Volume Thirty-Two — Article 6 Volume 32 | Home

Is Luther's Doctrine of Justification Compatible with Orthodox Catholic Theology?

Chapter 2 An Examination of the "Compatibility Theory"

Is "Orthodox" Catholicism Semi-Pelagian?

Nowadays, no one is questioning the fact that the doctrine of justification was in a sorry state when Luther began his Reformation. Protestants have been saying this for years. Now Catholic scholars are simply admitting what they cannot deny. Hans Kung, an expert in historical theology, confirms that the pre- Reformation church was dominated by "decadent" and "muddle headed late medieval theology."23 The New Catholic Encyclopedia admits that Martin Luther came upon the scene at a time when the doctrine of justification was "obscured" with ambiguities.24

What about the suggestion from the Catholic side that this "muddle headed" theology is not to be taken as representative of genuine and traditional Catholic belief? This suggestion appears to be very true. Much evidence indicates that the semi-Pelagianism which Luther opposed was also condemned by the better Catholic theologians and eventually corrected by the Council of Trent.

Hans Kung has amassed a tremendous quantity of material in order to prove that traditional Catholicism (as represented in its great theologians and in the Council of Trent) is to be acquitted of the charge of semi-Pelagianism.25 His careful research is unassailable and confirms what was suggested by McSorley, van de Pol, Bouyer, Tavard and others. Kung points out that the Council of Trent formulated evangelical statements such as these:26

    We may be said to be justified freely, in the sense that nothing that precedes justification, neither faith nor works, merits the grace of justification.

    If anyone shall say that man can be justified before God by his own works which are done either by his own natural powers, or through the teaching of the Law, and without divine grace through Christ Jesus: let him be anathema.

    If anyone shall say that without the anticipatory inspiration of the Holy Spirit and without His assistance man can believe, hope, and love or be repentant, as he ought, so that the grace of justification may be conferred upon him: let him be anathema.27
Kung has ranged far and wide to produce excerpts from Catholic documents which uphold the primacy of grace in man's justification. After presenting copious evidence, he feels confident to summarize Catholic belief with the following statements:
    "Sola fide" makes good sense when it is used to express the total incapacity of man for any kind of self-justification. In justification the sinner can give nothing which he does not receive by God's grace. He stands there with his hands entirely empty.28

    The sinner himself is incapable of doing anything for his justification . . . Trent's cooperari implies no synergism in which God and man pull on the same rope. It is never as though justification came partly from God and partly from man . . . The sinner can do nothing without the grace of Jesus Christ.29

It is very significant that, as late as 1964 (ten years after the initial publication of Kung's book), no Catholic author had yet challenged the correctness of Kung's conclusion.30 Even more recently, Karl Rahner wrote a review of Kung's book in which he stated that "Kung's presentation is Catholic" and cited twelve other leading Catholic scholars who attest Kung's orthodoxy.31

At the same time, Protestant scholars have been forced to agree that orthodox Catholic belief—as Kung has documented it—is fully compatible with the Protestant stand against semi-Pelagianism. For example, Karl Barth confesses:

    Due to my erroneous (because unhistorical) evaluation of the definitions and declarations collected in Denzinger and the statements of the church's magisterium in general, I have been guilty of a thoroughgoing injustice regarding the teaching of your church, especially that of the Fathers of Trent.32

If Kung's conclusions are correct—and I think they are—it means that Barth is not the only Protestant who has judged the Council of Trent too harshly. In the light of Kung's careful documentation, Protestants should think twice before accusing Rome's official teaching magisterium of semi-Pelagianism. Kung's work demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the first claim made by McSorley, van de Pol, Bouyer and Tavard is basically correct. The semi-Pelagianism which was rampant in Luther's day, which he so tirelessly opposed, is also condemned by the Catholic Church.

Did Luther Oppose "Orthodox Catholicism?

It has been suggested that Luther's only real concern was to discredit semi-Pelagianism, that—had he lived long enough—he would have found little or nothing in the Tridentine explanation of the gospel with which to find fault. Is it true that Luther would have found himself in harmony with the "genuine" Catholic faith if only he could have known it?

The tragic mistake of those who make this claim is in thinking that Luther did not know the "orthodox" theology of Rome. It is true, of course, that much of Luther's strength was consumed in beating back the semi-Pelagianism which had been popularized by William Ockham and Gabriel Biel. Luther's book, The Bondage of the Will, was an all-out attack on this plague. This, however, was not Luther's only concern. It was not even his primary concern. He was protesting more than a maverick theology. Rather, his greatest blows were aimed at Rome's "orthodox" doctrine of justification, the very doctrine which was re-established at Trent after a partial eclipse and the very doctrine which is now seen in the writings of Kung, McSorley, van de Pol, Bouyer and Tavard. Luther had full knowledge of this apparently "evangelical" interpretation, and he rejected it as heresy.

There is compelling evidence for this in the account of what took place at the Diet of Regensburg in 1541. Charles V was more than anxious to mend the theological rift which had been threatening the unity of his empire for twenty years. In order to heal the wound, he appointed three theologians from each side to sit down together and draft a theological statement which would be acceptable to both Protestants and Catholics. The emperor had high hopes that a reconciliation could be achieved. His hopes sprang from the fact that certain Roman theologians had begun to say that Luther's doctrine of justification was "a part of that truth which they had always held and taught." The theologians affirmed that there was "no real, or, at least, no radical, difference between the two parties, but only such as might be easily adjusted by mutual explanation and concession."33

The foremost advocate of this conciliatory approach was Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, the papal legate in Germany. Contarini had for some time openly expressed his view that "the Lutheran concern for justification by faith was in fact the essence of the Catholic faith also." Protestantism, in other words, was essentially Catholic! He believed that the Protestant schism had been caused "by a misunderstanding of Catholicism."34 To do away with this understanding, which was preventing the Protestants from appreciating the "real" Catholicism, was his great hope.

At the diet of Regensburg, Contarini worked closely with the three Catholic theologians appointed by Charles in an attempt to draft a statement on justification which would be acceptable to the Protestants. As the discussion proceeded, it became obvious that the Catholics were willing to make "large concessions . . . in favor of the Protestant doctrine."35 The article finally agreed to by the Catholics is a clear renouncement of semiPelagianism. It confesses that man's salvation does not depend on his strength but results solely from God's grace. The two main characteristics of the article are "an insistence on the entirely gratuitous character of our justification" and, secondly, "on the impossibility of driving a wedge between faith and love."36 It was agreed that sinful humanity can be justified only through an extrinsic, imputed righteousness. Whether this applies to regenerate as well as unregenerate men was left unclear. (The full text of the article appears in an appendix at the end of this essay.)

The article was initially accepted by the three Lutheran representatives. It was generally felt that nothing in the agreed article was incompatible with the Protestant view. When John Calvin heard about the agreement, he wrote to William Farel of his great amazement that the Catholics had conceded so much. He confessed that he could find nothing in the document that was necessarily contrary to Protestant theology although he regretted that the exposition could not have been more explicit.37

Consequently, it came as a surprise to many when Luther vigorously rejected the Regensburg agreement. Wrote the Reformer:

Popish writers pretend that they have always taught, what we now teach, concerning faith and good works, and that they are unjustly accused of the contrary: thus the wolf puts on the sheep's skin till he gains admission into the fold.38

Luther, and the Reformation as a whole, rejected the Regensburg article because it was felt that the wording was dangerously ambiguous.39 It was felt that the article had failed to explicitly concede "one point" which was crucial to the Protestant cause. A Protestant historian writes:

    It has been justly said that, in controversies of faith, the difference between antagonist systems is often reduced to a line as sharp as a razor's edge, yet on one side of that line is God's truth, and on the other a departure from it. At Ratisbon [Regensburg], the difference between the Popish and the Protestant doctrines of Justification seemed to resolve itself into one point.40
James Buchanan has pointed out that Luther rejected the Regensburg formula because it failed to state that the converted Christian is acceptable to God because of Christ's imputed righteousness alone.41 The formula made it clear that the unconverted man has no merit and can be brought near to God only through the imputed righteousness of a Substitute. But what about the converted man? The ambiguous wording leaves open the possibility that the converted man might eventually be acceptable to God in himself by virtue of an infused or inherent righteousness.

Luther felt that Cardinal Contarini had a dishonest motive for not correcting this ambiguity, and the Reformer's suspicion was probably correct. The New Catholic Encyclopedia points out that Contarini advocated a theory of "double justification" which—while not denying imputed righteousness—attributes to infused righteousness (or sanctification) a prominent role in insuring the converted man's acceptance with God.42 Contarini, who was anxious to effect a reconciliation, undoubtedly thought it best to leave this ambiguity undisturbed.43

Luther, who was sure he was dealing with a wolf in sheep's clothing, wrote to the Elector of Saxony:
    We hold that man Is justified by faIth without the works of the law; this is our formula, and to this we adhere. It is short and clear. Let the devil and Eck, and whoever will, storm against it."44
At Regensburg, although the representatives of Rome fully renounced every facet of semi-Pelagianism, an irreconcilable difference remained between them and Luther. In the light of Regensburg, do Catholic writers have any basis for the claim that Luther was ignorant of the "real" Catholicism? The Regensburg article bears a striking resemblance to the doctrine of justification being heralded today by Catholics such as McSorley, Bouyer, van de Pol, Tavard and Kung. The facts of history reveal that Luther did indeed come face to face with the "real" Catholicism and that he rejected it as heresy. He could not accept the Regensburg article on justification, because he felt the Catholic theologians had purposefully failed to concede "one point," an omission which would threaten to undermine the very essence of his theological discovery. For Luther, the idea that believers are always acceptable to God solely through an imputed righteousness (i.e., "extrinsic justification") was the indispensable lifeblood of his faith.

Luther's Doctrine of Extrinsic Justification

This brings us to the third claim made concerning Luther's theology by recent Catholic writers. It is being stated by some that the idea of extrinsic justification was never really among Luther's "basic propositions." Is this true? Actually, Luther's own writings are sufficient to explode such a careless conclusion. They reveal that the doctrine of extrinsic justification, as expressed in the formula, simul iustus et peccator, was Luther's chief spiritual concern. Far from being a side issue, this was the very thing that caused him to reject the teaching authority of Rome. It was the "one point" which led to his rejection of the Regensburg agreement. Further, it was this issue (rather than that of semi-Pelagianism) which Luther had in mind when he promised that:

    If the pope will grant unto us, that God alone, by his mere grace through Christ, doth justify sinners, we will not only carry him in our hands, but will also kiss his feet.45

Rome cannot conceive a justification in which man remains a sinner. Catholic theology understands justifying righteousness to be something which God graciously pours into man's heart, completely displacing sin and sinfulness in the process.46 For Rome, either man is just or he is sinful; he cannot be both. It was in open defiance to this doctrine that Luther coined the phrase, simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinful).

For Luther, justifying righteousness is something which always resides in the Person of Christ alone. The imputation of this "alien" righteousness is the only means by which man can be acceptable to God. As long as the Christian lives, he is guilty in himself, but "in Christ" he is righteous and accounted precious.

The statement about kissing the Pope's feet appears in Luther's 1535 lectures on the book of Galatians. McSorley assumes that Luther was talking about the semi-Pelagianism of Gabriel Biel and William Ockham and that Luther would have no doubt kissed the Pope's feet if he had only lived to see the Council of Trent. But McSorley's theory reveals shoddy scholarship. He apparently failed to study the context in which the statement appears.

Extrinsic justification is the oft-repeated theme of Luther's Lectures on Galatians. He again and again repeats his conviction that even the most spiritual man has within him a "remnant of sin." Thus man's only hope is that God is willing to "cover it and to forgive it . . . for the sake of Christ Himself, in whom we believe." The Christian is therefore always "righteous and a sinner at the same time."47

Although I am a sinner according to the Law. . . never the less I do not despair.., because Christ lives who is my eternal and heavenly life. In that righteousness and life I have no sin .. [or] death. I am indeed a sinner according to the present life and its righteousness, as a son of Adam where the Law accuses me, death reigns and devours me. But above this life I have another righteousness, another life, which is Christ, the Son of God, who does not know sin and death but is righteousness and eternal life.48

As long as we are alive, we are supported and nourished at the bosom of divine mercy and forbearance, until the body of sin (Rom. 6:6) is abolished and we are raised up as new beings on that Day.49

According to Luther's understanding, original sin (i.e., man's sinful nature) will not be eradicated until the second coming of Christ. Meanwhile, however, the guilt of man's inbred corruption is "forgiven" and "not imputed" to all who believe the gospel. This means that even the most sanctified Christian can only tremble and look to God for mercy since he falls infinitely short of God's glory. Christ offers His own holy flesh and spotless obedience to the law in place of man's defilement.
    On account of this faith in Christ God does not see the sin that still remains in me. For so long as I go on living in the flesh, there is certainly sin in me. But meanwhile Christ protects me under the shadow of His wings and spreads over me the wide heaven of the forgiveness of sins, under which I live in safety.50
Thus the ultimate Christian experience consists in being at the same time a lost sinner and a righteous, beloved son. Luther does not balk at this paradox. Only this twofold statement can really express the relationship between the converted man's state and his standing before God. For Luther, treason is committed against the gospel whenever men try to soften this paradox. If the doctrine of extrinsic justification is lost, "the whole of Christian doctrine is lost."51

Further evidence of the centrality accorded this doctrine by Luther is seen in the fact that it found its way into the writings of his fellow Reformers and was given a prominent place in the various "Confessions" of the Protestant churches.52 Can the claim stand up that Luther's idea of extrinsic justification was a side issue? If it was as unimportant as certain Catholic writers have suggested, why did it appear so prominently in Luther's own writings? And why was it given a privileged position in all the Protestant literature of the age?

Significantly, the idea of extrinsic justification was one of Luther's first and most important spiritual discoveries. It is simply not true that it became attached to his theology only at a later date as his controversy with Rome deepened. As early as 1515 (two years before the posting of his famed Ninety-Five Theses), Luther recorded his conviction that—according to Scripture— there was no such thing as human sinlessness in this life. He added, "In ourselves we are sinners, and yet through faith we are righteous by God's imputation."53

Luther has also been charged with inconsistency. But in 1536, twenty-one years after recording his great discovery, Luther had not budged a single inch from his original conviction. In his Disputation Concerning Justification he argued that "a man is truly justified by faith in the sight of God, even if he finds only disgrace.., in his own self."54 Luther was obstinate on this point and never surrendered what to him was the very essence of the gospel. He once wrote that, when it came to justification, his forehead was harder than the foreheads of all his enemies.55

But still at least one Catholic scholar, Louis Bouyer, persists in charging Luther with inconsistency. He bases his claim on alleged "contradictions" in Luther's writings regarding justification and good works. For example, Bouyer affirms:
    The further Luther advanced in his conflict with other theologians. . . the more we see him identifying his affirmation about sola gratia with a particular theory, known as extrinsic justification ...

    This is far removed from the other [contradictory] affirmations of Luther, . . those he returns to whenever he lays stress on his inner experience, . . . or as soon as he speaks as a religious guide or educator, anxious simply to give Christians, learned and unlearned alike, a statement of living Christianity as conceived and realized by himself.56
Bouyer does not feel that Luther could be serious about extrinsic justification and at the same time exhort his followers to perform good works and live righteous lives. Is it not inconsistent to say in one place that man is always a sinner in need of an imputed righteousness and to say in another place that God will give His children the power to keep from sinning? Would not the imparted righteousness displace man's sin in such a way as to eliminate the need for imputed righteousness? Is not Luther, after all, capitulating to the Catholic position that the converted man is acceptable to God because of an infused righteousness? Bouyer is sure he sees an inconsistency here, but it is a figment of his imagination. He has simply failed to comprehend Luther's gospel.

It is very true, as Bouyer has seen, that Luther urged his followers to live lives of holiness in the sight of their fellow men. In fact, he taught that there is no such thing as a Christian who does not have the victory over sin. He writes:

    Anyone who yields to his flesh and persists in smugly gratifying its desires should know that he does not belong to Christ; though he may pride himself ever so much on the title 'Christian,' he is merely deceiving himself.57

    A Christian struggles with sin continually, and yet in his struggle he does not surrender but obtains the victory.58

It was Luther's conviction that the doctrines of justification and sanctification must be always held up side by side before the church. They are two sides of the same coin. He saw no contradiction between remaining a sinner in need of Christ's mercy and at the same time living a life of holiness. He made a careful distinction between "having" sin (i.e., a corrupt nature which must always be covered with Christ's merits) and "committing" sin (i.e., obeying the impulses of that corrupt nature.59 For Luther, sin "remains" in the Christian but does not reign.60

The doctrines of justification and sanctification stand side by side in Luther's thought:

It is difficult and dangerous to teach that we are justified by faith without works and yet require works at the same time . . . Both topics, faith and works, must be carefully taught and emphasized, but in such a way that they both remain within their limits. Otherwise, if works alone are taught, as happened under the papacy, faith is lost. If faith alone is taught, unspiritual men will immediately suppose that works are not necessary.61

We declare it as a certainty that Christ is our principal, complete, and perfect righteousness . . . In addition we should take pains to be righteous [in ourselves] . . . ,that is, not to yield to our flesh, which is always suggesting something evil, but to resist it through the Spirit.62

This does not mean, however, that Luther was giving in to Rome's theology. While it is true that both advocated personal sanctification, there is a crucial difference. Rome teaches men to trust in their sanctification as a means of securing God's favor. Luther taught that because we are still in the flesh, "all our righteousness is unclean, and.. . every good work is sin."63 The Christian must not imagine that his sanctification has any quality of "merit" before God. Man (in spite of all his sanctification) is still a sinner. Although the Christian receives a new character, "it is not this righteousness that makes us acceptable to God."64 Even with all our good works, we must run continually to Christ to be justified by His imputed righteousness alone.
    So dangerous a plague is it to trust in one's own righteousness and to dream that one is pure. But we are not in a position to trust in our own righteousness, for we are aware of the uncleanness of the flesh. This awareness humbles us, so that we hang our heads and cannot trust in our own good works; and it compels us to run to Christ the Propitiator, who does not have a corrupt or blemished flesh but has an altogether pure and holy flesh, which He gave for the life of the world. In Him we find a righteousness that is complete and perfect.65
Lutheran scholar Martin Chemnitz, writing soon after the Council of Trent, summed up the real difference between Catholicism and Luther. His observation reveals that the real question was not whether the unregenerate man can come to God in his own strength or with his own merits (the issue of semi-Pelagianism) but whether the regenerate man will ever cease to be a sinner in this life. Records Chemnitz:
    It is regarding the good works of the regenerate, or the new obedience, that there is now the chief controversy between the papalists and us, namely, whether the regenerate are justified by that newness which the Holy Spirit works in them and by the good works which follow renewal; that is, whether the newness, the virtues, or good works of the regenerate are the things by which they can stand in the judgment of God that they may not be condemned.66
The record of Trent itself reveals that Rome considered Luther's simul iustus et peccator to be a most serious threat to the traditional teaching of the church. At the Council, the canons on justification were drawn up expressly to counteract a "certain erroneous doctrine concerning justification" which was being disseminated.67 While it is true that Trent can probably be exonerated from the charge of semi-Pelagianism, even the most sympathetic reading of the canons cannot hide the fact that they are diametrically opposed to the real point of Luther's theology.

Trent was careful to safeguard the Catholic understanding of justification in which the regenerate man ceases to be a sinner. For example, it defines justification as the "renewal of the interior man . . . whereby an unjust man becomes a just man."68 According to Hans Kung, the Fathers of Trent examined Luther's writings carefully.69 The statements they formulated were obviously intended to discredit the doctrine of extrinsic justification:
    If anyone . . asserts that the whole of that which has the true and proper nature of sin is not taken away, but says that it is only . . . not imputed, let him be anathema. For in those who are born again, God hates nothing, because . . . [they] are made innocent, immaculate, pure, [and] guiltless.70

    If anyone shall say that the one justified sins, when he performs good works with a view of eternal reward: let him be anathema.71

    If anyone shall say that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins . . . let him be anathema.72
The issue that really separated Luther from Rome is well illustrated by the case of Bishop Girolamo Senpando. Seripando, who had made a careful study of Luther's writings and had come under their influence to some extent, raised a significant question during the theological deliberations at Trent. He asked whether the justified man really possesses enough inherent righteousness to satisfy divine justice and merit eternal life. Or could it be, asked Seripando, that notwithstanding the infusion of grace (habitus), a justified man still needs mercy and the imputation of Christ's merit to make up what is lacking in his own experience? The Reformers recognized that—while not identical—Seripando's view was similar to their own.73

Hans Kung frankly admits that the Council could not accept Seripando's idea of "double righteousness," as such, because it resembled Luther's doctrine. "The Council," writes Kung, "wished to exclude any theory which would in any way question the full reality of intrinsic justification."74 Clearly, Luther differed with Rome over something much greater than mere semi-Pelagianism. Rather, he raised his voice to protest the "real" Catholicism with its emphasis on intrinsic justification. The formula, simul iustus et peccator, was his battle cry in the struggle with Rome. Contrary to what McSorley, van de Pol, Bouyer and Tavard have said, this was Luther's basic, original and consistent spiritual concern. The proof of its centrality is to be found in his own writings, in the Protestant literature of the age, in the Diet of Regensburg and in the Council of Trent.

Is Luther's Doctrine the Concern of Catholic Theologians Today?

It is claimed that the modern Catholic Church is teaching a doctrine of justification essentially the same as the one Luther labored to defend. Is it true that if Luther were alive today, he would see that to continue his protest is pointless? First, the question must be asked as to whether Rome has corrected the deficiencies which Luther thought he could see in the Regensburg article and which came to the surface again at the Council of Trent. Has Rome revised its definition of justification, a definition which Luther found so offensive? The only way to answer this question is to examine the statements of current Catholic theologians.

Hans Kung is a highly respected Catholic theologian in our generation, and his doctoral dissertation on justification is still regarded as a masterpiece of scholarship by Protestants and Catholics alike. His observations should give a fairly good idea as to how Luther's doctrine of extrinsic justification is faring among Roman Catholics today.

Although Kung adopts Protestant positions on many points, he admits that he cannot accept Luther's simul iustus et peccator unless it is interpreted in a decidedly "Catholic" sense.75 He writes: 

    It is to be presupposed that the justified man is truly just—inwardly in his heart . . . Justification is not merely an externally pasted—on "as if." Man is not only called just but he is just.. . [and] not just partly but totally. . . 76
Kung realizes that in taking this position, he is siding "against the Reformation."77 He cautions his readers that however Catholics want to understand the formula, simul iustus et peccator, it must not be allowed to challenge the "authenticity" of divine justification. Writes
    God pronounces the verdict, "You are just." And the sinner is just, really and truly, outwardly and inwardly, wholly and completely.78
Kung quotes Thomas Aquinas as being representative of his own thinking and of the Catholic position in general.
    Moreover, when a man is said to be in another's graces, it is understood that there is something in him pleasing to the other; even as when someone is said to have God's grace.79
It is fashionable in Catholic circles today to give lip service to the extrinsic aspect of justification. However, it is obvious that Catholic theology has preserved the connotations which Luther branded as a betrayal of the gospel. The same subtle opposition to Luther's theology which surfaced at the Diet of Regensburg can be seen in the work of modern-day Catholic theologians. Another example is Karl Rahner, who is one of the most popular theologians in the Catholic Church today. Like the theologians at Regensburg, he disarms and surprises many Protestants by agreeing that the idea of extrinsic justification is very biblical. He heartily takes the position that the only hope for unregenerate man is to despair of his own works and accept the free, imputed merits of Christ. But as soon as he turns his attention to the converted man, he deliberately aligns himself against the Reformation. He writes:
    [Justification] is not merely an "as if," ... [he is speaking now about the regenerate man]. Justification, understood as God's deed, transforms man down to the deepest roots of his being; it transfigures and divinises him. For this very reason the justified man is not "at the same time justified and a sinner." He is not simply, in a merely paradoxical and dialectical suspense, sinner and justified at the same time. By justification, from being the sinner he was, he becomes in truth a justified man which he was not before. He ceases to be a sinner.80
Is it true that if Luther were alive today, he would see that his main Reformation concern is also the concern of the Catholic Church? Would he kiss the pope's feet? Unfortunately, this is a careless speculation, one that ignores the evidence. In reality, Luther's doctrine of extrinsic justification is still being trampled underfoot by the Church of Rome.


McSorley, van de Pol, Bouyer and Tavard have reached mistaken conclusions. They have been zealous to prove that Luther's doctrine of justification was really a very Catholic" truth, but the weight of evidence stands squarely against them. One wonders how carefully they read Luther's own writings. How is it that so much historical evidence escaped their notice? The "compatibility theory" is to be rejected.

The presupposition on which their whole theory rests is that Luther intended to take issue only with a heterodox segment of Catholicism. It is further supposed that his great contribution was a polemic against semiPelagianism. My research, however, indicates that the "one point" which really separated Luther from Rome was his doctrine of extrinsic justification (rather than his stand against semi-Pelagianism). In this, he struck at the very heart of Catholic orthodoxy. The Diet of Regensburg, the Council of Trent and the writings of today's most progressive Catholic theologians all point to the fact that neither past nor present Catholicism has been able to appreciate Luther's primary concern.

It is unfortunate that so many Catholic writers have overlooked (or ignored?) the real issue. But as it turns out, there is nothing new under the sun. One is reminded of the observation made by James Buchanan more than a century ago:

    Many attempts have been made to show that the difference between the Romish and the Reformed Churches, on the subject of Justification, is not vital or fundamental; and that it is of so little importance as to present no insuperable obstacle to their reunion.....81

    [Meanwhile] . . . the radical error, which lies at the foundation of the whole Popish doctrine, . . . is carefully covered up and kept out of view.82



23 Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection, with a letter by Karl Barth, trans. Thomas Collins, Edmund E. Tolk & David Granskou (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964), pp. 105.106.
24 1967 ed., s.v. "Reformation, Protestant," by W. S. Barron, Jr.
25 Kungs book was written in response to Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, in which Barth accuses Catholicism —and Trent in particular—of semi-Pelagiansm.
26 D 801, 811, 813, quoted in Justification, pp. 252, 264.
27 Kung confesses that some of the canons of Trent are worded ambiguously and have been mIsunderstood by Protestants as Implying semi-Pelaglanism. He attributes this ambiguity to the "narrowness" of human formulations, "especially polemic ones," and asks Protestants to bear In mind that the canons of Trent are not "frozen formulations" incapable of interpretation or expansion. See Justification, pp. 101-106.
28 Ibid., p. 250.
29 Ibid., pp. 264-265.
30 Ibid., p. x.
31 Theological Investigations, vol. 4: More Recent Writings, trans. Kevin Smyth (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966), pp. 190-192.
32 Letter in Kung, Justification, p. xx.
33 James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (Swengel, Penna.: Relner PublicatIons, 1961), p. 144,
34 Petsr Matheson, Cardinal Contarini at Regensburg (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 49.
35 Buchanan, Justification p. 145.
36 Mathsson, Contarini, p. 108.
37 Ibid., p. 109.
38 Quoted in Buchanan, Justification p. 149.
39 The Protestant representatives at Regensburg had been Instructed by Luther not to depart from the wording of the Augsburg Confession—an Instruction which they failed to carry out.
40 Ibid., p. 150.
41 Ibid., p. 148.
42 1967 ed., s.v. "Contarini, Gasparo," by F. F. Strauss.
43 There is further evidence that Contarini's lack of precision in defining this aspect of justification was not entirely innocent. When the Regeneburg discussions proceeded from justification to the subjects of church authority and the nature of the sacraments, Contarinl refused to budge from the traditional Catholic viewpoint. As Peter Matheson has said, this in Itself shows that his understanding of Justification "must have also been radically different from the Protestant one , The acid test of one's appreciation of the doctrine of justification by faith Is, after all, one's Interpretation of the nature of the church and the sacraments—Matheson, Contarini, p. 179.
44 Quoted in Vivian H. H. Green, Luther and the ReformatIon (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1984), p. 183. Johann Eck was one of the three Catholic theologians participating at Regensburg.
45 Quoted in McSorley, "Luther," p. 100.
46 New Catholic EncyclopedIa, 1967 ed., s.v. 'Justification," by P. DeLetter.
47 Luther's Works, gen. eds. Jarosiav Pelikan & Heimut Lehmann, vol. 26: Lectures on Galatlans, 1535: chapters 1 -4, Sd. & trans. Jarosiav Pelikan, assoc. ed. waiter A. Hansen (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), p. 236.
48 LW 26:9.
49 LW 26:235.
50 LW 26:231-232
51 LW 26:9.
52 See, for example, John Calvin, Inst. iii, xi, 23; Arthur C. Cochrane, Sd., Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), p. 122; Theodore 0. Tappert, ed. & trans., The Book of Concord:The confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), P. 472.
53 Luther's Works, gen. eds. Jarosiav Pelikan & Heimut Lehmann, vol. 25:Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia, ed. Hilton C. Oswald, chapters 1-2
trans. Waiter G. Tilimans, chapters 3-16 trans. Jacob A. 0. Preus (Saint Louis:Concordia Publishing House, 1972), pp. 262, 260.
54 Ibid., vol. 34: Career of the Reformer—IV, ed. & trans. Lewis W. Spitz (Philadelphia: Muhienberg Press, 1960), p. 151.
55 LW 26:99.
56 Bouyer, Protestantism, p. 139.
57 Luther's Works, gen. eds. Jarosiav Pelikan & Heimut Lehmann, vol. 27:Lectures on GalatIans, 1535: chapters 5-6; Lectures on Galatians, 1519: chapters 1-6, trans. Jarosiav Peilkan, assoc. ad. Walter A. Hansen (Saint Louis:Concordia Publishing House, 1964).
58 LW 27:87.
59 LW 27:372.
60 Ibid. vol. 32:Career of the Reformer—Il, ed. Georgew. Foreil, trans. George Lindbeck (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), pp. 179, 210.
61 LW 27:62-63.
62 LW 27:71-72.
63 LW 32:168, of. pp. 159, 172.
64 LW 27:72.
65 LW 27:86.
66 Examination of the Council of Trent: Part One, trans. Fred Kramer (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971), p. 481.
67 Henry Denzinger, ad., The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (saint Louis: B. Herder Book co., 1957), no. 792.
68 D 813.
69 Kung, Justification, p. 105.
70 D 792.
71 D 841.
72 D 821.
73 Seripando believed that the Christian is acceptable to God partly because ol his own righteousness and partly because of Christ's imputed righteousness. On the other hand, the Reformers would say that a Christian is acceptable to God and sure of eternal life because of Christ's personal merits alone, that is, because of a righteousness which is outside the believer altogether.
74 Justificetion, p. 219.
75 Ibid., pp. 237-238
76 Ibid., p. 236.
77 Ibid.
78 Ibid., p. 213.
79 Ibid.
80 Theologicai Investigations, vol 6: Concerning Vatican Council II, trans. Karl-H. & Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1969), pp. 222-223.


The first article about justification, establishes these three points beforehand:—

1. That it is certain that, since the fall of Adam all men are born enemies of God, and children of wrath by sin.

2. That they cannot be reconciled to God, nor redeemed from the bondage of sin, but by Jesus Christ, our only Mediator.

3. That persons of riper years cannot obtain these graces unless they be prevented (first visited) by the motions of the Holy Spirit, which inclines their mind and will to detest sin; that, after this first motion, their mind is raised up to God, by faith in the promises made to them that their sins are freely forgiven them, and that God will adopt those for His children who believe in Jesus Christ. From these principles it follows, that sinners are justified by a living and effectual faith, which is a motion of the Holy Spirit, whereby, repenting of their lives past, they are raised to God, and made real partakers of the mercy which Jesus Christ hath promised, being satisfied that their sins are forgiven, and that they are reconciled by the merits of Jesus Christ; which no man attains, but at the same time love is shed abroad in his heart, and he begins to fulfil the law. So that justifying faith "worketh by love," —though it justifies not but as it leads us to mercy and righteousness—which (righteousness) is imputed to us through Jesus Christ and His merits, and not by any perfection of righteousness which is inherent in us, as communicated to us by Jesus Christ. So that we are not just, or accepted by God, on account of our own works or righteousness, but we are reputed just on account of the merits of Jesus Christ only. Yet this is not to hinder us from exhorting the people to increase this faith, and this charity, by outward and inward works; so that, though the people be taught that faith alone justifieth, yet repentance, the fear of God and of His judgments, the practice of good works, etc., ought to be preached to them.—The Regensburg Article Concerning Justification by Faith (cited in Buchanan, Justification, p.450).

Selected Bibliography

Bouyer Louis. The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. Translated by A V Littledale Cleveland World Publishing Co., 1964

Buchanan, James. The Doctrine of Justification. Swengel, Penna.: Reiner Publications, 1961.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2 vols. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford L. Battles. The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XXI. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

Chemnitz, Martin. Examination of the Council of Trent: Part One. Translated by Fred Kramer. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971.

Cochrane, Arthur C., ed. Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966.

Daniel-Rops, Henri, gen. ed. The Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, 148 vols. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1959. Vol.137: Protestantism, by Georges Tavard. Translated by Rachel Attwater.

Denzinger, Henry, ed. The Sources of Catholic Dogma. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari. Saint Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1957.

Green, Vivian H. H. Luther and the Reformation. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1964.

Kung, Hans, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. Letter by Karl Barth. Translated by Thomas Collins, Edmund E. Tolk and David Granskou. New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964.

Luther, Martin. Luther's Works. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann, gen. eds. Vol. 25: Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia. Edited by Hilton C. Oswald. Chapters 1-2 translated by Walter G. Tillmans. Chapters 3-16 translated by Jacob A. O. Preus. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972.

____________. Vol.26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535: Chapters 1-4. Edited and translated by Jaroslav Pelikan. Associate editor: Walter A. Hansen. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963.

Back to the archive list