Faith and Works in Cajetan

by Matthew T. Gaetano

In what follows here and in future posts, I hope to address specific ways in which Roman Catholic and Reformed theologians have historically mischaracterized one another for a variety of reasons. At the same time, I will seek to avoid the appearance of reducing serious confessional differences to mere misunderstandings. And I would like to shed some light on the sources of unfair or misleading presentations of the other confession.

Despite the harsh polemics of the early-modern period and even real violence, I have found that Roman Catholics and Reformed thinkers at times understood one another better in the sixteenth and especially seventeenth centuries than they do today.  I suspect that this has much to do with a shared vocabulary based upon  common sources in the ancient and even the medieval tradition. Moreover, these early-modern theologians read their opponents with great care. So, while these posts are tagged as dealing with mischaracterizations, they often will address ways in which early-modern Christians converged in perhaps surprising ways.

Finally, I want to be clear that many of the points that I seek to cover are well-known to scholars, so I am not making any claim to be original here or in the future.

So, let’s begin with the matter of faith and works. I have often seen James 2:24–“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (ESV)–described as a favorite of Roman Catholic apologists. Of course, both confessions found ways to reconcile James 2 with Pauline soteriology. For this reason, I found it quite fascinating to read the commentary on James 2 by the great Thomistic theologian and Biblical commentator, Tommaso de Vio (d. 1534) or Cardinal Cajetan. Despite the fact that he published his commentary after his fateful encounter with Martin Luther in 1518, he sought to read this passage in light of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith apart from works in Romans 3:28.  Here it is (Lyon edition, 1558, f. 415v):

Note here, prudent reader, that James does not think that faith apart from works is dead [without qualification], etc., because it is clear that we are justified by faith even apart from works, as is clear for baptized infants and for an adult baptized if he immediately dies. But James thinks that faith without works, that is, faith which refuses to work, is dead, is vain, and does not justify. And he rightly thinks this because faith which is not ready to work is dead. For, by its own nature, faith works through love, as Paul says [Gal. 5:6]. Therefore, the fact that James brings forward the passage from Genesis 15–“Abraham believed God”–he brings this passage out to make the point that the one who believed was prepared to work. […]

Nor does this statement oppose the statement of Paul in Romans which teaches that man is justified by faith, not by deeds. This is because Paul is speaking of deeds according to themselves, quite distinct from faith. But James is speaking of deeds, as they [?] are sons of God. For both taught the truth: Paul in saying that we are justified not by moral, ceremonial, or judicial deeds as such, but by the grace of faith, [and] James in saying that we are justified not by a sterile faith but by a fruitful faith. Hence, it is clear that their statements are not contrary to one another.

When Cajetan comments on James 2:26, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead,” he says,

By the term spirit, James is not referring to the soul but the breath (halitus seu flatus). And he aptly compares works to breath. For, just as the body of an animal is dead if it is not breathing, so faith is dead if it is not bringing forth any work. Indeed, breath is the effect of a living body and, similarly, operation is the proper effect of living faith. Hence, it is apparent in what sense he said above that faith without works is dead: not because he thinks that works are the form of faith but rather that works are concomitant with faith, just as breath is concomitant with the life of the body.

Of course, more reflection upon the proper relationship between faith and works as well as faith and charity will be necessary. But Cardinal Cajetan seems pretty cautious here, even in the aftermath of the Luther affair, about over-reading the implications of James’ teaching on justification.


Matthew Gaetano is an assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College.

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