Catholic Sola Fide
Throughout my series of posts laying out scriptural difficulties with sola fide, I have tried to be careful to frame it as the Protestant view of sola fide. There are two reasons for this. First, it is rather more famously associated with Protestantism, but more importantly because there is a Catholic view of sola fide as well. So it is not that the Protestant holds to a doctrine that is purely mythic but rather that he holds to an erroneous view of it. In this post my aim is to sketch the Catholic view, therewith concluding (for the most part, I reckon) this series.
Perhaps some Protestants will be surprised that the Catholic view of the doctrine is taught by the Council of Trent, which many of them consider a den of villainy. They do so wrongly. :-) In the Council’s Decree on Justification the eighth chapter is devoted to justification by faith:
But whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith, and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we be therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons; but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, then is it no more by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle saith, grace is no more grace. (emphasis in original)
In other words: God gives us the grace of faith, and does so freely (not because we in any way merit it), and by that faith we are justified “because faith is … the root of all justification;” we can neither merit the grace by which we have exercised faith nor merit justification itself in any way whatsoever. This construction is consistent with chapter VII of Trent, which enumerates the causes of our justification: none of them are in any way a consequence of human merit. But this is not all.
Not only have Protestants misrepresented Trent (and the Catholic Church)’s teaching on justification, but they have redefined the crucial term of faith itself, so that it represents a fiduciary sort of trust in God. On the other hand the Church has always taught that faith is “belief in God and … all that He has revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief” (CCC §1842). Of course one must trust God because He is infinitely trustworthy, but that is not the primary sense of faith as the Church has always taught. This is an issue that the Council of Trent addresses in chapter IX of the Decree on Justification:
[It is] not to be said that sins are forgiven, or have been forgiven, to any one who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the remission of his sins, and rests on that alone … But neither is this to be asserted,—that it behoves them who are truly justified, without any doubting whatever, to settle within themselves that they are justified, and that no one is absolved from sins and justified, but he who for certain believes that he is absolved and justified; and that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone; as though whosoever believeth not this, doubts respecting the promises of God, and the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ. … [N]o one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to mistake, that he has obtained the grace of God.
We are saved by Christ alone, not because we have confidence in the notion that we are saved. Such confidence can and does waver for many godly folk; are they lost, then saved, lost, and saved or lost again just because of this? How does this not reduce one’s salvation to a human exercise in the maintenance of confidence? And where in Scripture am I told that I personally am or am not one of God’s elect?
In short: there is a biblical, Catholic sense in which we are justified by faith alone. The Protestant version isn’t it.