Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jesus came to liberate you: faith and works revisited

Our second reading for this Sunday is taken from the Letter to the Hebrews. As in the Pauline corpus, the sacred author of this letter also goes to great pains to convince his readers(/hearers) that they are saved by Christ, not by our adherence to the law, that is, not on the basis of our own merits. As we read today-
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1-2)
St. Bernard of Clairvaux

This is something that easy for us, as Catholics, to forget, or, worse yet, never to know, which is a recipe for a lifetime of shame, guilt, and doubt.

Even today my insistence on this strikes many as "not quite right." One wrinkle, which I have noted before in broaching this issue, is that we do not believe that faith can be reduced to mere belief, to subjective assent, but that faith that is truly faith does not require, but elicits from the one who has it, which is a gift from God, good works. So, what we do matters, but why we do what we do matters just as much. Among the many reading endeavors I am engaged in right now, along with reading Balthasar, Wright, and a work of the late historian Dale Morgan, is finishing up Fran Posset's book on Martin Luther's indebtedness to that great monastic (read pre-Scholastic) expositor of Sacred Scripture, that Doctor of the Church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux: Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Of the three great solas of the Reformation (i.e., sola fidei, sola gratia, sola scriptura), the only one I definitively repudiate is sola scriptura. Why? Because, oddly, it is the only one that is not scriptural in the least. It's like the Vienna Circle of logical positivists who insisted on what they called the principle of verification. The principle of verification requires that in order for something to count as knowledge it must be empirically verifiable. Wittgenstein quickly dispatched this nonsense by pointing out that the principle of verification itself is not, even in theory, empirically verifiable.

It is not enough to point out that nowhere is it written in Scripture that Scripture is the sole rule of faith. It is necessary to note that it "is the church of the living God" that is established as "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). In 2 Peter, basing his argument on his experience of witnessing Jesus' Transfiguration firsthand, the sacred author asserts that the witnesses "possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God" (1:19-21).

This is not to dismiss Scripture lightly. Far from it! Scripture is the written repository of God's revelation to man. Everything must not only cohere with Sacred Scripture, but be, even if implicitly, taught in Scripture. Hence, Scripture is normative for doctrine and life. As we read in Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, "Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit" (par. 9).

Martin Luther

St. Bernard taught sola fidei some 400 years before Martin Luther. As Posset does a good of demonstrating, it is to Bernard that Luther owes this insight, a debt that Luther himself was not shy about admitting. In his 22nd sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard preached, "He came down to you in your prison, not to torture you but to liberate you from the power of darkness... [ellipsis in original] By the 'righteousness that comes of faith' (Rom 9:30), he looses the bonds of sin, justifying sinners by his free gift (cf. Rom 3:24)... Therefore the man who through sorrow for sin hungers and thirsts for justice, let him trust in the One who changes the sinner into a just man, and judged righteous in terms of faith alone, he will have peace with God (Rom 5:1)... Who would presume that his wisdom, or righteousness or holiness suffices for his salvation?." Referring to Simon the Pharisee, in whose house Jesus had His feet washed with the tears and dried by the hair of a prostitute, St. Bernard says that "He did not realize that righteousness or holiness is a gift of God, not the fruit of man's effort..."

In his first sermon on the Annunciation, as Posset relates it, in addition to clarifying "the central importance of God's mercy and his non-imputation of sins," the Mellifluous Doctor re-emphasized "the significance of good works," teaching that "with regard to good works, it is absolutely certain that no one can perform them of himself." In his 51st sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard preached that "there is neither fruit without flower nor good work without faith."

Understandably the response to such a bold assertion is incredulity. But I ask you to consider two things: Something that Pope Francis said in the homily that created a stir about everyone being redeemed: "We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace." I also ask you consider something Katherine Hepburn said in an interview that was published in the October 1991 edition of Ladies Home Journal: "I'm an atheist, and that's it. I believe there's nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for each other," which evinces a kind of faith, perhaps more than Ms. Hepburn realized, and certainly grasps the imperative of walking the path of peace.

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