By Faith Alone: Essays on Justification in Honor of Gerhard O. Forde

By Joseph A. Burgess; Marc Kolden | Go to book overview

Overcoming the Anathemas:
A Catholic View

George H. Tavard

The theological schools that were fashionable in the second decade of the sixteenth century were hardly prepared to understand the theology of justification by faith when it was publicly put forward by Martin Luther in reaction to the manipulation of indulgences for lucrative purposes. Thomism, taught at Cologne and other universities, located faith in the category of “virtues,” therefore of what Christians “do” in response to and under the influence of divine grace. Faith was identified as the first of the three theological virtues, followed by charity and hope. While faith was entirely a gift from God imparted in baptism, it was structured on the model of the moral virtues that were themselves identical with the acquired habits that Aristotle’s Ethics to Nicomachos had classified as the chief instruments of useful behavior.

Nominalism, taught at the Augustinian school of the university at Erfurt, Luther’s alma mater, followed the same general lines, putting an additional stress on the necessity of the virtues as the wisdom of the potentia ordinata according to which the Creator has organized the present universe. Faith then marks the believer’s insertion into what God’s sovereign and incomprehensible will has designated as the way of salvation. In both Thomism and Nominalism the theological virtues are God’s gift; and justification, as it is experienced in the believer’s life, is, as the fruit of faith, God’s gratuitous gift.

By contrast, Luther’s constant language in his reformatory writings and his other works ascribed justification not to any human action, thought, or belief, however holy and meritorious in human eyes, and however truly informed by grace and charity in the supernatural order,

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