Trent, Sungenis, Shepherd, and the FV

Originally posted 10 Nov 2007

On the White Horse Inn for 3 November (2007) Mike Horton interviewed Roman Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis and historian Mark Noll (Is the Reformation Over?). Just a few comments about the first half of the show.

Robert Sungenis was raised in the Roman communion but became an evangelical and as such he drifted through various evangelical traditions. He studied at WTS/P during the “Shepherd controversy.” He converted to Rome in 1993. Mike, Kim, Bob Godfrey and Rod Rosenblatt debated him and others in 1995.

About his time at WTS/P Sungenis says that he understood Shepherd to teach that “works justify” though it was unclear what Shepherd meant by that. He says “It did stick in my mind and it made me realize that the whole idea of the Reformed understanding of justification wasn’t as solid as it was purported to be.”

Well, Sungenis might be correct if he’s speaking sociologically or if he’s describing the relative confusion in the Reformed churches for the last 30 years, but he’s quite wrong if he’s describing what the Reformed churches confess in our confessions and catechisms and what our classic theologians taught on justification. There is no ambiguity about what the Westminster Confession (ch. 11) means when it says that faith is “receiving and resting” what the Heidelberg Catechism means by “a certain knowledge and a hearty trust” or when it says:

60. How are you righteous before God?

Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.

In the interview, Mike asked Sungenis, whether Rome teaches salvation by works. In response Sungenis—did not answer without horns!—said that if by “works” one means something one does that obligates God to reward one, then no. He appealed to the first canon of the sixth session of Trent.

On the other hand, the Catholic Church does teach that works are salvific, that they do justify, but when it uses works in that sense it is talking about works that are done under the auspices of God’s grace, i.e., someone who’s already entered into God’s grace by faith and God can now look at those works a lot differently than he did when the person was not under God’s grace. When the person was not under God’s grace, the law, which God would use as the standard to judge those works, would condemn him for any work that he did because it would never meet up to the standard of God’s righteousness. But once he’s in the system of grace…then God looks at him in a very different way and thus those works he does for God, God can look at those works and bless those works and give a reward for those works, which we call salvation.

Faith is just a beginning of justification. What is faith? According to Sungenis, it’s “you cooperating with God that allows you to have faith.”

“When you have faith, you also work. Under the same grace that you have the faith.”

“You have faith and works that are under God’s grace and both of those are looked at by God as things that he requires you to do and he blesses those and as long as you remain in the faith and keep doing the works you remain in the justification.”

“If you do not do the works, i.e., if you sin, then you will lose your justification and you can regain your justification if you repent of your sin and come back into the grace of God.”

How does he read James 2? Is James using the verb “to justify” differently than Paul? Is James speaking of the vindication of the claim to faith as distinct from “being declared righteous”? According to Sungenis, no. The verb “to justify” must mean the same thing in Paul and James 2 because they both quote Gen 15:6 (huh? non sequitur anyone?).

Sungenis says, “It’s something God saw in Abraham. He saw the faith in Abraham and it’s for that reason that Abraham was justified. He wasn’t justified based on some alien righteousness.”

Indulge me: I told you so! As I keep telling my students, the Roman preposition is “in” and the Protestant preposition is “for.”

Yes, there’s a little hyperbole there but it’s basically true. When it comes to justification, the Roman Church wants to talk about what’s “in” us. When it comes to justification Protestants want to talk about what Christ did “for” us.

According to Sungenis, who is being quite faithful to the Roman magisterium, God can only declare us righteous if we are really, intrinsically, actually righteous. According to Sungenis, this is what “to reckon” means in the NT. His biblical exegesis is appalling. The power of the a priori notion that God can only say “righteous” about us if we’re inherently righteous to control the Roman reading of Romans (or anywhere in Scripture) is patent.

Can we be assured of our justification? According to Sungenis, “No.” David thought he was a man of God and he sinned and had to be justified again. Please notice how Sungenis uses Scripture. Eck was right, “All heretics quote scripture.” Sungenis says that the sacraments, in the system of grace, give us confidence that we are in a state of grace. Sungenis says that so long as we do our part and “there’s no sin in my life,” so that there’s nothing at which one can look and say, “this is condemnable, I’m going to hell,” one can say, “Yes, I’m a saved Christian.” So long as one hasn’t committed a damnable sin, one is “golden.”

Pelagianism anyone? If this cat or any other can’t see that his heart, mind, and soul are full of sin, that his will is corrupt, that his mind is corrupt, and that his heart is corrupt, if he can’t see how wretched he is in himself, he is deluded. He’s also, at least, a semi-Pelagian. He wants to say, “I’m sinful, but I’m not that sinful. Oh yeah?

Sungenis says that David needed to repent to regain his justification. How much did David have to repent? A little? A lot? How did David know? The church will tell him. From where did the church get those answers? “From the Apostles and the tradition that was handed down.”

Okay, here’s another “I told you so.” In the interview with Sungenis we not only here a faithful representation of the Roman catechism but we’re also hearing the doctrine of justification and perseverance taught by Norman Shepherd and the Federal Vision. The verbal and formal identity is amazing. It seems that Sungenis and the Visionists both learned their lessons well from Professor Shepherd. Sungenis, to his credit, figured out what was going on. In the interview he says that Shepherd “confirmed” his own move to Rome.

Has anything changed since Vatican II? No. Sungenis rightly noted that Vatican II didn’t change the dogmatic position of Rome regarding the role of works in justification. Vatican II reiterates the Tridentine position and, as he says, you can tell that from the footnotes in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Without a hint of irony, Sungenis tries to discredit Fitzmyer’s exegesis of Rom 3-4 (Anchor Bible Commentary: Romans — an amazing piece of scholarship) on the ground that Fitzmyer went to a “Protestant” seminary where, apparently his mind was polluted with Protestant ideas. Fitzmyer went to a Protestant seminary and was corrupted to a Protestant reading of Romans and that’s bad, but Sungenis went to a Protestant seminary where, tragically, he was taught the Roman doctrine of justification, and that’s okay.

He dismisses Fitzmyer as not speaking for the magisterium, which is true enough, but when Mike asks him about how he views the Protestant doctrine, whether he still regards the Protestant view as a legal fiction, where does Sungenis go to define the Protestant view? Does he go to the Augsburg Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism or the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession? No, he cites a dozen private theologians! So, Fitzmyer is rejected because he’s just some guy. The Protestant view is regarded as incoherent on the basis of 12 theologians.

Purgatory? Still cooking. Didn’t you know that 1 Cor 3 teaches purgatory? Sure, it’s in the Bible. It also teaches a distinction between venial and mortal sins.

One final note. Is the Protestant view a “legal fiction?” No! As Mike says, Jesus did satisfy all the conditions of the law. What’s amazing is that it is the Roman communion that has justification as a legal fiction. No one, according to Rome, is fully sanctified in this life. Yet God graciously imputes to us righteousness as we do our part (or, as the FV has it, “keep our part of the covenant”). There’s your legal fiction. Protestants didn’t invent or preserve the doctrine of congruent merit, the medieval and Roman churches did that. The irony is that Sungenis kept on about our doctrine of justification being a legal fiction when, in fact, it is only our doctrine of justification that holds that God’s declaration of righteousness isn’t a fiction because Christ actually fulfilled all righteousness and that perfect, actual righteousness is credited to us. In the Roman scheme, what is credited to us? A fiction!

Are Protestants eternally condemned? According to Sungenis any devout, confessional Protestants, who knowingly reject the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, are are eternally condemned.

Whew! I guess that the FV boys are okay.