Theology: September 2006 Archives

Roman Catholic Merit

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I was talking with a philosopher friend of mine who is Roman Catholic about the differences between Catholic and Protestant views on salvation and justification, and he said something that I'd never heard before. If he's right, this should make the Catholic view much more palatable to Protestants. He explained the Catholic view as follows. Salvation is initiated by a work of God's grace, an unearned, unmerited favor of God. Then we are brought to what Protestants typically call sanctification over the rest of our lives in this world, and at the end God judges the works that his grace produced in our lives to be meritorious. We actually earn our salvation. This comes only through the work of God in our lives, and thus this is what Reformed theologians tend to call monergistic. God does all the work, and we do it only because he is doing it in us. But that doesn't mean we aren't doing it. This involves compatibilism about human freedom and divine sovereignty. Synergism would mean God does part of the work, while we do the rest. That's not the Catholic view. The Catholic position is that God does all of it, and we also do all of it. In other words, the Catholic position on that is the same as that of Reformed Protestants. The only difference is that Catholics think that should count as enough to say we merit or deserve reward.

None of this was new to me, since I've written a great deal on this before. But I was pressing him on why he thought that should count as merit. His answer made a great deal of sense. When God promises something, he bestows on us a right that we wouldn't otherwise have. We now are owed something. He makes it the case that we deserve something. When he says that we will have a reward for doing something, and we do that thing, then he owes us that thing. He gives us the right to it. He makes it such that anyone who fulfills the command in question has earned the reward in question. It's conditional merit, since what makes it merit is that God promised something. It wouldn't be merit without that promise, and God had no obligation to promise it. But given that God promised it, God has an obligation to follow through on that promise and treat the actions in question as meriting the reward in question. Now maybe my friend completely misunderstands the Catholic view, but he's a pretty smart guy with a lot of philosophical training to make careful distinctions, and this is how he understands the Catholic view after having investigated it very carefully. If he's right, I'm not sure Protestants have anywhere near as serious an objection as we might otherwise have thought.

Benedict XVI and Islam

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I haven't commented on the recent brouhaha involving the pope and Islam, largely because I've been too busy to put my thoughts together. In the meantime, lots of posts I've read make some worthwhile points, and there isn't really a whole lot I have to say after all of it, but I thought I'd put them all together in the same place.

My first thought was that nothing could even be taken as offensive once you had everything in context, but Jonathan Wilson at the Elfin Ethicist thinks it's a little more complicated than that, mostly because his representation of Islam is inaccurate. Mark Goodacre also thinks it's a little unfair to Islam to say that Islam doesn't embrace reason. My problem with this complaint is that the pope never asserts anything about Islam, as far as I can see. He does quote some people who say that Muslims place God above reason and thus are not limited by it. Nowhere do the people he quotes say that Muslims see reason as bad. The reason issue is his topic, however, not Islam.

Mark puts the quote in context fairly well, and despite my disagreement of his characterization of what the pope was doing, I do very much like his concluding comment: "those who are overreacting to the speech might well wish to demonstrate the importance of reason in their thinking by engaging it rather than caricaturing it." Indeed. It has struck me as especially ironic that those who took issue with his portrayal of Islam as violent (which I don't think he really did, but that's what's being assumed) decided to confirm that very judgment by being violent in response. Does that make any sense?

I've been teaching an introductory philosophy course this semester with a new text for my God unit, Thinking About God by Greg Ganssle. It's designed to be usable for high school or introductory college/university courses, and it's just about the lowest level of detail that I would want to use for this course. I'm supplementing it some with other readings also, but it's nice to spend a lot of time just in one book after using lots of scattered readings in past versions of the course.

One thing that I found really interesting was in the section on the logical problem of evil. The logical problem of evil presents three traditional attributes of God (omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness) and then seeks to derive a contradiction if you admit to the existence of evil (which pretty much all traditional theists will do, and thus it's a problem even if the person presenting the problem doesn't happen to believe in evil, because the theist does, and it's supposed to be a contradiction for theism). Now it so happens that hardly any philosopher today accepts the logical problem of evil as a good argument, for several reasons, but in the process of explaining why Ganssle hits on an interesting issue that I hadn't thought of before. One way some people have resisted theists' attempts to respond to the problem of evil might actually help the theist in surprising ways.

A commenter on the Philosophy et cetera cross-posting of my Moral Pollution post says the following:

I don't feel that embryos are "persons" at all, in fact the only reasons I've seen to be against stem-cell research are religious ones. I admit, I haven't comprehensively studied the issue, but from what I have read, that seems to be the case.

I decided that my response was worthy of a post, which I've cross-posted at Philosophy et cetera. You don't need to know much of the abortion literature to know that this is wrong. All you need to do is pick up any of a number of standard applied ethics anthologies to know the most common argument for embryonic personhood. Most of them contain John Noonan's paper defending the traditional pro-life view, and that is indeed a philosophical argument, no matter how bad you might think the argument is.

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