Here’s another question and response from the from the CAI June Q&A page, home of Catholic apologist, Robert Sungenis:
Question 38- Church History, Luther, and the Doctrine of Justification
I sent some an e-mail last week regarding a blog site run by a Mr James Swan. Did you get a chance to visit it yet? Since then, I came across a quote that I wanted to get your opinion on it. Here it is: *The Catholic View of Justification Previous To Trent * Again, I am Catholic to the marrow, but I do not know how to respond to the above. I would appreciate your input on this, too, if you don't mind."
R. Sungenis: "Peter, I'm afraid Dr. Pelikan is speaking much of this analysis from his own Lutheran bias. There was no teaching of "faith alone" in the patristics or medievals. Trent was following the tradition of the Church. This is precisely why Luther said he rejected the Fathers, since none of them taught faith alone. I have reams of quotes from him to this effect in my book Not By Faith Alone. We only have two or three references to the phrase "faith alone" in the patristics, and when you read them in context (e.g., Clement of Rome) you understand that they were not speaking of Luther's concept. Moreover, if there was some doubt as to how the Church was to understand justification, Luther did the Catholic Church a favor, as all heretics do, in that he made her sit down, cogitate, and write down her doctrines so that everyone would know what, precisely, the boundaries were. That is the way most Catholic doctrine is formulated and codifed -- the Church is squelching some heretic who tries to refute the traditional teaching. You really need to get a copy of my book Not By Faith Alone and read Chapter 9. You'll find out what the score is. "
Peter, I’m afraid Robert Sungenis dismissed Pelikan’s point rather than interact with his point. For further documentation of the wide range of perspectives on justification previous to the 16th Century, see Heiko Oberman’s book, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, particularly Chapter VI: The Process Of Justification (146-184). Whether or not Trent was able to define the actual doctrine of Justification depends on how much one trust's Trent. Roman Catholics implicitely trust Trent, so history will be interpreted to prove Trent's statements.
That there was a great ambiguity as to what exactly "justification" was even at Trent is documented by Alister McGrath:
"The Council of Trent was faced with a group of formidable problems as it assembled to debate the question of justification in June 1546. The medieval period had witnessed the emergence of a number of quite distinct schools of thought on justification, clearly incompatible at points, all of which could lay claim to represent the teaching of the Catholic church." [Source: Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (New York: Cambridge University Press, 259)].
It is ironic that Sungenis appeals to the "tradition of the church", as each of the groups represented at Trent seems to have not been on the same page in regards to the doctrine of justification. McGrath goes on to point out "...[T]here was considerable disagreement in the immediate post-Tridentine period concerning the precise interpretation of the decretum de iustificatione" [ibid. 268]. In another words, even after Trent made its decree on Justification, Catholics were confused as to how to interpret it!
One needs to sit back a moment and reflect on this confusion before and after Trent. The "tradition of the church" was not a clear and concise understanding of....the Gospel, for about 1600 years, and then even immediately after Trent's infallible decree. A further irony is that Sungenis strongly critisizes Protestants for having differences as to how "faith alone" is understood among Protestants in his book, Not By Faith Alone. But, would Sungenis be willing to note the confusion inherent in the Roman Catholic Church up until Trent and the following it? I highly doubt it.
In his response to Peter, Sungenis also provides an excellent example of Catholic apologetic double standards. Sungenis says that Trent was following the tradition of the church, and there was no teaching of “faith alone” previous to Luther. In other words, Luther invented “justification by faith alone”. It didn’t exist until Luther. It can’t be verified in church history. It can’t be true.
On the other hand, when the same historical standard is applied to certain Roman Catholic dogmas, like Mary’s Bodily Assumption, Purgatory, Indulgences, etc., this same historical standard is swept under the rug and hidden. One has to seriously question why a standard that Catholic apologists hold Protestants to is not likewise applied to their own beliefs. Wade through the corridors of church history and search for the threads of all Roman Catholic dogma. One falls flat of linking many of them back to the early church, or in some instances, even the Bible.
Now, this alone should be enough of a refutation of the answer provided by Sungenis. If the type of argument and answer he uses is applied to his own belief system, and that argument leaves his belief system fatally wounded, it would be wise for him to think of another form of argumentation in the future.
While Sungenis hasn’t done this in his answer, some attempt to use “development of doctrine”-to get out of this double standard. But one has to immediately scrutinize such a presupposition. Where has the standard of “development of doctrine” come from? Certainly, in the Bible, we find a progressive clarity on the revealing of its central figure: Jesus Christ. But search through the New Testament, and attempt to uncover where the Bible clearly informs us that doctrine will continue to develop after the period of inscripturation. Jude 3 speaks of "the faith which was once delivered to the saints." He doesn’t speak of delivering an acorn that will blossom into an oak tree. In other words, even the notion of “development of doctrine” doesn’t meet the historical test set up by Roman Catholic apologists. Like other paradigms, it appeared later in the course of Church history, popularized of course by Cardinal Newman.
I admit, the historical aspect of sola fide is a difficult issue, but applying a historical test to the Catholic notion of justification has its problems as well. Historically, one can make a case that Augustine didn't know Greek and the entire direction of the Church was redirected away from what the Bible says on sola fide. Commenting on a point made by Alister McGrath, R.C. Sproul notes,
“McGrath sees Augustine’s treatment of justification as pivotal to the subsequent development of the doctrine of justification in the Roman Catholic Church: “Augustine understands the verb iustificare to mean ‘to make righteous,’ an understanding of the term which he appears to have held throughout his working life. In arriving at this understanding, he appears to have interpreted -ficare as the unstressed form of facere, by analogy with vivificare and mortificare. Although this is a permissible interpretation of the Latin word, it is unacceptable as an interpretation of the Hebrew concept which underlies it.” [R.C. Sproul, ). Faith alone : The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, 99]
All I’ve done here is sift through presuppositions. Protestants live by the principle, sola scriptura. In other words, history doesn’t prove what is true and what is not, the Bible does. Sungenis argues that history proves justification by faith alone is not true. Protestants argue that the Bible proves what is truth. I would rather trust in God's words rather than history.