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On Good Works
April 4, 2010
by William P. Meyers

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In the arguments between Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians there are a number of big issues. One is whether the Pope, or whoever happens to be Bishop of Rome, was ever meant by Jesus Christ to be the dictator of the Christian faithful [see Was Peter the First Pope?]. Another is whether during the ritual of Communion the bread and wine are simply symbols, or are actually tranformed into the body and blood of Christ. Today, this year's Easter Sunday, I want to take on the Faith v. Works issue. Protestants, starting with Martin Luther, hold that man can enter Heaven by Faith alone. Catholics hold that people must have faith, but must also perform good works to go to heaven.

The controversy is a good example of people overreacting to a historical situation, and then setting their beliefs in cement. Martin Luther was not the first Protestant (or heretic, if you take the Catholic view); he was the first to live to tell about it. He did not like the Roman Catholic version of good works, which insisted that they consisted of cash payments to the Church. This took a variety of forms, including selling indulgences [see also Catholic defense of indulgences] but the money for all this seldom went to charity. Rather it supported the rather lavish life styles of bishops, cardinals, and the Pope.

Luther reacted by saying that Faith alone determined whether people were in God's grace and got into heaven. On the one hand this was an act of self-denial, for Luther was (or had been) a beneficiary of the heaven-for-sale system.

But Luther had misidentified the problem. The problem was not good works; the problem was the substitution of a system of extortion for a system of good works. And not only did Luther and his Lutherans fail to correct this initial reaction, it became worse with John Calvin and his followers. Protestant sects in the 1500's (most of them) adopted, as a theological position, that people with money had no obligation to give to charity. This, of course, appealed to certain people with money. It was the basis of the Protestant work ethic: work or starve, for there will be no charity for the unfortunate.

While the Catholic Church did little in the way of reforming its theology, during its internal reformation in the 1500's, in response to Protestant criticism, the Church did make an effort to do more genuine charitable work, and has continued supporting its charitable arms to this day. In the United States, Catholic Charities is a big organization.

Many modern Protestant churches have their own interpretation of the good works issue: good works may not be necessary to get into heaven, but they are a basic part of being good humans.

Islam, more than any other religion I know of, emphasizes the donation of money to charity by its wealthier members. This is one reason it is so popular in poorer communities around the world.

For those of us who know there is no heaven and no hell, the question is how we should act here in everyday reality. Most of us see a value in charity. Sometimes it is rationalized in social terms: feed the hungry, and they don't need to steal food. Modern economies have shown us that economic tragedy can happen to almost anyone. Feeding economic unfortunates creates a culture where, if you become unfortunate yourself, you can depend on others to feed you. But most of all, it just feels good to help other people. It makes you feel competent and useful. It is a basic human function; to not be charitable is to not be fully human.

I have met vitriolic American "Christians" who believe that they should not give to charity. The idea that God and Jesus Christ actually prohibit Christians from doing good works is bizarre and must reflect an underlying social or mental pathology.

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