by Matthew Gaetano
The Jesuit theologian, Robert Bellarmine (d. 1621), has appeared quite a few times in the early days of The Regensburg Forum. His Controversies offered one of the most thoroughgoing challenges to Protestant theology. And Bellarmine’s Controversies came in for extensive criticism from hundreds of Reformed and Lutheran theologians–at times quite harsh. For our effort to understand better the “state of the question(s)” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Bellarmine and his critics are certainly a useful point of departure.
In the future, we are hoping to show that Bellarmine’s centrality to our perception of post-Reformation debates can be misleading at times. First of all, Protestant criticisms of Bellarmine are not all the same. As we’ve already seen, Reformed theologians sometimes argue that Bellarmine is mischaracterizing their positions or even that he ends up embracing the Protestant teaching on some particular point in the midst of his polemic. We also want to show that Bellarmine was not the only voice in early-modern Roman Catholicism. Other theologians, whether Dominican Thomists, Augustinians, or Scotists, did not see his theological outlook as the final word on a wide range of subjects.
But at times it may be necessary to clarify Bellarmine’s actual views on a given issue. Several months ago, I discovered Dr. Sinclair Ferguson’s essay provocatively entitled “The Greatest of All Protestant Heresies”? His essay begins as follows:
Let us begin with a church history exam question. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) was a figure not to be taken lightly. He was Pope Clement VIII’s personal theologian and one of the most able figures in the Counter-Reformation movement within sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. On one occasion, he wrote: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is _______ .” Complete, explain, and discuss Bellarmine’s statement.
How would you answer? What is the greatest of all Protestant heresies? Perhaps justification by faith? Perhaps Scripture alone, or one of the other Reformation watchwords?
Those answers make logical sense. But none of them completes Bellarmine’s sentence. What he wrote was: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is assurance.”
When I first read this passage, something didn’t seem right. I knew that the issue of the certitude of being in a state of grace was actually controversial at the Council of Trent; other Protestant teachings received little to no defense from the Council fathers and theologians. I also knew that Roman Catholic theologians often distinguished the moral certainty regarding whether one is in a state of grace (which is appropriate according to some of them) from a presumption–in their view–regarding one’s future eternal state (which they rejected).
While post-Tridentine Catholic theologians like Bellarmine certainly rejected Protestant views regarding the assurance of salvation, I wondered why it would be the greatest of all Protestant “heresies.” Dr. Ferguson explains Bellarmine’s rationale as being rooted in a worry about “license and antinomianism.” If Christians had “full assurance,” it could only be because of their conviction that “Christ has done everything…without contributory works,” received by faith alone. Ferguson argues that the Reformers embraced this doctrine (without any tendency towards license or antinomianism because, though “we are not saved by works[,] we are saved for works”), while Rome and Bellarmine, he says, demanded that our works must be “added” for “final justification to be ours.” And it is Rome’s view of the need for works after our initial justification that makes it impossible for Bellarmine to allow for full assurance of salvation. Something still depends upon us.
Now, there are a number of questions that might be raised here, but, even if we conceded this entire account as an accurate description of the post-Tridentine Catholic position, it would remain unclear why assurance would be the greatest heresy rather than one (of many) illustrations of the implications of the Protestant view of justification by faith alone or the imputation of Christ’s righteousness or simul iustus et peccator. In other words, even on Dr. Ferguson’s account, it doesn’t seem that assurance is the root of the issue between Rome and the Reformers.
These questions led me to Bellarmine’s Controversies on Justification. The essay cited above does not mention an exact location of the passage under discussion, so I may be mistaken about the source, but Bellarmine’s treatment of assurance in his Controversies takes a different approach than what we would expect if this teaching were the greatest of the Protestant heresies. Book Three of Bellarmine’s work on justification deals with the “uncertainty, mutability, and inequality of justice.” Here is the opening section of this book.
Chapter 1: On the various errors of the recent heretics about justification
From the form of justification that the Lutherans establish, many different errors are deduced, which we will attempt with God’s help to overcome in this third book.
The principal errors seem to be these four.
1) Because they have persuaded themselves that the formal cause of justification is not a gift infused by God and inherent in us but the justice of Christ apprehended by faith, they gather that all can and should think with certainty that they are just. And in this error, all the heretics of this time are clearly in agreement. Also, their opinion is [that] justification is not the infusion of any gift but the acceptation to grace and benevolence through Christ, and, by this fact, [justification] puts nothing in man but is the immutable and sempiternal action of God, and [it] is entirely the same with election and predestination.
2) They gather that men ought to believe certainly not only that they are just but even that they are elect and predestined, which the Calvinists teach boldly and the Lutherans more timidly.
3) From the preceding error, the Calvinists gather that faith and justice once received can in no time ever be lost. Accordingly, whoever returns after faith and justification to sins [are said] never to have had true faith or true justice.
4) From the same fonts of imputative justice, all Lutherans gather that there is not one man more just than another since the justice of all is the very obedience of Christ apprehended by faith and imputed by the Father.
Now, we aim to refute these four errors in this book, which we have inscribed as being about uncertainty, mutability, and inequality, but especially the first. This [error] has a wider area (latius patet) and reaches not only all the heretics of this time but even some patrons from among Catholics.
A few notes on this passage: first of all, Bellarmine does not say that this is the greatest of all Protestant heresies. He is saying that certainty of one’s justification is the first issue that he will take up in this particular book, which is the third book on the issue of justification. He seems to be saying that this view of certainty of salvation is a primary implication of the Protestant rejection that an infused gift is the formal cause of our justification. It is one of the consequences of the more fundamental teaching of Protestants regarding the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Moreover, Bellarmine admits that this view of certainty, which he will take up first in this particular book, is also held by some Catholic authors. So, it seems rather clear to me that assurance of salvation is not the greatest Protestant heresy (in Bellarmine’s mind); indeed, it is not even the worst part of the Protestant teaching on justification. His actual treatment (only preliminary, of course) of the “state of the question” on assurance should clarify this point even more.
Chapter 2: The state of the question on the uncertainty (incertitudo) of justice
So that the first error might be refuted distinctly and perspicuously, it will be worth while to explain what is certitude and how many kinds there are and, on this basis, to make manifest the state of the controversy before our eyes.
Now, certitude seems to be nothing other than a firmness and immutability of truth. For that is called certain which is surely and unchangingly true. But there is a double certitude: one of the object, that is, of the thing known or believed, and the other of the subject, that is, of the man who is knowing or believing. The first certitude is the immutability of the thing that in true reality cannot be otherwise than it is believed or known. By this notion, we say that it is certain that God is good and sin is bad. The posterior certitude [subjective certitude] is a firmness of our assent to a thing that is proposed to be known or believed. We are speaking about this certitude when we say: it is certain to me, I am certain about this thing, I hold this as certain–that is, I adhere to this opinion so firmly that I have entirely no doubt about its truth.
The first certitude [objective certitude] arises from the necessity of the thing, if it is perchance not contingent but necessary, or, if it is not necessary but contingent, from the determination already having been made. That God is good is certain because it is necessary in itself. That Christ is to come to judge the living and the dead is certain because it is determined by the divine will, although it would otherwise be contingent in itself and not necessary.
The posterior certitude [subjective certitude] is born partly from the means by which we are persuaded of some thing and partly from the goodness of mind (ingenium) and the affect of the will. For some means have the force of bringing about firm assent; there are others that do not have them. Also, some plainly perceive the force of the means and are rendered certain from the goodness or exercise of their minds; others, on the contrary, do not obtain the efficacy of the means because of the slowness of their minds, and thus they cannot be rendered certain. The learned and acute man is certain that the sun is larger than the entire earth, which many unlearned (rudis) men not only do not believe but even judge that anyone who believes it should be mocked.
Finally, the fact that emotion (affectus) is not lacking in strength for bringing about certitude on the part of the subject has a witness in more unlearned heretics who often do not know what they believe and nonetheless adhere firmly to heresies which are preached in their homeland. And they do so sometimes to the point of being killed rather than not believing those things. Though, if one were to speak properly, true certitude on the part of the subject is never separated from certitude on the part of the object. For whoever believes those things that are false with certainty is not so much certain but rather ought to be referred to as persuaded. Nonetheless, true certitude on the part of the object is separated from certitude on the part of the subject since there are many things certain in themselves that are uncertain to us.
But there is another partition of certitude. For evident certitude is one thing and obscure certitude is another, and both can be distinguished, as it were, into three degrees. Evident certitude is of those things which are seen in some way. The first principles of things obtain the first degree of this certitude because, with only the words explained–without any reasoning–they are believed to be true by all: that the same thing cannot be and not be, that the whole is greater than the part, and so on. And this is said to be the certitude of the intellect or the habit of principles. Conclusions evidently deduced from first principles obtain the second degree of certitude, and this is said to be the certitude of science. Those things obtain the third degree of certitude that are perceived by the senses of the body, and this is called the certitude of experience.
Obscure certitude is of those things which depend on faith alone or opinion. Those things have the first degree of this sort of certitude that are believed with certainty on account of divine authority, and this is the certitude of the Catholic and divine faith, and it is absolutely and simply certitude since by no reckoning can anything false belong to it. Those things have the second degree of obscure certitude which are believed on account of human authority yet so confirmed and renowned that it entirely excludes every fear, such as that Cicero and Virgil were famous men, that Augustus happily ruled a great part of the world, that there are many splendid cities in provinces far from us like Alexandria in Egypt, Constantinople in Thrace, Jerusalem in Palestine, and Antioch in Asia. And this is called the certitude of human faith or moral certitude, which, even though it is not so great that in no way could anything false belong to it (for every man is a liar), nonetheless, it is so great that it is rightly judged temerarious to think or dispute the opposite. Those things have the third degree which depend on many signs and conjectures that render man secure and exclude anxiety but do not expel every fear. And this is called conjectural certitude, and it is more of opinion than faith.
With these things explained, let us approach the state of the controversy. Calvin in the Antidote to the Council and [Martin] Chemnitz [d. 1586 – a Lutheran] in his Examination of the same Council, sess. 6, in order to inflame hatred against Catholics in their accustomed way and placing their hope in a lie [Is. 28:15], do not rightly propose the state of the question and most openly lie. For Calvin even writes that the Fathers of the Council mix doubt with faith. Chemnitz says even more impudently that the Council makes doubt a virtue and ornament of faith in such a way there is neither true nor justifying faith without doubt. And in another place he writes that the question between us and the Lutherans is “whether justifying faith is confidence (fiducia) or doubt regarding the remission of sins,” as though we teach that justifying faith is doubt. But the Council of Trent is so far from mixing doubt with faith that it would, for this reason, prefer to reject the special faith of the heretics and say that it is not faith but an empty confidence because that faith cannot be certain, while true faith must be most certain.
Chemnitz proposes the state of the question as follows: “Whether the sinner in serious repentance out of true faith in Christ could think (statuere) with certain confidence that his sins are remitted.” But that this is not the state of our question can be understood from two things: (1) because the question would be conditional not absolute, and (2) because we are not disputing about the certitude of confidence but about that of faith. The question would be conditional because the phrase “in serious repentance” signifies the same thing as if he were to say “if the repentance were serious.” But if the question is proposed conditionally in this way: whether man could think with certainty that his sins were remitted if it were clear that he did or is doing serious repentance: then there will be no Catholic who would not respond that he can and ought to [think this with certainty]. Therefore, the controversy of this time between Catholics and heretics about the certitude of justice is treated with great contention–not in a conditional way but in an absolute way.
Then, if confidence (fiducia) alone would have been addressed as Chemnitz proposes, there would be no need for a long disputation. For neither do Catholics deny that a certain confidence is placed in God and that one should have certain confidence that sins are remitted after penance legitimately done and the Sacrament of Baptism or Absolution duly received (perceptum). But just as the adversaries confuse faith with confidence, they also confuse the certitude of faith with the certitude of confidence. There is a great difference between these two certitudes, for the certitude of faith, since it depends on the authority of God alone, excludes doubt in every respect. The certitude of confidence (fiducia), as we will explain more extensively in its proper place below, partly depends on the divine promise and partly on the proper disposition. What pertains to the divine promise similarly excludes every fear (formido) and is absolutely and simply certitude. But what pertains to the proper disposition does not entirely exclude fear nor is it certitude simply but only secundum quid and conjectural; nonetheless, it is [pertinent to certitude] to the extent that it can be sufficient for giving birth to security. But we will speak about this matter in its own place.
Therefore, the state of the question, if it is constituted without fallacy or ambiguity will be this: “Whether anyone should or can be certain without special revelation by the certitude of divine faith (to which nothing false can in any way belong) that his sins are remitted.” It is not necessary in this place to distinguish Catholic faith from special divine faith, although they are different because Catholic faith is not only divine but also necessary to all men, while special divine faith extends as far as revelation extends. Nevertheless, they do not differ as far as certitude, nor do they have diverse habits but one and the same since they depend on the authority of the same eternal truth.
So, we have another case where an early-modern theologian asserts that his position is not being described correctly. Bellarmine believes that Trent was caricatured by Calvin and Chemnitz and that they have not properly stated the nature of the controversy on certainty of salvation. Furthermore, Bellarmine is willing to grant that “security” that one’s sins are remitted is possible (though Bellarmine would not agree with the Calvinists that this condition is a permanent one). The “conjectural” certainty of one’s state that is possible is based upon “signs,” is comparable to “opinion,” and can exclude anxiety but perhaps not every fear. This obscure certitude is inferior not only to the certainty of faith but even to the “second degree” of obscure certitude whereby we are confident that Cicero and Constantinople existed.
Bellarmine’s main concern, though, is to deny that we have the “certitude of faith” in our own state because it is not directly revealed in Scripture that you or I have the “proper disposition” for justification. In other words, one can be confident that one has living faith which apprehends justification, but Bellarmine would deny that we can be confident of this fact in the way that we are confident that Jesus is the Son of God–unless God has specially revealed this to an individual.
But the main point here is that Bellarmine does not appear to think of assurance as the greatest Protestant heresy. And, perhaps even more importantly, Bellarmine doesn’t deny the Protestant teaching on assurance simply to shore up the role of works in the Christian life. Indeed, he emphasizes that a certainty of faith about our own subjective condition (which can be mistaken) would weaken the certainty that (for Bellarmine) we should have in those truths revealed to us by God in Scripture.
So, if assurance is not the “greatest Protestant heresy” according to Bellarmine, what would it be? I certainly would not want to suggest that Bellarmine was unwilling to hit Protestants hard for errors about the faith; he didn’t spend all of his time defending Trent from Protestant mischaracterizations. Now, I’m not sure what Bellarmine’s answer to this question would have been. I scanned a few key passages of the Controversies and didn’t find any answers. But I’m not sure whether he would have seen the errors about grace and justification as the worst; the Colloquy of Regensburg and some of the attacks on Protestant theology from the first few decades of the Reformation (e.g., Eck, Sadoleto, etc.) indicate that we might have found the answer in Bellarmine’s treatment of ecclesiology or the sacraments.
But I have seen an answer provided by an earlier theologian, Bartolomé de Medina (d. 1580), at least as far as soteriology is concerned. This professor of theology at the University of Salamanca says the following in his Expositio of Aquinas’ Summa theologiae I-II, q. 113, a. 1 (pp. 630-31 of the 1580 edition):
After laying down these matters, now there arises the gravest doubt with the Lutherans: whether, in the justification of the impious, when sins are remitted, are they remitted in such a way that they are entirely taken away (aufero) and plucked up at the root? For the elucidation of this question, it must be known that, among the many errors which the Lutherans hold, this is the chief (praecipuus): that, in the justification of the ungodly, when sins are remitted, those sins are not taken away. But, to those who believe in Him who justifies the ungodly, sins are not imputed, even though they do in fact remain.
So, for Medina, writing after the Council of Trent, it appears that the most serious error of Protestant soteriology is the conviction that sin remains in the baptized, even though it is not imputed. Medina and other post-Tridentine theologians believed that this view is so problematic because it took away from the work of Christ, who is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.
To be clear, I am not endorsing Medina’s view here. And, of course, Protestants would say that Roman Catholic views of the need for satisfaction in the life of the Christian, the role of meritorious works in obtaining glory, the possibility (indeed, the likelihood) of (temporal) punishments for the justified all take away from the work of Christ. But it seems to me that we might spend some more time thinking about what post-Tridentine Catholic theologians found so troubling about Protestant theology. The idea that Roman Catholics were most concerned about the dangers of assurance supports conventional ways of construing sixteenth-century soteriological controversies. Did Roman Catholics want to shore up the role of works–rather than reliance on Christ’s all-sufficient righteousness–because they had Pelagian or semi-Pelagian views of the righteousness of these works (despite the condemnations of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism)? Did they want to keep people dependent on the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the sacramental system to give them some sort of anchor in the context of doubt about their salvation? Did they fear antinomianism and licentiousness so much that they couldn’t see the ways in which Luther’s account of justification by faith alone (based on the teachings of St. Paul) addressed those concerns even more effectively than the Roman Catholic model where doubt drives one to good works and auricular confession? Did theologians like Bellarmine simply fail to grasp the message of the letter to the Hebrews, as Dr. Ferguson seems to indicate? Well, these are the questions prompted by a focus on assurance. These are not uninteresting questions. And the issue of assurance and the certitude of faith are important issues for future conversation. Indeed, way back in 1518, Cardinal Cajetan saw this view of absolute confidence in whether or not one’s sins are forgiven as among the most pressing concerns in Luther’s early works. And assurance of salvation is a fundamental element of Luther’s account of justification.
But Medina’s way of framing the controversy changes the terms of the conversation. We perhaps tend to see the main soteriological issues of the Reformation as a battle regarding the spectrum, on one hand, of works-righteousness or legalism and, on the other, of antinomianism or licentiousness. On this standard account, Catholics are especially obsessed with avoiding antinomianism, and Protestants are especially obsessed with avoiding works-righteousness. Each side grounds its respective obsession in Scripture and then shows how it avoids the biblical warnings about the “other side”–i.e., Protestants show how their account evades antinomianism and Catholics show how their account evades works-righteousness, legalism, and semi-Pelagianism. Although these considerations are obviously important ones, Medina’s account shows how there is a shared concern about the work of Christ, not just about the value of the works of Christians after justification. Both sides of the Reformation debate want to show clearly how their accounts of justification make manifest that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.