Monday, October 06, 2008

Salvation by Works in the Late Middle Ages

One reason theologians in the late Middle Ages could teach that salvation was at least in part by works is because they assumed that justification occurred by infused love (caritas). This theological assumption will be explored in the areas of soteriology, epistemology, and hermeneutics respectively.

In the area of soteriology, it was assumed in the late Middle Ages that justification occurred by infused love and happened from within (intra nos). This is due to the theological framework for the doctrine of justification put forth by Augustine. Augustine taught that the grace of Jesus Christ justified a person when love was poured into their hearts through the Holy Spirit. While Augustine’s doctrine of justification was grace-centered, it happened from within (intra nos) and naturally led to man’s greater or lesser ability to make use of the love that was given. Therefore, it did not matter whether one believed the love that was poured into a person’s heart was the Holy Spirit (Lombard) or a created habit of the soul (Aquinas). In the end, man still had to make use of this infused love throughout his life. If a person was struggling with sin, it was due to the fact that he was not making use of the love that was given to him (Aquinas). And if a person was progressing in virtue, it was due to him making use of the love given to him. Because justification was assumed to be a gradual process that occurs from within, it naturally included man’s greater or lesser ability to use this love in order to merit salvation.

It was not possible for theologians in the late Middle Ages to teach justification by faith alone. Faith alone, or “unformed faith” (fides informata) was simply intellectual assent to the truth of historical events. Only when this faith was infused with love (caritas) was a person justified. Love was something that man did in order to keep God’s Moral Law. If a person was justified by infused love, then he was justified by keeping the Moral Law and not by trusting in Christ alone. This naturally included a person’s works. Therefore, the assumption that justification occurred by infused love and not by unformed faith naturally led to salvation by works.

Further, what happened when a person who was not a believer in Christ loved their neighbor and did good deeds? If love and good deeds are the demonstration of salvation, then how can one say that a person who loves their neighbor cannot be saved? This question forced theologians like Ockham to say that the church, which dispenses infused love, must not be a primary cause for salvation. If non-believers loved their neighbor without the church then the church must not be absolutely necessary for salvation. Biel, who was influenced by Ockham, put forth a theological framework for how this salvation could occur. He taught that non-believers “who do what is in them God does not deny grace.” Like Ockham, he taught that a person could be saved without the church. If love was the demonstration of a person’s salvation, and non-believers loved their neighbor, then non-believers must have potential for salvation. The doctrine of justification by infused love focuses on a person’s goodness and deeds rather than on trust in the person and finished work of Christ. This focus on love led to speculation when considering non-believers who loved and did good works. It put justification in the hands of man’s ability to love as opposed to God’s unconditional grace through the person and complete work of Jesus Christ.

In the area of epistemology, Thomas Aquinas attempted to perceive and explain the invisible things of God from what was visible. What was visible to man and seemed good to man was justice, acts of love, and virtue. If man was not doing these things he was not making use of the love (caritas) given to him. Aquinas did not take into account that even when man does acts of love his motives are impure. Rather, he believed that through practice man could excel in acts of love and merit salvation. His epistemology did not take into account the depth of human sin. Rather, Aquinas thought that sin in man was his inability to make use of infused love (caritas) and do good deeds. The problem of man was not unbelief—it was simply that man was not training himself to become a better person. Aquinas could not recognize that in the crucifixion of Christ all of man’s best works were condemned as deadly sins. Trust in the death of Christ was not enough for salvation. Rather, Aquinas believed that through receiving grace through the sacraments a person could train himself in virtue and merit eternal life. Consequently, the Final Judgment was based in part on how well a person progressed in acts of love. A person’s “not guilty” verdict was not declared by trust alone in the finished work of Christ. Rather, a person received a “not guilty” verdict at the Final Judgment if their progress in love was worthy of eternal life. This epistemology led to salvation being at least in part based on works.

In the area of hermeneutics it was assumed that the Gospel was a New Law which included a person’s ability to love. This was due to at least a few factors. First, Marcion, a second century heretic, considered the Old Testament god to be an evil god and the New Testament god to be a good god. He dualistically separated the Old Testament Law from the New Testament Gospel. Orthodox theologians such as Ireneaus and Tertullian condemned Marcion as a heretic because of his separation of Law and Gospel. Second, “works of the law” in Paul’s Epistle’s were assumed to only refer to the Ceremonial Law and not the Moral Law. If a person was justified by faith and not the Ceremonial Law, that left open the possibility that a person could be justified by faith and keeping the Moral Law. Justification by faith and keeping the Moral Law was considered to be a part of the Gospel. And if the Gospel included keeping the Moral Law, then the Gospel was a New Law. And if the Gospel was a New Law there was no distinction between Law and Gospel. And without the distinction between Law and Gospel it was impossible to exclude a person’s works from the doctrine of salvation.

Connected to these hermeneutical assumptions was the doctrine of justification by infused love. If justification was by infused love, the distinction between Law and Gospel was impossible. The heart of God’s Moral Law is to love God and love people. If a person was justified by their ability to keep God’s Moral Law this naturally includes a person’s works. By improperly separating Law and Gospel, Marcion hindered theologians throughout church history from distinguishing them properly. Further, by not recognizing that “works of the law” referred to the Moral Law, theologians assumed that the Gospel included keeping the Moral Law.

A good example of the Scholastics’ (via moderna) understanding of the Gospel as a New Law is found in their interpretation of the story of the rich man’s encounter with Jesus in Matthew 19:16-22. The rich man asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded by instructing him to keep the commandments. Since the Gospel was seen to be a New Law, the via moderna school was unable to see that Jesus was using the Law to show the rich man his sin. The rich man responded by saying that he had kept all the Ten Commandments. Jesus then responded by challenging him to keep the first commandment when he told him to sell all that he had and give to the poor. He was challenging the rich man’s sin of idolatry and his love for money. If a person cannot keep the first commandment, he is unable to keep the rest of the commandments. The via moderna school was unable to see this and concluded that poverty was necessary for perfection in addition to keeping the Ten Commandments. The Scholastics could not see that the Law was being used to show the rich man his sin. Conversely, they assumed they could keep the Law because they saw the Gospel as a New Law. Their understanding of the Gospel as a New Law naturally led to a person’s works as part of the doctrine of salvation.

The doctrine of justification by infused love naturally included a person’s works in the salvation equation. It put the soteriological framework from the perspective of what occurs within a man (intra nos) which included man’s greater or lesser ability to make use of infused love (caritas). Further, justification by infused love focused on a person’s goodness and deeds rather than on the finished work of Christ and the necessity of hearing and believing the promise of forgiveness. This led to all kinds of speculations about non-believers who were not connected to the church but were good people who loved their neighbor. Epistemologically, justification by infused love did not focus on the crucifixion of Christ, which showed man that all his best works were condemned as deadly sins. Rather, it caused man to be puffed up and did not lead him to humility under the cross of Christ. Hermeneutically, justification by infused love also damaged the theologians’ ability to distinguish between Law and Gospel. According to this view, a person’s ability to love was his response to God’s Law. Conversely, faith is trust in the promise of the Gospel which gives certainty of salvation. If a theologian is unable to distinguish between Law and Gospel he will naturally include works as a contributing factor to salvation. The Scholastics focused on this infused ability to love God and neighbor. The true Gospel, however, focuses not on man’s love but on the love of Jesus Christ for depraved sinners.


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