Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Treasury of Merits and Indulgences

The doctrine of the Treasury of Merits and Indulgences is perhaps the Roman Catholic teaching that is most offensive to Protestant and Eastern Orthodox ears. This is largely because it is tied up with so many popular conceptualisations that are unnecessary and misleading. So, I will begin my (qualified) defence of the doctrine with a list of what it does NOT mean.

The doctrine is:

NOT to be dogmatically interpreted through the lens of all popular or common theological imagery. The vast majority of this is not dogma, as the strictly dogmatic content of the doctrine is quite small, and open to various interpretations.

NOT a claim that we merit condignly of ourselves or that our works are perfect and worthy of eternal life in themselves. Merit is based on the Justice of the Covenant, not on the Justice of strict Equity. God freely promises rewards for our works. Hence we have a “right” to the reward by grace. (See Luke 12:29-34, 1 Corinthians 3:14, Galatians 6:8-9, and 2 Timothy 4:8. See also the section on Merit in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2006-2011, and Aquinas' Summa Theologica, as quoted here.)

NOT a claim of a simple transfer (in indulgences) from the finite merits of the Saints to Christians here or in Purgatory, where that would mean they would be diminished over time for all or some Saints, and thus even “run out” from particular sources. No such woodenly literal claim has ever been made, that I am aware of. Instead, Pope John Paul II said in an address to a General Audience (29th September 1999): “The Church has a treasury, then, which is "dispensed" as it were through indulgences. This "distribution" should not be understood as a sort of automatic transfer, as if we were speaking of "things". It is instead the expression of the Church's full confidence of being heard by the Father when - in view of Christ's merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints - she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace. In the unfathomable mystery of divine wisdom, this gift of intercession can also benefit the faithful departed, who receive its fruits in a way appropriate to their condition.”

NOT a claim that the merits of the Saints increase those of Christ's, properly speaking. Why not? All the Saints' merits are seen to be based on and subsist in Christ's Merits, since he alone earned the sanctifying grace that allowed the saints to merit at all, according to Tridentine teaching. Also, one cannot increase an infinite quantity by addition, and Christ's Merits are taught to be infinite. This insight can be seen in the Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences of Pope Paul VI: “Thus is explained the "treasury of the Church" which … [is] ... the infinite and inexhaustible value the expiation and the merits of Christ Our Lord have before God, offered as they were so that all of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. It is Christ the Redeemer Himself in whom the satisfactions and merits of His redemption exist and find their force.[21] This treasury also includes the truly immense, unfathomable and ever pristine value before God of the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints” (emphasis added).

NOT a claim that the merits of the saints are the basis of our forgiveness. Instead, the merit of the saints is seen as dependent on their own forgiveness and renewal through Christ's Merits (see my previous essay on Justification). And our own forgiveness (and remission of the punishment of eternal condemnation) is also based on Christ's Merits alone. It is not the forgiveness of sin but the reduction of any purifying, disciplinary punishment remaining after forgiveness which is the object of indulgences. That such a process can be necessary after forgiveness is taught in the Scriptures, as I have argued before in a previous essay on this subject, and as the previous Pope argued well in the address already quoted, in a passage which is also worth quoting: “At first sight, to speak of punishment after sacramental forgiveness might seem inconsistent. The Old Testament, however, shows us how normal it is to undergo reparative punishment after forgiveness. God, after describing himself as "a God merciful and gracious ... forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin", adds:  "yet not without punishing" (Ex 34: 6-7). In the Second Book of Samuel, King David's humble confession after his grave sin obtains God's forgiveness (cf. 2 Sm 12: 13), but not the prevention of the foretold chastisement (cf. ibid., 12: 11; 16: 21). God's fatherly love does not rule out punishment, even if the latter must always be understood as part of a merciful justice that re-establishes the violated order for the sake of man's own good (cf. Heb 12: 4-11).” However, since God is never limited to such means, due to his omnipotent and sovereign mercy, he can repair the damage and remove the interior obstacles to our growth in grace and charity in other ways, which is effectively what the Church confidently requests from God in an Indulgence.

NOT a claim that indulgences work automatically or ex opere operato. For a start, the recipient of the indulgence is benefited by it conditionally, in proportion to their sincere penitence and faith-alive-with-love. Too, the dispositions of the human minister are relevant, as the view that irresponsible doling out of indulgences undermines their effectiveness was voiced and not rejected at the Council of Trent. Also, while the granting of indulgences to the living was said there to be “per modum absolutionis”, that is, performed by the Church using its juridical authority to bind and loose, the question of whether this applied only to the (now hypothetical) canonical penance the Church once applied for particular sins, or to whatever disciplinary punishment God would apply as well, was not settled authoritatively and continues to be debated to this day. Cajetan in that age and Rahner in our own are examples of RC theologians who have denied that the Church had jurisdiction over how God deals with the punishments or intrinsic “remains” of sin, as opposed to its own extrinsic penalties. Thus it is perfectly permissible for a RC to believe that not only are the benefits to the dead of indulgences due to intercessory prayer (“per modum suffragii”), as Trent explicitly taught, but that the benefits to the living are based on exactly the same principle outside the realm of now defunct ecclesiastical penances. These facts are important because they mean that it is NOT being claimed that, inasmuch as “satisfaction” or Purgatorial disciplines are seen as primarily healing the internal effects of sin on the soul rather than paying off an external debt of punishment (cf. Aquinas, S.T. II(1) Q87 A6), this medicinal process can be wholly or partly obviated by mere ecclesiastical fiat and an outward transfer of “merit” unrelated to the inward progress of the soul.

What then, is the significance of this RC doctrine? The Treasury of Merits benefits those Christians in via to glory, whether in the Church Militant or Church Expectant, by undergirding the whole Church's intercession out of mutual love. That is, the Merits are not a fund diminished by transfer and subject to direct manipulation, but like an infinite sea that allows intercessory prayer its power. If we read carefully John 15:7,16, Hebrews 4:15-16 & 10:19-22, James 5:16 and 1 John 3:22, we will discover abundant evidence that the fruitful, sacrificial obedience of first and foremost, Christ, and then, derivatively, that of the saints, is the basis of confident, priestly prayer among all Christians, including of course the Saints in Heaven. This flowering forth of, and this calling upon the Infinite Merit occurs in all effective Christian prayer, especially that of the Saints in Heaven. But it occurs in a public, episcopally authorised way for the specific purpose of diminishing purgatorial discipline, when Indulgences call on this Treasury of Merit, doing so deliberately in the context of and dependent upon the ongoing intercession of Christ and his whole Body.

Thus this doctrine and practice gives one possible ecclesial and official manifestation of the following truths:

  • God judges and disciplines his people.
  • Yet “mercy rejoices over judgement” (James 2:13) and “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
  • The prayer of a righteous man avails much (James 5:16b).
  • Christ's merits are infinite and the basis of all mercy.
  • The merits of the saints and their associated prayers are a flowering forth of Christ's merits.
  • While merits cannot literally be transferred from one Christian to another, the Merit of Christ, as exemplified in the Saints and empowering their prayers, does flow between the members of the Body of Christ, who are interconnected by these bonds of charity.


Pope Paul VI (1967) Indulgentiarum Doctrina, Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences. Available at:

Pope John Paul II (1999) “GENERAL AUDIENCE: Wednesday, 29 September 1999”. Available at:

Jesson, N. Paradise regained: Indulgences in light of the Joint Declaration. Available at:

Root, M. (2001) “The Indulgence Controversy, Again” First Things. Available at:

Beer, P.J. () “What Price Indulgences? Trent and Today” Theological Studies. Available at:

Rahner, K. (1975) “Indulgences” in K. Rahner, ed., Encyclopedia of theology: a concise Sacramentum mundi. London: Burns and Oates. American Edition Available at:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Formal Cause of Justification

The question of what is the “formal cause” of justification is often said to be the real, fundamental difference between the soteriologies of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and Protestants by theologians on both sides. We can find this assertion made by theologians such as the Anglican Richard Hooker in the 16th Century, all the way down to the Anglican C. Fitzsimons Allison and the Jesuit Robert W. Gleason in the 20th, among many others.

A number of theologians on both sides have noted that the Protestant principles of sola gratia (salvation “by grace alone”) and sola fide (“by faith alone”) are not the real difference, since both are effectively asserted in traditional Roman Catholic (RC) doctrinal sources. The Council of Trent affirms that both the forgiveness of sin and the gift of new life (which together make up “initial justification” in Tridentine terms, but justification plus initial sanctification in Protestant terms) cannot be earned, but are gratuitously given in response to living faith, that is, faith informed by love. Both sides agree that forgiveness and renewal are distinct but cannot be separated, and are given simultaneously by God.

The difference of terminology abovementioned rests upon the apparent disagreement over the “formal cause”, not merely upon how broadly one takes the connotations of the word “justification”, nor how one differentiates it from “sanctification”. There is a logomachy here, but that is not the only problem. That is shown by the fact that Protestants such as Hooker have been quite willing to call sanctification “second justification” sometimes, and so have Roman Catholic theologians in the past.

No, the essential problem is indeed the understanding of what exactly constitutes the “just-ness” of the justified, that is, the “formal cause” of justification. To better comprehend what we mean by this, we need to remind ourselves of the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophical categories of causality being used. A “substance”, a real entity, has to be actually produced by something or someone. We would simply call that the “cause” these days. Scholastically, it is the Efficient Cause. The substance normally has to be made from something pre-existing which is changed as to its nature. That is the Material Cause (where the “matter” is not limited to what scientists call matter). The reason it is produced, the purpose for which it exists, is the Final Cause. The “plan” or “shape” or “set of qualities” that make it what it is, that render the matter “such”, are the Formal Cause. Other causes can be listed, but these will do for now.

So, the Formal Cause of something is that which inheres in it to make it what it is. For a building, the formal cause might be roughly equivalent to the set of architectural plans used to build it. The material cause will be the bricks, mortar, wood and other sources used to build it. The efficient cause will be the builders themselves. If the building is a Fire Station, for example, the final cause will be the need to house firefighters and their equipment.

For justification, the RCC said in the Council of Trent that the sole formal cause is sanctifying grace imparted to and thus inhering in the Christian, that is, the objectively cleansed and renewed state of the human nature within that Christian. Protestants like Hooker, on the other hand, have claimed that the sole formal cause of justification (or at least of “first justification”) is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us as an external “covering” of our sin and guilt.

The Protestant criticism of the RC position is that it makes our acceptance with God dependent on our degree of goodness or works, thus denying the Gospel of grace and the bold access to God provided for us through the Cross alone (Galatians 6:14, Ephesians 2:8-9, Hebrews 10:19-22). The RC criticism the other way is that the imputational definition reduces salvation to a legal fiction, a mere whitewashing of sepulchres (cp. Matthew 23:17). One purpose in this essay is to show that both criticisms are unfair and based on misunderstandings. The other is to show how both perspectives can be integrated without either side denying its doctrine.

The first obstacle that must be overcome is a category error. The problem with the Protestant insistence upon extrinsic imputation of Christ's merits or righteousness as the formal cause of justification is that it cannot be so according to Scholastic definitions, and “formal cause” is after all a Scholastic term borrowed from Aristotelian analysis. Forms inhere in matter (unless we are referring to purely spiritual beings) and subsist substantially. Sanctifying grace, insofar as it involves a change in the nature of the redeemed person, inheres in that person. (As an aside, sanctifying grace could be said to be an “accidental form” to the person as a human being, but a “substantial form” to the person as a Christian in a state of grace.)

Imputational justification does not have, therefore, properly speaking, a formal cause because it is not in the Aristotelian categories of Substance or Quality but that of Relation. Aristotle recognised 10 categories, which can be reduced to 4: Substance, Quality, Quantity, Relation. Going back to our Fire Station as an example, the Station itself is a substance. Whether or not it is north or south of the nearest Police Station does not affect it intrinsically, and so is a matter of Relation. If one of its resident fire-fighters comes to view it with great affection as a second home, that is also a relational attribute of the Fire Station. Standing/status/position, the very words commonly used by Protestants to describe what imputational justification involves instead of “state”, are to do with how something or someone is “located” with respect to, or “viewed” by, another entity. Imputational justification is extrinsic to us in itself, hence the other Protestant term, “justitia aliena”. While this term was a novum at the Reformation, the concept can be found in the Fathers. (For example, the anonymous letter to Diognetus says, “For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange ! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!” Similarly, St Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Philadelphians says, “His cross, and his death, and his resurrection, and the faith which is through him, are my unpolluted muniments; and in these, through your prayers, I am willing to be justified.” And St Ambrose, “I have nothing, therefore, whereby I may glory in my works; I have nothing to boast of, and, therefore, I will glory in Christ. I will not glory because I am righteous, but because I am redeemed. I will not glory because I am free from sin, but because my sins are pardoned. I will not glory because I have done good to any one, or any one has done good to me, but because Christ is my advocate with the Father, and because Christ’s blood was shed for me.)

This claim of a category error has effectively been put before by the Jesuit theologian Joseph Devine. Anglican Martin Foord objected to it on the basis that justification is “the action of God acquitting a person”, so that imputation can be internal in that act as a formal cause. But even if we grant that this term can be applied to an act as well as a substance or a quality of it, Foord's objection (which he roots in Hooker) misses the point. The word translated “justification” from the Council of Trent is, as far as I can see, always the noun and never the gerund or infinitive form in the Latin. In other words, it most naturally refers to justification as the resulting “justified-ness” of the Christian not as the “justify-ing” process applied to the Christian. The same can be said of all the related words in chapter VII of the Sixth Session: e.g., renovatio (renewal), remissio (remission). This subtle point is important because it means that there was no way the Tridentine fathers could have made imputation a formal cause of justification without affirming the impossible: that an extrinsic relation to a person was an inherent characteristic of them.

I suggest that Protestants accept that imputed justice is not strictly a formal cause of justification qua “justified-ness”, but what can be rightly called a “relational cause”. There is no reason why they cannot stretch the term “formal cause” to cover imputation within justification qua “justify-ing”. They can proclaim Christ's merits “covering” our sin (and God declaring and treating us as not-guilty) as a formal cause sensu lato within salvation-as-relation-and-divine-act without contradicting Trent at all, which was addressing something different.

It is worth noting that putting imputation into the category of relation does not belittle it. Let us not forget that St Augustine elevated the Aristotelian concept of relation to something like equality with substance when he used it to “describe” the Trinity. Each member of the Trinity he sees as “subsistent relation” within the Divine “Substance”. As imperfect as this conception may be, it allows us to speculate that the relational aspect of our salvation is ontologically richer than purely forensic metaphors might suggest at first.

The second obstacle to overcome is the nominal difference in the use of the word justification. The RCC defines justification as God not only calling but also making us righteous or just. Protestants define justification as God declaring us righteous or “not guilty”, and so treating us as innocent of sin. Both say this is all done on account of Christ's work on the Cross. More to the point, both are utilising definitions consistent with biblical usage.

The reference to men having “justified” God in Luke 7:29, Jesus' Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) and Romans 4:5-8 fit best with the “Protestant” declarative, imputational definition, for example.

But the same dikaio- family of words as used in Romans 5 cannot be limited this way. For example, verses 16 to 19 connect the whole family of these words together and assert that the end result is to be “made righteous” (v. 19). That this is not merely imputational is shown by the deliberate parallelism between “made sinners” and “made righteous”. Nobody claims that Adam's sin only made his descendants sinners nominally or by judicial declaration without the reality behind it. No, as Adam's sin really constituted mankind as sinful by affecting our nature, so Christ's saving act really re-constituted man's nature. Even part of Romans 4 points in this direction when it refers to God calling into existence the things that do not exist (v. 17), which would make his declaration simultaneously an impartation of righteousness anyway. That this verse is relevant to justification is clear from its associated mention of God bringing life from the dead when compared to verse 25, which associates resurrection and justification. Similarly, Ephesians 4:24 makes righteousness a quality of the new creation in us. So, both definitions or connotations are permissible.

The problem, then, is that when the formal cause is being discussed RC and Protestant theologians are trying to answer different questions. The RCC is asking: “What is the nature of the righteousness that is imparted to and inheres in us, i.e., what is it that 'informs', in the technical sense, the nature of the saved person?” Protestants are asking instead: “What renders us as innocent or not guilty of sin in God's sight and therefore in a right (legal) relationship with him?” The irony is that, bracketing the word justification, the RC and Protestant answers to each of these questions are the same: sanctifying grace and free forgiveness, respectively. Protestants (like Hooker) accept that there is an imparted righteousness in the sanctification (sanctifying grace) of the Christian. RCs say the remission of sins occurs “gratuitously by divine mercy for Christ's sake” (Chapter IX, Sixth Session), with no mention of a meritorious basis in sanctifying grace. Indeed, remission and renewal/sanctification are clearly distinguished at the beginning of chapter VII of the same Session, but all are considered parts of justification.

If, as I claim, RC justification = imputation + impartation, remission + renewal, the Tridentine bishops still had to give the (sole) formal cause as they did (see above). If we exclusively and strictly limit justification to imputation, on the other hand, the only thing approaching a formal cause is what quality is imputed or what God chooses to “see” instead of our sin, so to speak. Then the Protestant answer is almost inevitable, as is its dogmatic rejection of the Roman position, partly on the assumption that the Roman position denies imputation and bases our acceptance into God's favour on “how good he makes us”, so to speak.

The third obstacle therefore is the belief, shared among many Protestant and Catholic theologians, that Trent does not allow for any imputational aspect to justification. This belief is false. What Trent denies, in its own words, is “that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost” (Canon 11 on Justification, emphasis added).

Nevertheless, despite the absence of substantial dogmatic incompatibility in this area, there remain practical difficulties. The RC doctrine of salvation as enunciated at the Council of Trent exhibits three deficiencies (as distinct from errors).

First, as seen above, while it allows for imputational and relational aspects to justification, it does so apparently only implicitly, grudgingly and in passing.

Second, it gives the impression that salvation is earned by saying that Christians can merit Heaven. This tends to be misleading even when all the traditional RC qualifications of the word “merit” are taken into account. Briefly, these qualifications are: That there is no strict right in equity for humans to any reward based on their good deeds, since these deeds are imperfect, finite, and assume a prior unmerited forgiveness of sins. That what reward is owed human beings is owed because of gratuitous divine promise rather than natural equity. That the only element of human action truly worthy of such reward (and thus able to be attributed with “condign merit”) is the inspiration by the Holy Spirit that caused the action. (These traditional qualifications may be found in Aquinas and other authoritative sources, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.) So, when the RCC says a Christian merits heaven, they mean no more than what St Paul means in Galatians 6:7-10 and 2 Timothy 4:7-8. That is, good works done in the power of the Holy Spirit lead to eternal life because God is faithful to his gracious promise. That promise includes both an acquittal from the Divine Judge for Christ's true disciples, and a reward for them also based on their works. (Apart from the misleading nature of the word merit in this context, we also find that there is another problem related to the first part of the promise being ignored in the key part of the Tridentine decrees, as discussed next.)

Third, in the same section dealing with the reward of eternal life (Chapter XVI, Sixth Session) there is no direct mention of our reliance on Christ's blood covering our sins for entry into Heaven. Yes, there is mention on the reliance on Christ to do the good works, and there is a general mention of eternal life being “a grace mercifully promised”, but nothing about the fact that bad deeds, that is, sins, have to be remitted and not imputed as a fundamental condition of entry into Life, before good deeds performed by living faith are even considered. Now, a RC might note that the fact that entry into heaven depends on forgiveness is treated as “assumed knowledge” by this Chapter, having been discussed in Chapters VII, VIII and XI. But it is hard to deny that a complete omission of it when it comes to the specific teaching about entering eternal life gives a dangerous impression. That impression is that we really can simply earn heaven, and, worse still, that we cannot enter it unless we do. This does undermine the Gospel. And there is plenty of evidence that the sola gratia core of the Gospel is also often missed in popular RC teaching as well, as recorded by not only the Reformers within and outside of the RCC in the Sixteenth Century, but by RCs even today, as I have quoted before.

One way for the RCC to deal with these deficiencies would be to release a doctrinal clarification that brought together the necessary qualifications, which are already found anyway in various parts of their theological tradition, into one soteriological decree. This would include strong affirmation of the imputational and relational aspects of justification, the analogical and limited use of the word merit, and the necessary and perpetual dependence of final salvation on imputational justification. It would also note that when considering “justification” as the process of justifying in the act of forgiveness, rather than as the result of justifying, it is legitimate to speak of Christ's righteousness covering our sins as a “formal cause” in some sense. It would be beneficial if such a clarification admitted the fact that “justification” is used at times in Scripture with a basically imputational emphasis, as authoritative modern RC exegetes admit. Finally, an official enunciation of the common RC theological opinion that Christians can and should acquire “moral certainty” regarding their salvation (even though they cannot have absolute certainty without private revelation) would counterbalance the solely negative statement at Trent, and would, along with the features above, increase the benefits of healthy Christian “assurance” and peace for its flock.


Armstrong, D. (2010) “Do Catholics Believe in Imputed Justification, External Righteousness, and Justification by Faith Alone? Yes (!), With Proper Biblical Qualifications”, Web Address:

Foord, M. (2000) “Richard Hooker's Doctrine of Justification” Churchman 114(4). Web Address:

Kirby, T., ed. (2008) A Companion to Hooker, Leiden: Brill. Web Address:

As well as the Council of Trent and Aquinas' Summa Theologica, of course.