A Crucial Misinterpretation

Reading Symbolism by Johann Adam Möhler is not easy. Most of the 95 pages I’ve read thus far are covered in pink ink: underlines and notes. I started the book months ago but never imagined I’d be cruising through it. As it stands, I strive to pick up the book and read a few pages once each week. My last post dealt with the first half or so of chapter three, section six, in which Möhler explained that Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon believed that after the Fall man became incapable of turning to God. Therefore, if man were to ever do so, it would have to be God’s doing and God’s alone. In other words, God chooses which individuals He wants to save, and those individuals are powerless to help or hinder Him. They are completely at His mercy. It follows that those who are not chosen can do nothing about it. I know that John Calvin was the one all about predestination, but I don’t know what else to call Luther’s and Melancthon’s theory. Further, if their ideas were valid, wouldn’t that mean that God is nothing but a tyrant: choosing his favorites and sending the rest to hell? My Catholic faith teaches me that God is Love, so this picture of Him makes no sense.

Further, Möhler points out that such a doctrine of utter passivity and incapability of turning towards God results in a rather strange conclusion:

Proceeding, now, to the task of more nearly determining what is the work of regeneration, which the exclusively active Spirit of God hath to achieve, we can discover naught else but that the religious and moral qualities—the faculty of faith and of will, which had been lost through Adam’s fall—must be inserted anew in the defective spiritual organisation; and, accordingly, the inward ears be replaced*. While, therefore, according to the Catholic system, the first operation of God consists in the resuscitation, excitement, higher tuning, strengthening, and glorification of these faculties, it is, according to the Lutheran system, to exert itself in a new creation of the same. In this way, we can understand, in some degree, the remark in the Formulary of Concord, that, in the further progress of regeneration, man co-operates with God, not indeed, as to the integrity of his being, but only through his renovated parts—through the new divine gift; the remaining portion of his being—the mere natural man, who had come down from that earlier state of alienation from God—being never active for the kingdom of God. Moreover, by this doctrine, the identity of consciousness is destroyed; and we cannot see how the man, new-born or newly created, can recognise himself to be the same—at least, it is not easy for him to do so, unless he stands before the mirror, and perceives to his contentment, that he has ever the same nose, and consequently is the same person as heretofore. Nor can we conceive how repentance can be possible; for the new-created faculties will have difficulty to repent for what they have not perpetrated; and the old cannot repent, for the divine is not within their competence.

In summary (if I understand correctly): Luther believed/promulgated the following: 1. when man was created, he was capable of choosing to love God; 2. the Fall/original sin, however, destroyed in man the capacity to choose to love God; 3. this made man completely passive (like a puppet controlled by God); 4. when, however, God chooses to make a man love Him, he inserts into his being the capacity to do so and; 5. thereby renders man capable of cooperating with God.

And I’m left still thinking that a God like this is nothing better than a petty tyrant who plays favorites.

Möhler believes that Luther’s doctrine was a reaction to an “intentional misrepresentation of Catholic doctrine”:

The Catholic dogma, that even, in fallen man, moral and religious faculties exist—faculties which are not always sinful in themselves, and must be exercised even in the work of regeneration—led some to believe, that such an exercise of the faculties in question was the natural transition to grace, so as to suppose that, according to Catholic principles, a very good use of them was the medium of grace, or, in other words, merited it. Such an opinion were [sic] undoubtedly Pelagian; and in that case, not Christ, but man, would merit grace, or rather, grace would cease to be grace. To escape now the like errors, the Reformers supposed man was unable to achieve anything, and received only in regeneration itself those faculties which can be active in and for the kingdom of God. But the fine and delicate sense of the Catholic dogma, which very carefully distinguishes between nature and grace, totally escaped the perception of the Reformers. The finite, even when conceived as without sin, though it may stretch itself on every side, can never attain to the infinite, nor ever cling to it but with an illusive grasp.

Nature may honestly exert all her powers; she will never of herself, and by herself, reach a supernatural transfiguration; the human, by no strain of power, will [never]** become of itself the divine. There would remain an eternal gap betwixt the two, if it were not filled up by grace: the divinity must stoop to humanity, if humanity is to become divine. Hence did the Son of God become man, and not man God in oder to reconcile humanity with the Godhead. The like must typically recur in every believer. Thus the Church may look on the non-regenerated as endowed with the fairest faculties of nature, and as turning them to the best account. Yet it is not by the use of such faculties that they acquire life in grace, either its beginning, its middle, or its end. On the contrary, Divine grace must ever compassionately stoop to our lowliness, and impart to our sin-polluted faculties the first heavenly consecration, in order to prepare them for the kingdom of heaven, and the receiving of Christ’s image. Here, accordingly, we see how important is the difference, which divides the Confessions in the view of man’s original state. … That man should retain the possession of all his natural powers and faculties, signifies, according to the Protestant system, that he is able of himself to attain to the perfect knowledge and love of God. Thus, if the Protestants wished to maintain the notion of grace, they were obliged to exhibit man as absolutely passive in the work of regeneration, and as devoid of all powers acted on by grace. It was far otherwise in the Catholic system, which they were unwilling to probe.

So, this is the classic “faith, not works” argument against Catholicism, but it is based on a falsehood, for Catholics do not believe that we can earn grace, that we can “work our way to Heaven.” In a recent conversation with a friend, I formulated an analogy (I call it the Golden Bowl) for what Catholics believe when it comes to grace (God’s love) and getting to Heaven. Here it is (I hope it makes sense): An upside-down bowl made of gold is handed to everyone at birth. This bowl is for collecting God’s love (grace), but it doesn’t work very well if it isn’t turned right-side up. God is always pouring His love down on us, but we can’t catch any if it runs over the outside of our bowls. We need a nudge from God, telling us to flip them over. For some, this nudge might happen at baptism. For others, it could be a near-death experience, a book, a relationship, being overwhelmed by beauty, who knows. Once the bowl is facing the right way, we can collect God’s love, and the more we gather, the more likely we are to get to Heaven. Further, the amount of God’s grace we possess when we die determines how much we can love God in Heaven. I like to think of this as affecting how close we can come to God after we die. The grace-filled bowls are like tickets to a show; those with the fullest bowls get seated up front. We are responsible for keeping our bowls in good shape. That’s where free will and personal responsibility come in. Sin leaves our bowls battered and dented, and each dent decreases a bowl’s capacity. Receiving the sacraments (like Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation) pounds out the dents and lets our bowls hold more of God’s love. Further, every time we perform an act of charity, overcome pride, resist temptation—in short, every time we show our love for God by doing something pleasing to Him—we increase the capacity of our bowls.


*Earlier in the book, Möhler distinguished between outward ears, which hear sounds in the world around us; and inward ears, which are attuned to God.

**My guess is that the word “never” is missing here. It makes no sense without it—or am I missing something?

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