In 1541, the Emperor Charles V convened a theological conference at Regensburg (also known as Ratisbon) bringing together the top Catholic theologians Johann Eck and Albertus Pighius to meet with some of the greatest theologians of the Reformation at that time, Philip Melanchthon and Martin Bucer (John Calvin was there merely to keep a watching brief). The Emperor hoped that resolving the doctrinal conflict between the Roman Catholics and the Reformers would bring unity to the empire.
The theologians quickly reached agreement on the issue of original sin and Pelagianism. The Roman Catholics made unexpected large concessions in their debate on the doctrine of justification. The conference eventually issued a statement on the subject of justification by faith which even acknowledged that it is by faith we “are justified (i.e. accepted and reconciled to God) inasmuch as it appropriates the mercy and righteousness which is imputed to us on account of Christ and his merit, not on account of the worthiness or perfection of the righteousness imparted [communicatae] to us in Christ… Although the one who is justified receives righteousness and through Christ also has inherent [righteousness]…nevertheless, the faithful soul depends not on this, but only on the righteousness of Christ given to us as a gift, without which there is and can be no righteousness at all. And so by faith in Christ we are justified or reckoned to be righteous, that is we are accepted through his merits and not on account of our own worthiness or works.” [Anthony Lane, “Appendix I: The Regensburg Agreement (1541), Article 5” in Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment (T&T Clark, 2002), p. 235.]
However, Article 5.4 requires a closer examination:
Article 5.4: [a] So it is a reliable and sound doctrine that the sinner is justified by living and efficacious faith, for through it we are pleasing and acceptable to God on account of Christ…[b] So living faith is that which both appropriates mercy in Christ, believing that the righteousness which is in Christ is freely imputed to it, and at the same time receives the promise of the Holy Spirit and love. [Anthony Lane, Ibid., p. 234.]
At first reading, this statement appears to be consistent with the fundamental insight of the Reformation of justification by faith alone. The first part [a] is acceptable to the Reformers who agree that a living faith goes beyond intellectual assent. But the second part [b] is problematic since in reality it rejects the Reformation theology of justification by faith alone (sola fide).
Both sides agreed that what was imputed was the righteousness of Christ. For the Reformers, Christ through his passive obedience satisfies divine justice when he suffered willingly and died in our place to pay the penalty of violation of God’s law. Christ also obtained true righteousness on our behalf through active obedience which refers to his whole life of perfectly obeying the law of God. It was exclusively this righteousness of Christ (solus Christus) that was imputed to us, or put to our account so that God could reckon us righteousness solely on the basis of Christ’s work. It was an alien righteousness as it originated entirely outside the believer.
On the other hand, the Roman Catholics could interpret the article to be referring to Christ righteousness being infused into the believer (through the sacraments like baptism, Eucharist, etc.) so that his “unformed faith” (fides in-formis) is empowered and cooperate with the Holy Spirit to exercise a “faith formed by love” (fides formata caritata) working towards eventual justification.
The Sixth Session of Council of Trent (1547) elaborates on the nature and the causes of the sinner’s justification: Those “awakened and assisted by his [prevenient] grace, are disposed to turn to their own justification by freely assenting to and cooperating with that grace…This disposition or preparation is followed by justification itself, which is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts, whereby the unjust person becomes just.” [Chapter 5 & 7] That is to say, “justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” and “establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church (Geoffrey Chapman, 1994), para. 1993] In effect, the believer is justified progressively by his inherent righteousness as it is merits attained by the believer through good works.
The Catholic understanding of justifying inherent righteousness clearly contradicts the Reformers understanding of justification through the alien righteousness of Christ (it is an alien righteousness precisely because the believer contributes absolutely nothing to it and is obtained by faith alone). Put simply, it is impossible to reconcile the Reformers doctrine of justification based on the imputed, alien righteousness of Christ with the Catholic doctrine of justification based on an inherent righteousness. For the Reformers salvation by grace rules out completely any room for human merits or works-righteousness. It appears that both parties were using the same biblical terms, but attached them with different meanings. For the Reformers this amounts to a distortion, if not rejection of the fundamental doctrine of justification by faith alone.
In some respects, the controversy between Reformation scholars and NPP is a replay of the divide at Regensburg. On one side are those who uphold the doctrine of justification with its emphasis on the forensic declaration of God and the imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ by faith alone. On the other side are some NPP scholars who admittedly acknowledge forensic justification, but nevertheless seem to subordinate forensic declaration to a transformative process.
Buchanan’s warning against any attempt to con-fuse forensic and transformative justification remains pertinent as ever.
At Ratisbon, the difference between the Popish and Protestant doctrines of Justification seemed to resolve itself into one point, and even on that point both parties held some views in common. It might seem, then, that there was no radical or irreconcilable difference between the two; and yet, when they came to explain their respective views, it was found that they were contending for two opposite methods of Justification,—the one by an inherent, the other by an imputed, righteousness,—the one by the personal obedience of the believer, the other by the vicarious obedience of Christ,—the one by the inchoate and imperfect work of the Spirit in men, the other by the finished work of Christ for them, when ‘He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ This fact shows the utter folly of every attempt to reconcile two systems, which are radically opposed, by means of a compromise between them. [James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of its History in the Church and of its Exposition from Scripture (T&T Clark, 1867), 136-137]
Excerpts from James Buchanan:
[The statement on the doctrine of justification at Regensburg/Ratisbon even acknowledged that faith] “leads us to mercy and righteousness, which is imputed to us through Jesus Christ and His merits, and not by any perfection of righteousness which is inherent in us, as communicated to us by Jesus Christ,’—and that ‘we are not just, or accepted by God, on account of our own works or righteousness, but we are reputed just on account of the merits of Jesus Christ only.’ [James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of its History in the Church and of its Exposition from Scripture (T&T Clark, 1867), p. 132.]
Nevertheless no agreement was achieved as the disputing parties could not agree on the precise function of faith and the ground or reason of its efficacy. For the Protestant faith is the means of justification implies an absolute renunciation of all personal achievement.
According to the Protestant doctrine, it is the means of Justification, simply because it receives and rests upon Christ alone,—because it apprehends and appropriates His righteousness as its only plea,—because it implies an absolute renunciation of all self-dependence, and consists in an entire and cordial reliance on Christ as ‘the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world,’—as ‘the propitiation for our sins through faith in His blood,’—and as ‘the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth in His name.’ But according to the Popish doctrine, faith justifies, not by uniting the sinner to Christ, and making him a partaker of Christ’s righteousness,—but by ‘working’ in him, and ‘sanctifying’ him,—by being, in its own essential nature as one of the ‘fruits of the Spirit,’ and by producing, in its actual operation as a vital principle which ‘worketh by love,’ a real inherent righteousness, which is, on its own account, acceptable to God, and which constitutes the immediate ground of his acceptance;—in short, by making him righteous, subjectively, so that thereby, and on that account, he may be reputed righteous, and obtain at once the pardon of sin, and a title to eternal life.[James Buchanan, Ibid., p. 132]
The Ratisbon statement essentially fudges on the nature and effects of justifying faith and declared “that ‘sinners are justified by a living and effectual faith, which is a motion of the Holy Spirit, whereby, repenting of their lives past, they are raised to God, and made real partakers of the mercy which Jesus Christ hath promised…which no man attains but at the same time love is shed abroad in his heart, and he begins to fulfil the law;’… though the people be taught that faith alone justifieth, yet repentance, the fear of God and of His judgments, and the practice of good works, ought to be preached unto them.”[Buchanan 132-133]
James Buchanan observes how a doctrine is couched in exact biblical terms, but still ends up rejecting, if not distorting Reformation’s cardinal proclamation of justification by faith alone.
All this is true, but it is not relevant to the question at issue. It relates to faith, not as it justifies, but as it sanctifies, a sinner. It diverts the mind from the external object of justifying faith, which is Christ alone, and His perfect righteousness; and directs it to the inward effect of faith, in changing the character and conduct of the sinner, and producing an inherent, but imperfect, righteousness of his own. The doctrine is sound and wholesome in its own place, and in its proper connection; but it becomes unsound and dangerous, when it is mixed up with the truth which relates to the ground and reason of a sinner’s pardon and acceptance with God. It virtually substitutes the work of the Spirit in us, in the place of the work of Christ for us; or, at least, it does not represent the work of the Spirit as the mere application of the redemption and righteousness of Christ, already wrought out by Him, and sufficient of itself for the immediate justification of every believer, but as being, either in whole or in part, the ground or reason on account of which God bestows His forgiveness and favour. And thus, by introducing the sanctifying effects of faith into their definition of it, as it is the means of Justification, the Popish divines made provision for falling back on their favourite doctrine of an inherent, as opposed to an imputed, righteousness; and for ultimately setting aside all the concessions which they had apparently made.
The article thus carefully concocted, and couched in ambiguous terms, was satisfactory to neither party, and was openly denounced by both. It had too much of the Gospel in it to be palatable to the consistent adherents of Rome, and too much of disguised legalism to be acceptable to the Reformed.” [Buchanan 134]
We learn another lesson from what occurred at the Diet of Ratisbon. It shows the possibility of appearing to concede almost everything, while one point is reserved, or wrapped up in ambiguous language, which is found afterwards sufficient to neutralize every concession, and to leave the parties as much at variance as before. It has been justly said that, in controversies of faith, the difference between antagonist systems is often reduced to a line sharp as a razor’s edge, yet on one side of that line there is God’s truth, and on the other a departure from it. [Buchanan, p.136]
At Ratisbon, the difference between the Popish and Protestant doctrines of Justification seemed to resolve itself into one point, and even on that point both parties held some views in common. It might seem, then, that there was no radical or irreconcilable difference between the two; and yet, when they came to explain their respective views, it was found that they were contending for two opposite methods of Justification,—the one by an inherent, the other by an imputed, righteousness,—the one by the personal obedience of the believer, the other by the vicarious obedience of Christ,—the one by the inchoate and imperfect work of the Spirit in men, the other by the finished work of Christ for them, when ‘He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ This fact shows the utter folly of every attempt to reconcile two systems, which are radically opposed, by means of a compromise between them.” [Buchanan 136-137]
Forthcoming: Two Posts in the NPP Series:
(1) Is God’s righteousness (1) a relational concept (dealing with God’s covenant faithfulness) or (2) a normative concept (dealing our right standing with God), or is (3) the Old Testament concept is actually inclusive of both relational and normative qualities?”
(2) What is the meaning of “Works of the Law” in Paul?
1) Charles Lee Irons. The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation. WUNT386 Mohr Siebeck 2015).
2) Mark Seifried, “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism, in “Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol.1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, ed. D.A. Carson, et.al., Baker, 2001 [JVN1] and “Paul’s Use of Righteousness Language Against its Hellenistic Background,” Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol.2: The Paradoxes of Paul. Ed., D.A. Carson et.al., Baker 2004. [JVN2]
3) P.T. O’Brien, “Was Paul a Covenantal Nomist?” [JVN2]
4) Moises Silva, “Faith versus Works of Law in Galatians,” [JVN2]
5) Thomas Schreiner, Galatians: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the NT (Zondervan, 2010)