The Roman Catholic Council of Trent on Justification

Dan Graves, MSL

The Roman Catholic Council of Trent on Justification

Have you ever assembled an engine kit? If you have, you can understand what the Council of Trent accomplished on this day, January 13, 1547 when it approved a decree on justification (the way God puts us right with him when we have sinned). It took them months of hard work and was more difficult to assemble than a complicated model.

The Council of Trent, held in an Italian city of that name, came about largely because of Martin Luther. Luther protested that the Roman church was corrupt. Christians were taught things that had no support in scripture, such as that they could buy indulgences to get souls of loved ones out of purgatory. Against this, Luther argued that justification is by faith alone. As a result, whole nations left the Catholic church.

The popes saw that Luther needed to be answered, but they had trouble assembling enough bishops to hold a council. Twenty years passed. When a council finally met at Trent, it was because Emperor Charles V, who ruled much of Europe, insisted on it. He thought that the best chance of winning the Protestants back to Catholicism was for the church to clean up its act. The pope did not agree. Seeing Protestant ideas as heresy he wanted only to define Catholic doctrine and condemn the heretics. The council finally did a bit of both, switching back and forth between theology and reform.

Justification was the toughest theological question that the assembled bishops tackled. A few wanted to condemn Luther's views without any explanation, but the rest felt that if you condemn someone else's theology, you should explain why. They knew that this was going to be hard to do, because Catholics themselves did not fully agree on justification. Thomists emphasized God's action, Scotists human feeling, and Augustinians faith.

There were personality clashes making it hard to obtain agreement, too. Sanfelice overheard Grechetto mutter that he was either a knave or a fool. Sanfelice asked him what he had said. Grechetto repeated his remark aloud. Sanfelice seized him by the beard and shook him so hard that hair came out in his hand. He was locked up and excommunicated, but Grechetto pleaded for his liberty.

Officials put six questions to the council. (1)What is meant by justification? (2)What brings it about--what is God's part and what is man's? (3)What does it mean to say a man is saved by faith? (4)Do works play a role before and after justification, and what is the role of the sacraments? (5)Describe the process of justification, what precedes, accompanies and follows it. (6)What proofs support Catholic doctrine? Another question also arose: is it possible to know with certainty that one is saved?

It took sixteen congregations (meetings where each bishop stated his opinion and cast a vote) to reach a decree. (By contrast, the doctrine of original sin took only three congregations.) The doctrine of Justification was issued as sixteen chapters followed by thirty-three binding statements or canons, aimed against Protestant ideas. All the same, Luther's thought influenced the work. The council had read his books. Luther had been an Augustinian and it was an Augustinian who drafted the council's final position.

The council decided that grace is necessary at each step of justification. However, man's free will must cooperate. Justification is more than forgiveness of sins: it is God's ongoing process of making a person new and good. Faith is not the only condition of salvation although it is its beginning, foundation, and root. In order for the grace of justification to grow, we must obey God's commands. The council also decided that justification can be lost by certain sins and that no man can be sure that he will be finally saved.

Bibliography

  1. Froude, James Anthony. Lectures on the council of Trent. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1979.
  2. Jedin, Hubert. A History of the Council of Trent. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1958.
  3. "Trent, Council of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York : Thomson, Gale, 2002 - .
  4. "Trent, Council of." The Oxford encyclopedia of the Reformation. Editor in chief Hans J. Hillerbrand. New York : Oxford University Press, 1996.

Last updated May, 2007.

  • Editors' Picks

    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
  • Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
    Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
  • So You Think Theology Is Impractical?
    So You Think Theology Is Impractical?