Monday, December 28, 2009

Faith & Works

The Protestant notion of "faith alone" has always been a little strange to me, even when I was a protestant. It didn't seem to take into account the way that God's grace transforms us to be more like Him.

Can someone who has faith, but doesn't love, be saved?

The answer is obviously no.

To say otherwise is to invert Paul's hierarchy of virtues: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." 1 Corinthians 13:13

We know that love is necessary. But a good protestant might object that the sort of faith we're talking about isn't simple belief, but a "loving faith." That's fair enough.

But then the challenge is why use the phrase "faith alone" when we really mean "faith + love?" In fact, the phrase is even more suspicious than that. Consider that this is the only time the phrase "faith alone" appears in scripture…

"You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." James 2:24

Here is what the Catechism says about Faith…

1814 Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. By faith "man freely commits his entire self to God."78 For this reason the believer seeks to know and do God's will. "The righteous shall live by faith." Living faith "work[s] through charity."79

1815 The gift of faith remains in one who has not sinned against it.80 But "faith apart from works is dead":81 when it is deprived of hope and love, faith does not fully unite the believer to Christ and does not make him a living member of his Body.

1816 The disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it: "All however must be prepared to confess Christ before men and to follow him along the way of the Cross, amidst the persecutions which the Church never lacks."82 Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation: "So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven."83

79 Rom 1:17; Gal 5:6.
80 Cf. Council of Trent (1547): DS 1545.
81 Jas 2:26.
82 LG 42; cf. DH 14.
83 Mt 10:32-33.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Euthyphro Problem in a Monotheistic Context

Plato's dialogue Euthyphro presents a logical problem about the meaning of piety (or more broadly, the Good) in a polythestic society. The basic question: "Is something good because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is good?"

In its original polytheistic context, it was a way for Plato to point to the fact that there is some external moral standard that even the gods must bow to.

Occasionally, modern skeptics or atheists will attempt to use the same line of argument to make the idea of a monotheistic God problematic. This modern adaptation follows the these lines.

"Is something good because God approves it, or does God approve it because it is good?"

1. If we answer that something is good because God approves it, then it would seem that the good is merely arbitrary, and that tomorrow God could declare cannibalism and adultery good. Clearly a God of this sort wouldn't be a God worthy of worship.

2. If we answer that God approves something because it is good, then it would seem that there is something superior to God that even God must obey. This sort of God clearly isn't omnipotent, and thus isn't the sort of God that monotheistic religions worship.

But the problem with this line of argument is that it presupposes a contrast between God and the Good which isn't possible in the classic monotheism of Augustine, Aquinas, etc. In their conception, there can be no contrast between God and the Good because God is the Good. The self-identity of God as the Good renders the question itself nonsensical.

"Is something good because the Good approves it, or does the Good approve it because it is good?"

The question no longer poses a problem. The answer is simply, yes, it is good because the Good approves it, and yes, the Good approves it because it is good.

This classic conception of God as the Good is shared across the monotheistic religions, but it was originally worked out specifically in relation to the idea that Christ is the Logos. The word Logos has many meanings in the philosophical tradition, but they include things like Reason, Moral Law, Wisdom, etc.

Because of this, arguments which depends on a contrast between God and the Good can only succeed with a sort of super-voluntaristic understanding of God's sovereignty which override an understanding of God's unchangeable nature as the Good itself.