Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Salvation and the Theological Virtues

One of the big differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, theologically speaking, is the emphasis on the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. In Catholic theology, all three of these are required for salvation. If a person is lacking any one of them, he or she will not inherit the kingdom of Heaven, as St. Paul would say. The virtues are called theological because they pertain to God, as opposed to something else. The theological virtue of Faith, for example, is faith in God. The theological virtue of Hope is hope in God, as opposed to hope in something else. Hope in some other thing would be called the natural virtue of hope, for it is hope in something natural.. In Protestantism, faith is regarded as necessary - and faith alone.

This difference naturally leads to quite a bit of confusion on the part of Protestants when coming across the Catholic teaching. "Hope and love," they might ask? "The Bible says we're saved by faith, not hope and love." The biggest question, however, is not one that is particular to Protestants, but one that might be on the mind of anyone considering the idea. Namely, why faith, hope, and love? Why does a person need these three particular things for salvation?

To understand this actually isn't all that difficult if one has a Catholic understanding of God Himself. I oughtn't generalize, as there are certainly many Protestants who have this understanding of God as well, but it's much easier to explain the Catholic viewpoint when contrasting it with another view, one not uncommon in Protestantism. This understanding is what I call the "bouncer" God. In this non-Catholic thinking, God is essentially like a bouncer who guards the entrance into the club of Heaven. Unfortunately, thanks to our sins, nobody is good enough to enter except for Jesus Christ. However, anyone who is with Jesus is allowed to enter by virtue of being associated with Him.

As opposed to this, the Catholic understanding of God is familial. God is understood as not only wanting to be like, but as wanting to be the true and literal Father of us all. He wishes only to adopt us as His children and bring us into His home to receive the true inheritance that we have as His children, but He won't force us to. In life, He offers this invitation. We can either choose Him and enter our home - Heaven - to receive our inheritance, or we can choose other things that we would rather have. When we choose something besides God, this is sin. Of course, there is a true justice to this all. The idea of punishment due sin is not lost, because sin is also understood as real, true moral choices; it does deserve punishment. For those adopted as children of God, He forgives as Father. For those remaining children of the devil, He condemns as judge.

In the Catholic understanding, then, salvation is not simply a matter of escaping hell. Rather, it is a matter of choosing Heaven - or more properly, of choosing God. To penetrate more deeply into this question, then, let us consider what is required to choose anything.

If I were to hold a ball out to you, what would be required for you to choose it? First, and most obviously, you would need to believe that the ball was existed, and beyond that, that it was in fact really being offered. Second, you would need to want the ball. I could offer you the ball all day long, but if you did not want it, you would not choose it. Now, believing that it is available to you and desiring it, you would be required finally to do something to claim the ball. You would need to reach out and take it, or perhaps speak up and tell me that you did in fact want it.

Our example here is of a ball, but it may as well have been anything else in existence. To choose anything at all, then, three things are required: one must believe both that the thing exists and that it can be chosen, one must want the thing, and one must make some action to claim it. These three things are referred to in Catholic theology as faith, hope, and love.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the theological virtue of Faith as "the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself" (1814). This is very similar to a description that the book of Hebrews gives for faith: "Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (11:6). This is exactly the conclusion that we arrived at above in regards to choosing things.; one must believe both that a thing exists and that the thing is available to be chosen. Faith requires that one believe in God and in what He says, namely, that He rewards those who seek Him - He can be chosen.

The definition of Hope that the Catechism provides is also consistent with what we have discovered about choosing things. "Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit" (1817). If faith is the virtue by which we believe in God and His rewards, then Hope is that virtue by which we desire God.

Finally we come to Love. The Catechism says, "Charity [Love] is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God" (1822). This requires a bit more unpacking. In Catholic Theology, it is understood that when a person is made just before God, God's Love is poured into his heart (see Romans 5:5). When one is just before God, and thus in the state of salvation, the Holy Spirit is present in his or her soul (no Christian would disagree with this idea,so far as I know). The Holy Spirit is that which internally causes us to Love God, and so by accepting the Holy Spirit into his heart, one Loves God. In the understanding of choosing things that we established, one must, upon believing in and desiring a thing, make an act of claim on that thing. One must "reach out and grab" the thing, as it were. The same is true of God. In the case of God, it is Love by which one "grabs" God, because it is by accepting Love into one's heart that one accepts the Holy Spirit. This idea could be embellished upon greatly by analyzing St. John's exhortations that "God is Love" from his first epistle.

In the Catholic understanding, God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, offers us Himself. Our life is a prolonged opportunity to choose, either to choose Him or to choose something else. He will not force Himself upon us, and so if we choose something else, He will respect that choice rather than dragging us into His presence anyways. It is by Faith that we believe in God and that we believe He is choosable. It is by Hope that we desire God, and it is by Love that we actually make our claim on Him (for lack of a better term). It makes sense, then, that no person can be saved if lacking any one of these three virtues. Without Faith, of course, one would not even recognize anything to choose. If one did not have Hope, then one would not want God, and clearly no choice is made in which a person does not want the item chosen. Finally, without Love, a person has not made any claim that He in fact does want God. If you believe I am offering you a ball and want it, it will do you no good if you do not actually do anything and simply stand in place believing and wanting it.

And so we come back to the Protestant belief that faith alone is required for salvation. Part of this is simply a matter of terminology. Most Protestants who believe that faith alone is required define faith differently from Catholics. To them, Faith includes in it the idea of Hope, and generally a sense of Love as well, although in many cases this sense of Love may be rather incomplete. This topic itself could fill up and entire post, or book for that matter, and will not be expounded upon further. It will suffice for now to read the words of Saint Paul from 1 Corinthians:

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy
gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all
mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up
my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing... So now faith,
hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." (13:1-3;
Thus we see that Faith, apart from Love, profits nothing. Even dying for Christ will "gain nothing" apart from Love. Love is far more important than most people realize, or at least than most people act as though they realize, and is the greatest of these three crucial theological virtues.

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