2007February28, Wednesday

Why Protestants Are So Festidious About Catholicism

Posted in Random Thoughts, The Church at 10:14 by Trey Austin

I was writing some comments about the doctrine of merit on another blog, and i had a thought: what if the reason Protestants (Reformed ones especially) are so festidious about their differences with Romanism is that they are so very much like them in so many ways?

One statement that i often make when i am teaching about the history of Protestantism and especially about what it means to be Reformed is that “Reformed” is an adjective, and it has to describe something. We can’t just be “Reformed”; we have to be a Reformed something. Adjectives modify nouns, and while the noun may be almost always assumed with the use of a word like “Reformed,” it is still there. But what *IS* that noun? Some people might say Christians; what we are is “Reformed Christians,” but then that makes Romanists “Non-Reformed Christians”–and that’s true, as far as it goes, since we are cut from the same bolt, after all. But the same thing is true on the other side as well: Romanists are, as they are most often referred to, Roman Catholics, but they don’t own the word “Catholic” (cf. Second Helvetic Confession’s discussion of the Holy Catholic Church), and so we are Reformed Catholics.

But in discussing this issue of merit and seeing how traditional Reformed Protestants formulate their understanding of Christ’s work, it is plainly obvious that, while Romanism and Reformed Protestantism have strong differences over how they would explain people are saved from God’s wrath and curse, we also have lots of overlap, including the idea of merit that is through-and-through soaked into the fabric of Reformedom. They might not like the terminology of “congruent” and “condign” merit, but the formulation of Christ earning merit in order to give to his people is itself condign merit (the condign merit of Christ given to his people). “A Rose by any other name,” and all that. They might not affirm the Roman doctrine of receiving either condign or congruent merit from the saints (no self-respecting Protestant would!); they might not call it “condign merit” (anyone know any Reformed folks that throw that term around in anything but a perjorative way?), but it is condign merit nonetheless.

Now, i have met a few fringe Protestants (thinking about it, it really might be hard to characterize them as being Protestants in the proper sense) who deny the doctrine of rewards at all, but when the majority of Reformed Protestants speak of God rewarding us for doing works that, in themselves, do not “merit” the reward given them, they are, ipso facto, speaking of congruent merit, even if they would never think about using that term. You can’t get around it.

Western Christians, whether Roman or Reformed Catholics, cannot get away from the mindset that distinguished Western thought from Eastern. We are part and parcel of the same broader culture; the theological concerns (i.e., legal issues, issues of freedom, and issues concerning respect and dignity of individuals, &c.) that gave rise to Medieval Romanist explanations are the same concerns that Reformed Protestants have, even if they give a tweaked answer to those questions. Let’s face it: while Reformed Prostestants love to hate Romanism as a system of doctrine (let’s hope it’s not Romanists as people), they hold to a system that is an awful lot like it in a great many ways.  But in the final analysis, all that means is that they have to go to great lengths to emphasize those differences that exist, which are, by comparison to differences even to Eastern Christians, relatively minor.



  1. Tim Prussic said,

    Sorry to say it, but this is just more of the same kinda stuff. Have you been discussing merit recently with folks other than me? One way or t’other, MY definitions clearly rule out the medieval notions of condign and congruent merit. Still you persist in using them and thus beating on a straw man. Do you actually have SOMEONE in mind or some writing in mind that you’re attacking?Basically, I feel like you’ve not engaged me directly. Rather, it seems your engaging some notion of “merit” that’s in your head. THAT notion deserves to be opposed, but I’m just not so sure that it exists in the Reformed world. I think I’ve certainly demonstrated that it doesn’t exist in MY head.

  2. Tim Prussic said,

    Why did my not make a break? Hey, Trey, wanna give me some lessons on how to make cool blog things like hyperlinks and italics, ktl.

    Thanks in advance. By the way, am I your FIRST commenter?

  3. Tim Prussic said,

    I guess I figured out how to bold and to make spaces


    I have to do is return. That’s nice.

  4. Tim, i had to check again, but i’m sure i didn’t put your name in anything that i wrote. Seriously, i really like discussin’ with you, and i have nothing against you, nor your formulation of merit. The only point i had in mind in my post was not so much about your arguments for a certain kind of merit, but in the general way that merit is treated in Reformed circles and how it bears a resemblance to Romanist theology. The point is nothing about merit itself, but the irony at the heart of the hatred among the Reformed for anything and everything Romanist, when they still attempt to make use of Romanist capital. The reason that i’m guessing is that, *BECAUSE* they are so similar to Romanism in so many ways, they are desperately trying, at all costs, to differentiate themselves.

  5. BTW, you may have been the first to comment on *THIS* thread, but (i’m sorry to say), you weren’t the first to comment!

  6. Tim Prussic said,


  7. Tim Prussic said,

    As to the merit thing, I’d like to see some documentation of this notion of merit that is so Romelike.

    I know you didn’t mention me (and it’s not that I’m beggin’ for the press, either). However, I’m the only person (that I’ve read) on Wilson’s blog that’s attempting to lay down definitions OTHER than that of condign and congruent merit. In the midst of these discussions, EVERYONE (including the Dark Lord himself) that I’ve been reasoning with has granted me that for which I’ve contended (covenantal merit theology). And that because my notion is clearly different from our foggy notions of medieval theology and Popish difficulties.

    My little feathers are roughed up because, both there and here, folks are still talking as if no definitions were stipulated. They’re still condemning the foggy notions mentioned above. Moreover, they’re imputing such foggy notions to “Reformed circles” with broad brushes. I think they (and you) are missing the canvas. That’s all.

    Oh, by the way, I like you.

  8. Tim, actually, the point is not that Reformed folks self-consciously hold to a Romanist-style merit system. The point is that their own explanations of what Christ did and what we do as Christians and how God acts toward us is analogous, with only the saints thing taken out. No other person i have spoken with or read on the topic of merit has made the defined stipulations that you and i have discussed (i.e., that God defines the terms of a Covenant, that the interaction between God and man in those Covenants is seen as filial and familial rather than simply legal and contractual). So, as i say, i like you, too, and i’m not trying to paint so broad that i paint off the canvas. I will remind you of a couple of things, though: first, this is a blog, and brevity is greatly valued (who wants to come to a blog and read paragraphs upon paragraphs of qualifications and distinctions; plus my point wasn’t primarily about a detailed survey of merit theology, anyway); second, if you weren’t so keen on keeping that “merit” word, you’d be much less likely to sense any kind of criticism in comments made against the traditional Protestant understanding of it (in other words, don’t stand so near the easel if you’re afraid the paint gets off the canvas!).

  9. Tim Prussic said,

    A painted man, huh? I guess that’s better than a painted lady, or a STRUMPET, if you will.

    It’s funny, on Wilson’s BLOG, folks have spent much time and space defining terms like condign and congrent. Doesn’t seem there’s an aversion to definitions on blogs.

    Further, I’m only insistent on the term “merit” because it’s an historic term, further, it’s a Reformed and confessional term. I’m trying to be conservative with our terminology. Part of the reaction against FV is that they (esp. folks like Steve S. and Rich L.) seem to want just to throw out traditional formulations (“The three uses of the Law are illegal!”). I’d much rather work within the historic confines and not shock people into opposition.

  10. katecho said,

    Pastor TA,

    Thank you for your helpful comments at Blog and Mablog. With sympathies toward Tim’s plight over the use of the word “merit”, the term simply requires too many qualifiers to keep it from sounding like wage-earning — especially when it has been used precisely in that way in Church history.

    Sadly, many Christians who are smart enough to know that man can’t earn or merit his own way to eternal glory, have, nevertheless, concluded that the only way to get there is for it to be earned or merited by somebody. In other words, they affirm that man’s striving to earn and merit from God is actually the correct way to approach God, if only man’s works weren’t corrupted as they are. So instead they look to Christ’s earning/meriting, where others continue to strive with their own meriting.

    The whole construction is just flawed. It says that the only way to God’s favor is through earning/merit. Taken to its conclusion, this is nothing but a denial of grace. God is not allowed to freely give, someone must first earn it from God, and since we can’t obligate God, we look to Christ to obligate God for us, by earning for us. True grace is nowhere in this scheme, since, even if it looks like a gift from God, meriting always came first.

    Unfortunately, some of the anti-FV folks, like Dr RS Clark, in particular, defend the “Covenant of Works” precisely in this way. In order to get anything from God it must be the result of someone working (whether Adam pre-fall, or Christ). This is what the Covenant of Works means to Clark. It’s quite sad.

    Anyway, thank you for your helpful contribution.

    Tim, I’m certainly not suggesting that your use of the word merit requires the paradigm that I described above. I think you see the problem with it. I just can’t see a way to rescue the term merit from slipping back into that paradigm, and I’m not sure I really love the word merit enough to try.

    And He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost.

    And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.

    God gave Adam dominion over all of the works of His hands, without cost, and without Adam having to merit anything. God gives the nations to the Son in the same fashion. The two Adams were God’s sons, and He treated them as such, not as employees who had to earn a wage to obligate Him to respond.

  11. Trey Austin said,


    Thanks for your comments. I tend to agree with you about how troublesome the word “merit” can be.

    The real issue at stake here is whether Meredith Kline’s premise is correct: that law is primary before promise or grace. Paul seems to say the exact opposite thing when it comes to the relationship between the Law of Moses and the promise given through Abraham. Paul seems to take grace as prevening law.

    That seems to be the pattern set up even from the first of creation, where God gives good things and then gives commands (i.e., laws) to administer his grace. The same is true for Abraham, who was graciously called and promised an inheritance and legacy and a land not his own, and then, after that, he was told to walk before Jehovah and be blameless and he was given the Covenant obligation of circumcision.

    This, i think, is the heart of the debate. The Broad Evangelicals in the Reformed denominations (mostly in the PCA) don’t have a dog in the fight, but the confessional ones do. They’re the ones fighting over it, and with the Westminster Standards, the answer to the question can be answered in different ways from different expressions in the Confession.

    Taking the issue back to merit, the deal is that merit seems to imply the law before grace thing. That grace is what is given to people who have broken the law, but merit is what is given to those who keep it. In reality, Grace is given from the very outset, and obedience to the law is righteousness in responding properly to God’s grace, which response is itself a function of grace.

    Now, with the proper qualifications, like Tim has made, the word can serve the grace before law paradigm as well. The fact, though, that it has the connotation of earning something and obligating someone to pay them their wages (which, in the qualifications set down, it cannot really mean)–because of that baggage to the terms, i just think it’s better to stick with the biblical language of righteousness and leave it with that.

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