Faith Alone v. Forgiving Trespasses: How the Lord's Prayer Contradicts the Reformation

Lines from the Lord's Prayer, in various languages.
From the Eucharist Door at the Glory Facade of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain.
It's Lent in Rome. That means it's time for one of the great Roman traditions: station churches. Each morning, English-speaking pilgrims walk to a different church for Mass. This morning, on the way to St. Anastasia's, I was once again struck by a line in the Our Father: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That's a hard thing to pray, It doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room. Even the Catechism seems shocked by it:
This petition is astonishing. If it consisted only of the first phrase, "And forgive us our trespasses," it might have been included, implicitly, in the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer, since Christ's sacrifice is "that sins may be forgiven." But, according to the second phrase, our petition will not be heard unless we have first met a strict requirement. Our petition looks to the future, but our response must come first, for the two parts are joined by the single word "as."
Upon arriving at Mass, I discovered that the Gospel for the day was Matthew 6:7-15, in which Christ introduces this prayer. That seemed too serendipitous to simply be a coincidence. Then Archbishop Di Noia, O.P., got up to preach the homily, and it was all about how to understand this particular petition. So here goes: I think that the Lord's Prayer is flatly inconsistent with sola fide, the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. Here's why.

In this line of the Lord's Prayer, Jesus seems to be explicitly conditioning our forgiveness on our forgiving. Indeed, it's hard to read “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” any other way. What's more, after introducing the prayer, Jesus focuses on this line, in particular. Here's how He explains it (Matthew 6:14-15):
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
So to be forgiven, you must forgive. If you do, you'll be forgiven. If you don't, you won't be. It's as simple as that.

So Christ has now told us three times that our being forgiven is conditioned upon our forgiving, using the most explicit of language. How does Luther respond to this? “God forgives freely and without condition, out of pure grace.” And what is Calvin's response? “The forgiveness, which we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant to others.”

Their theology forces them to deny Christ's plain words, since admitting them would concede that we need something more than faith alone: we also need to forgive our neighbors. They've painted themselves into a corner, theologically. To get out of it, they change this part of the Our Father into either a way that we can know that we're saved (Luther's approach: that God “set this up for our confirmation and assurance for a sign alongside of the promise which accords with this prayer”) or a non-binding moral exhortation (Calvin's: “to remind us of the feelings which we ought to cherish towards brethren, when we desire to be reconciled to God”).

Modern Protestants tend to do the same thing with these verses, and countless other passages in which Christ or the New Testament authors teach us about something besides faith that's necessary for salvation. We see this particularly in regards to the Biblical teaching on the saving role of Baptism (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21) and works (Matthew 25:31-46; Romans 2:6-8; James 2). There are three common tactics employed:

  1. Reverse the causality. If a passage says that you must do X in order to be saved, claim that it really means that if you're saved, you'll just naturally do X. Thus, X is important for showing that you're saved, but it doesn't actually do anything, and certainly isn't necessary for salvation (even if the Bible says otherwise: Mark 16:16).
  2. No True Scotsman. If Scripture says that someone believed and then lost their salvation (like Simon the Magician in Acts 8, or the heretics mentioned in 2 Peter 2), say that they must not have ever actually believed (even if the Bible says the opposite: Acts 8:13, 2 Peter 2:1, 20-22).
  3. Spiritualize the passage into oblivion. If the Bible says that Baptism is necessary for salvation, argue that this is just a “spiritual” Baptism that means nothing more than believing. And if you need to get around the need to be “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) spiritualize this, too, to get rid of the need for water. Reduce everything to a symbol, or a metaphor for faith.

In fairness to both the Reformers and to modern Protestants, they want to avoid any notion that we can earn God's forgiveness or our salvation. This doesn't justify denying or distorting Christ's words, but it's a holy impulse. And in fact, it was the theme of Abp. Di Noia's homily this morning. Grace is a gift, and what's more, grace is what enables us to forgive others. This point is key, because it explains why Christ isn't teaching something like Pelagianism.

God freely pours out His graces upon us, which bring about both (a) our forgiveness, and (b) our ability to forgive others. But we can choose to accept that grace and act upon it, or to reject it. And that decision has eternal consequences. Such an understanding is harmonious with Christ's actual words, while avoiding any idea that we possess the power to earn our salvation.

So both Catholics and Protestants reject Pelagianism, but there's a critical difference. Catholics believe that grace enables us to do good works, whereas Protestants tend to believe that grace causes us to do good works. To see why it matters, consider the parable of the unmerciful servant, Matthew 18:21-35. In this parable, we see three things happen:

  1. A debtor is forgiven an enormous debt of ten thousand talents (Mt. 18:25-27). Solely through the grace of the Master (clearly representing God), this man is forgiven his debts (sins). He is in a state of grace.
  2. This debtor refuses to forgive his neighbor of a small debt of 100 denarii (Mt. 18:28-30). The fact that he's been forgiven should enable the debtor to be forgiving: in being forgiven, he's received the equivalent of 60,000,000 denarii, and he's certainly seen a moral model to follow. But he turns away from the model laid out by the Master, and refuses to forgive his neighbor.
  3. This debtor is unforgiven by his Master (Mt. 18:32-35). The kicker comes at the very end: “And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Now, consider all of the Protestant work-arounds discussed above. To deny that this debtor was ever really forgiven would be an insult to the Master and in contradiction to the text. To say that, if we're forgiven, we'll just naturally forgive is equally a contradiction: this debtor is forgiven, and doesn't. To treat the need to forgive the other debtor as a non-binding moral exhortation would have been a fatal error. 

This parable gets to the heart of the issue. The Master's forgiveness is freely given, and cannot be earned. But that doesn't mean it's given unconditionally or irrevocably. Quite the contrary: Christ shows us in this parable that it can be repealed, and tells us why: if we refuse to forgive, we will not be forgiven. It turns out, the Lord's Prayer actually means what it says.

Stump the Seminarian, Vol. 1: The Angel Uriel?

St. Uriel, mosaic in St John’s Church, Boreham (England) (1888)
I'm teaming up with St. Michael Catholic Radio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 102.9 FM, to do a twice-monthly Stump the Seminarian feature. Here's the description:
Have a question about the Catholic faith? Don't know who to ask? St. Michael Catholic Radio is starting a new blog called "Stump the Seminarian"! Submit your question and Joe Heschmeyer, a seminarian in Rome, will answer a few in upcoming blogs.
You can submit your questions over there, if you'd like. I'll be cross-posting answers here, as well. I've gotten a few questions already, and I've picked out one that I've never heard asked before. It's about the archangel Uriel. Read on:

From: Darren

Why does the Catholic Church only recognize St. Michael, St. Gabriel, and St. Raphael as Archangels? Why do we not recognize Uriel the Archangel, as well as others? Is it against Catholic teaching to pray to these archangels?

The Bible tells us that there are seven angels who stand before the Throne of God, interceding on our behalf. We first hear about this in Tobit 12:15, in which the archangel Raphael describes himself as “one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One.”

Tobit is part of the Old Testament Deuterocanon, the set of seven books of Bible accepted by Catholics but rejected by most Protestants. So it's significant that this account from the Book of Tobit is confirmed in the New Testament book of Revelation, a book rejected by Luther rejected but accepted by virtually all Protestants today. In Revelation 8:2, St. John says:
Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.
Additionally, in the Gospel of Luke, the archangel Gabriel's introduction closely tracks with Raphaels (Luke 1:19).

But while there are seven of these angels, Scripture only gives us the names of three of them: Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael (Daniel 10:13, 21; Revelation 11:9). Popular Jewish and Christian devotions and legendary accounts gave us the names to the other four, including Uriel, although these names varied. I wouldn't put any stock in these accounts, particularly because the Vatican's Directory on Popular Piety (¶ 217) cautions: “The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture.”

That said, the Directory describes that popular devotion to Holy Angels as “legitimate and good.” ¶ 216 explains that a healthy devotion to the angels should be marked by:
  • “devout gratitude to God for having placed these heavenly spirits of great sanctity and dignity at the service of man;” and

  • “an attitude of devotion deriving from the knowledge of living constantly in the presence of the Holy Angels of God;- serenity and confidence in facing difficult situations, since the Lord guides and protects the faithful in the way of justice through the ministry of His Holy Angels. Among the prayers to the Guardian Angels the Angele Dei is especially popular, and is often recited by families at morning and evening prayers, or at the recitation of the Angelus.”
So devotion to the angels is good, but the only angelic names that we actually know are the three that we get from Scripture.

In Christ,


Is Religion Responsible for the World's Violence?

Sébastien Mamerot, Second Battle of Ramla, from Les Passages d'Outremer (1475)
Last week, a “gun-toting atheist” and self-proclaimed “anti-theist” killed three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There's some question still about whether the killer was motivated by atheism or some other motivation. What there's no question of is that much of the secular response was predictably tasteless and exploitative. For example, the Daily Beast's Suzi Parker responded with an essay on how hard it is to be Muslim “in the most religious—and Christian—part of the country.” How are Christians to blame for this one, again?

CNN's response was perhaps worse, lumping the Chapel Hill murders in with seven other attacks as examples of “religion's week from hell,” blaming the attacks on the “religious violence” that either “is fueled by faith or is a symptom of larger factors.” There's been a lot of talk lately about so-called “victim blaming,” and it's something of a nebulous term, but I think that blaming religious people for an atheist murdering them probably constitutes victim blaming.

The Chapel Hill murders have upset the popular “religion is what makes people violent” narrative, and both the Daily Beast and CNN's response amounted to shutting their collective eyes and repeating the “religious people are bad” mantra. So let's talk about that narrative: is it true that religion is the main cause of violence in the world? Or if not all violence, what about terrorism? Or if not all terrorism, what about suicide bombings?

I. Which Group Commits the Most Terrorist Attacks? the Most Suicide Bombings?

In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris tries to lump “religion” in with “terror,” pitting the two against “reason.” He opens with this story:
The young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal. He wears an overcoat. Beneath his overcoat, he is wearing a bomb. His pockets are filled with nails, ball bearings, and rat poison. The bus is crowded and headed for the heart of the city. [...] The young man smiles. With the press of a button he destroys himself, the couple at his side, and twenty others on the bus. [...] The young man’s parents soon learn of his fate. Although saddened to have lost a son, they feel tremendous pride at his accomplishment. They know that he has gone to heaven and prepared the way for them to follow. He has also sent his victims to hell for eternity. It is a double victory.
At this point, he hasn't told you the man's religion (although his inclusion of Heaven and Hell in his story conveniently exonerate atheists). He then asks, rhetorically:
Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy, “you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy,” to guess the young man’s religion?
As I've mentioned before, Harris wants you to guess Muslim, an answer he claims is “you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy.” But there's just one problem with this claim, which is that it's factually incorrect. Worse, Harris knows this, but buries that fact in an endnote:
Some readers may object that the bomber in question is most likely to be a member of the Liberations [sic] Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the Sri Lankan separatist organization that has perpetuated more acts of suicidal terrororism [sic] than any other group. 
So if you bet your life on the suicide bomber being a Muslim, chances are, you were wrong. And the Tamil Tigers aren't just the deadliest in regards to suicide bombings. They're the deadliest terrorist group on earth, period. You can check out the numbers for yourself at the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database or Periscope's summary by group. Since 1975, the Tigers have killed nearly 11,000 people, and wounding nearly 11,000 more.

If you're not familiar with the Tamil Tigers, here's how the Library of Congress describes them:
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) strongest of Tamil separatist groups, founded in 1972 when Tamil youth espousing a Marxist ideology and an independent Tamil state established a group called the Tamil New Tigers; name changed in 1976.
The University of Chicago's Robert A. Pape, whom Harris cites in the endnote, is even more direct:
“Religious fanaticism does not explain why the world leader in suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a group that adheres to a Marxist/Leninist ideology.” Marxist-Leninist groups are hardly what you'd call “religious.” Here's what Lenin had to say about religion:
The philosophical basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectical materialism, which has fully taken over the historical traditions of eighteenth-century materialism in France and of Feuerbach (first half of the nineteenth century) in Germany—a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion. [...]

Religion is the opium of the people—this dictum by Marx is the corner-stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion.[1] Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organisation, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class.
So the deadliest terrorist group in the world, and the one responsible for the most suicide bombings in history isn't just a secular group, but one advancing an ideology that is is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion.

Nor are the Tamil Tigers an isolated case in this regard. The 25 deadliest terrorist groups in the world are responsible for most of the terror deaths since 1975. And the Tigers are just one of several Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, and Communist groups on that short list. They're joined by Peru's Shining Path, El Salvador's FMLN, Colombia FARCthe Kurdistan Worker's Party, the Philippines' New People's Army, Angola's UNITAthe Communist Party of India (Maoist), Spain's Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA), Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN), and Chile's Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (FPMR).

II. Is Religion the Chief Cause of the World's Violence?

Having seen that the world's deadliest suicide bombers and the world's deadliest terrorist group are the Marxist-Leninist Tamil Tigers, what about the world's deadliest ideologies? Compare the number of killings done in the name of religion to the number of killings done in the name of an anti-religious ideology. 

At the top of the list of the twentieth century's deadliest regimes, you'll find three anti-religious states: Communist China, the USSR, and Nazi Germany. These three alone were responsible for an estimated 130,000,000 victims, which dwarfs the number of people killed in the name of all religions throughout all of history. And that number doesn't even take into account the millions killed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rogue, the Communist North Korean regime, or the Derg (the Ethiopian Communist state, headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam).

Religion isn't the cause of most of the world's violence: it's not even close. In fact, in each of the deadliest states of the twentieth century, we see the same pattern: an aggressive campaign to neutralize or eliminate religious belief (and believers). Ross Douthat pointed this out, using the example of the Soviet Union, in a debate with Bill Maher:
Maher: “Someone once said: to have a normal person commit a horrible act almost never happens without religion. To have people get on a plane and fly it into a building, it had to be religion.”
Douthat: “I think that what's true is: to get a normal person to commit a crazy act, it does take ideas, right? But those ideas can be secular as well as religious. A lot of normal people ...”
Maher: “But mostly, in history, they've been religious.”
Douthat: “Not in the twentieth century. Not in the Soviet Union. A lot of dead bodies there, not a lot of Christians... except among the dead bodies.”
Maher: “I would say that's a secular religion.” (Maher then quickly shut down debate before Douthat could respond.)
In a way, Maher ends up conceding one of Douthat's points: that secular ideas can be just as deadly religious ones (and in fact, have been many times deadlier). But Douthat's other point is worth drawing out: religious belief serves not only as a potential motivator for violence, but as a check against state totalitarianism

For a totalitarian regime, religion is dangerous. As a believer, I recognize that human rights come from God, not the state or social convention. I recognize that there's an authority higher than the state to Whom both I and the state leadership will someday be accountable. It's precisely this sort of belief system that serves as a check on ideology and state authority that made these Soviet and Nazi states so anti-religious: they don't want you to render unto both God and Caesar. They want you to obey Caesar alone. 

That's one reason that the bloodiest regimes in history have tended to be atheistic and anti-religious. But there may be a second, related point. Maher calls Soviet totalitarianism a “secular religion,” and that's something of a cop-out. He's trying to pin all the blame for violence on religion, by labelling all potentially-violent ideas as “religious,” even (as in the case of Soviet Communism) the ideology's founder and adherents were fiercely anti-religious. This evasion would seem to turn everything, even atheism, into at least a “secular religion.” 

But Maher may yet be on to something in referring to these totalitarian systems as a “religion,” of sorts. Nazism and Soviet Communism did mimic religions in certain fashions, and did hold themselves out (implicitly and, at times, explicitly) as replacements for religion. That's because there's something inescapable about religion. Michael Crichton described the phenomenon like this:
I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can't be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people---the best people, the most enlightened people---do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You can not believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.
At its core, this is a rudimentary point. All of us operate according to our beliefs about the world. Sometimes, we're conscious of this, sometimes, we're not, but we do it all the same. And these worldviews are heavily influenced by what we believe, or disbelieve, about religion. 

Christianity carries with it beliefs about every human being made in the image of God, and being worthy of dignity and respect, along with the notion that we'll be held accountable for our evil actions. If we really believe these things, these beliefs can't help but shape how we interact with the world. And when people stop believing these things, it's not surprising that something else sweeps in to fill that void. Sometimes, as in Crichton's talk, that religion-replacement is a movement like environmentalism. Other times, it's something much darker.

III. Which Religion?

I said in the last point that religion can either motivate you to commit violent acts (as with ISIS) or it can motivate you to resist violence and tyranny (as with the 21 Coptic Christians recently martyred by ISIS). But on the question of whether religion will spur or spurn violence, a lot depends on which religion we're talking about.

All of this brings me to my last point:  the whole question of whether or not “religion” is violent is badly-formed. People don't believe in “religion.” They believe in a particular religion, and different religions teach different things. Given this, we need to stop pretending that all religions are equally prone to violent extremism, as if a Quaker is as likely as a Wahhabist to be responsible for the next terrorist attack. That idea is both illogical and directly contrary to the empirical data (here again, I'd point you to the Global Terrorism Database or Periscope summary).

Denouncing “religion” for the sins of radical Islam is disingenuous, akin to blaming “politics” for the Holocaust. “Religion” wasn't to blame, but one particular, violent religious movement, just as the Holocaust was the fault of one particular, violent political movement. In both religion and politics, we're dealing with sets of ideas -- ideas about God, morality, human dignity, and the like -- and ideas have consequences. Good ideas tend to have good consequences, while bad ideas tend to have the opposite. Treating all ideas as if they're equally valid is ridiculous.

That's why it's foolish to approach this question in the way that it's typically formed – whether or not “religion” is to blame – and why it's wrong to blame all religion for the actions of a few (or one). Using violence done in the name of a particular religion to justify hating all religion is no better than the Daily Beast using violence committed by an irreligious atheist against Muslims as a stick with which to bash Christians.

Happy Celibacy Awareness Day!

Valentine's Day card from 1909
Happy St. Valentine's Day, the one day a year in which all Americans, regardless of religion, build their lives around the Traditional Latin Mass calendar. For those of us using the Ordinary Form calendar, today is the Memorial of Saints Cyril and Methodius, not St. Valentine, a little something I like to call “the celibates' revenge.” Brantly over at Church POP asked me what to write about Valentine's Day from a seminarian's perspective.  Here's a taste of what I wrote:
I think that perspective is best captured in the nickname that Valentine's Day has in many seminaries: Celibacy Awareness Day. For those of us committing ourselves to live a life of celibacy, today's a great day to reflect on the beauties of celibacy, and the beauties of romantic, marital love. [....]
There are a few important connections between marriage and celibacy. The first is that the beautiful view of celibacy depends upon a beautiful view of marriage. There's a reason that Christ teaches this about celibacy in the midst of teaching about marriage (Mt. 19:1-10) and family (Mt. 19:13-15). 

After all, this kind of celibacy is about giving up something good for God. But that's not really a sacrifice if you don't want to get married, or can't get married for whatever reason, or if marriage is a horrible thing that nobody ought to do in the first place.

St. John Chrysostom says it best, in a passage quoted in CCC 1620:

Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be truly good. The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good.

So to understand the beauty of celibacy, it's critical that we understand the beauty of marriage. But celibacy and marriage are tied together in other ways, too. Priests help to bring about new marriages by witnessing them; parents help to bring about new priests by their own witness to their children.

Fittingly, the life of the real St. Valentine shows the deep connection between the two. He was a celibate priest from the third century, who laid down his life to ensure that his people received Christian marriages (in defiance of the imperial law).

So as a seminarian, I don't think that Valentine's Day is a day to indulge in self-pity. Rather, it's a day to remember the beauty and joys of romantic and marital love, which serve as the foundation of my own sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you'll check out the full piece. I give a better description of what I'm calling the beautiful view of celibacy and of marriage than in the excerpt quoted here, as well as a few things to watch out for in how we think about celibacy. And on that note, Happy Valentine's Day!

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