Roman Catholic v Protestant piety  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

The theologian Herman Bavinck, in his little book, The Certainty of Faith, commented on Roman Catholic piety from his Dutch Reformed perspective. Of course general statements like this are always dangerous since life is messier than our theoretical categories and so something will be missed in the process. On the other hand, this formulation rings somewhat true to me, based on friendships with Catholics over the decades, on the sad Protestant tendency to be dismissive of all things Catholic, and on what tends to be a foundational issue, at least on a popular level, separating the two.

Anyway, first Bavinck’s comments and then a couple questions I’d love people to comment on.

In Catholicism there are always two kinds of Christians: those who occasionally go to confession and mass, observe the required fasts and for the rest live quite a superficial, carefree life, trusting in the church for their salvation; and those who are dissatisfied with such externalities and attempt to live a purely religious life through mysticism and asceticism, in separation from the world and denial of the flesh, thus to come before the face of God.

Far be it from us to immediately denounce the latter with the protestant judgment that since such piety issues from a false principle—righteousness by works—it is therefore worthless to God. For no matter how much truth that judgment may contain, before we utter it we must remind ourselves that the Catholic righteousness by good works is vastly preferable to a protestant righteousness by good doctrine. At least righteousness by good works benefits one’s neighbor, whereas righteousness by good doctrine only produces lovelessness and pride. Furthermore, we must not blind ourselves to the tremendous faith, genuine repentance, complete surrender and the fervent love for God and neighbor evident in the lives and work of many Catholic Christians. The Christian life is so rich that it develops to its full glory not just in a single form or within the walls of one church.

Nevertheless, Catholic piety, even in its best form, is different in character from that of Protestantism. It always remains unfree, unemancipated, formal legalistic. Complete inner certainty of faith is lacking. It always leaves room for the question: Have I done enough, and what else should I do? (p. 36-37)

Now, three questions that I’d love to see answered in comments on this post:

1. Roman Catholic readers (past or present)—do you find this description rings true in your experience? How did/do you address the uncertainty provoked by “the question: Have I done enough, and what else should I do?”

2. Protestant readers (past for present)—do you find that your pilgrimage of faith also “always leaves room for the question: Have I done enough, and what else should I do?” How did/do you address the uncertainty?

3. Roman Catholic and Protestant readers—to what extent do you find Bavinck’s statement helpful/unhelpful? Why? Can you discuss such issues with charity, humility, and civility?

Source: The Certainty of Faith by Herman Bavinck (Paideia Press, 1980) 97 pages. A free copy of Bavinck's book (pdf format) is available here. Thanks to Steve Froehlich for the Bavinck quote.

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I do always feel like I should have done more or something else, but I don't think of that as being a wrong thought. It is, in my mind, more along the lines of "I do the things I don't wish to and leave undone the things I ought to have done." It is a recognition of my continual fallen state, even though I am redeemed.

I think the passage is not helpful in that it will put people on the defensive. It makes the assumption that there are only two types of Catholics, those who are wrong and don't care and those who are wrong and worried. I know that my Catholic friends have an assurance of salvation through relationship, and yet, they don't just sit back and coast, the way many Protestants do. Granted, I have been a Protestant all my life and I have had much more chance to observe the salvation by doctrine (and hear it preached!) than I have had to observe Catholics who have a false assurance. Unless one is pretty vocal about beliefs, it would be fairly difficult to judge something like this, I think.

This is a bit rambly and disjointed. I'm sorry if I'm not making much sense.

February 24, 2011 at 6:59 AM

In Bavinck's conclusion, he states, "Complete inner certainty of faith is lacking" [in Catholics]. Even the conclusion itself leaves me asking not so much "Have I done enough?" but "Is there enough?" Is there enough "complete inner certainty of faith"? I think I'm with Old Dominion Heather; I don't find the comments helpful. They still place the emphasis on "enough" on my part. Do I have times of doubt? Yes. So is there complete certainty? Seeing that as our litmus test can rely far too much on feelings which are woefully more fickle than our actions, which also will never be enough. Only Christ is enough. Neither my effort nor my belief have anything to do with the sufficiency of God's grace.
On the other hand, do we need good orthopraxy and good orthodoxy? Of course. We can rest in God's grace to bring us to that place.

February 26, 2011 at 3:11 PM

I'm thoroughly Protestant [though I once worked for a Catholic organization with a nun for my boss].

A few reactions I had:

I think you could rewrite/reverse the last statement about Catholics in the quoted passage to say, 'Protestant piety, even in it's best form always remains susceptible to cheap grace, arrogance, and pride. Complete certainty of faith leaves room for a lack of questioning which leads to a dangerous self-absorption, and a complacency that I don't need to do anything except live a pious self-satisfied life."

His comment about righteousness by good doctrine seemed right on the mark.

The uncertainty we Protestants fall into may be 'have I confessed all my sin, so the Holy Spirit can work freely in me?'.

February 27, 2011 at 7:55 AM

Two of my kids have converted to Catholicism. To be fair to them, I'd have to say that neither falls into Bavinck's categories.

March 2, 2011 at 8:03 AM

Old Dominion Heather:
The entire topic gets complicated, I think.

On the one hand, it is proper, and in the right circumstances, important to explore doctrine or belief in light of its logical conclusions. One reason is to help define the doctrine or belief itself, and the other is to see whether we as believers truly believe what we claim to believe. My pastor is preaching through Galatians, and his sermon last week emphasized how we are made right with God by grace, not because we do things correctly or sufficiently. As he spoke I pondered the fact that it is easy for me to be Pauline in my confession of faith, but very Galatian in how I live day by day.

In the final analysis, this is neither a Catholic nor a Protestant problem, it is a Christian issue. Thanks as always for adding so nicely to the conversation.

March 2, 2011 at 8:44 AM

24/7 Mom:
Good insight.

I wish Bavinck were here to respond, but I read him slightly differently at this point. I don't hear him talking about the feeling of inner certainty, but the possibility of having a solid basis for certainty. In other words, he is saying that if you take the Catholic doctrinal position seriously, a good Catholic has no reason to say, my redemption is certain because of Christ's work on the cross, his death, burial and resurrection. On the other hand, if we follow Martin Luther--who argued that precise point--Protestants can say, I feel horribly uncertain, perhaps, but my being a child of God is certain because Christ died and rose again to life.


March 2, 2011 at 8:49 AM

That is my sense too.
I almost wonder if Bavinck is correct historically (certainly he is simply following Martin Luther's argument concerning justification by faith) but that his position is less true today. Less true not because the underlying doctrine has changed so much as three things transpiring: first, the Church emphasizes the necessity of Christ's work more, second, on a lay level the work of Richard John Neuhaus has trickled down, and third, many of today's young Catholics seem to have a sense of assurance that they are Catholic Christians, thus that they trust Christ, and simply see works as adding to that assurance rather than potentially disqualifying them of salvation. For example, they would join Luther in decrying the crass abuse of indulgences of his day but not join him in seeing Catholic doctrine as problematic at this point.

Like I say, it's complicated.
Blessings, good friend.

March 2, 2011 at 8:59 AM

from a Slovakian Catholic believer quoted with permission after I sent him a copy of the blog:

"I have not yet met a Catholic who would think he could save himself by doing good deeds. My honest experience is that no devout Catholic worries about his salvation -- not because he thinks he will be saved by good deeds, but solely because he trusts in Divine mercy. The salvation is received for free, not gained (exchanged for something). It is not a reward for good works, not even a reward for our faith. But, a "reward" for love. Of course, it is not exactly "a reward" -- but rather a hope that the deep connection between God and man cannot be broken by death (as husband´s love towards his wife is not destroyed by her death).

I do not know any Catholic who would be asking himself whether he did enough. But I know many who are asking daily: did I love enough today? And love is not formal, unfree, legalistic... "

March 2, 2011 at 8:05 PM

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