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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

And justification as part of it


In the one case, the Protestant, justification is a personal experience which is complete in itself, and does not depend on any external machinery; in the other, the Mediaeval, it is a prolonged action of usages, sacraments, external machinery of all kinds, which by their combined effect are supposed to change a sinner gradually into a saint, righteous in the eyes of God. With the former, it is a continuous experience; with the latter, it cannot fail to be intermittent as the external means are actually employed or for a time laid aside.

The meaning of the Reformation doctrine of Justification by Faith may be further brought out by contrasting it with the theory which was taught by that later school of Scholastic theology which was all-powerful at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The more evangelical theory of Thomas Aquinas was largely neglected, and the Nominalist Schoolmen based their expositions of the doctrine on the teaching of John Duns Scotus.

It must be remembered that mediaeval theology never repudiated the theology of Augustine, and admitted in theory at least that man's salvation, and justification as part of it, always depended in the last resort on the prevenient grace of God; in their reverence for the teaching of Aristotle, they believed that they had also to make room for the action of the free will of man which they always looked on as the pure capacity of choice between two alternatives.

John Duns Scotus got rid of a certain confusion which existed between the _gratia operans_ and _gratia co-operans_ of Augustine by speaking of the grace of God, which lay at the basis of man's justification, as a _gratia habitualis_, or an operation of the grace of God which gave to the will of man an habitual tendency to love towards God and man. He alleged that when conduct is considered, an act of the will is more important than any habitual tendency, for it is the act which makes use of the habit, and apart from the act, the habit is a mere inert passivity. Therefore, he held that the chief thing in meritorious conduct is not so much the habit which has been created by God's grace, as the act of will which makes use of the habit. In this way the grace of God is looked upon as simply the general basis of meritorious conduct, or a mere _conditio sine qua non_, and the important thing is the act of will which can make use of the otherwise passive habit. The process of justification--and it is to be remembered that the Schoolmen invariably looked upon justification as a process by which a sinner was gradually made into a righteous man and thoroughly and substantially changed--may therefore be described as an infusion of divine grace which creates a habit of the will towards love to God and to man; this is laid hold on by acts of the will, and there result positive acts of love towards God and man which are meritorious, and which gradually change a sinner into a righteous person. This is the theory; but the theory is changed into practice by being exhibited in the framework of the Church provided to aid men to appropriate the grace of God which is the basis for all. The obvious and easiest way to obtain that initial grace which is the starting-point is by the sacraments, which are said to infuse grace--the grace which is needed to make the start on the process of justification. Grace is infused to begin with in Baptism; and it is also infused from time to tune in the Eucharist. If a man has been baptized, he has the initial grace to start with; and he can get additions in the Eucharist. That, according to the theory, is all that is needed to start the will on its path of meritorious conduct. But while this exhibits the ideal process of justification according to mediaeval theology, it must be remembered that there is mortal sin--sin which slays the new life begun in baptism--and the sacrament which renews the life slain will be practically more important than the sacrament which first creates it. Hence practically the whole process of the mediaeval justification is best seen in the sacrament which renews the life slain by deadly sins. That sacrament is Penance; and the theory and practice of justification is best exhibited in the Sacrament of Penance. The good disposition of the will towards God is seen in confession; this movement towards God is complete when confession stimulated by the priest is finished; the performance of the meritorious good works is seen in the penitent performing the "satisfactions," or tasks imposed by the priest, of prayer, of almsgiving, of maceration; while the absolution announces that the process is complete, and that the sinner has become a righteous man and is in "a state of grace."


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