Joan of Arc faith vs. infant faith

joanofarcAnother one of my re-cycled Reformation posts…

This one deals with the issue of certainty in the Christian life (see Romans 5:1 and I John 5:12-13).

In the heat the Reformation, Luther said some very damning things about Rome:

 “What kind of church is the pope’s church? It is an uncertain, vacillating, and tottering church. Indeed, it is a deceitful, lying church, doubting and unbelieving, without God’s Word. For the pope with his keys teaches his church to doubt and to be uncertain… It is difficult enough for wretched consciences to believe. How can one believe at all if, to begin with, doubt is cast upon the object of one’s belief? Thereby doubt and despair are only strengthened and confirmed.” (Luther, 1530, quoted at the beginning of one of the chapters in Hendrix, Scott, Luther and the Papacy, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981, italics mine).

Or try this one:

“There hasn’t been a more destructive teaching against repentance in the Church (with the exception of the Sadducees and the Epicureans) as that of Roman Catholicism. In that it never permitted the forgiveness of sins to be certain, it took away complete and true repentance. It taught that a person must be uncertain as to whether or not he stood before God in grace with his sins forgiven. Such certainty was instead to be found in the value of a person’s repentance, confession, satisfaction, and service in purgatory.” Luther, Martin. Antinomian Theses, Disputation #4, 1938 (translated by Pastor Paul Strawn) Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, Inc., 2005 (The whole book is available for free at:

Was Luther right for being so harsh in his assessment?  What does Rome say about this issue today?

Officially speaking, Rome offers up Joan of Arc for our consideration in its most recent catechism:

 “…according to the Lord’s words “Thus you will know them by their fruits” – reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.

A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.'”58  (see here)

I’d say that is a very clever answer!  Presumably – this is the model we are to remember and live by.  Historically speaking, one of the ways the powers-that-were thought they could prove Joan was a heretic (evidently) was by finding out whether she thought that she really had forgiveness, life and salvation, or as the Roman Catholics would say, that she was in a “state of grace”.

Up until the recent past, this kind of attitude would have been labeled the “sin of presumption” – Roman Catholics knew that to be a strong Christian actually meant that you doubted whether you yourself were saved.   For example, right around the same time that Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Church doors in Wittenberg, the theologian Johann Altenstaig (in his Vocabularius theologiae, Hagenau 1517) was saying that the devil led people astray by making them think there was good evidence for being saved.  “No one, no matter how righteous he may be”, Altenstaig said, “can know with certainty that he is in the state of grace, except by a revelation”. Likewise, Cardinal Cajetan, a few weeks before confronting Luther at Augsburg, wrote that “Clearly almost all come to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist in reverent fear of the Lord and uncertain of being in grace.  In fact theologians praise their continuing uncertainty and ordinarily attribute its opposite to presumption or ignorance” (both quotes from Cajetan Responds, a footnote from p. 269 and p. 66)

However, nowadays, among some Roman Catholic apologists the definition of this “sin of presumption” seems to have narrowed quite a bit!   I think that we can readily understand why this is the case.  If you are trying to appeal to evangelical Christians, for example, telling them they can’t be certain that they are in a stable and secure relationship with God is not a winning argument.  As such, several RC apologists now, distinguishing between different kinds of “certainties” (see here to see how they approach this) will say that the certainty of one’s current status before God need not always be in doubt (see here, for an example of this)

I can understand this impulse, because it clearly is a biblical one.  One needs only to look at undeniable passages like Romans 5:1 and I John 5:12.  The only problem is, as best I can tell, is that they are rewriting their history.  Early on, the great Scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas had said that certainty of one’s “state of grace” was at best “conjecture” (i.e. only “guesswork” due to inconclusive or incomplete evidence – hence the reason this was a good way to nail Joan).  When Cardinal Cajetan, in his meeting with Luther in 1518 essentially told him that one could never be sure “one’s contrition was sufficient to effect the forgiveness one hoped to receive” (Hendrix, Scott, Luther and the Papacy, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981, p. 62), Luther – amazed at this position – never looked back.  When the Pope backed up Cajetan’s views when he condemned Luther in Exsurge Domine, nothing more was needed to convince the Reformer that he was dealing with the Antichrist.

After Cardinal Cajetan confronted Luther over his “presumption” (i.e. his confidence that he really was in a state of grace) at Augsburg in 1518, his tracts over the next 14 years show that there was no moving on this teaching that the faithful could not be certain.  One gets the definitive sense that through conjecture the pious and devout were to conclude, from the evidence, not that they were in a state of grace, but the opposite!  And Cajetan, I have recently learned, was more or less Luther’s most thoughtful, irenic, and dare I say, “liberal” opponent (and the top expert on Thomas Aquinas of that day)!  In spite of the consensus that no one could be certain about this issue (admittedly due to William of Ockham’s overwhelming influence), there were some Franciscans who followed Duns Scotus, arguing that a person did not need to “doubt whether his disposition was sufficient for justification through the sacrament [of penance]”, but could rather be confident of meriting God’s grace by sorrow over their sin.  But even their view did not hold sway at Trent (Antonio Delphinus, O.F.M., Pro cetitudine gratiae praesentis (Concilium Tridentinum, XII, 651-658), which came down on a formulation that seems to have left Duns in the dust, and Thomas reigning supreme.  (see Cajetan Responds, footnote 14 on p. 267).

cajetan respondsNot long ago, I heard an interesting story from the Lutheran pastor Rolf Preus.  He talked about being at a conference where a highly informed and capable ecumenical Catholic scholar was convincing many Lutheran pastors that Rome and Wittenberg were not far about on the matter of justification by faith.  He seemed to be saying all the right things – that is, until one pastor asked him the first Kennedy Evangelism Explosion question: “If you died today, do you know for sure you’d go to heaven?”  This question threw him off, and at this point he evidently sputtered and flailed and didn’t know what to say.  This convinced the pastors that for all the other words they had heard that sounded so good to their ears, there were still significant differences that remained.

Again, many modern RC apologists would not be so tongue-tied over a question like this… in fact, they have ready answers.  I contend that they are new and innovative answers though – deviating from Rome historically – even if they don’t want to believe that it is true.

It truly is amazing to be reminded that Martin Luther, from Vatican II onwards, seems increasingly to be vindicated by modern Roman Catholic theologians….

“[Catholic theology] has to ask in a more unbiased manner about the contemporary consensus with the Luther of that time who has already formulated, sometimes in an uncanny way, so much of what is also today self-evident to the Catholic sense of faith” (Otto Pesch, quoted in Sobolewski, Gregory, Martin Luther: Roman Catholic Prophet, p. 50)

True, I would say.

So how can we sum all of this up?  Well, some modern RC apologists, rather than embracing the Joan of Arc model, are at once doing a right thing and a wrong thing.  The right thing they are doing is insisting that when a Christian who sees his sin says the words “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” they really should believe the words they speak, and receive the real peace with God that Christ delivers.  In other words, they should be as infants, who in simple, unassuming, unpretencious, and unreflective faith receive the wonderful words of absolution freely, and resist alternative voices that tell them not to be formed, shaped, and driven by these words.  The wrong thing they are doing is insisting that this is what St. Thomas taught – or what Trent taught – or even what Rome currently teaches.

Ecumenically speaking, all of this means that Rome would have to admit that they were on the wrong side of history on this most important of issues, and that Luther was fundamentally right.   If this were to happen, it would truly be a wonderful miracle!  Alternatively though, they could double down on the issue, which would continue to alienate those it calls “separated brethren”.  Either way, all the word games in the world will not hide the fact that ultimately, a choice will need to be made.

Semper reformanda!

P.S. – Any RC apologists reading this – If I’m wrong, please show me why.  I certainly am open to hearing where I may have gone off the rails here – historically, or otherwise.

4 replies on “Joan of Arc faith vs. infant faith”

  1. Well, as a sort of armchair-apologist, let me give my impressions.

    The first is that the Church gets lots of things wrong throughout history (and sometimes freely admits it)—as long as what it’s getting wrong is not official doctrine. “Cardinal X taught this” or even “Lots of bishops taught this” isn’t enough to make something official doctrine (witness the Arian controversy, when vast number of bishops held a heretical position, according to what I’ve heard). Even the “greats” like Augustine and Aquinas can’t be considered as definitive representatives of the Catholic faith, although many Catholics fail to draw that distinction when they quote their favorite theologians or bishops.

    So, in the things you listed as sources for Catholic error, only two have a possible claim to official/infallible doctrine status: the papal bull and the Council of Trent. The infallibility of various papal statements is a matter of some debate among Catholic theologians; I think most would not consider a papal bull to be infallible, so Pope Leo X could have gotten something wrong without any particular harm to the RC’s vision of itself. That said, when I look at the statements of Luther that were specifically condemned in Exsurge Domine (Source), I really don’t see the Pope saying that we can’t be confident that we are in a state of grace; I see him insisting on a different basis for our confidence than Luther claimed. Luther appeared to be saying that we can be confident we are forgiven simply because we believe we have been forgiven; the Pope insisted that no, belief that we are in a state of grace is not enough, we must meet the “contrition + absolution” formula, with the implication that if we have met that formula, we can be confident of our state.

    The Council of Trent, of course, *does* have ‘official doctrine’ status. Without reading through all the documents, I did come across one paragraph that seems relevant. If you have session/chapter references for other paragraphs that support your point, I’d be curious to see them. Here’s the one I found (Session 6, Chapter 9) [my emphases].
    Against the vain confidence of Heretics.
    But, although it is necessary to believe that sins neither are remitted, nor ever were remitted save gratuitously by the mercy of God for Christ’s sake; yet is it not to be said, that sins are forgiven, or have been forgiven, to any one who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the remission of his sins, and rests on that alone; seeing that it may exist, yea does in our day exist, amongst heretics and schismatics; and with great vehemence is this vain confidence, and one alien from all godliness, preached up in opposition to the Catholic Church. But neither is this to be asserted,-that they who are truly justified must needs, without any doubting whatever, settle within themselves that they are justified, and that no one is absolved from sins and justified, but he that believes for certain that he is absolved and justified; and that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone: as though whoso has not this belief, doubts of the promises of God, and of the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ. For even as no pious person ought to doubt of the mercy of God, of the merit of Christ, and of the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, even so each one, when he regards himself, and his own weakness and indisposition, may have fear and apprehension touching his own grace; seeing that no one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God.

    Here again I see an insistence by the Church that “believing we have been forgiven” is not, by itself, sufficient to guarantee a state of grace. This isn’t an argument against confidence, it’s an argument against confidence based on faith instead of confidence based on sacraments. The paragraph does go further, though, to insist that if you don’t have confidence, that doesn’t mean you’re ruining your salvation. I see the last statement of the paragraph as an acknowledgement that people sometimes get things wrong, even when they are certain, so that people who recognize this basic fact about themselves are allowed to be concerned about whether or not they are in a state of grace. This allowance is balanced, though, by the fact they say we ought NOT to doubt God’s mercy, the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, and the efficacy of the sacraments. That certainly doesn’t sound to me like an insistence that we must not feel confident in our salvation; rather an encouragement to feel confident (based on our participation in the sacraments), but a refusal of the idea that not feeling confident is to jeopardize that salvation.


  2. Anna,

    Yes, it is hard to know who the council of Trent was talking to there. Faith in faith was not the issue.

    Of course, they also said: “If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake… let him be anathema.”

    Here is the way I see it: Are God’s commands, threats, and punishments – His Hammer which shatters – to be proclaimed so that persons may see themselves as sinners – sinners who should then be given the confidence of faith – i.e. be actively persuaded via the Promise (Christ) that they have God’s forgiveness for all their sins (and hence, life and salvation) – even as they tremble?

    Is this to continually occur in the life of the Christian, until death comes, or not? Is this pattern of “Law and Gospel” to be that which the heralds of God’s Word bring – or not? This, in my mind, is *the* question for the Church posed by the Reformation – and everything else flows from this.

    You might find this post helpful in thinking about this topic more also:



    1. “Yes, it is hard to know who the council of Trent was talking to there. Faith in faith was not the issue.”

      It would not be at all surprising if what Trent was responding to was not a modern take on the meaning of Luther and other Reformer’s proclamations, but rather the bishops’ own conception of what the Reformers were saying—or even just popular conceptions (or misconceptions) of the Reformer’s words. Even if ‘faith in faith’ was not what Luther meant, that wouldn’t have stopped the bishops from condemning the idea, if that’s what they thought he meant, or if other people seemed to be at risk of taking Luther that way. There may even be some precedence for this type of dynamic in Church history; I recently read an account of the Monophysite controversy that suggested that it may have been a language issue. Namely, the position that that council anathematized in Latin had different nuances (important ones) from what the Greek-speakers were saying and meant. Looking at the possibility of this happening with Luther and the other Reformers is worth considering and might aid in any attempts at reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants.

      Let me address the canon that you quoted (I assume because you object to it).

      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. (My emphasis)

      Again, here, I think the objection is not to confidence, per se. The objection seems aimed at the limitation of justifying faith to the fact of confidence. Justifying faith can and should include confidence in God’s forgiveness; but it is more than just that. It includes submission, love, worship… it is a turning of the inner self toward God. If someone is confident that God has forgiven their sins through Jesus, that alone is not enough to guarantee that they have justifying faith.

      “Is this pattern of “Law and Gospel” to be that which the heralds of God’s Word bring – or not?”

      To my ear, this question sounds very odd. (Not just your various phrasings of it, but the question itself.) If you are asking whether awareness of sin followed by awareness of God’s forgiveness is an important dynamic in Christian life, then, yes, of course it is. Some of the Church’s objections are aimed at emphasizing that repentance/contrition must (and sacraments should) be an intermediary step between the awareness of sin and the awareness of forgiveness. Personally, I would add that the repent-be-forgiven cycle is only one aspect among many in the Christian life (although it’s especially crucial at the beginning of the Christian path). It’s important, but so are growth in holiness, learning to recognize the voice of the Shepherd, charitable works, prayer and the personal relationship with the Divine Trinity, and so on. Considering any one of these dynamics as “defining” risks missing the balance and presence of all of them in the Christian life.

      I am also curious. You say this question of whether Law and Gospel is at the heart of the Christian message is the defining question of the Reformation. Since I almost never think of the Reformation in those terms, let me ask you—what do you think the Catholic Church’s answer to that question was, during the Reformation?


  3. Anna,

    I apologize for my terse answers, but I am very busy today… if I put you off though I might not get back to you.

    “if that’s what they thought he meant, or if other people seemed to be at risk of taking Luther that way…. Looking at the possibility of this happening with Luther and the other Reformers is worth considering and might aid in any attempts at reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants.”

    I have considered it. I don’t think this is possible. The council of Trent lasted a long time. Luther’s writings were widely available. The final document was not so much concerned about truth or accurate representation of Luther’s views.

    “If someone is confident that God has forgiven their sins through Jesus, that alone is not enough to guarantee that they have justifying faith.”

    The issue is whether or not justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake. And that is what it is. That one might think they have it when they don’t is not the issue.

    “It’s important, but so are growth in holiness, learning to recognize the voice of the Shepherd, charitable works, prayer and the personal relationship with the Divine Trinity, and so on.”

    Of course. Anyone who charitably read the Lutheran confessions would realize this.

    “Since I almost never think of the Reformation in those terms, let me ask you—what do you think the Catholic Church’s answer to that question was, during the Reformation?”

    Law and Gospel is intimately related to the doctrine of justification – we are constantly in need of being reminded of our sins and pointed to our Savior for both pardon and power. You might check out what I say about the doctrine vis a vis Rome in my debate with Dave Armstrong here:

    here is the bit on justification:

    ….when it comes to the life of the believer, we simply do not believe in a separation of justification and sanctification. The simple child who lives in a relationship with God does not need to distinguish between justification and sanctification – they simply live as His child, and insofar as they are saints, they eagerly hear His voice and do what He commands (I once wrote the following: “The complicated systematic, theological / philosophical constructs that [we often depend on], though certainly able to influence the experiences of the few who think in their grooves, primarily derive from and serve to make sense of the general experiences of all believers, simple and sophisticated alike. Simple words which even children can understand shape Christian experience and are the foundation of the deeper systematic and theological / philosophical constructs, which also, certainly, serve useful purposes.”) They happily and freely acknowledge that even though they are saved *by faith*, at the final judgment the Judge will judge them *according to works* before their neighbors. They learn that those who are tempted to stray from His ways and do may, at some point in the future, no longer desire His forgiveness for their wanderings – and hence, no longer desire Him. Further, there is no doubt that it is true that no one who is not sanctified will be saved, as Luther himself indicated. We believe in *distinguishing* between justification and sanctification only because Rome’s understanding of it was so faulty and destroyed good pastoral practice (see above).

    …also see the end of this recent post:



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