An Interview with Charles Raith on Aquinas, Calvin, and Ecumenism: Part 2

Our interview with Charles Raith continues below:

[Go here for Part I of this interview]

It is commonly held that the main difference between Protestant and Catholic conceptions of justification is between “external” forgiveness and “internal” renewal. Put another way, for Protestants justification occurs by faith alone whereas Catholics insist on cooperating with grace for justification. How do you think your work on Aquinas and Calvin on justification could change these common understandings of the Protestant/Catholic disagreement about the nature of forgiveness and salvation?

First of all, I would take issue with the way this question sets up the difference, at least when viewed from the lens of Aquinas and Calvin. Justification for Aquinas is not the result of “cooperation” with grace, first and foremost; it is rather the work of “operative” grace. And since for Aquinas no preceding “merit” has any bearing on God’s decision to justify a person, Aquinas and Calvin are in agreement on what Calvin would consider a main point in his dispute over justification, namely, the unmerited act of God justifying a person in Christ by faith. Both believe, moreover, that the justice by which we are justified is first and foremost “alien,” in the sense that it does not arise from within us but begins exterior to us, namely in Christ. Also while Calvin may focus on justification by faith in his theology due to the polemics of the day, his soteriology evidences a deep commitment to the role of sanctification in obtaining eternal life. He even calls the “goal” of justification sanctification, and he upholds a positive role for works in obtaining eternal life. But it is true: justification for Calvin is the extrinsic imputation of Christ’s justness—i.e., Christ’s justness always remains in a sense “alien” to the believer—while justification for Aquinas is the transformation of a person understood as a participation in Christ’s justness—i.e., Christ’s “alien” justness becomes “residential” in the believer through the transformation of indwelling grace—and this indeed has implications on how their soteriologies play themselves out.

You’ve explored the implications of a robust understanding of “participation” in quite a bit of your work; on reading the Old Testament, on merit, on justification, and more. How might you describe a ‘c’atholic understanding of participation and why is this concept so important for clarifying the differences in Catholic and Protestant theologies?

While much could be said about the concept of “participation,” my focus has been on the contrast between a competitive versus non-competitive causal framework for understanding the relationship between divine and human agency. In short, I believe a truly ‘c’atholic understanding draws from the Apostle Paul, elaborated through the theology of Augustine, in seeing divine and human activity as being a “both-and” rather than “either-or.” In other words, the question is not whether I perform a good work or God’s performs the good work; or whether God performs his “part” in the work and I perform my “part.” Rather, each and every good work that I perform is at the same time God’s work in and through me. In this paradigm, God is not “observing” my activity and “reacting” to it. God doesn’t see that I’m doing my best and then decide to reward me. Rather, God’s rewarding of my action is in a real and fundamental sense God rewarding His own activity in and through me. Obviously this raises a host of questions surrounding human freedom and responsibility and the presence of evil. But I think much of the problems that have surrounded Catholic-Protestant relationships have resulted from a lack of clarity in understanding the relationship between divine and human agency.

Could you describe your work as Director of the Paradosis Center and the unique contribution that this Center makes to ecumenical dialogue?

Two fundamental principles guide the work of the Center. One is a deep commitment to the Great “tradition” (paradosis) of the Church. The other is a deep commitment to the common authority of our ecclesial communities: Scripture. The Center believes that while it is true that doctrine can divide and service can unite, it is also and equally true that doctrine can unite (and service can divide!). The Center believes that the Lord Jesus Christ must be the focus of our dialogue. The proximate goal of the Center is not for us to all agree on various points of doctrine but rather to bring to the table the richness of our traditions to help one another move more deeply into our knowledge and love of the triune God. As we move more deeply into Christ (rather than seek some artificial form of “unity” or retreat into defense of our affiliations), we will move more deeply into Christian oneness. Christ calls us to this: we simply can’t have more Christ without also having more unity. And that’s the Center’s vision. One of the more concrete ways the Center’s vision is implemented is through our biennial conference. Our next one titled “Engaging the Book of Acts, Engaging One Another: Catholics, Orthodox, and Evangelicals” is scheduled for this September 15th-17th, 2016. See for more information on registration. It’s truly a unique gathering of Catholics, Orthodox and Evangelicals committed to Scripture within the Great Tradition.

Can you tell us a bit about the projects you are currently working on?

I am finishing up the book on Ecumenism as part of the “Guide for the Perplexed” series with Continuum Press, and I hope this book can serve as a standard text for undergrad and grad classes in which ecumenism is addressed. I am also co-editing the “Oxford Handbook on the Reception of Aquinas” with Drs. Matthew Levering and Marcus Plested, which reflects my conviction that the Angelic Doctor can still serve as a point of rapprochement in ecumenical dialogues today. In the future I hope to begin a larger book unpacking a participatory theology of works and reward, which will get at issues of merit, justification/sanctification, and eternal life as “reward” that hopefully offers a way forward from the standard polemics between Catholics and Protestants on these issues.

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