by Mark Hertenstein
Mark is a Senior Staff Columnist; he writes our monthly "Protestant Perspective" column.
As a Protestant, and especially as a Lutheran, I was excited about the prospect of an encyclical from the papacy on faith. Part of me wanted to see what the papacy, after centuries of dogging the Reformers, would say on the Reformers’ primary concern, and indeed if it would reflect what Martin Luther had said all along. Part of me cringed for fear that should it not be done properly (read: the pope goes against current thought and scholarship about the issue of faith on both sides), it would perpetuate a division that should not exist between the two sides.
I was rather impressed, enough to give my own praise for the substance of the document, even if I have reservations about the style or manner in which it is presented. I say style, for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke against Luther on a couple of occasions, including Spe Salvi, but in fact used formulae of doctrine or interpretation that are in total congruity with Luther’s teachings. The manner of trying to distinguish oneself overshadowed the unity between the two. That said, this is my mostly positive assessment of those aspects that are relevant to such discussion.
Pope Francis notes that faith is first and foremost the gift of God, and only the gift of God (sola gratia). There is nothing which man contributes to the gift of faith, insofar as it is a divine gift through grace, the Word which God has spoken to man in Jesus Christ, though this does not overshadow the fact that in faith we may then live in Christ. Faith, therefore, in terms of order, precedes all other things, for it provides the basis for hope and charity. This is the programmatic statement of the encyclical.
His Holiness goes on to describe the Biblical witness to faith with that basis in the first section. Faith for Abraham and Israel means that faith facilitates the divine-human encounter, the “I-Thou” relationship, the idea that encounter between two beings who recognize each other as beings creates the true idea of relationship. Further, in St. Paul, faith is the means by which man receives his new being in Christ. This is to say, man is made whole, justified, and made new only in Christ, and only through faith. If I were to put this in Reformation terminology, solo Christo and sola fide. It is then the renewal, the re-creation, in Christ through faith which then brings about good works. On the basis of the Biblical witness, Francis emphasizes that works have no role in this re-creation in Christ and that it is solely by faith. Coincidentally, this echoes Luther’s idea on the matter in The Freedom of the Christian. Yes works are necessary and part of the life of faith, but faith and the renewal that come from it precede all else, thus the work of God precedes all else. This faith and renewal then takes shape in the Church, the body of Christ.
The third section deals with the Church as the community of faith. The Church is the community of faith and it facilitates the passing on of faith through Word and Sacrament. It is not just the relation of the autonomous subject to God. In fact, it is better to speak of God as the subject who imparts faith to man as the object through grace. Faith also occurs in community, and it is unifying and uniting because it makes us one in Christ, in whom we now live. This also is in accord with the Reformers, particularly Martin Luther.
Now certainly there are things that I can quarrel over. Namely, to end an encyclical on faith that has hitherto emphasized Christ, it seems strange to address a prayer to Mary asking for help in receiving the Word and faith in Christ, which was previously described as coming only from God (perhaps this is a sign of the two popes writing one document). Further is the issue of it being a prayer to Mary falls into the problem of having a key distinction, that between prayer to God and asking for the prayers of the saints, lost in the transition from those who know better to the masses who are not always on that same page, creating false popular notions.
But I can live with ambiguity at the end of the encyclical. That small portion means little compared to the important substance of the body of the text, a text that undoubtedly shows me that Martin Luther’s Reformation is visibly accomplishing its task.