Justification after Trent – and the (largely forgotten) Augustinian Gianlorenzo Berti

by Matthew Gaetano

A. N. S. Lane, a scholar whose work should be of great relevance to future conversation, states the following in his book on justification:

The Tridentine Decree on Justification is one of the most impressive achievements of the council. The leaders of the council had reported to Rome that ‘the significance of the Council in the theological sphere lies chiefly in the article on justification, in fact this is the most important item the Council had to deal with’. But reading it can give one a false impression of the importance of the doctrine within Roman Catholicism. The decree was needed and the doctrine received the attention that it did because of the Protestant challenge. But for the inner life of the Catholic Church the doctrine was not very important. … Justification needed to be treated in response to the Protestant threat, but at the heart of the Christian life in Catholicism is not justification but the sacramental system. [Otto Hermann] Pesch claims that the most important achievement of Trent was that justification regained its central position. But, significantly, his exposition of the outworking of the decree to 1713 is in fact an account of debates about the doctrine of grace, not justification. (83-85)

Lane’s claim here is a fascinating one. It seems that he may have a strong point when it comes to catechetical materials. And Lane is also correct to note that the major controversies of post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism do not pertain to justification but rather to predestination, free choice, grace, etc., centered upon the important De auxiliis controversy.

But justification may have received more detailed treatment by Catholic theologians in the post-Tridentine period than in the Middle Ages. This is not exclusively a result of the Reformation controversies. Theological commentaries in this later period often took up the Summa theologiae rather than Peter Lombard’s Sentences. Aquinas treats justification in I-II, q. 113, in the midst of his treatise on grace, whereas the Lombard deals with justification in a more scattered way, doing so while he treats the faith of Christ, the sacrament of penance, and so on.

Another rarely noted development of relevance to post-Tridentine discussion–if not controversies–about justification is the robust Augustinianism found in many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Catholic theologians. The few commentators on Catholic theology in this period tend to associate the Augustinianism of this period with Jansenism, a position which found itself on the wrong side of a papal condemnation. But Dominicans and Augustinians were also devoted to the theology of St. Augustine, and they often realized the ways in which their positions might overlap with teachings associated with Protestantism.  One fascinating theologian in this current was Gianlorenzo Berti (1696-1766). While Berti (perhaps unsurprisingly) faced accusations of Jansenism during his career, he was a devoted friar in the Augustinian Order, serving as general secretary and prefect of the order’s library. Pope Benedict XIV had his works examined and apparently deemed his teaching to be sound.

So, it may be interesting to see how an eighteenth-century Augustinian understands the doctrine of justification a couple of centuries after the Reformation and the Council of Trent. Berti was well-aware of the debates and theological refinements over the past several decades. Even his mischacterizations of the Protestant position should be illuminating because they might show where there is room for further conversation.

After addressing terminology and intra-Catholic disputes, he turns to Protestant objections. Berti begins with a remark about (supposed) differences between Lutherans and Calvinists. Lutherans, he says, “think that the grace of justification is situated solely in the remission of sins, exclusive of inherent grace and charity.” Berti says that Calvinists “establish [the grace of justification] solely in the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.” So, he apparently thinks that Calvinists gave greater priority to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in contrast with the Lutheran emphasis on the non-imputation of sin. (I wonder where this idea comes from!) Less noteworthy is the fact that Berti indicates his serious concern with the absence of any “inherent form” in the Protestant account of justification and with its view of an “extrinsic and, as it were, forensic pardon (condonatio)” (249).

In defending the Catholic notion that justification comes about through “inherent” (not acquired) justice, he takes up the first objection from Romans 4:3-7. Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned as righteousness. Paul speaks of the one who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly; this faith is counted for righteousness. The Apostle quotes David who describes the blessedness of the man unto whom “the Lord has not imputed sin.”

Berti’s reply acknowledges that justification takes its beginning not “from works of the law” but “from faith and grace.” Indeed, faith is the “font and origin of divine graces.” But he does not want to see this faith operating alone. Berti thinks of works as the consummation of faith and, in this context, mentions James 2. Quoting I Maccabees 2:52 (“Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation , and it was reputed to him unto justice?”), he emphasizes that Abraham’s faith was the source of his faithfulness in the temptation. Berti says, in the conclusion of his reply, that he would “concede [to the Protestant reading] that faith is the beginning of justification, through which works are judged and through which Abraham was found faithful in temptation.” But he “denies that [the Apostle] says that [Abraham] was justified by faith alone and the justice of God alone or by the non-imputation of sin.”

Berti’s discussion here may not offer us any real surprises. He acknowledges that faith is the beginning and origin of justification, but he denies that justification is by faith alone. Aren’t we basically where we would have expected to be after the Council of Trent? Of course, Berti has more to say on the topic, and I hope to show post-Tridentine uses of the language of imputation in future posts. But, for now, I’ll mention one place that might offer something more unexpected: Berti’s discussion of merit (264ff.) Here he does not merely reject Protestant arguments and conclusions. Rather, he rejects the Protestant framing of the question. In other words, his treatment suggests that Reformed theologians and Roman Catholics are not fully engaging with one another when they use the term merit.

After stating clearly that the Fathers and Councils are in agreement against Pelagius that “grace is not given according to merits,” Berti lays out the four Protestant conditions for merit:

  1. A meritorious work must be perfect in every respect.
  2. It must be done entirely apart from obligation.
  3. It must chiefly be our own, not of the one from whom we expect the reward.
  4. A meritorious work must have a proportion of equality with the reward.

Of course, this high bar for a meritorious work is employed by Protestants in part to show how short even the works of Christians fall from the divine standard.

It is interesting, then, that Berti does not want to show how a Catholic account allows for the works of Christians to meet this standard. On the contrary, Berti acknowledges that these conditions would mean that the works of Christians would not be meritorious. Our works in themselves, he says, are imperfect; the just man often falls into venial sins. It is only “habitual grace” which has the dignity which makes it possible for our works to be “put on a level with the promised reward.” We are rewarded only because “there is found in the just the grace of the Holy Spirit” and because “the seed of God remains in him.” Protestants might understand meritorious works as necessarily perfect–and then deny this possibility for fallen human beings. Berti replies, quoting Aquinas, that there is never found commutative justice–a justice that looks to a kind of arithmetic equality–between God and the creature. With such a standard, Berti implies, even the works of angels and Adam in the state of innocence would fall short. (Indeed, at some points in the discussion, Berti suggests that Christ’s works would not meet all of these Protestant criteria.)

The second condition–that meritorious works cannot be acts of obligation–is often based on the works of Christ in Luke 17:10, “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” How can something be meritorious when you are merely doing what you are required to do? Berti admits that works done from necessity–from the condition of a slave–are not meritorious. But he goes on to say that the work itself is not really what is meritorious but rather the “free execution of the work that is owed.” We should continue to say that “we are unworthy servants” because God is not in need of these works, because it is a proper exercise of humility, and, finally, because God could have proposed commandments with no promised reward. Nonetheless, God has promised that acts done in a spirit of freedom, among other things, would be rewarded by Him in eternity.

To the third condition–that a meritorious work be our own–Berti replies with an interpretation of Paul’s words, “Not I but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). According to Berti, Protestants are suggesting that, because anything good that we do comes from God, it is absurd to talk about these acts as making us worthy of an eternal reward. Paul does not mean that we are not acting at all, but that nothing could be done without the help of divine grace. Berti quotes his beloved Augustine:

Eternal life is rendered to preceding merits. Nonetheless, since the same merits have not been obtained (parata) by us, but have been done in us through grace, [eternal life] is also called a grace because it is given gratuitously.

While God’s grace allows for real human action that can be fittingly crowned in eternity, Berti rejects the idea that this crowning implies that primacy is being given to our actions. “God,” he says, “is the first cause of good works”–“the will is prepared by the Lord, who acts through prevenient grace so that we might act.”

The last Protestant condition for merit–regarding the equality of merit and reward–is based upon Romans 8:18: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  Of course, his response to the first condition that our works be perfect already speaks to the issue. The work itself does not have the dignity as much as the principle of the work: habitual grace. And, for Berti, habitual grace is not some strange “grace packet” delivered to the believer at the beginning of the journey of salvation, but rather the very “participation in divinity on account of the indwelling Spirit” (see Joshua Benjamins’ account of theosis after the Reformation here).  The Holy Spirit constitutes the just man an heir and a son of God and  grants to him the pledge (arrha et pignus) of life. So, according to the “substance of the work,” even the works of Christians do not have equality with the supreme end; works in themselves are “trifling.” Deeds can only be worthy of something so glorious because of the dignity of habitual grace, i.e., because they have their root in the indwelling Spirit (among other things).

So, Berti indicates here that discussions of merit between Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians must be careful to clarify the use of terms. In the view of this eighteenth-century Augustinian friar, when Protestants deny that works are meritorious because they do not meet these four conditions, a Catholic can go a long way towards affirming such a claim. The question, then, is whether the works of Christians meet the conditions of merit set forth by those who seek to affirm that the works of Christians are in some respects worthy of eternal life. This post has gone on long enough, so I’ll just list Berti’s seven conditions for future discussion (266-268):

  1. A meritorious work must be good.
  2. It must be free (from necessity).
  3. It must be supernatural and arise with the help (auxilium) of grace.
  4. It must be done by a wayfarer (in statu viae). God has assigned this temporal life for military service and labor and the next life for the crown and reward.
  5. It must proceed from charity.
  6. Works are meritorious because of the divine promise.
  7. There must be habitual grace. No merit could be possessed unless Christ “as the vine into the branches infuses (influat) virtue into the justified.” Such an inheritance does not pertain to slaves but to sons, and we are constituted adopted sons of God through grace.

A final word of clarification: I am certainly not endorsing Berti’s account of the Protestant teaching on merit. He is not entirely clear about his source for the four conditions listed above. But, at the very least, we learn from Berti that the term merit was being understood very differently by the two communities. It would be interesting to compare Berti’s four conditions to what Protestants actually said about the meaning of the term, e.g., in Voetius’ account of the merit of Christ.

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