This doctrine, together with the doctrine of sola Scriptura, is the cornerstone of the whole tradition of the Protestant Reformation. The classical formulary is that justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, Scripture alone serving as the authority to know both this and all other necessary things pertaining to the faith. (The normal translation of the Latin sola fide as "by faith alone" is a little misleading, for it implies that faith does the justifying in contemporary English, whereas the actual meaning is that grace works through faith alone -- a slightly archaic use of "by.") Any Protestant could, in principle, be convinced of nearly everything else Catholic -- Purgatory, veneration of the saints, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, prayers for the dead, infant baptism, apostolic succession -- and remain a Protestant simply by believing these two doctrines. Indeed, for a while and in some circles, that was more or less what it meant to be an Anglican.
There are, however, certain serious problems with the theory of justification through faith alone. I have done my best to compile them, so as to facilitate Protestant-Catholic dialogue on this point, and perhaps make it clear to Protestants why the Church objected to this formulary when Luther first asserted it. I have isolated five of these -- you can skip to the one that interests you if you like; they are as follows:
1. That there is no specific Biblical assertion of justification through faith alone.
2. That it lacks a good pedigree from the Christian tradition in general.
3. That it can tend to produce a "fire-insurance" view of salvation.
4. That -- typically as a reaction to 3 -- it can also tend to produce a self-flagellating approach to Christian growth.
5. That, in point of fact, Scripture contradicts the doctrine of justification through faith alone word for word.
Before You Begin
One thing that almost always throws a wrench in the works for this discussion is that Catholics and Protestants mean different things by the term justification. Protestants mean a right standing with God, a declaration of innocence, an acquittal; Catholics do not necessarily exclude these things, but they include (for reasons I hope this note elucidates) growth in actual righteousness on the part of the Christian -- indeed, this is embedded in the Latin term justificare, "to become just," which translates the Greek dikaioo. The significance of works to the Catholic theology of justification lies in the question of Christian growth, not in the question of Divine grounds for forgiveness -- for if God insisted on our being good enough to deserve forgiveness, nobody would be forgiven, since a person who needs forgiveness is by definition somebody who does not deserve it.
My priority here is less to 'settle the issue' than it is to illustrate the problems I at any rate find with the Protestant view, which will presumably show why I abandoned that view, in favor of one I think more Biblical. To the extent that a Protestant does not agree with the explanation of justification through faith alone which I have here set forth, I think I can safely say that -- while I am the last person to hold this against them -- they have departed from the general Protestant tradition in so doing, and have probably moved in a direction more amenable to Catholicism rather than less.
1. It lacks specific Scriptural affirmation.
This may make some people sit up and blink, or stop reading with disgust; it certainly startled me when I discovered it. Although Martin Luther claimed (and no doubt believed) that this was the doctrine of Saint Paul, he nowhere -- not even in Romans -- says that we are justified by (or through) faith alone.
Relevant passages do indeed come very close:
No human being will be justified in His sight through observing the Law ... For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law. ... When one does not work, yet believes in the One who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. Romans 3.20a, 28, 4.5
These and similar verses are the foundation of the Lutheran (more broadly, the classical Protestant, or Reformed) position.
Yet how teasing that in this very same letter, the apostle also writes:
God ... will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works. Romans 2.6-7
What is the solution to this dilemma? Obviously nobody believes that the apostle is really, in some secret way, teaching that our salvation depends chiefly upon ourselves. While insisting on a rather different idea of the role works normally play in the Christian life, the Catholic Church is as uncompromising as the Protestant in confessing that salvation is by grace alone -- for remember that faith and grace are two different things, not one and the same. Grace operates with faith as its instrument; to say that grace can use another instrument (works) is not the same thing as saying that grace is not the operating force. Even if the Catholic theory is wrong, it should not be confused with the position that grace is not the motive force of our salvation (the Pelagian heresy).
The solution that presents itself to me -- which I offer as nothing more than a plausible opinion, not the dictum of the Magisterium -- is to look at the context of St. Paul's letter, and notice that the whole burden of it most of it, from chapter 2 all the way through the end of 11, is the double contrast, first between Jews and Gentiles apart from the gospel, and then between those who embrace Christianity (whether Jewish or Gentile in origin) and those who hold to Judaism as a religion. Indeed, the key verse -- the verse that, in many cases, forms the pivot of the argument in favor of sola fide -- states quite specifically the contrast, posing faith, not against works as such, but against the works of the Law -- i.e., the Mosaic Law, the Old Covenant which God struck with the nation of Israel. That contrast between the Old Covenant Law and the faith which characterizes the New Covenant (which not only leads naturally to the reference to the sacrament of Baptism in chapter 6 and the ensuing discussion of good works on the basis of the new identity conferred by Baptism, but is also the province of all people regardless of racial or even religious origin) is the driving force of the whole letter, informing every contrast the saint makes. To wrench a few verse out of that context and set them up as if they were referring to good works, just as such, turns the otherwise flowing progress of the letter into a jarring and rather scattered argument that has no clear reason for spending so much time on the Jews, and additionally makes nonsense out of Pauline passages like that quoted above from chapter 2.
All that being said, a lack of specific Scriptural support does not disprove any doctrine, unless one holds to the Regulative Principle (that anything which a Christian believes must be specifically affirmed by Scripture -- the trouble there being that the Regulative Principle is notable by its absence from the Bible). However, it does seriously jeopardize the position of sola fide as a pivotal doctrine in any systematic theology, and ought permanently to silence those who demand that this view of justification be affirmed, not just as a theological distinctive, but as a necessity for Christian orthodoxy.
Some might also appeal to the implicit message of the text, in an ironic nod to John Henry Newman, whose beliefs about the development of Christian doctrines found in seed form in the New Testament helped him enter the Catholic Church. However, Luther himself did not seem satisfied that St. Paul's text was sufficiently emphatic in implying the doctrine of sola fide, since -- in his German translation of the Bible -- he inserted the word "alone" into the text, drawing criticism from some quarters.
2. It lacks any clear support from the universal body of Christian tradition.
The Reformers were quite correct in pointing out that the Church has always defended the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, and no churchman was more notable for doing so than St. Augustine, the great upholder of the necessity of grace against the modernizing view of Pelagius, who taught that "grace" was really little more than a good example. The Catholic Church herself emphatically reaffirmed this teaching at the Council of Trent in the canons which deal with the doctrine of justification, reiterating the anathemas of both Pelagianism (the heresy that we save ourselves by our own efforts) and Semi-Pelagianism (the heresy that grace saves us in part, but we prepare ourselves for saving grace by our own unaided efforts).
This doctrine, however, is distinct from the teaching adopted by Luther, Calvin, and their followers. All were -- and are -- agreed that grace alone is the agent of salvation; or rather, that God is the agent of salvation, his salvation consisting entirely in gracious gift. The dispute lies in what instrument Divine grace works through.
Think of a flute. The air is the agent; the way its vibrations are manipulated by the flutist produces the music. The flute serves only as an instrument, to allow the air to be manipulated in a specific way. Likewise, God (the flutist) acts as Divine grace (the air) in the soul by means of faith (the flute). There is no question of whether the flutist or the air are necessary; only a lunatic would deny that they are. The dispute between Catholics and Protestants is about whether God is only a flutist, or also, say, a violinist; it is about whether God uses instruments other than faith to work upon the soul. The Catholic Church argues that He does, and that works of love are instruments, indeed related to and springing from faith but not simply the same thing as faith, which God uses to pour His grace into us, to help us grow in Him.
The classical Protestant contention is that God never plays any instrument except the flute -- that is, He does not work in us through any means except faith. Protestant Christians do not necessarily insist that He cannot; many have made such assertions but they are not an essential part of the doctrine.
However, Biblical support for this tends to work both ways (for instance, see Ephesians 2.8-10, where there is a vague "not of works" clause, but at the same time the apostle definitely designates good works as one of God's blessings on us); and as far as the church fathers and doctors up to the time of the Reformation -- well, the most we can say is that if they did believe it, they thought precious little about it. Many Protestants seem disposed to make the Reformed doctrine of justification the litmus test of Christian orthodoxy, yet when I began to read the fathers for myself, I found them spending a lot of time on things that seemed pretty Catholic -- the Eucharist, the authority of bishops and priests, church unity, penance -- and I don't recall ever coming across any writer who seemed to dispose to write about this problem at all. It could perhaps be argued that it was so taken for granted that nobody felt the need to write about it, but I don't think that argument is persuasive. Given the amount of time the church fathers and early apologists spent on something as basic as monotheism, one would think that, if sola fide were essential to Christianity, they would have taken at least as much trouble over that.
However, it should be admitted that this argument is suggestive -- not conclusive.
3. It can lend itself to Antinomianism.
This is the number one problem that occurs to most Catholics when they first encounter the doctrine of justification by faith alone. "So according to you," they are disposed to think (and say), "I can just have faith and then do whatever I want?"
Typically, a Protestant Christian will reply, "No, of course not," and proceed to explain (sometimes with a nod to the Epistle of James) that true faith always produces good works. Some Reformed thinkers sum up this element of the classical Protestant position by saying that we are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.
Many Catholics regard this as mere hairsplitting, and I'm not quite sure I disagree, but I believe it was on the strength of this proviso that Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) announced to a somewhat surprised synod of Lutheran bishops that there was nothing to prevent this doctrine being reconciled with the actual meaning of the Catholic formulation of justification.
I have said that Protestants typically disagree with the critique offered by Catholics. This is because, sadly, there actually are certain rather ridiculous persons who really do affirm that one can have genuine faith and then sin however much we want all our lives and go to Heaven. I am by no means sure, but I gather that this school of thought is in some ways associated with the Reverend James Swaggart, and is sometimes framed in terms of "accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior" versus "accepting Jesus as Savior only"; formally, such a position would be called the Antinomian heresy. Needless to say, this has nothing to do with mainstream conservative Protestantism.
4. It can lend itself to an absolutist view of Christian growth.
In a reaction against the Antinomian abuse of sola fide just outlined, many Protestants will aver, not without Scriptural backing (e.g. James 2, Romans 6), that true faith naturally produces good works. Exceptions for accidental reasons might no doubt occur -- say, someone who converts on his deathbed and therefore has no time to do much of anything, bad or good. But of the person who claims to have converted and exhibits no change in lifestyle, or of the person who seems to be doing well for a while and then loses interest or actively rebels, we must assume that the conversion was a mirage.
This is a much more sensible position than the, as it were, unqualified form of justification through faith alone noted above. I gather that Luther himself initially expressed his views in terms which were taken by some to mean the view noted in point 3, and that when this fact emerged, he explained that what he had really meant was something more like the theory here. It does account for a good deal of what Scripture says; and it is certainly self-consistent.
The danger with this theory is twofold. One is simply that it suffers from the general defect of not being specifically asserted by Scripture and being seated very uncomfortably in an awful lot of Bible verses, including a good many from St. Paul, similar to those I noted in point 1. But it also tends to drive toward a moral error -- the opposite moral error of Antinomianism, called by moral theologians scrupulosity.
Basically, scrupulosity means making a big deal out of things that don't matter or making a bigger deal out of things that don't matter much. (Typically this problem is dealt with in the context of the confessional, where one must steer a path between scrupulosity and laxity, with the priest's help.) More generally, it can indicate a generalized and unhealthy anxiety about spiritual growth in general, often marked by self-flagellation or legalism, or both.
Consider. Just how good do you have to be to be regarded as having a "changed lifestyle"? How quickly? If there's a major area of sin in your life that you haven't dealt with, how long can it go on before it begins to suggest that your conversion was fraudulent or illusory? How sure can you be, really, that your conversion was sincere?
It will be said -- and rightly -- that this is the voice of the Accuser. But the Accuser frequently mixes truth with his lies, and, speaking from my own experience, the theology of justification sola fide offers absolutely no theological rejoinder to any of these questions. If it be argued that the proper rejoinder is that we are saved by grace and not by theology, I would agree that that is indeed how we are saved, but that the whole force of these questions is not about the source of salvation generally. It is about our own salvation, our own conversion, in particular. Salvation by grace is entirely irrelevant if we have not accepted grace to begin with; and if, in trying to reconcile sola fide with practical righteousness, we use our own practical righteousness as the litmus test of the reality of our conversion (as suggested by St. Peter in II Peter 1.10, especially in conjunction with James 2.14-18), every defect in that righteousness is a ground for doubt.
This form of error is seen with particular virulence in the heresy of certain fanatics whose origins lie in Pentecostalism, though -- having known Pentecostals who aren't insane -- I am hesitant to associate the two. There are some people who believe that genuine Christians cease to sin entirely from the moment of conversion; there are even some who claim to have done so. I have no wish to dwell at length on such people, since they are decidedly unrepresentative of Protestant Christianity in general, but I take note of them for the sake of thoroughness.
5. It actually contradicts the specific teaching of Scripture.
This upset me profoundly when I first came across it, and for many years I embraced the explanation offered by many Calvinist thinkers (I was raised in the Calvinist tradition), but it has -- for reasons I shall shortly explain -- ceased to satisfy me.
The problem is this:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? ... So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone may say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. ... Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' and he was called 'the friend of God.' See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. ... For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. James 2.14, 17-18, 20-24, 26
The primary problem here is precisely the juxtaposition of James 2.24 with the doctrine of sola Scriptura. If the Scriptures are indeed our only authority, then we are logically bound to deny justification through faith alone. For even if St. Paul implies that doctrine, he does no more; and the explicit sense of Scripture surely takes precedent over the implicit! Otherwise we should have to give credence to, for example, the Arian theory that because Christ is called the firstborn of all creation, which implies (or can be taken to imply) that He was Himself created, we must believe that, in spite of the explicit statement of St. John that the Word was God, all things were made through Him, and without Him not one thing was made that was made. But if -- as is no more than common sense -- the explicit affirmations of some parts of the Bible must be our guide for understanding the possible implications of other parts of the Bible, then we must use James 2 to interpret Romans 3, not Romans 3 to interpret James 2.
The traditional Reformed explanation of this passage is that St. James is responding to a specific situation, where people were abusing the doctrine of justification that St. Paul teaches in Romans, and that what the apostle really means is that true faith always produces works. Luther was not fully satisfied with this explanation, wanting for some time to expel James (among other books) from the canon. While I do not share his views on the canon or the niceties of this doctrine, I tend to agree with Luther in finding this account less than satisfactory -- partly because it relies on making something that St. Paul never explicitly says the backbone of our hermeneutic for, to all appearances, getting around something St. James does say quite explicitly; and partly because St. James does not, in fact, say it. This is not to say that the interpretation has no merit: it does do justice to some of what the apostle writes here, and it is a self-consistent hermeneutic. But I am distrustful of a hermeneutic which requires us to abandon the terminology of Scripture, not just to be part of a theological school, but even to be a Christian at all.
More significantly, the author of James actually seems to be going out of his way to not say what is attributed to him here by Reformed scholars. For he could easily have said what they assert, if that is what he meant. But what he actually says is that
Abraham our father [was] justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar[.] You see that faith was active along with the works, and faith was completed by the works. ... See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
In other words, he is not approaching faith as the on/off switch that many Protestant Christians seem to claim it is. He views faith, and works with it, as a process of growth -- which is precisely what the Catholic Church teaches about justification. For our understanding of that term includes not only initial conversion, itself the first step on the path to righteousness (Latin justitia), but also the continuing process of advancing along that road to complete righteousness, complete holiness. St. James cannot really be any more explicit in making his point than he is in these verses. I prefer to take him at his word, and to confess, with Scripture, that we are justified by works and not by faith alone.