Christ Alone & Catholic Sacramental Theology: A Reformation Response
In order to understand the nature of the Reformers' disagreement with Rome, you have to understand the nature of two intertwining ideas that anchor Catholic sacramental theology: the “nature-grace interdependence" and the “Christ-Church interconnection."
Stephen Wellum traces the contours of this main point of disagreement and the Reformers' response in his new book Christ Alone—The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior. In it, he explores what the Reformers taught about the exclusivity and sufficiency of Christ—and why it still matters.
For the Reformers, solus Christus entails the confession of Christ's exclusive identity and his perfect, complete, and all-sufficient work as our covenant head and mediator (258).
Below, we’ve briefly outlined Wellum’s engagement with these ideas to help you understand the Reformers’ solus Christus response to Rome's sacramental theology.
First, Catholic theology places nature and grace on a continuum, so that reality’s lower nature is a channel of God’s higher grace; grace elevates and perfects nature.
“God’s grace, then, works in nature and stirs nature to cooperate with it, thus offering warrant for a synergistic view of the relationship between divine and human action” (259).
Such a view resulted in a positive view of human nature’s intrinsic disposition toward the operation of grace, so that even though in Adam’s sin we lost our original righteousness and our higher reason was disrupted by our lower passions, the infusion of grace elevates us to the divine order. Grace aids already-receptive humans in their pursuit of deification.
The Reformers rejected this nature-grace scheme, replacing it “with a monergism built on the categories of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation…Grace alone must unilaterally act to redeem us, thus accentuating God’s sovereign grace to redeem us in Christ alone from beginning to end” (260).
Here, Wellum quotes Herman Bavinck:
Grace serves not to take up humans into a supernatural order, but to free them from sin. Grace is opposed not to nature, only to sin… [G]race is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the entire of work of salvation; it is totally devoid of human merit. [Bavinck, Sin and Salvation in Christ, 577, 579] (260).
This second idea is built on the first: “The church in Rome’s theology is viewed as the continuation of the incarnation, mirroring Christ as a divine-human reality and acting as an altera persona Christi, a ‘second Christ’” (260). Wellum quotes Gregg Allison to explain:
It is organically linked to the nature-grace scheme by Christ’s acting as a mediating subject who represents 'nature to grace and grace to nature, so that nature will progressively and more fully be graced and grace will eventually achieve its final goal of elevating nature'... The church, then, 'is deemed to be co-essentially divine and human, the two aspects being intertwined and inseparable in such a way that the human aspect carries the divine and the divine aspect is embodied in human form.' [Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice, 56-57] (260–261).
Not only is the church a second Christ, it also mediates God’s grace to people through the sacraments. Developing Augustine’s concept of totus Christus (the whole Christ), Catholic theology insists the church can “mediate divine presence and infuse grace into the recipient, and that this mediation of divine grace through the church is necessary for salvation” (261).
That the church is necessary for salvation, in its ontology and vocation, apart from the person and work of Christ alone, was a major point of contention for the Reformers.
Sacramental Theology and Christ’s Sufficiency
While Catholic theology affirms the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, Wellum argues its sacramental theology undercuts the sufficiency of Christ’s work. By allowing, and actually demanding, nature's contribution in the operation of grace, Jesus’ mediator role must be qualified by nature participating in the working of grace through the church's participation in such mediation.
Given this understanding, Rome undercuts solus Christus since such an affirmation would break the organic bond between Christ and the church and weaken Rome’s view that the church is given authority to dispense salvation through the church’s hierarchy and practice of the sacraments by infusing grace into us which has the effect of transforming our nature and enabling us to merit eternal life (261-2).
The Reformers rejected this characterization that grace is infused and salvation acquired in and through the church and the sacraments. They also rejected the idea that Christ’s work is only efficacious for our past/original sin, and that our present/future sin finds salvation through “a combination of Christ’s merit and our sacramental incorporation into Christ via the church (262).
As Luther said, “I teach that people should put there trust in nothing but Jesus Christ alone, not in their prayers, merits, or their own good deeds.”
“In affirming Christ alone, the Reformers opposed Rome’s sacramental theology that compromised Christ’s all-sufficient work as God the Son incarnate and our new covenant head” (272).
Read Wellum’s book yourself to fully understand and appreciate the uniqueness of Jesus as Savior.
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