Paul reaches the climax of his argument in defending his independent and apostolic authority in the church.”
My 3 cents: 1) The primacy of Peter’s confession (expressed by Paul) — that Jesus is the Christ —and not the primacy of Peter the man, is clearly what saved the church. 2) The primacy of Paul’s authority in the Word (sola scriptura) supersedes Peter’s personal authority. 3) It was Barnabas’s faith that was good (before he lost it), not Barnabas the man — “No one is good,” “Only God is good.”
You also stated:
“To our way of reverencing the Bible, it would seem impoverished to decide that Paul’s conflict with the First Century pro-circumcision advocates was the be all and end all of soteriology. That conflict is what his ‘law is death’ theology is reacting to. He himself lays down plenty of ‘laws’ for the ordering of the new churches in his letters.”
Sure, but not for soteriology, but for the distinction of the two kingdoms. Because “we are no longer under a custodian [the law]” (Galatians 3:25), “justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law” (Galatians 2:16b), Paul’s “plenty of laws” are written in the spirit that “all things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Paul isn’t a new law-giver, nor does he suddenly revert to his Pharisaic roots to “make of the gospel a new law” when it comes to justification. The difficulty for Roman Catholics here may be their propensity for mixing the two kingdoms, the spiritual with the civil in the Vatican’s worldly political estate that has us seeing the American Conference of Catholic Bishops dabbling in all things civil, from reproductive rights to Timothy Dolan’s weekly diatribes on New York politics. Lutherans view this as not only being “in the world,” but also being “of it.” For us, the two kingdoms are to be kept as far apart as heaven is from earth, and never to confuse the former with the latter. You add:
“A result your reliance [sic] on Paul that you mentioned was that Lutherans consider all sins ‘mortal’, which is also different from our beliefs. I guess our ideas have their scriptural roots in 1 John 5, but I suspect that as that epistle is not Pauline, it might not be one that is particularly important by you.”
I can certainly see how Paul must prove highly problematic for the Catholic belief system. 1 John 5 is important to me because it actually is the theology of Paul. In your reading of it, you seem to stop short at v. 3: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” That would seem to sit well, at first glance, with a quid pro quo system that says, “If I do ‘A’, God will do ‘B’. If I keep his commandments, he will be gracious and merciful, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Subscribers to this system are legion, from Judaism to Islam to Mormonism to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Fundagelical America. I struggle to see how Catholicism is really any different. No one, including you and I, Tom, has ever kept a single letter, jot or tittle of the law. Not ever! A system of merits doesn’t work.
So back to 1 John 5; we need to keep reading. V.4 & 5: “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world: our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” And there we have it. What does it mean to “keep his commandments”? To simply believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God — to have faith! (Sola fide!) Your own “Catholic Bible” (as it were) testifies to this in its quotation of the Gospel of John 6:28-29, “So they said to him, ‘What can we do to accomplish the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God: that you believe in the one he sent.’” Since you and I would surely agree that faith comes from God alone (and not from our free will), it is not we who accomplish the fulfilling of God’s commandments, but he alone who has already accomplished it through the gift of faith, hence his words from the cross, “It is accomplished.” Christ’s response to the Jews in v. 29 is a rebuttal. They cannot accomplish the works of God for the simple reason that God alone accomplishes his work — namely, the granting of faith. There is nothing you and I can accomplish that hasn’t already been accomplished in us by the grace of God through faith. To “believe in the one whom he sent” is to accomplish the expectations of Christ’s commandments and this faith alone produces good works, not unto salvation or justification, but for the simple benefit and genuine love of our neighbor. You write:
“For us Catholics, reason provides proof of our goodness in the existence of our consciences, which are laws written in our hearts, and not by us – we would say that our conscience is not from us because it frequently tells us not to do that we would like to do.”
Well, if reason provides proof that we are good, why do we need a conscience? Why do we need “laws written in our hearts” which are “not from us” telling us “not to do what we would like to do”? Lutherans would say it proves precisely the opposite. Conscience is nothing other than God’s natural law imbued in all of humanity, the Decalogue being nothing new, so that none were deemed guiltless before there even was a law.
You mention how you see the “goodness” in the people of your parish as “they examine their consciences and freely seek the Lord’s grace to grow in that goodness,” adding, “In fact, the list of people I am blessed to know who are good is immense, and you, Kris, are among them.”
To quote Christ, “Why do you call me good? No one is good--except God alone.” (Luke 18:19). Add to that “no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11) and we have reached the serious theological impasse unchanged since the Reformation. When I ask members of St. Luke’s how they’re doing and they say, “I’m good,” my reply is, “No you’re not; it’s why you’re here.”
“One of the reasons I struggle in our dialogue is that we Catholics do not use expressions like ‘justification’ and ‘righteousness’, but rather we talk of ‘grace’ and ‘salvation.’ As a result, I have had to really think about the words you use to describe these matters and try to perceive beyond your language to what you mean and how and if it means something different to us. In a way, you could say that I have been trying to learn to speak ‘Lutheran’.”
We’d say you’re learning to speak Pauline. “Grace” and “salvation” result from God’s “righteousness” and “justification” respectively, revealed in Christ. We’re looking at the horse, you’re looking at the buggy. The horse doesn’t need the buggy, but the buggy certainly needs the horse in order to go anywhere.
You equate “canon law” with Protestant church constitutions and by-laws, though we’d say the latter tend to be organizational rather than doctrinal in nature. Lutheranism rejects, for instance, the doctrine of five of the seven Catholic sacraments enshrined in canon law (Book IV of the 1983 Code of Canon Law) as having neither a direct command from our Lord nor containing any grace (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper being the exceptions). Our difficulty is with what we see as a pervasive free will system ingrained in Catholicism. You cite as a prime biblical example of free will Mary’s “yes” to the angel’s announcement that she will bear a son in Luke 1. From our reading of it, though, the angel doesn’t appear to be asking Mary’s permission so much as telling her that it’s going to happen. “’You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus . . .’ And Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have no husband?’ And the angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, and the Son of God.’” It doesn’t sound like a whole lot of choice there, given that it’s God’s plan and not Mary’s. God had chosen her; it’s not like he needed her O.K. Her “assent,” as some mistakenly label it, (“Let it be to me according to your word”) is her expression of faith in what is preordained.
All of the various instances of “good” people you cite in scripture refer not to their innate goodness, but to the goodness of their faith, which alone is what makes them good, for to have faith is to have Christ himself who alone is good. It is not “their” free will that is good, but the will of God who frees them by supplanting their “free will” with his own, having literally taken the elect captive by his grace.
We Catholics believe that our free will is itself a grace/gift given to humans by God, as is the grace to respond to His offer of salvation.
Lutherans rejected this Erasmian notion at the 1530 Diet of Augsburg in Article XVIII of the Augsburg Confession, to wit:
“It is also taught among us that a human being possesses some measure of freedom of the will which enables him to live an outwardly honorable life and to make choices among the things that reason comprehends. But without the grace, help, and activity of the Holy Spirit man is not capable of making himself acceptable to God, of fearing God and believing in God with his whole heart, or of expelling inborn evil lusts from his heart. This is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, who is given through the Word of God, for Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, ‘Natural man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God.’
In order that it may be evident that this teaching is no novelty, the clear words of Augustine on free will are here quoted from the third book of his Hypognosticon,: “We concede that all men have a free will, for all have a natural, innate understanding and reason. However, this does not enable them to act in matters pertaining to God (such as loving God with their whole heart or fearing him), for it is only in the outward acts of this life that they have freedom to choose good or evil. By good I mean what they are capable of by nature: whether or not to labor in the fields, whether or not to eat or drink or visit a friend, whether to dress or undress, whether to build a house, take a wife, engage in a trade, or do whatever else may be good and profitable. None of these is or exists without God, but all things are from Him and through Him. On the other hand, by his own choice man can also undertake evil, as when he wills to kneel before an idol, commit murder, etc.” (Hypomnesticon contra Pelagianos et Coelestinianos, III, 4, 5.)
Luther’s many references to Augustine were attempts to return Catholicism to its earlier “catholic” roots in the faith of the early church fathers from whom it had strayed.
Finally, you say:
“John 3:16 says nothing about the ‘sufficiency’ of Our Savior’s Sacrifice, but rather speaks of His motivation and desire to save all men — i.e. love. Neither of us would deny this.”
Surely you jest? I do most vehemently deny this! Look at it again: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” God’s motivation is stated only in the first four words, — which leaves twenty more in summary of the gospel. The sufficiency for eternal life is faith in the love of God in the crucified Christ. Believe . . . and you have eternal life. Automatically! As a free gift! Not a word there about works. Not a word about cooperating with God through free will. Not a word about additional necessary cleansing in purgatory. Whoever believes, lives. It couldn’t be simpler than that. It couldn’t be any more sufficient than that.
You conclude John 3:16 by adding:
“In fact, if you continue all the way to verse 21, Our Lord Himself advocates the importance of ‘works’ being done in light of faith, contrasting them with the wicked works of those who have misused their free will to reject the light. I found reading that passage to be a good way for me to conclude my reply to your questions.”
And if we go to v. 21 we find: “But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds, have been wrought by God.” The point is simply that our good works are “wrought by God,” not for our justification but resulting from it, not through our free will, but by God’s will alone. We are always free to say “no” (to repeat Adam and Eve’s original “no” to God, and to cooperate with the devil which is sin), but our “yes” is never our doing but is strictly the work of the Holy Spirit who says “yes” in our stead, creating the very faith that says it. We are not our own; we only say “yes” if and when God decides we will say it (as in the case of Mary, no choice), and that “yes” is the Holy Spirit speaking — not us. Romans 8:26-31 in your “Catholic Bible” states:
26 “In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
27 And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.
28 We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
29 For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
30 And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.
31 What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?”
One of Roman Catholicism’s (as well as most of latter day “Lutheranism’s”) problems is the hubris of original sin that thinks that somehow “we are necessary” to God; that the (visible) church is an intermediary to Christ, when in fact he doesn’t need us — we need him. We bring him nothing, we are nothing, and we must become nothing in order for him to make of us something. In short, we need to stop squirming in our “free will” (which is nothing other than original sin), and die! You and I are dead, Tom. Drowned in our baptism. Dead men don’t wear plaid, and they don’t squirm. They can literally DO nothing, but by the grace of God have all things done TO them and for them. When it comes to the sovereignty of God, as brother Martin said in his last words on earth: “We are all beggars; this is most certainly true.” Thanks be to God!
Fraternally in Christ,