The Christian Doctrine of Sola Fide and Catholic Responses


The doctrinal understanding of justification is one of the essential differences between Protestant denominations and Catholicism. The Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide, or justification by faith alone, has traditionally been criticized by Catholics as being “legal fiction,” such that God declares righteous those who sin (Witt 66-67). The Catholic understanding of justification has traditionally been criticized by Protestants as a denomination of works, such that sinners make themselves righteous by some personal quality of their own rather than through Christ. Neither are entirely accurate. While clarification and mutual understanding have been achieved through the recent Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, the core issues which divide Catholics from Protestants still remain. The purpose of this essay is to explore the historical development of Sola Fide, delineate the Protestant and Catholic understandings of Sola Fide, and evaluate the effects of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification on both Protestant and Catholic understandings of justification.

Historical Development of Sola Fide

The history of the doctrine of Sola Fide begins both with the Catholic Church’s history of selling indulgences and with its pioneer, Martin Luther. The Catholic Church had traditionally claimed the authority to sell indulgences, which were remissions of sin by drawing upon the righteousness of Christ in exchange for service. The practice itself was already surrounded by controversy, as some rulers and priests considered this a form of corruption, but the intellectual rejection was never fruitfully developed. It wasn’t until the early 1500s when this public sentiment gained traction under the works of Martin Luther. Pope Julius II commissioned the expensive St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and, as costs mounted, the later Pope Leo X began to sell indulgences to compensate. It was this event, as well as various excursions to the Holy City, that fueled Martin Luther’s belief that the papacy itself was corrupt. Later on, when preparing a lecture on the Psalms, Luther was overcome by the epiphany that a person could never live up to the righteousness of God and thus, nothing done by humans could merit said righteousness. Instead, he understood the righteousness of God to be a forgiving righteousness that is acquired through Christ, not as a righteousness acquired through various works. This carried the implication that the selling of indulgences was illogical as no works could ever merit the granting of righteousness. Luther developed this doctrine of justification by faith in Christ, or Sola Fide, rather than through works, and it became a cornerstone in rejecting the authority of the papacy.

     The conception of this doctrine culminated in a series of denominational secessions from the Catholic Church in what is known as the Protestant Reformation. These newer denominations, categorized as Protestant, made various modifications to their religious traditions, adopted or reinterpreted Church doctrines, and rejected the Catholic papacy. Among these changes, the rejection of the Catholic papacy, penitence, and righteousness through work (e.g. monastacism) were among the most common. Of these Protestant denominations, some of the most notable were the Lutherans from Martin Luther, the Calvinists and Presbyterians from John Calvin, the Anabaptists from Ulrich Zwingli, the Anglicans and later seceding Puritans from the Anglican Church under Henry VIII, and many more. The quick pace of the series of secessions placed pressure upon the Catholic Church to make reforms, and so greater scrutiny was placed upon the selling of indulgences, a stricter criteria was applied to the ordination of religious leaders, and various scandals were dealt with swiftly. Eventually, between 1545 and 1563, three meetings were held by Catholic leaders to determine what the Catholic Church’s official position was on the newly emerging doctrines. The Catholic Church reiterated its adherence to its traditional teachings and rejected the ideas of the new Protestant denominations. These meetings were known as the Council of Trent and they mark an official divergence between Catholicism and the newer Protestant denominations (Ludwig 413-415).

Doctrinal Understandings of Justification: Historical and Contemporary

The Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide contends that justification, the forgiveness of sins, comes from faith alone. Faith has two integral components: knowledge and trust. Knowledge refers to the knowledge of God through Christ in the word of the Gospels. It is a way to intellectually come to know the character of God and to understand that he is able to deliver on his promise for salvation. Trust, then, extends from this intellectual understanding of God’s character. Trust is the process by which one, after seeing the truth in the Gospels, relies on God to deliver on his promise (Rinehart 578-579). As Shelton Woods phrased it, in an analogy provided during one of his Presbyterian Seminars, faith in God is similar to the way in which patients have faith in a doctor. Intellectually learning the Gospels to understand God is the same as reviewing the credentials of a doctor who is about to perform surgery. Then, once the credentials have been reviewed, the patient trusts the doctor to perform the surgery correctly despite potential anxieties. For Protestants, after intellectually understanding God through the Gospels, they place their trust in Jesus Christ for justification. The trust that is placed in Christ is expressed and visible as an assent to God’s will. It means remaining obedient to the commandments set forth by God through Christ even though one falls short of them. This leads to the further understanding that an individual’s expression of love for God in Christ, by way of obedience and assent, is continually jeopardized by the perils of this life. While Protestants believe that they receive justification by this faith in Jesus Christ, their faith can never be complete until the resurrection. Until the time when Jesus liberates them and allows them to ascend to heaven, they will remain conflicted between their love and their inherited sin (Rinehart 579). One such passage which Protestants understand this through: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (New International Version, Rom. 7.14). Among many similar passages in the seventh book of Romans, Christ reveals that the condition of humans is such that they love God imperfectly due to their confinement in the inherited sin of man. While Protestants reject the idea that works can merit justification, good works are still integral to their denominations. They believe that faith in Christ, such that it culminates in love, will naturally lead to good works. While good works will never merit justification, justification by faith invariably leads to good works as love grows in the hearts of Protestant Christians (Rinehart 579). Lastly, Protestants affirm the idea that faith in God through Christ is a God-given gift, not a man-made one. The doctrine of Sola Fide is the foundational rift between Protestant and Catholic understandings of justification.

    Catholics, instead, contend that justification must necessarily come from good works and that faith alone is insufficient. This position is best exemplified by Canon XII from the Council of Trent: “If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema” (Waterworth 40). The belief in justification by works and faith is frequently supported by Catholics through passages like the following: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (New International Version, Matt 5.20). Jesus demands good works as a prerequisite for entering the kingdom of heaven. Similarly, Catholics believe that when one attributes all good works as extending from Christ while similarly attributing their justification to Christ’s merits alone, it leaves no place for the individual character of humans. From this perspective, humans cannot ever be meritous as all merits extend from Christ, nor are they individually sinful as all are equal inheritors of original sin. As a result, humans occupy the awkward null space of being neither individually good nor evil in their actions: the ethics of an action cannot be ascribed to human character (Rinehart 583-584). Furthermore, the sacrament of baptism and the eucharist are supposed to be sacraments that renew the soul, permitting the growth of a person’s merit as supplied by Christ. Catholics believe that the Lutheran understanding renders such renewal in Christ to be an illogical concept. Luther advocated the idea that faith in Christ would create in humans a “new and clean heart,” but Catholics believe that this is inconsistent with the doctrine of Sola Fide as it posits that all merits of humans are from Christ and all sins are from their man-nature – the individual is unchanged, so to suggest that it can be renewed makes little sense (Rinehart 590). Lastly, some have held to the position that to intellectually seek out God through scripture, as Luther advocates in Sola Fide, leaves out trust in God. The primary divergence here is that some Catholics view faith as relying solely upon trust without rational scrutiny while Protestants view faith as relying upon trust that develops from rational scrutiny. The Catholic Church has held that both meritous works and faith are integral parts to justification.

     Recent ecumenical movements culminated in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the intention of synthesizing Catholic and Protestant understandings of justification, but a divergence in the basal beliefs about justification through merits or faith still remains. Above all, the significant areas of agreement between the Lutherans and Catholics is that Christ is the formal cause of justification and that Paul, in his discussion of Christ making the sinner righteous, was purely through faith in Christ and thus righteousness came from Christ alone (JDDJ 19-21) (Witt 72). The core issues of the division still remain, however. Lutherans still hold to the idea that it is by faith alone that people are justified, and that good works result from faith. Good works, within this understanding, are descriptive of faith (JDDJ 26). By contrast, Catholics view works as an instrumental cause of justification. While they acknowledge that Christ is the formal cause by which good works are possible, they still maintain that works are necessary to merit justification (27). Lutherans also maintain that sinfulness is the quality of man who lives in constant opposition to God and that, through Christ’s merit alone, sin is ruled by his righteousness (which then becomes the sinner’s righteousness). From this understanding, they believe that Christians can be united with God despite having sin (29). Catholics, alternatively, believe that sinfulness is the personal rejection of God but that this sin can be removed through sacraments. As such, being a sinner is incompatible with being united with God (30). While they both agree that sinfulness is immanent within humans and that unity with God is acquired through Christ, they disagree on what the nature of sin is and whether one can be in unity with God while being sinful (28-30). While concessions have been made that do remedy some of the earlier criticisms of both sides from earlier centuries, the essential doctrinal divide between Protestants and Catholics on the matter of justification remains (Witt 72).

Concluding Thoughts

While the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification served to clarify the positions of both the Lutheran and Catholic denominations, the doctrinal split between the two remains. The historical exploration of the doctrine of Sola Fide serves to provide context to the Protestant succession from Roman Catholicism and highlights the primary motivations between the different doctrinal understandings. The examination of the historical positions of Protestants and Catholics provides insights into the modern views of Protestants and Catholics on justification that have resulted from the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. With this in mind, Protestants still maintain their belief in justification by faith alone where works are a description of faith. Catholics, alternatively, maintain their belief that justification comes from both faith and works where works are an instrumental cause of justification, even though the formal cause of justification is Christ. Herein lies the essential distinction between Protestants and Catholics in their treatment of justification.

Works Cited

Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification., 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Ludwig, Theodore M.. The Sacred Paths: Understanding the Religions of the World – 4th ed.. New Jersey: Pearson, 2006. Print.

New International Version. Colorado Springs: Biblica, 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Rinehart, Larry. “Sola fide: the mystery of salvation by faith.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 49.4 (2014): 577-600. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Waterworth, J.. The Council of Trent: The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent. Cooperatorum Veritatis Societas, 2006. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Witt, William G.. “Anglican reflections on justification by faith.” Anglican Theological Review 95.1 (2013): 57-80. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Woods, Shelton. Personal Presbyterian Seminar. March 2015.


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