Reflections from a Roman Catholic theologian [1] – justification

I’ve been rereading the Roman Catholic theologian James Alison’s excellent book Undergoing God. It’s essentially a series of transcriptions of lectures and addresses he’s given, so the prose can be a little hard to follow at times. Well worth pursuing though as there are some real gems of wisdom to be found here.

I thought with increased tensions between the RC and Protestant (particularly Anglican) churches at the moment, I’d share some of James Alison’s reflections I’ve found particularly insightful. I hope it will serve as a reminder that although he thinks he speaks for all Roman Catholics, Ratzinger really doesn’t…

So, my first chosen reflection is on justification (no biggy then!).

"And of course, it is not for nothing that sincerity is a virtue particularly appreciated in cultures strongly marked by the Reformation, since it is the virtue of the one who is justified by faith. If you believe it strongly enough, passionately enough, then the belief itself makes you good. The object of the belief is less important than the force of the conviction itself." (Undergoing God, James Alison, p.181)

This, for me, sums up a huge problem that lies at the centre of the entire justification by faith/works debate which continues to rage today. The harder I work for God / the more faith I have in God / the harder I pray to God etc the more justified I will be in God’s eyes. That for me, is a false reality and a false hope as it leads to the belief that we must somehow earn God’s favour, whether by faith or works. Grace is not something which can be earned, but something freely given. N.T.Wright explains brilliantly exactly how we’ve been getting the entire concept of justification wrong here. The article is long but well worth a read.

Wright’s repositioning on the issue of justification rather blows the whole faith/works debate out of the water for me. If both can be seen as stemming from God’s declaration of justification, one might even say as being "fruits of the Spirit", then where is the problem as far as Christians are concerned?

I suppose the elephant in the room remaining is whether "all the service thou hast done to Tash, I accept as service done to me [Aslan]" and "no service which is vile can be done to me [Aslan], and none which is not vile can be done to him [Tash]" are truths or merely good story-telling (CS Lewis, The Last Battle). The question of other religions is another story and will have to wait for another day…

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