Sola Fide and the Eucharist

Introduction

The popular understanding of “sola fide” among both Catholics and Evangelicals is that it is the dogmatic and definitive Protestant answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” According to Catholics, this question has quite a complicated answer, involving faith, love, works of charity, the sacramental life and final perseverance (ie, dying in the state of grace). In comparison, Evangelicals boil down the entire Catholic list of requirements for salvation to one: Faith alone.

“Just believe in Jesus and your place in heaven will be secured” exhorts the Evangelical minister. Ironically, this is a complete and utter misreading of the original Lutheran doctrine of sola fide, and both Catholics and Evangelicals together have failed to understand both the doctrine itself and its driving motivation. The original doctrine was not intended to be an answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” rather, it was intended to be an answer to the question “How should we proclaim the Gospel?” The original sola fide was intended to be a guiding principle for preaching homilies and understanding the sacraments and it was never intended to be an alternative ordo salutis in rivalry with the traditional Catholic ordo. In this paper I will first properly articulate and explain the sola fide doctrine and suggest that – when correctly understood – it need not pose any threat to traditional Catholic doctrine. I will then show how the original sola fide is an incredibly sacramental doctrine, and thus has particular relevance for teasing out a robust and profound interpretation of the Eucharistic liturgy.

The Grammar of Homiletics

Understanding the distinction between “preaching law” and “preaching gospel” is crucial to come to a correct understanding of the original sola fide doctrine, and the distinction is as close to a dogma as you will find in the Lutheran denominations. In short, the distinction is between any form of preaching which generates works, efforts or striving in the listeners – which is preaching law – and any form of preaching which generates either faith or outrage in the listeners – and this is preaching gospel. It is important here to comprehensively explain the distinction.

Preaching Law

Consider the following statements:1

If you get straight HDs this semester, I’ll buy you the latest iPhone.

If you avoid missing your rent for three years straight, your credit rating will improve.

If you make five sales this week, I will promote you.

These statements reflect the standard, everyday, contractual language of secular life. A condition is stated, and something is promised as a reward for fulfilling the conditions. Someone hearing these statements will either disregard the promises because they don’t particularly care about the reward, or they will work and strive to fulfil the conditions because they want to obtain the reward. Notice that all of the statements are framed in terms of condition and reward. It is common to find contractual promises posed in the negative mode of transgression and punishment:

If you get caught speeding, you will be fined $200.

If you do not manage to make a sale this week, you will be fired.

If you do not take this pill and kill yourself, I will murder your daughter.

In these cases, it is fear of the negative consequence which drives the listener to work and strive to avoid the conditions. Notice that just as in the previous set of statements, the language is conditional and contractual, and tends to generate either effort or apathy.

This contractual and conditional style of preaching occurs in Christian contexts all the time. Lets look at some examples:

If you repent and believe in Jesus, you will be saved and go to heaven after you die.

Notice that the reward promised for fulfilling the conditions is highly desirable; under most definitions of the word “heaven,” the reward here is something that anyone should definitely be willing to chase after. But a question is raised: will it be easy or hard for me to repent and believe in Jesus? Most confessing evangelicals today would probably claim to find it fairly easy, because they have already been convinced by the various apologetics they have heard in favour of Christianity. Furthermore, someone might hear this promise and think to themselves “I’m not such a bad person; I don’t steal, murder or take drugs. I just need to watch my language and change the music I listen to.” However what might seem simple and straightforward to one might be completely soul crushing and impossible for another. What about the struggling Christian who really wants to believe but is racked with doubts? Suddenly “Just believing in Jesus” doesn’t seem so easy. What about an addict who is utterly enslaved to her vice? Telling her to “repent” will come across as an impossible demand, and generate despair. After looking at the issue closer, it turns out that when “faith” is understood with its full theological and scriptural weight, this statement presents us with a contractual reward which seems more and more impossible to attain the more you chase after it.

If you donate all of your wealth to the poor, sell all of your possessions, renounce marriage and become a missionary in China, you will be blessed with eternal life.

Someone hearing such a statement might respond like so: “Things are getting more serious. Do I really have to do all of that in order to please God and go to heaven? I want to get married and have kids, and my IT career is currently on fire; does God really need me to give all of that up ‘for the sake of the kingdom?’ I suppose it is possible to fulfil these conditions, but it sounds incredibly difficult.”

If you do not obey the moral law perfectly, Almighty God will condemn you to everlasting perdition.

Someone hearing this promise might respond like so: “Oh no. This is the most terrible thing anyone has ever told me. I complain about Pope Francis regularly. I can’t stand praying the rosary. I spend too much money on whiskey and don’t give enough to the homeless people at the bus stop (what is enough?). I smoke too much. I am a slave to vice. I’m definitely going to Hell.

Variations of these statements are regularly preached from the pulpit in both Catholic and Protestant circles. Catholics tend towards moral exhortations to works of charity, while Protestants tend towards exhortations to “believe harder!” The key thing uniting all these statements is that they have an “If … then …” conditional grammatical structure, and all of them – when spoken – generate either apathy, despair, or works in the listeners. This is the essence of what it means to preach law.

Preaching Gospel

Now consider the following statements:

Because you have scored straight HDs at Uni this year, I’m giving you a month-long holiday to Europe!

Because I love you, I am going to wine and dine you at Opera Bar tonight.

Because you are struggling with your Latin so much, I’m going to spend an hour with you every night for the next month to help you pass your tests.

Notice how differently these statements hit home: In these cases, the burden for fulfilling the condition falls on the speaker rather than the listener. The person to whom these promises are spoken has only two possible responses: Trust the promise or not give a damn. But the crucial point is that the burden for fulfilling the promise falls on the speaker; the listener has no real say in the matter: “I love you and I’m going to spoil you” depends on the person saying it for fulfilment, rather than the person hearing it. Such language thus generates either faith alone, or apathy. This contrasts with the law-flavoured examples from earlier all of which generate effort and works.

Now consider the following “Christian” flavoured unconditional promises:2

Because God is unconditional love, therefore all of your sins are completely and forever forgiven. You may therefore let go all of your guilt and self-condemnation.

Because God is unconditional love, therefore you can stop trying to earn your way into God’s good graces. You are already accepted by him.

Because God is unconditional love, therefore you are assured a place in the kingdom. His love will triumph over your disbelief and sin.

This style of Christian proclamation is kerygmatic, in that when proclaimed from the pulpit, it will infallibly generate either faith or apathy in the people in the pews. No other alternative responses are open to a listener; either they will simply trust the promise (have faith), or their curiosity will be aroused towards such trust with relevant questions, or they will become angry, outraged and disbelieving: “How dare you contradict my freedom like that” a Catholic might object: “Who are you to say whether or not I’m elect” a Calvinist might fume.

The Sola Fide doctrine is simply a claim that all kerygmatic preaching must follow the “Because … therefore … ” grammatical structure in order to be effective. Any conditional preaching will always generate works and striving as a response, while unconditional preaching of this sort simply cannot generate striving/works/efforts, but rather must always generate either faith alone, or a living damnation of disbelief and outrage. Such preaching is thus understood to be an unleashing of the final judgement into the present moment: will you trust God in this moment as he declares his unconditional love for you and your certainly assured salvation? Or will you instead find some reason to object and disbelieve in anger and outrage?

There is much that could be written on this theme, but hopefully these examples are sufficient to demonstrate the law/gospel dichotomy when it comes to proclaiming the gospel and preaching homilies. The Lutheran conviction is that Christ is the kerygmatic word incarnate, and whenever one believer unconditionally promises salvation to someone in the name of Christ, Christ himself is there in the words that are spoken and the moment becomes a final judgement unleashed into the here and now for that person: If they trust the spoken word of unconditionally promised salvation, they experience the joy of the kingdom right here and right now. If they object to the promise and find reasons to deny it, they plunge into a experience of Hell and damnation right here and now.

A final note on this theme: The unconditional gospel promise must always be personalised to individual situations in order to be effective. Here are some more specific and practical examples of such kerygmatic “faith alone” preaching:3

Because Jesus has promised that your life is and will be fulfilled in his coming kingdom, you may give generously toward the feeding and sheltering of the poor.

Because Jesus was faithful to you unto death and beyond death, you may be faithful to your marital vows.

Because the cross of Jesus is the way of peace and life, you may stop abusing your spouse.

Because Jesus will provide for both you and your baby, no matter what hardship you may have to endure, you may unequivocally renounce the killing of your unborn child.

Because Christ is your food unto everlasting life, you may fast and embrace the ascetical disciplines

To conclude this section, I would like to draw attention to the fact that nothing said here is meant as an ordo salutis. The question sola fide answers is not “How do I get saved?” but rather “How do I preach the Gospel?” and therefore all of this is compatible with the Catholic sacramental economy. Luther himself understood this, which is why he strongly insisted on the importance of confession, baptism and the Eucharist. I will discuss how it is relevant to the Eucharist next.

Exegesis and analysis of the Roman Canon

Sola fide is not only a rule for preaching, but also a way of understanding what happens during the sacraments. In the seven sacraments, the unconditional kerygmatic promise is being spoken in shorthand via the sacramental words and at various other moments in the relevant sacramental liturgies. It is possible to analyse all of the sacraments – and even minor sacramentals and indulgences – under a sola fide lens to great result; Luther himself had wonderful things to say on this theme with respect to the sacraments of Confession, Baptism and Eucharist. Here I will restrict my analysis to the Eucharist. I have chosen to analyse the mass according to the 1962 missal, as this is more representative of deeper Catholic tradition and more closely reflects the liturgy as it would have been around the time of the reformation.

During the Confiteor, the priest and the servers alternate in a short liturgy of confession and absolution which runs like so:

Priest: Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Joanni Baptistae, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et tibi Pater: quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem, beatum Michaelem Archangelum, beatum Joannem Baptistam, sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et te Pater, orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum.

Server: Misereatur vestri omnipotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis vestris, perducat vos ad vitam aeternam.

Priest: I confess to almighty God, to the blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, Father, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech the blessed Mary, ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, Father, to pray to the Lord our God for me.

Server: May almighty God be merciful unto you, and forgiving you your sins, bring you to everlasting life.

This section of the liturgy is interesting and relevant for an analysis according to the grammar of sola fide. Here we have the priest and the server each confessing their sinfulness, and each absolving each other of sin. This hints at the “Gospel of unconditional forgiveness” as mentioned in the previous section. It could be argued however that it doesn’t quite hold up because the absolution is done with a subjunctive verb, rather than an indicative/declarative one. Rather than proclaiming forgiveness to each other as a given fact, the priest and server absolve each other by means of a petition to God. I propose that this early exchange sets the scene for what is about to take place during the course of the liturgy. The priest and the server confess their sins and together pray for forgiveness, and then together they embark on the work of the liturgy, by the end of which their prayers will be answered.

One other curious thing to note before moving on is the following concluding prayer for absolution that the priest offers:

Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum, tribuat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus.

May the almighty and merciful Lord grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.

The interesting thing here is that the priest is “speaking the gospel to himself.” Although again, the fact that it is a subjunctive clause rather than an indicative one weakens the point.

The next point in the liturgy to stop and dwell is the prayers at the consecration, particularly the oblation of the Victim to God (the Hanc Igitur):

Hanc igitur oblationem servitutis nostrae, sed et cunctae familiae tuae, quaesumus Domine, ut placatus accipias: diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum jubeas grege numerari: Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

We therefore, beseech Thee, O Lord, to be appeased and accept this oblation of our service, as also of Thy whole family; and to dispose our days in Thy peace, preserve us from eternal damnation, and rank us in the number of Thine Elect. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is a presumption that these prayers are efficacious in the context of the mass, and that they therefore state the agenda for what the priest and congregation are aiming to achieve by their liturgy. With this in mind, it’s important to take note of the fact that the priest prays that all who are present would be “ranked in the number of the elect.” This is highly relevant to the gospel promise of unconditional predestination, election and final perseverance. All of the prayers being racked up during the buildup to the consummation at the climax of the mass are a description of what Christs sacrifice efficaciously achieves, and therefore the entire mass could be understood simply a long and elaborate description of what Christ’s sacrifice has achieved. Here, we see that it has achieved the election of the congregation; the faithful attending mass are being promised by means of the mass that they are elect.4 As we will see shortly, this long list of prayers and petitions are transformed into promises at the climax of the liturgy, when all that the alter-christus has prayed for is secured and guaranteed by the consummation.

We arrive at the words of institution:

Hoc est enim Corpus meum. Hic est enim Calix Sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni Testamenti: Mysterium fidei: qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.

For this is My Body. For this is the Chalice of My Blood of the new and eternal Testament, the Mystery of Faith; which shall be shed for you and for the many unto the remission of sins.

Luther located the core of the gospel as “promise” in these words, and saw them as the basis and guarantee of the real, substantial presence of Christ in the host. Specifically, when the priest says “This is my body,” these are Christs own words being repeated again in his name and person. The same promise of sacramental presence spoken by Christ himself on Holy Thursday is repeated by him again at this moment of the mass. To have faith in these words is to have faith in the unconditional gospel. Crucially, the words are unconditional. They are – for example – not “If you believe, then this is my body” or “If you are in the state of grace, then this is my body.” Rather, the words are plain, simple and unconditional. Christ is claiming identity with what appears to us as bread and wine, and this is simply the fact and reality of the matter regardless of how we think or feel about it. The correct response is to trust the words and believe in the real presence. Incorrect responses include over-theologizing about it or flatly denying it. One last thing to note about these words is the latin pro vobis et pro multis. Many people twist this part of the sacramental words in order to argue against universalism, claiming that “many” is a different word to “all” and therefore universalism is false. A whole paper could be written showing how stupid and short-sighted this argument is, however I’ll just quickly note two points of refutation. Firstly, Latin is a language which lacks articles, and in Greek – the original language of the mass – the words would be rendered with a definite article and would therefore translate as “the many” which is in actual fact an idiom for “everyone.” Secondly, the context of the mass should be enough to understand the statement. Christ is saying “this is the cup of my blood which is shed for your (ie, everyone present during this particularly liturgy, the saved, the elect) salvation, and also for their salvation (ie, those who are not present during this particular liturgy, aka the damned, the reprobates).” The vobis is a promise addressed to those believers present in the pews, and the multis is that same promise addressed to the souls wandering in the darkness outside the portal of the church where this mass is taking place. These words therefore have a missionary connotation: Christ speaks his promise of salvation to all who are present at his sacrifice (who as we have established, are the elect), but he also desires to speak that same promise to those who remain wandering in the darkness of the κοσμος (ie, the multis; the damned, the lost). In the Novus Ordo, this point is driven home by the dismissal “[You have been saved just now, so] Go and announce the Gospel of the lord [to the damned outside the church who need to hear it (Aka, invite all your friends to mass next Sunday)]” The work of Christ isn’t complete until the final eschatological liturgy where all of the multis have been brought in and become addressed as vobis. At this point, when literally everyone is gathered before the altar and addressed as vobis, universal salvation will finally be a reality, rather than a mere heresy. Until then, masses and missionary activity to the damned must continue.

Moving on to the final part of the mass. The promise has been spoken, but when will the promise be fulfilled? In one sense, only at the end of an eternity. But in the context of the mass, the promises are fulfilled shortly after being spoken, when the priest and the faithful consume the host. At this point, the priest makes what is perhaps the most explicit proclamation of the promise so far:

Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve thy soul unto life everlasting. Amen.

Here, the verb is neither subjunctive nor indicative, it is imperative. The theological linguistics here are incredibly dense and profound. This statement is simultaneously a prayer, a promise and a command. Salvation becomes personal and efficacious at this point, and immediately after the “amen” the communicant receives their salvation – the divine Christ himself – onto their tongue. To someone without the eyes of faith, it is just a moment where you have to chew on a tasteless wafer. But for those with the eyes of faith, this moment is loaded with eschatological significance, as it is the moment when all of the many prayers and petitions and promises that have been rumbled thus far during the liturgy are sealed, achieved, guaranteed and brought to final fulfilment. At the point where the teeth and tongue consume Christ, the communicant is receiving the fullness of their heavenly inheritance and knows (or at least, should know!) that they are elect and predestined to heaven. All fear and doubt melts away and all that remains is love, joy and blissful blessedness.

Conclusion

It might seem anticlimactic that we don’t just find ourselves whisked away to heaven, the beatific vision and the resurrection at the moment we receive our host.5 But Christ clearly has other plans for us. Just as he descends to Hell to save the damned on Holy Saturday, the end of the mass is also a new beginning for us, and arguably this is the significance of the fact that the final prayer is the prologue of John’s gospel, which is a description of the very beginning of the entire story. As the mass ends we are sent back into the darkness outside the church doors to announce the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it, and entice them to “come and see” Christ for themselves, and hear his promise for themselves. The mass ends and we leave the church to return to the darkness of the κοσμος because there are still a multitude of lost souls out there who need to hear the unconditional kerygma, and we are the ones who have to tell them. The vobis have already heard the kerygmatic gospel promise, but the multis are yet to hear and trust it. But as Saint Origen always knew, the ending is in the beginning, and so we finish the mass with the following words of victorious and salvific promise:

In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. Omnia per ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso facum est nihil quod factum est: in ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum: et lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was made nothing that was made: in Him was life, and the life was the Light of men; and the Light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness can never conquer it.

1These and the other statements I will use were heavily inspired by Fr. Al. Kimel’s writings on similar themes. However I believe I have refashioned and repurposed them sufficiently that fine-grained citations are not essential.

2These examples have been taken verbatim from Fr Al. Kimel.

3These examples also have been taken from Fr Al. Kimel.

4One might want to dispute this analysis, but to do so would be tantamount to claiming that the sacrament of the Eucharist and the prayers of the mass are not efficacious, as if the things which Jesus tells us to pray for during mass will ultimately not be granted by the Father. It seems more reasonable to me to have faith that everything we pray for during the liturgy will be (indeed, has been) granted, including election and the grace of final perseverance.

5But then again, perhaps we do?

Babette’s Feast: Reflection

There are two Christ-figures in this movie: Firstly, the Pietist minister who is also the father of Martine and Phillippa, and secondly, Babette herself.

Christ Figure: The Minister

In the early scenes of the movie – set during Martine and Phillippa’s youth – all seems to be well in the Jutland village, as their father the respected minister holds together the community. This idyllic atmosphere juxtaposes dissonantly with the scenes set chronologically later, when the minister has been dead for quite some time and the community has become old and bitter, with the townsfolk holding deep grudges against each other and constantly quarrelling, despite the efforts of Martine and Phillippa to maintain peace and faith. This juxtaposition evokes a similar situation in the history of the Church: While Christ was present, there was an explosion of faith and unity among the apostles and disciples, however ever since Christ ascended to heaven time has marched on, and over the subsequent two millennia the history of Christianity has been a slow and vicious descent into toxic schisms and brutal antagonisms between all of the various Christian communions and denominations. So the minister is similar to Christ in the sense that he was a tangible focal point of unity for his community, and in his absence things slowly fall apart.

Another way in which the minister comes across as “Christlike” is when – during the feast itself – one of the ladies remembers and shares a story with the dinner guests about a time when the minister “walked on water,” evoking the biblical episode where Jesus does the same in Matthew 14. Admittedly, in this case the miracle is different: the minister promises to walk on water, and then right on schedule there is a flash storm and the water freezes, making the feat possible. In this case the miracle is the conveniently timed freezing of the water, rather than the “walking” itself, however the analogy between the minister and Christ is still pointed.

During the feast itself, the villagers remember and share many more stories about the minister. One gets the impression they haven’t engaged in such remembering and sharing for quite some time, and this act of “remembering” has the obvious effect of injecting some joy and mirth into the feast, as well as healing the sin and brokenness that has come to divide the villagers. There is an analogy here with the eucharist; just as the villagers remember their departed master and this breathes life into their community, so too the mass is a memorial where the faithful recall the person and miraculous exploits of Jesus.1

John Paul II in his encyclical “Ecclesia De Eucharistia” says the following:

19. The eschatological tension kindled by the Eucharist expresses and reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven.

This can be applied to the feast, because during the feast the minister who had long been departed was made present again. It is similar to how during the mass all of the angels and saints are truly present in a spiritual sense even if physically absent.

Christ Figure: Babette

The obvious parallel between Christ and Babette is their respective “total gifts of self;” Christ lays down his life and suffers on behalf of the entire world, for the sake of winning salvation for humanity and the cosmos; and Babette spends literally all of her material wealth on preparing a lavish feast to give thanks to the villagers who have received her into their community and the sisters who have received her into their home.

John Paul II in his encyclical “Ecclesia De Eucharistia” says the following:

47. Reading the account of the institution of the Eucharist in the Synoptic Gospels, we are struck by the simplicity and the “solemnity” with which Jesus, on the evening of the Last Supper, instituted this great sacrament. There is an episode which in some way serves as its prelude: the anointing at Bethany. A woman, whom John identifies as Mary the sister of Lazarus, pours a flask of costly ointment over Jesus’ head, which provokes from the disciples – and from Judas in particular (cf. Mt 26:8; Mk 14:4; Jn 12:4) – an indignant response, as if this act, in light of the needs of the poor, represented an intolerable “waste”. But Jesus’ own reaction is completely different. While in no way detracting from the duty of charity towards the needy, for whom the disciples must always show special care – “the poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26, 11; Mk 14:7; cf. Jn 12:8) – he looks towards his imminent death and burial, and sees this act of anointing as an anticipation of the honour which his body will continue to merit even after his death, indissolubly bound as it is to the mystery of his person.

There is a parallel to be drawn between the episode of Christ being lavished with perfume and oil, and the fact that Babette spends literally all of her money on the sisters. The sisters are shocked and worry that Babette has spent all of her wealth of them in an extravagant waste. However just as Jesus praises Mary for her devoted spoiling of the king of the universe, Babette explains to Phillippa and Martina that “An artist is never poor,” and that she finds more joy in bringing happiness to the village with her money, rather than spending it on herself.

There are however further – less obvious – parallels. For example, Babette does not only bless the villagers through her special feast, but in other ways too. At one point Martine exclaims “Since Babette came, we have more money than before!” There is an analogy here with Christ’s many miracles, particularly the miraculous catch of fish2 and also his many miracles of healing: such miracles are tangible blessings which Christ brought to those around him during his time on earth, and there is an analogy with how Babette’s presence in the community brings material blessings to the sisters.

There are also interesting parallels between Babette and Christ in terms of kenosis. Babette does not broadcast her past achievements and status to the villagers, and they are unaware that they have the most prestigious and famous chef in Europe living amongst them. Similarly, Christ is the king of the universe and God in the flesh, but during his earthly life he was very careful in how he revealed this fact, and many understood him to be nothing more than “the carpenters son.” Babette’s kenosis is made particularly obvious in the scene with the ale bread, where the sisters teach Babette how to cook the local cuisine (which is particularly penitential and unappetising – basically bread dipped in some sort of edible sludge). The sisters are clearly completely unaware who they are talking to. This is similar to the kenosis of Christ: Christ is the omniscient God himself, but he humbled himself such that he lived the stages of human life from newborn to toddler to child to adolescent to adult. Christ had to study the Torah just like everyone else, even though -unknown to his teachers – Jesus was literally the author of the very same scriptures he was being made to study. There is a moment where Babette herself eats the village gruel, which is a humiliation analogous to the humiliation Christ had to endure in his passion, or even in the fact that he lived a human life like everyone else, complete with tiredness and trips to the toilet. The kenosis of Babette concludes with her final revelation of her true identity at the end of the film, which is a particularly powerful moment. There are analogies with Christ, for example the revelation of his identity in Mark 8, or his resurrection appearances.

At one point during the dinner, Lorenz reminisces about the time he dined at the Cafe Anglais: This head chef, this woman, had the ability to turn a dinner into a kind of love affair. A love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite,” which is a good segue to the feast itself.

The Feast

At one point in the movie Phillippa and Martine are trying to lead the villagers in song, but during the singing the villagers keep quarrelling and squabbling with each other, to the dismay of the sisters. Curiously, during the feast, there is a moment where two of the male villagers repeat their prior angry exchange with each other more or less verbatim, but this time with smiles and laughter rather than angst and condemnation: the strife which had been a point of contention earlier has become a joke to laugh about. There is an analogy here with the healing grace of God: God can change our minds3 such that we see things in a different and more positive light. Babette’s feast and the remembering of the minister is a means for such a change of perspective, just as the Eucharist and the memorial liturgy are means by which God’s grace can touch our hearts and imbue us with a more loving disposition towards each other.

It is interesting to note that all of the village folk choose to wear black to the feast. This could be interpreted as symbolic of their being in a state of spiritual death; entirely lacking love for each other. This in turn hints at the “resurrection” that is to come during the feast. After Phillippa has a nightmare about the sinfulness of the feast to come, the village folk agree that they will all refuse to enjoy the feast; merely eating it but refusing to taste it and take pleasure in it. There is an analogy here with damnation, where a soul wilfully rejects God’s delightful gift of grace. But as it turns out, the food Babette prepares is so amazing and tasty that the villagers will to resist is overpowered. This is clearly a commentary on the irresistible nature of Grace: God forces no one to love him, but he is so infinitely beautiful and so entirely desirable that ultimately his grace shatters all the defences we dare to throw up against him: we can’t help but love the Christ revealed in us, and we can’t help but love ourselves revealed in Christ.

One interesting analogy between the meal and the mass is that they both are able to unite all sorts of people from all quarters of society around the same table. Babette’s dinner brings someone with the royal dignity of General Lorenz, and sits him among the common folk of the village, where they all share in the same wonderful meal. There is an analogy here with how the Eucharist unites kings, presidents and prime ministers with the poor and the middle class; with all standing as equals before the sacrificial altar of Christ.4

John Paul II in his encyclical “Ecclesia De Eucharistia” says the following:

43. In considering the Eucharist as the sacrament of ecclesial communion, there is one subject which, due to its importance, must not be overlooked: I am referring to the relationship of the Eucharist to ecumenical activity. We should all give thanks to the Blessed Trinity for the many members of the faithful throughout the world who in recent decades have felt an ardent desire for unity among all Christians. The Second Vatican Council, at the beginning of its Decree on Ecumenism, sees this as a special gift of God. It was an efficacious grace which inspired us, the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church and our brothers and sisters from other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, to set forth on the path of ecumenism.

There are fundamental links here with the ecumenism of Babette’s feast. Firstly, despite being about a Protestant community, it is the Catholic Pope Francis’ favourite film. Secondly, Babette herself is assumed to be Catholic, but she is the servant of the protestant village community. Finally, Achille Papin explicitly identifies himself as Catholic to the – protestant – minister, however the minister charitably welcomes him despite the difference of cult. The movie therefore has subtle but important ecumenical themes.

Lorenz

General Lorenz makes many soliloquies and speeches throughout the story which provides most of the theological substance of the film. There is a pointed juxtaposition between the conclusion of young Lorenz’ stay in the village early in the film, with the conclusion of his visit for the feast. The first time, Lorenz delivers the following pessimistic speech:

I am going away forever and I shall never never see you again. For I have learned here that life is hard and cruel and that in this world there are things that are … impossible. I will forget what happened on the Jutland coast. From now I shall look forward not backward. I will think of nothing but my career, and some day… I will cut a brilliant figure in the world of prestige.

Immediately prior to the feast, we are introduced to a much older Lorenz who has succeeded in his mission to chase worldly fame and fortune. He is depressed and spiritually empty, imagining his younger, more idealistic self sitting in a chair before him, and saying the following:

Vanity. Vanity. All… is vanity. I have found everything you dreamed of and satisfied your ambition. But to what purpose? Tonight we two shall settle our scores. You must prove to me that the choice I made was the right one.

After the feast concludes and he is departing the village, the old Lorenz has finally “seen the light,” and delivers a speech to Phillippa more or less exactly opposite to the one he delivered earlier in the film:

I have been with you every day of my life. Tell me you know that. Yes, I know it. You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.

Lorenz could be taken as a reflection of the rich young man who approaches Jesus asking how to be saved. Lorenz renounces the simple joys of love and romance with a soulmate in order to pursue secular success and material wealth. He comes to learn that he made the wrong choice, but nevertheless leaves the feast feeling restored and happy.5

1This occurs most particularly during the gospel reading, but also in a sense during the other readings and the entire liturgy.

2Luke 5:1-11

3The literal meaning of “repentance.”

4Depending on your theological temperament, you might even admit that “both sinners and saints stand equal before the altar”

5Perhaps there is a point to be made here about how the free-will defence of Hell is utter nonsense: God does not – with negligent abandon – “respect” our self-destructive choices to reject him. Instead, God’s grace is able to overcome our refusal to love and lift us up into salvation regardless of what choices we make in life. The theological moral of the story is the classic evangelical principle that salvation depends on God, not on us (or our choices). The general chased riches rather than love, and it is explicitly pointed out many times that he “made the wrong choice,” yet by the end of the movie he had been saved by the feast regardless.

Notes on a Mitch Pacwa Debate Concerning Justification

Initial Thoughts

I’m uncomfortable with the way he frames the catholic position. The way he talks, it sounds as if God does 99% of the work of our salvation and then leaves the final 1% up to us. He says something like “we have to say ‘yes’ to God”, as if the saying yes is spontaneously produced by an individual and God just steps back and has nothing to do with it. This can’t be right. The understanding that I’ve inherited over the years is articulated by British Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop Kalistos Ware as “The work of our salvation is completely and entirely an act of Grace, but in that act of grace we remain completely and entirely free”.

This would probably sit will with Aquinas, who had a strong and robust doctrine of efficacious grace. A summary of my understanding of efficacious grace is “God can guarantee that a sinner will be saved without in anyway violating that sinners freedom”. Compare this with the current popular catholic understanding of “sufficient” grace, which I understand to be something more like “God gives us everything we need to be saved, but then steps back and leaves it up to us”. In my opinion this popular understanding has fatal implications for Christian Hope, Faith and Joy; it turns the work of salvation back on the sinners own efforts, which of course will never be enough. This leads to despair and angst of the sort that Luther experienced.

What makes most sense to me is that all of the following propositions are true, even if at face value they may appear to some to be irreconcilable:

Salvation is an offer that we may or may not accept: We have free will and no one can coerce us to do anything – not even God. (The standard Catholic understanding)
Salvation is also an unconditional promise: God is able to guarantee that we will be saved (ie, that we will at some point accept his offer), without in any way violating our freedom (The Catholic doctrine of predestination and election and the Thomistic doctrine of efficacious grace)

The idea of unconditional promise is interesting, because it raises the question “To whom is the promise spoken and how/when/where?” According to Lutheran sacramental theology, the promise is primarily spoken via the seven sacraments, with particular emphasis on Baptism and Confession. At the moment when you are baptised, God has sacramentally spoken his promise of salvation to you and you are counted among the elect; you have passed from death to life and there is no possibility of going back. The sacrament of Confession and words of absolution are simply a reminder of this new reality and basically are a shorthand way of saying “Remember that you have been baptised and are not guilty, so stop feeling like it and stop acting like it!”

This is incidentally where the idea of “Sola Fide” actually makes sense. It’s not possible to respond to an unconditional promise with works, but only with either trust or apathy. If salvation is an unconditional promise, you either trust that promise or you don’t, but regardless of whether you trust it or not it’s going to come true because God is the one making the promise and God’s promises do not fail. However if you do trust the promise, life comes alive in ways that you never thought possible before, and the lyrics of the popular protestant hymn “Amazing Grace” cease to seem so heretical. “I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see”.

Most Catholics in my experience tend to disagree with this whole understanding by completely denying that salvation is a promise and doubling down on it’s nature as an offer instead, thus rendering the “unconditional” dimension of salvation null. Such people tend to be hyper-attached to a particular understanding of libertarian human free will and get triggered by anything that even slightly appears to contradict it. The fact that we humans have the power and right to deny God becomes the most crucial issue of our day and if anyone dares to question this they are dismissed and ignored as a heretic. And so “Freedom” becomes the central and decisive dogma of the faith, rather than the love of Christ for sinners and his glorious and total defeat of sin, suffering, Hell and death. I don’t find the supposed fact that I have the ‘freedom’ to damn myself inspires much faith, hope and love in my life; instead it tends to just produce scrupulosity and a judgemental pharisee/tribal attitude in which I’m trying super hard to save myself but it’s never enough and I look down on others who aren’t trying as hard as me. Whereas the idea that Christ has already saved me and everyone who I love, and that I need not fear being ultimately lost, is incredibly inspiring. Rather than being crippled with fear of hell and focusing on saving myself, I’m empowered to carry the light of christ out into the world and focus on saving everyone else.

This is arguably why Justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. A church that sees salvation as a mere offer, to be responded to primarily with effort, is going to be completely crippled as it’s members turn inwards and focus on trying to save themselves. Whereas a church that sees salvation as the unconditional promise which can only be responded to with faith (which is exactly what it is), has been liberated to get out there and announce to the world its own salvation, which is the original meaning of evangelism: to announce the good news of Christ’s victory over all the pains and problems that confront us in our lives.

Around the 10 Minute Mark

Pacwa gives a great and passionate description of the catholic position on assurance and perseverance. He seems to be saying that you can be sure that you are in the state of grace in any given moment, but you cannot be sure that you will persevere in this state of grace all the way until the end of your life.

I think it really depends whether you take “state of Grace” and “justification” in a subjective or objective sense (which is another popular Lutheran distinction). In an objective sense, the entire world was justified by the cross and resurrection. The job is done; The entire world is objectively saved and in the state of grace and will be forever. However subjectively speaking not all of us experience this salvation that has been won for us. In a subjective sense, many of us remain in our sins and feel guilty and scrupulous. So in the subjective sense, Pacwa is completely correct to follow Trent and say that no one can know that they will persevere to the end of their life in the (subjective) state of grace. However in an objective sense (which is what most protestants are more concerned with), you can definitely be assured of your ultimate salvation: this is the essence of the gospel and exactly what makes it “good news” for me, for you, and for all of our relatives who are currently dying from coronavirus. “Christ died for you: You have been saved” is the kerygma that we must announce. Mitch Pacwa and the council of Trent didn’t get any of it’s theology wrong, but it simply is missing the evangelical point of the whole affair.

“Declaration of Righteousness” and “Reality of Righteousness”.

Justification is indeed a declaration, as per Luther, but this does not make it a “legal fiction”, as Catholics commonly caricature the protestant understanding.

Consider: If I look at a desk and see a book, but Jesus looks at the same desk and doesn’t see the book, Then is the book really there? Are you delusional or is Jesus delusional? Who’s perspective has epistemological primacy in this situation? Who should you trust?

In case the answer isn’t obvious: God’s perspective always trumps the sinners perspective.

With this in mind, consider what it means for God to “declare” that a certain state of affairs holds. If God declares that I am righteous, then despite all evidence to the contrary I am righteous. Because if that is how God sees me then that is how it is, even if I can’t understand how this may be.

The idea is somewhat platonic. God has a perspective of reality “with all the lights on” as it were, whereas we are wandering through reality as a child wanders in the dark. In other words, we are not omniscient and don’t have access to all the data, whereas God is omniscient and therefore his perspective is fully informed in a way that ours isn’t. The implication of this is that when God declares you to be righteous, you are really righteous, even despite all evidence to the contrary.

This is again where faith comes in. Do you trust your own perspective, under which you are condemned as a dirty filthy sinner? Or do you trust God’s perspective, which he reveals to you via his unconditional promise and declaration that in the reality which he is perceiving, you are ok and he accepts you? It’s a question of where you place your faith: in yourself or in God? In your own perspective, or in the divine perspective of God which he reveals to you through the announcing of the gospel and the proclamation of the promise in word and sacrament?

Faith and Works

The inevitable faith versus works debate pops up in the video towards the end. The conflict isn’t so hard to resolve in my view. The protestant fella is insistent that the fact of our election (which he refers to as “salvation”) does not depend in any way on the works and efforts that we perform, and he is completely correct to insist on this. Whereas Pacwa is insisting that works of love and a purified, perfected soul are necessary components of salvation, not optional, and he is also correct to dig his heels in and insist on this.

The resolution comes by recognising that salvation is both an event and a journey: The entire cosmos and everyone and everything in it was justified/elected/saved/predestined at the cross and resurrection. For this reason we as Christians should sing praises and rejoice. However there’s also a journey involved: we still remain here in this life, and our mission is to be little Christs and announce the Gospel to the world, as well as stamp out any sins and imperfections that appear to remain in the world. We’re all on this journey together and until we are all fully saved and made perfect, none of us are.

In this way you do justice to the Catholic insistence that works of love are essential to the process towards and state of salvation, but you also do justice to the deep protestant conviction that there is literally nothing we can do to secure our election.

A helpful thing to remember is that when a protestant says “I am saved”, often what they really mean (even if they don’t realise it) is “I am elect and chosen”. They are fully confident that in the end, they are going to make it, because they know that Jesus died for their sins and rose again for their salvation.

In this way, works are an essential part of salvation, but they have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with predestination or election.

A helpful point to drive this home is the fact that under both a lutheran and calvinist analysis, not even faith contributes anything to our election. We are chosen because God loves us, not because we have faith or try really hard to fulfill the commandment to love; not even if we succeed at fufilling the commandment to love (but who does?). The reason for this is that this simply turns faith into a work. If election depends on our faith, then no one can be saved, because no one has perfect faith, no matter how hard they try. Whereas if election depends on God’s love and what he did for us on the cross, then it doesn’t depend on us at all, not even on our faith, and therefore we can have peace and assurance knowing that everything is going to be ok, which frees our wills and liberates us to go and do the good works that are necessary to make the journey to heaven. But without this faith and assurance, we will be utterly paralyzed,

In summary, the cross unconditionally secured election for the whole world and everyone in it, but our love and good works are how we “make the journey” to heaven both individually and as a church community.

Pacwa also raises the issue of mortal sin, and how it is possible to lose justification. Again, understanding the difference between election/predestination and salvation/justification is helpful. Of course it is possible to lose your salvation and justification by apostasy and mortal sin, however your election is still secure and there is nothing you can do to escape your election; ultimately no matter how far the lost sheep runs into the outer darkness, Christ the good shepherd will leave his Church, descend to Hell and rescue that sinner.

In other words, not even Hell and everlasting damnation can or will prevent Christ from saving us, which is incidentally what the whole point of Holy Saturday and the harrowing of Hades is about.

So yes, you can compromise your current salvation by mortal sin, but there is nothing you can do to jeopardize your election