Saturday, June 17

Faith Vs. Works: A pseudo-historical perspective

The Roman Catholic Church at the time of Martin Luther had two merits. Firstly, it attributed Christianity to existence, the life and actions of a person. Christianity was conceived of in an existential way, and was essentially tied to the everyday life of a person. Its second merit was the importance laid on solitude, as the monk was daily involved in techniques that relied on inwardness and peacefulness to commune with God. These two merits are very significant in attaining and maintaining an authentic religion of Christianity.

There were also, however, two significant errors that provoked Martin Luther and the protestant movement in rejecting the Catholic Church of that time. First of all, although it related Christianity to existence, it attributed the wrong kinds of action to piety. Holiness was defined by actions such as fasting, entering the monastery, performing traditions and rites, and not the existential directives of Jesus. It was in this way that Christianity had in a sense reverted back to the religion of the Pharisees.

The second error was the Roman Catholics concept of “meritousness”, meaning if you perform good works you can gain favour from God. Meritousness gradually expanded as good works not only affected the individuals relationship to God but others who were associated with him, as it was a common practice in those times for Catholics to give money to the Church in order to help their dead family members or relatives who would supposedly benefit from this monetary donation. This error climaxed when the Church virtually operated as a business, peasants would come and pay them and perform other frivolous activities, and in return the Church would bless them and give away salvation to the highest bidder.

It was at this point that Martin Luther appeared, and he concluded that the age was in dreaded spiritlessness. Luther argued that salvation that was earned by works resulted in either despair or presumptousness. If a person could not live up to the high and strict standards that the church had set for him, the individual would consider himself unrighteous and his heart would be filled with despair and depression. On the other hand, if a person thought he upheld these strict standards he would become proud and judgmental (just like the Pharisees). Accordingly, Luther proposed that man be saved by “faith alone”, which taken alone is a very dangerous concept.

Because of the severity of the situation he saw around him, Luther saw it fit to completely ignore the words of St. James (who said that faith without works is dead). In Luther’s own life good works was abundant, but he had failed to articulate this aspect of his own Christianity in his writings. In this sense it was an overreaction to what he perceived as a dire situation, and it led his followers to misinterpret and exaggerate this statement throughout the following generations. Given enough time, Luther’s words of “faith alone” became a doctrine, and strict Protestantism is the present day result. People who said Salvation is entirely works wanted merit for their actions, and people who said it was entirely faith wanted to be freed from works. As I argued in my last Faith vs. Works post, neither is correct, and both distort Christianity into something it is not.

(I give credit where credit is due, and a good deal of the ideas in this post was based from a passage in Kierkegaard’s work “Judge for Yourself!”… Also, I mean no offence to Catholics or Lutherans. People are not defined by their religion; since it is the people that define the religion, and I understand what is true of Catholicism in those days is not necessarily true of today.)