English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities --"Baroque and Enlightenment"

Justification in traditional Christianity

[Please see the note of acknowledgement.]

The Problem

Hence: how can a sinner ever be acceptable to God?

The Solution

Admission to heaven is now possible.  [NB:  This does not mean it is accomplished. The question arises:  how does man avail himself of this possibility.]

Inherent inclination to sin -- "concupiscence  -- remains.

But this can be overcome because individual sins will be forgiven and cleansing grace dispensed through the sacraments.

The sacraments are divinely instituted rituals in which God (in the form of the Holy Spirit) enters into history in such a way as to transform a human being's condition. In medieval Christianity, there were 7 sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the mass (eucharist, or communion), penance, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction (or last rites).

It was baptism that assured parents that newborn children would not be sent to hell if they were to die before confirmation.

THE MASS, which commemorates and re-enacts the crucifixion.

In the mass, the bread and wine, while retaining their sensible properties as bread and wine (their "accidents"), were transformed in their underlying essential nature (their "substance") into the actual body and blood of Christ. (This interpretation of what happens in the mass is known as "the doctrine of transubstantiation.") This food is the antidote for the "poison" of the forbidden fruit taken in by the First Parents and passed on to their progeny. In the words of Cardinal Cajetan (1509), the mass "invokes the sufferings of Our Lord and applies them to fallen man, bought at great price from the clutches of Satan, for healing and redemption. By it, He nourishes us from his wounded breast."

PENANCE, which consists of repentance or contrition for sin, confession to a priest, satisfaction as imposed by the confessor, and absolution.

[Luther's Ninety-five Theses concern, among other things, what the Church should teach regarding issues connected with penance.]

Justification - the medieval dispute

The Problem

(a) the relationship between God's gifts of grace and human free will;

(b) the state of mankind after the Fall.

The solution

The schola antigua The schola Augustiniana
St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) taught that concupiscence is not all-dominating. Something of the original perfect humanity survives so people are themselves able to see God and want to obey him. God responds to that wish (if it is forthcoming with an initial gift of grace. St. Augustine (d. 430) taught a pessimistic view of post-Fall humanity. Concupiscence is so strong that nobody is able even to recognise God, let alone want to do good. Free will has been lost. We are slaves to sin.
The initiative thus lies with mankind. Human effort is flawed by sin, but the crucifixion has cancelled the debt of punishment so God chooses to accept and reward that effort. Individuals are thus totally dependent on God for their salvation. It is God who decides whether or not to choose them and it is God who stimulates genuine regret for sin. Justification is gratuitous and unmerited, given by God because of the merit earned by Christ on the cross.
Justification is now a gradual, lifelong process of adding healing grace and reducing concupiscence, both fruits of the sacraments. Justification is thus an instantaneous process. Afterwards, concupiscence will be reduced by the grace of the sacraments so that the justified can co--operate with God. But salvation is not involved for it is already assured.


[1] JUSTIFICATION, in the particular theological sense in which we are using the term here, is not to be confused with the idea of "defending an accused against an accusation that he has done something wrong." It means, in accordance with its literal etymology, "making a person just." Indeed, the assumption is that the person who thus gets justified is originally, and in his own right, sinful, i.e., in the condition of having offended God's justice. That is, justification in the present sense is something done for the unrighteous rather than for the righteous, who would not need it in the first place.   Return.

[2] This memo is heavily indebted to Martin D. W. Jones, The Counter Reformation: Religion and Society in Early Modern Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 1011, 1819. The first page-and-a-half is an elaboration of Jones' Table I on p. 11. The remainder (on the medieval dispute over justification) is taken nearly verbatim from Table II on p. 18.   Return.

[3] The term "ORIGINAL SIN" handily refers at once to these two distinct but connected features: the first sin in history (i.e., that of the First Parents), and the fact that (ever since) everyone comes into history (i.e., originates) in a sinful state.   Return.

[4] CONCUPISCENCE derives from Latin concupiscere, a special form of the verb concupere, meaning "to long for." (The English verb to covet comes from the same root, cupere.) It refers to ardent desire in general, but especially desire for that which is agreeable to the senses. Pre-eminintly, however, it designates sexual lust.   Return.

[5] GRACE was understood as a divine power, infused into individual persons by God, that forgave sin, cleansed the soul, and created habits of good living,. The net effect was to "sancitfy" them, i.e., make them holy, thus in principle capable of living "in imitation of Christ in his virtue" (Cardinal d-Ailly, 1416). And holiness was the necessary condition for being allowed to enter heaven. It was conceived of as freely given by God, rather than being compelled under justice by the merits of the recipient. God's chosen means of distributing grace was via the sacraments administered by the Church. Doctrines concerning grace - its various kinds and effects - proliferated over time: we hear of prevenient grace, illuminating grace, and a host of others.   Return.

[Views on the operations of grace and on the evidence (if any) that an individual had received it, were to diverge even more radically in the course and aftermath of the Protestant Reformation].

[6] This means that, in the traditional Christian picture, every performance of a sacrament involves an ADVENT.   Return.

  Go to "Conflicts over Justification".

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  Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome.  Please send them to lyman@ksu.edu .

      See acknowledgment.

      This page last updated 01 February 1999.