The question of what is the “formal cause” of justification is often said to be the real, fundamental difference between the soteriologies of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and Protestants by theologians on both sides. We can find this assertion made by theologians such as the Anglican Richard Hooker in the 16th Century, all the way down to the Anglican C. Fitzsimons Allison and the Jesuit Robert W. Gleason in the 20th, among many others.
A number of theologians on both sides have noted that the Protestant principles of sola gratia (salvation “by grace alone”) and sola fide (“by faith alone”) are not the real difference, since both are effectively asserted in traditional Roman Catholic (RC) doctrinal sources. The Council of Trent affirms that both the forgiveness of sin and the gift of new life (which together make up “initial justification” in Tridentine terms, but justification plus initial sanctification in Protestant terms) cannot be earned, but are gratuitously given in response to living faith, that is, faith informed by love. Both sides agree that forgiveness and renewal are distinct but cannot be separated, and are given simultaneously by God.
The difference of terminology abovementioned rests upon the apparent disagreement over the “formal cause”, not merely upon how broadly one takes the connotations of the word “justification”, nor how one differentiates it from “sanctification”. There is a logomachy here, but that is not the only problem. That is shown by the fact that Protestants such as Hooker have been quite willing to call sanctification “second justification” sometimes, and so have Roman Catholic theologians in the past.
No, the essential problem is indeed the understanding of what exactly constitutes the “just-ness” of the justified, that is, the “formal cause” of justification. To better comprehend what we mean by this, we need to remind ourselves of the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophical categories of causality being used. A “substance”, a real entity, has to be actually produced by something or someone. We would simply call that the “cause” these days. Scholastically, it is the Efficient Cause. The substance normally has to be made from something pre-existing which is changed as to its nature. That is the Material Cause (where the “matter” is not limited to what scientists call matter). The reason it is produced, the purpose for which it exists, is the Final Cause. The “plan” or “shape” or “set of qualities” that make it what it is, that render the matter “such”, are the Formal Cause. Other causes can be listed, but these will do for now.
So, the Formal Cause of something is that which inheres in it to make it what it is. For a building, the formal cause might be roughly equivalent to the set of architectural plans used to build it. The material cause will be the bricks, mortar, wood and other sources used to build it. The efficient cause will be the builders themselves. If the building is a Fire Station, for example, the final cause will be the need to house firefighters and their equipment.
For justification, the RCC said in the Council of Trent that the sole formal cause is sanctifying grace imparted to and thus inhering in the Christian, that is, the objectively cleansed and renewed state of the human nature within that Christian. Protestants like Hooker, on the other hand, have claimed that the sole formal cause of justification (or at least of “first justification”) is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us as an external “covering” of our sin and guilt.
The Protestant criticism of the RC position is that it makes our acceptance with God dependent on our degree of goodness or works, thus denying the Gospel of grace and the bold access to God provided for us through the Cross alone (Galatians 6:14, Ephesians 2:8-9, Hebrews 10:19-22). The RC criticism the other way is that the imputational definition reduces salvation to a legal fiction, a mere whitewashing of sepulchres (cp. Matthew 23:17). One purpose in this essay is to show that both criticisms are unfair and based on misunderstandings. The other is to show how both perspectives can be integrated without either side denying its doctrine.
The first obstacle that must be overcome is a category error. The problem with the Protestant insistence upon extrinsic imputation of Christ's merits or righteousness as the formal cause of justification is that it cannot be so according to Scholastic definitions, and “formal cause” is after all a Scholastic term borrowed from Aristotelian analysis. Forms inhere in matter (unless we are referring to purely spiritual beings) and subsist substantially. Sanctifying grace, insofar as it involves a change in the nature of the redeemed person, inheres in that person. (As an aside, sanctifying grace could be said to be an “accidental form” to the person as a human being, but a “substantial form” to the person as a Christian in a state of grace.)
Imputational justification does not have, therefore, properly speaking, a formal cause because it is not in the Aristotelian categories of Substance or Quality but that of Relation. Aristotle recognised 10 categories, which can be reduced to 4: Substance, Quality, Quantity, Relation. Going back to our Fire Station as an example, the Station itself is a substance. Whether or not it is north or south of the nearest Police Station does not affect it intrinsically, and so is a matter of Relation. If one of its resident fire-fighters comes to view it with great affection as a second home, that is also a relational attribute of the Fire Station. Standing/status/position, the very words commonly used by Protestants to describe what imputational justification involves instead of “state”, are to do with how something or someone is “located” with respect to, or “viewed” by, another entity. Imputational justification is extrinsic to us in itself, hence the other Protestant term, “justitia aliena”. While this term was a novum at the Reformation, the concept can be found in the Fathers. (For example, the anonymous letter to Diognetus says, “For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange ! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!” Similarly, St Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Philadelphians says, “His cross, and his death, and his resurrection, and the faith which is through him, are my unpolluted muniments; and in these, through your prayers, I am willing to be justified.” And St Ambrose, “I have nothing, therefore, whereby I may glory in my works; I have nothing to boast of, and, therefore, I will glory in Christ. I will not glory because I am righteous, but because I am redeemed. I will not glory because I am free from sin, but because my sins are pardoned. I will not glory because I have done good to any one, or any one has done good to me, but because Christ is my advocate with the Father, and because Christ’s blood was shed for me.”)
This claim of a category error has effectively been put before by the Jesuit theologian Joseph Devine. Anglican Martin Foord objected to it on the basis that justification is “the action of God acquitting a person”, so that imputation can be internal in that act as a formal cause. But even if we grant that this term can be applied to an act as well as a substance or a quality of it, Foord's objection (which he roots in Hooker) misses the point. The word translated “justification” from the Council of Trent is, as far as I can see, always the noun and never the gerund or infinitive form in the Latin. In other words, it most naturally refers to justification as the resulting “justified-ness” of the Christian, not as the “justify-ing” process applied to the Christian. The same can be said of all the related words in chapter VII of the Sixth Session: e.g., renovatio (renewal), remissio (remission). This subtle point is important because it means that there was no way the Tridentine fathers could have made imputation a formal cause of justification without affirming the impossible: that an extrinsic relation to a person was an inherent characteristic of them.
I suggest that Protestants accept that imputed justice is not strictly a formal cause of justification qua “justified-ness”, but what can be rightly called a “relational cause”. There is no reason why they cannot stretch the term “formal cause” to cover imputation within justification qua “justify-ing”. They can proclaim Christ's merits “covering” our sin (and God declaring and treating us as not-guilty) as a formal cause sensu lato within salvation-as-relation-and-divine-act without contradicting Trent at all, which was addressing something different.
It is worth noting that putting imputation into the category of relation does not belittle it. Let us not forget that St Augustine elevated the Aristotelian concept of relation to something like equality with substance when he used it to “describe” the Trinity. Each member of the Trinity he sees as “subsistent relation” within the Divine “Substance”. As imperfect as this conception may be, it allows us to speculate that the relational aspect of our salvation is ontologically richer than purely forensic metaphors might suggest at first.
The second obstacle to overcome is the nominal difference in the use of the word justification. The RCC defines justification as God not only calling but also making us righteous or just. Protestants define justification as God declaring us righteous or “not guilty”, and so treating us as innocent of sin. Both say this is all done on account of Christ's work on the Cross. More to the point, both are utilising definitions consistent with biblical usage.
The reference to men having “justified” God in Luke 7:29, Jesus' Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) and Romans 4:5-8 fit best with the “Protestant” declarative, imputational definition, for example.
But the same dikaio- family of words as used in Romans 5 cannot be limited this way. For example, verses 16 to 19 connect the whole family of these words together and assert that the end result is to be “made righteous” (v. 19). That this is not merely imputational is shown by the deliberate parallelism between “made sinners” and “made righteous”. Nobody claims that Adam's sin only made his descendants sinners nominally or by judicial declaration without the reality behind it. No, as Adam's sin really constituted mankind as sinful by affecting our nature, so Christ's saving act really re-constituted man's nature. Even part of Romans 4 points in this direction when it refers to God calling into existence the things that do not exist (v. 17), which would make his declaration simultaneously an impartation of righteousness anyway. That this verse is relevant to justification is clear from its associated mention of God bringing life from the dead when compared to verse 25, which associates resurrection and justification. Similarly, Ephesians 4:24 makes righteousness a quality of the new creation in us. So, both definitions or connotations are permissible.
The problem, then, is that when the formal cause is being discussed RC and Protestant theologians are trying to answer different questions. The RCC is asking: “What is the nature of the righteousness that is imparted to and inheres in us, i.e., what is it that 'informs', in the technical sense, the nature of the saved person?” Protestants are asking instead: “What renders us as innocent or not guilty of sin in God's sight and therefore in a right (legal) relationship with him?” The irony is that, bracketing the word justification, the RC and Protestant answers to each of these questions are the same: sanctifying grace and free forgiveness, respectively. Protestants (like Hooker) accept that there is an imparted righteousness in the sanctification (sanctifying grace) of the Christian. RCs say the remission of sins occurs “gratuitously by divine mercy for Christ's sake” (Chapter IX, Sixth Session), with no mention of a meritorious basis in sanctifying grace. Indeed, remission and renewal/sanctification are clearly distinguished at the beginning of chapter VII of the same Session, but all are considered parts of justification.
If, as I claim, RC justification = imputation + impartation, remission + renewal, the Tridentine bishops still had to give the (sole) formal cause as they did (see above). If we exclusively and strictly limit justification to imputation, on the other hand, the only thing approaching a formal cause is what quality is imputed or what God chooses to “see” instead of our sin, so to speak. Then the Protestant answer is almost inevitable, as is its dogmatic rejection of the Roman position, partly on the assumption that the Roman position denies imputation and bases our acceptance into God's favour on “how good he makes us”, so to speak.
The third obstacle therefore is the belief, shared among many Protestant and Catholic theologians, that Trent does not allow for any imputational aspect to justification. This belief is false. What Trent denies, in its own words, is “that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost” (Canon 11 on Justification, emphasis added).
Nevertheless, despite the absence of substantial dogmatic incompatibility in this area, there remain practical difficulties. The RC doctrine of salvation as enunciated at the Council of Trent exhibits three deficiencies (as distinct from errors).
First, as seen above, while it allows for imputational and relational aspects to justification, it does so apparently only implicitly, grudgingly and in passing.
Second, it gives the impression that salvation is earned by saying that Christians can merit Heaven. This tends to be misleading even when all the traditional RC qualifications of the word “merit” are taken into account. Briefly, these qualifications are: That there is no strict right in equity for humans to any reward based on their good deeds, since these deeds are imperfect, finite, and assume a prior unmerited forgiveness of sins. That what reward is owed human beings is owed because of gratuitous divine promise rather than natural equity. That the only element of human action truly worthy of such reward (and thus able to be attributed with “condign merit”) is the inspiration by the Holy Spirit that caused the action. (These traditional qualifications may be found in Aquinas and other authoritative sources, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.) So, when the RCC says a Christian merits heaven, they mean no more than what St Paul means in Galatians 6:7-10 and 2 Timothy 4:7-8. That is, good works done in the power of the Holy Spirit lead to eternal life because God is faithful to his gracious promise. That promise includes both an acquittal from the Divine Judge for Christ's true disciples, and a reward for them also based on their works. (Apart from the misleading nature of the word merit in this context, we also find that there is another problem related to the first part of the promise being ignored in the key part of the Tridentine decrees, as discussed next.)
Third, in the same section dealing with the reward of eternal life (Chapter XVI, Sixth Session) there is no direct mention of our reliance on Christ's blood covering our sins for entry into Heaven. Yes, there is mention on the reliance on Christ to do the good works, and there is a general mention of eternal life being “a grace mercifully promised”, but nothing about the fact that bad deeds, that is, sins, have to be remitted and not imputed as a fundamental condition of entry into Life, before good deeds performed by living faith are even considered. Now, a RC might note that the fact that entry into heaven depends on forgiveness is treated as “assumed knowledge” by this Chapter, having been discussed in Chapters VII, VIII and XI. But it is hard to deny that a complete omission of it when it comes to the specific teaching about entering eternal life gives a dangerous impression. That impression is that we really can simply earn heaven, and, worse still, that we cannot enter it unless we do. This does undermine the Gospel. And there is plenty of evidence that the sola gratia core of the Gospel is also often missed in popular RC teaching as well, as recorded by not only the Reformers within and outside of the RCC in the Sixteenth Century, but by RCs even today, as I have quoted before in other essays.
One way for the RCC to deal with these deficiencies would be to release a doctrinal clarification that brought together the necessary qualifications, which are already found anyway in various parts of their theological tradition, into one soteriological decree. This would include strong affirmation of the imputational and relational aspects of justification, the analogical and limited use of the word merit, and the necessary and perpetual dependence of final salvation on imputational justification. It would also note that when considering “justification” as the process of justifying in the act of forgiveness, rather than as the result of justifying, it is legitimate to speak of Christ's righteousness covering our sins as a “formal cause” in some sense. It would be beneficial if such a clarification admitted the fact that “justification” is used at times in Scripture with a basically imputational emphasis, as authoritative modern RC exegetes admit. Finally, an official enunciation of the common RC theological opinion that Christians can and should acquire “moral certainty” regarding their salvation (even though they cannot have absolute certainty without private revelation) would counterbalance the solely negative statement at Trent, and would, along with the features above, increase the benefits of healthy Christian “assurance” and peace for its flock.
Armstrong, D. (2010) “Do Catholics Believe in Imputed Justification, External Righteousness, and Justification by Faith Alone? Yes (!), With Proper Biblical Qualifications”, Web Address: http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2010/09/do-catholics-believe-in-imputed.html
Foord, M. (2000) “Richard Hooker's Doctrine of Justification” Churchman 114(4). Web Address:
Kirby, T., ed. (2008) A Companion to Hooker, Leiden: Brill. Web Address:
As well as the Council of Trent and Aquinas' Summa Theologica, of course.