July 21, 2009
Question 166 - "Works of the Law" in the Ignatius Study Bible
I was reading in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, written by Curtis Mitch and Scott Hahn, about the “works of the law” issue, and was wondering if you could help me figure out what the truth of this matter is. On page 21, they say that St. Augustine understood “works of the law” to refer to the whole law of Moses (“moral, ceremonial or juridical commands”) but that St. Jerome said it referred only to the “ceremonial laws of Moses.” They then say that “both views are correct in their proper context: initial justification in Baptism takes place apart from any observance of the law whatever (Tit 3:4-7), whereas final justification at the Last Judgment takes place apart from the ceremonial works of the Law, but not apart from observing the moral commandments of the Law (Rom 2:13; Mt 19:16-19; 1 Cor 7:19; Jas 2:8-13).” Is this a correct understanding of the matter?
R. Sungenis: Elmo, I’m afraid that the attempt by Mitch and Hahn to deal with the “works of the law” issue is symptomatic of a basic misunderstanding of the whole issue of justification, as well as a misunderstanding of how the Old Covenant relates to the New Covenant.
First, I recently wrote to Dr. Hahn about this issue. I inquired of him (with a copy to a friend of his) as to the sources for his assertion that Jerome believed that “works of the law” referred only to the ceremonial law. He did not respond. The friend offered some possible sources, but when I investigated them and told them they did not support the assertion, he agreed, and the matter was not pursued any further. So, I have yet to be given the sources for the “Jerome” assertion, and unfortunately, Dr. Hahn has been touting Jerome for the last 15 years but without ever providing his readers with a citation to back up his claim. He had done the same with Irenaeus and Justin Martyr for a few years until I told him that he was taking their words out of context, since elsewhere they understood “works of law” as referring to the whole law of Moses. How the Ignatius Study Bible can, after all this time, appeal to Jerome as the sole source of the theory, and without a citation, seems to be very poor scholarship. The fact is, the Catholic Church, in her official arguments on Justification, never sided with the idea that “works of law” referred only to the ceremonial law. The Council of Trent didn’t take that argument, and neither did the 1994 Catholic Catechism. Both of them agree that “works” or “works of law” or “law” refers to the whole Mosaic law. I believe Mitch and Hahn keep ignoring this information because they are heavily influenced by the new hermeneutic of the Protestants N.T. Wright, James Dunn, and others in that mold of thinking.
Second, it is fallacious, if not heretical, to argue that in “initial justification” no works are involved but that in “final justification” works are involved. Chapter 8 of Trent’s sixth session is clear that, even at Baptism, the individual is infused with faith, hope and love (i.e., faith and works) in order to fulfill the requirement of James 2 that faith without works is dead. Here are its words:
“Hence man through Jesus Christ, into whom he is ingrafted, receive in the said justification together with the remission of sins all these [gifts] infused at the same time: faith, hope, and charity. For faith, unless hope and charity be added to it, neither unites one perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of his body. For this reason it is most truly said that ‘faith without works is dead’ [James 2:17], and is of no profit [Canon 19], and ‘in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith, which worketh by charity’ [Galatians 5:6; 6:15].”
Now, the reason Mitch and Hahn would be prone to making a distinction between “initial justification” and “final justification” is because they have misunderstood how the Old Covenant relates to the New Covenant. Hahn’s mistake – the same mistake that he has been making for the last 15 years on this subject – is that he can’t figure out how it is, as Christians, we are to obey the moral law if St. Paul said that the moral law of Moses, the Ten Commandments, were abrogated. Hahn’s solution has been to make one of two distinctions: (1) say that St. Paul only abolished the ceremonial law but kept the moral law of Moses, or (2) say that there is a difference between “initial justification” and “final justification.” Since he had to admit from my previous polemics that solution #1 would not work, he then opted for solution #2 in the Ignatius Study Bible. But this only exposes a basic misunderstanding of the Old Covenant and its relationship to the New Covenant.
The explanation is really very simple, and I’m very surprised that people of Hahn’s caliber cannot grasp it. The bottom line is this: we cannot split the Old Covenant into two parts, one part that is abolished (i.e., the ceremonial law) and one part that is still legally valid (i.e., the moral law). Legally speaking, either the whole thing stays or the whole thing goes. This is precisely what Paul argues in Gal 3:10-12, for if any part of the Mosaic law remains, it will condemn us.
But we can’t understand this dimension of the argument unless we understand the LEGAL dimension of the issue. As a LEGAL entity, the entire Old Covenant is abolished. But as a PRACTICAL guide to life, the entire Old Covenant is very much alive and useful for us. That is, in the New Covenant we borrow many ethical and worship principles from the Old Covenant. We borrow the Ten Commandments (although the New Covenant alters them a little to fit the New Covenant gospel); we borrow from some of the civil laws (e.g., paying just wages), and we even borrow some of the ceremonial laws (e.g., setting aside one day to worship God, although we change this to Sunday as opposed to Saturday). But whatever we borrow and practice from the Old Covenant, it is not because the Old Covenant, in whole or in part, is itself still legally valid, but because the New Covenant has the authority to incorporate any principle from the Old Covenant it wishes if it finds it helpful for Christian living. In that way, the Old Covenant laws are under the legal jurisdiction of the New Covenant, not the Old Covenant. Hence, St. Paul could legally abolish the entire Mosaic law, but then take from the Mosaic law those moral, civil or ceremonial principles that he saw fit for the Christian community.
This understanding of the Old Covenant will also require us to have a comparable understanding of the “works of the law.” We cannot explain “works of the law” as referring only to the ceremonial law but not the moral law. They refer to any work or any law from the Mosaic covenant. The fact is, if a man tries to use any of the Mosaic law as the means to justification, he will be condemned. For justification does not come by observing laws but by God’s grace. As St. Paul says in Romans 11:6: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” Observing the law can only put one in the way of grace, as Trent says, but it cannot justify a man.
The only reason that the ceremonial law seems to be the larger target of criticism in the New Testament is because the ceremonial law was the easier way for the Jews to make themselves appear righteous before others, thus St. Paul had to emphasize the ceremonial law as the chief obstacle to justification in his epistles. The moral law wasn’t as easy to obey, so few of the Jews had such a problem. In fact, they obeyed the ceremonial law at the same time they disobeyed the moral law (e.g. Romans 2:17-29). Nevertheless, St. Paul also says that the moral law cannot justify, just to cover all the bases (Rom 7:1-25; Gal 3:10-12).
So, the long and short of it is this: we need to stop going to the Protestants for our understanding of Justification, whether it’s Joseph Fitzmyer’s attempt to say that justification is “forensic” in his New Jerome Biblical Commentary, or Scott Hahn’s attempt to say that “works of the law” refers only to the ceremonial law or that works are only required in “final justification.” These divergences arise because of a basic misunderstanding of how the Old Covenant relates to the New, which is the same problem we are having today when Catholic prelates deny supersessionism and teach that the Old Covenant is still valid for the Jews today. One small error can send us off in a hundred different, but erroneous, directions.
God be with you.
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