Volume 45 - Issue 2

Interpreting Faith in the Reformation: Catholic and Protestant Interpretations of Habakkuk 2:4b and Its New Testament Quotations

By Mario M. C. Melendez


The sixteenth century Reformation debate primarily centered upon the interpretation of Scripture. The Reformers called into question Catholic understandings of justification. The result was a long period of theological writings concerning faith and justification. This study provides a historical survey of Habakkuk 2:4b’s use in the reformation. The accomplished research shows that Luther and Calvin pointed to Christ’s faithfulness as the object of the Habakkuk 2:4b faith. For the Catholics, Erasmus began with an almost paralleled belief to the Protestants, but the Council of Trent concluded with a conviction that both the works of Christ and sacraments are necessary for salvation.

The Reformers proclaimed a doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide) which they based on Habakkuk 2:4 as quoted in Romans 1:17. Alister McGrath noted that the Reformation debate centered upon the interpretation of Scripture.1 The hypothesis of this paper is that Luther and Calvin pointed to Christ’s faithfulness as the object of the Habakkuk 2:4b faith, while the Roman Catholics pointed to the faithful actions of a believer as the object of the Habakkuk 2:4b faith. The process of confirming this hypothesis will be to survey commentaries, and interpretations of the magisterial reformers and Catholic theologians. Though Habakkuk 2:4b is the verse under examination, research will primarily come from commentaries and interpretations of the Romans 1:17 quotation.

1. Luther and Calvin on Habakkuk 2:4

Luther and Calvin are well known for their arguments against the Catholic works-based salvation. Luther began this process with the publication of his “95 Theses,” and Calvin most notably articulates his beliefs in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Though it would be profitable to consider the contributions of various other reformers, this article focuses on the substantial and influential writings of Luther and Calvin. We aim to analyze the two reformers’ thought by considering three guiding questions: (1) How does the author understand faith? (2) How does the author understand human works? and (3) How does the author understand the relationship between the two?

1.1. Luther’s Interpretation of Habakkuk 2:4 and the Faithfulness of God

Many know Luther for his desire to reform the church, but this desire was birthed from his personal love of Scripture. Casper Mueller stated to Luther, “You are one of those rare birds who take the Word of God very seriously and are faithful to the Kingdom of Christ.”2 Throughout Luther’s lifetime, he wrote numerous commentaries, reflection letters, lessons, and sermons. In his commentary of the Minor Prophets, Luther wote this concerning Habakkuk 2:4b:

In summary form Habakkuk presents the following thought: The godly people are waiting for the Lord; therefore they live, therefore they are saved, therefore they receive what has been promised. They receive it by faith, because they give glory to the God of truth, because they hold the hand of the Lord. And so the prophet is looking not only to this promise but also to all the other promises about preaching the Gospel or revealing grace. And so this is the thought: “I cannot force it into your hearts. You have the clear written record (picture) and Word. If you believe it, you will live, because the righteous live by his faith as long as he waits for the Lord. If you will not believe, you will not live, etc.”3

Though Luther wrote an extensive commentary on the Minor Prophets, his Roman’s preface reveals deeper thoughts on the verse. Luther’s primary love was Romans, thus, there is more primary source material on the Romans 1:17 quotation of Habakkuk 2:4b than any of the other quotations.4 Luther wrote, “St. Paul honors Habakkuk greatly, quoting his statement ‘the righteous shall live by faith’ (Hab 2:4) more than once (Gal 3:11; Rom 1:17). He immediately makes this the theme of his finest letter, the Epistle to the Romans.”5 Luther’s deep love led him to write his preface to Romans, so that all who read it may grasp the book he so dearly loved. Rather than a verse by verse commentary, as he did with many other biblical books, Luther gave a general understanding of major points therein.

The first question to ask of Luther is how he understood faith. According to his noted Romans commentary and preface to Romans, Luther explained that faith is confidence in God’s grace, merited through Christ’s sacrifice.6 When Catholics thought that only the New Testament alludes to faith based salvation, Luther rebutted that even the Mosaic Law was preceded by faith.7 Furthermore, if one were not to believe Luther’s statement regarding the Law, he cited the story of Abraham as a clear faith-before-works formula.8

Luther commented that faith precedes works, but how does he understand these works? For Luther, there are two levels of works, God’s wonderful accomplished works, which are difficult to grasp, and there are human works.9 Though Luther pointed to the actions of God in Romans, he did not ignore human actions as a response to God’s action. “Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done, but, before it is asked, it has done them.”10 Luther’s famous struggle with the book of James leads one to further grasp that Luther did not discount holy actions of the believer, but he did discount their efficacy for salvation. By holding such a view, Luther remained at odds with his Catholic opponents. As will be shown later, Catholics tied faith with human works, whereas Luther tied faith with Christ’s work.11 In sum, Luther’s commentary and preface note that faith is a gift from God, focused upon the works of God, for the purpose of purifying man.

When Luther read the Habakkuk passage he could not help but think of Christ.12 Luther validated his beliefs, which his Catholic predecessors rejected, by a new interpretation called Scripture’s Self-Interpretation. In essence, Luther used the Scripture’s capacity to validate itself.13 But what does he say of the Catholic understanding of Scripture and Tradition?

No one, no matter who he may be, is allowed to be a master and judge of the Scripture, rather all must be its witnesses, disciples, and confessors. This means that no one is in a position to validate Scripture. Scripture validates itself. The church’s witness to Scripture can never be anything more than the obedient recognition of the witness which Scripture bears to itself as God’s word. The church’s decision is never under any circumstances an authority standing above the word of God but only beneath it.14

Further aiding in his interpretation of Scripture, Luther pointed to the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding the reader. Thus, Scripture’s self-interpretation and interpretation through the Holy Spirit are synonymous expressions throughout his works. At the same time, Luther stated that readers should prioritize the “simple literal sense” of a text and “may depart from this principle only when the text itself compels a metaphorical interpretation.”15 As Paul Althaus summarized, “Christocentric interpretation for Luther thus means gospel-centered interpretation, understood in terms of the gospel of justification by faith alone.”16 Alister McGrath explained, “For Luther, as for the reformers in general, one could rest assured of one’s salvation. Salvation was grounded upon the faithfulness of God to his promises of mercy; to fail to have confidence in salvation was, in effect, to doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of God.”17 Is McGrath right in understanding Luther to view faithfulness of God in this way?

In several of Luther’s sermons he reflects upon the “faith alone” phrase and the nature of it being a gift of God. He clearly stated in his reflection of Romans 1:17, “Only the gospel reveals the righteousness of God by that faith alone by which one believes the word of God.”18 By placing emphasis upon the “word of God,” Luther showed how God’s actions listed in the Gospel are the point of faith. “The righteousness of God must not be understood as that righteousness by which he is righteous in himself, but as that righteousness by which we are made righteous (justified) by Him, and this happens through faith in the gospel.”19 According to Althaus, Luther believed that faith is the human response to God’s word and this word is the word of “promise,” fulfilled in the gospel.20 Thus without the promise of Christ’s sacrifice (the good news), one cannot have faith. For Luther, faith is “an act of the will with which a man holds to the word of promise.”21

Luther also stated that the linguistic structure of faith makes it difficult to understand in the vernacular. “Therefore, when he is declared righteous, he makes righteous, and when he makes righteous, he is declared righteous. The same idea is therefore expressed by an active word in Hebrew and by a passive word form in our translation.”22 This single statement fully encapsulates the struggle of the exegete, particularly concerning Habakkuk 2:4b. Luther’s interpretation of Habakkuk 2:4b centers upon Christ and his work in justification. This Christocentric interpretation aided Luther but did not lead him to abandon the advocacy of human faith within divine faithfulness. Therefore, Luther’s interpretation sees faith preceding the law, Christ’s fulfillment of promises as the focus of faith, and holy actions as a response to the grace of God.

1.2. Calvin’s Interpretation of Habakkuk 2:4 as Faith in the Work of Christ

John Calvin was just a young student when Luther wrote his “95 Theses,” but Calvin became a leading theological voice for the French Protestants. Though Calvin’s theology is renowned, older scholarship largely ignored his commentaries and translation work, assuming that everything worth knowing about Calvin’s thought could be found in his Institutes.23 However, Steinmetz notes that “the bulk of Calvin’s writings consists of biblical commentaries and sermons.”24

Here we consider Calvin’s understanding of faith, works, and the relationship between the two. First, how does Calvin conceive of faith? Calvin offers this comment on Romans 1:17:

He proves the righteousness of faith by the authority of the prophet Habbakuk.… The faith of the righteous alone brings everlasting life. What is the source of that life but the faith which leads us to God, and makes our life depend on him? Paul’s reference to this passage from Habbakuk would have been irrelevant, unless the prophet meant that we then stand firm only when we rest on God by faith. He ascribed the life of the ungodly to faith only in so far as they renounce the pride of the world and gather themselves together for the protection of God alone.25

In this quotation one finds a view of faith which is similar to Luther’s. In essence Calvin too believed that faith is a God dependent action, necessary for grace to abound. Does Calvin, like Luther, view that faith is a gift from God? He wrote, “Notice further how rare and valuable a treasure God bestows on us in His Gospel, viz. the communication of his own righteousness.”26 Thus, one should understand Calvin to have believed that faith is a gift from God.

Like Luther, faith and the gospel are inseparable, and at the core of the gospel is Christ’s fulfillment of prophecies. “For since the just is said to live by his faith, he maintains that such a life is received by the Gospel.”27 From this quotation one can deduce that Calvin believes the “work” needed for salvation, is that of Christ’s death upon the cross. As he states, “We see now the main or cardinal point of the first part of this Epistle: we are justified by faith through the mercy of God alone.… The righteousness which is based on faith depends wholly on the mercy of God.”28

Calvin’s understanding of the text reveals clear consensus between Luther and Calvin. In fact, the three questions find greater answers within Institutes, than in Calvin’s commentary. The first question, how does Calvin understand faith, finds a clear articulate answer. “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”29 Further defining faith, Calvin understood faith and gospel to correlate.30 Thus, faith is placed upon the gospel and the gospel requires one to have faith. As Calvin noted, faith has no intrinsic virtue on its own, and if believed solely sufficient, then only a “fragment of salvation” would remain.31

What did Calvin say of works? The Institutes eloquently described the actions of the believer. However, when it comes to works related to justification, Calvin pointed to Christ: “if we ask how we have been justified, Paul answers, ‘By Christ’s obedience.’”32 Thus, one should understand the works needed for mankind’s salvation is Christ’s death and resurrection, not any human action.

The attribution of salvific works to Christ does not negate the works of response in the believer’s life. Calvin connect work with faith, but is careful to show that any reliance upon human works negates Christ’s gift of grace.33 The truest understanding of Calvin’s interpretation of faith and works is that all of Scripture divorces the two within mankind, but not man’s faith and Christ’s work.

But Scripture, when it speaks of faith righteousness, leads us to something far different: namely, to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection. Indeed, it presents this order of justification: to begin with, God deigns to embrace the sinner with his pure and freely given goodness, finding nothing in him except his miserable condition to prompt Him to mercy, since he sees man utterly void and bare of good works; and so he seeks in himself the reason to benefit man. Then God touches the sinner with a sense of his goodness in order that he, despairing of his own works, may ground the whole of his salvation in God’s mercy. This is the experience of faith through which the sinner comes into possession of his salvation when from the teaching of the gospel he acknowledges that he has been reconciled to God: that with Christ’s righteousness interceding and forgiveness of sins accomplished he is justified. And although regenerated by the Spirit of God, he ponders the everlasting righteousness laid up for him not in the good works to which he inclines but in the sole righteousness of Christ.34

Much like Luther’s understanding of faith, Calvin held that faith precedes the law and is a gift of God to man. Faith being intrinsically connected with the gospel finds its object in Christ’s work at Calvary. Calvin wrote, “From this relation it is clear that those who are justified by faith are justified apart from the merit of works—in fact, without the merit of works. For faith receives that righteousness which the gospel bestows.”35

Calvin’s Institutes summarized the trio of questions in four statements concerning Habakkuk 2:4b (or its quotations).

Now the reader sees how fairly the Sophists today cavil against our doctrine when we say that man is justified by faith alone [Rom. 3:28]. They dare not deny that man is justified by faith because it recurs so often in Scripture. But since the word “alone” is nowhere expressed, they do not allow this addition to be made. Is it so? But what will they reply to these words of Paul where he contends that righteousness cannot be of faith unless it be free [Rom. 4:2 ff.]? How will a free gift agree with works? With what chicaneries will they elude what he says in another passage, that God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel [Rom. 1:17]?36

Calvin is aware that the word “alone” cannot be found, but the theological implications resound cover to cover. “The law therefore has no place in it. Not only by a false but by an obviously ridiculous shift they insist upon excluding this adjective. Does not he who takes everything from works firmly enough ascribe everything to faith alone?”37 In sum, a man who is incapable of perfect sinless life, must rely upon God alone and from there receive forgiveness of sins. All of this is based on one’s faith in God’s actions.

1.3. Synthesis

Though Luther and Calvin utilized somewhat different methods of interpretation, both understood faith to be a gift from God, intrinsically connected to the gospel. Neither Luther or Calvin abandoned the word “works” within justification, but rather tied the word directly with the actions of Christ. It is therefore permissible to say that Luther and Calvin understood Habakkuk 2:4b to point a believer’s faith toward the faithful actions of Christ as the savior.

2. Catholic Use of Habakkuk 2:4

Most of the writings concerning this passage, from the sixteenth century Catholic view, came after Luther and Calvin wrote.38 As such, the Catholic writings are fewer and more responsive in nature. Thus, within this section the Catholic interpretation of Habakkuk 2:4b will be articulated from two primary sources: documents of Erasmus and documents of the Council of Trent.

2.1. Erasmus’s Interpretation of Hab 2:4 as a Pre-Trent View of Faith

Before delving into the pages of official response from Trent, a study of Erasmus will give a pre-Trent Catholic understanding of “faith” in Habakkuk 2:4b. Erasmus’s noted commentary on the Bible is contained within his paraphrases of the New Testament. Some passages contain Erasmus’s thoughts on the passage for he adds content, much like the modern Amplified Bible. However, Erasmus simply translated without commentary Paul’s citations of Habakkuk 2:4b: “My righteous man shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17), and “The righteous lives by faith” (Gal 3:11).39 Due to the lack of commentary by Erasmus, the trio of questions posed of Luther and Calvin will be asked of Erasmus’s theological writings, and not his commentary.

Erasmus wrote during the same era of Luther; in fact, many consider him to be the reformer who did not leave the Catholic church. Some even said that he was “the egg that Luther hatched.”40 Erasmus was trained from many of the same sources as Luther, and came to many similar theological conclusions. Beda frequently called passages of Erasmus’s writings that put faith above works “Lutheran.”41 Paul Althaus noted that Erasmus “also agreed with the principle that Scripture is to be interpreted christocentrically.”42 That being said, Erasmus understood faith as such:

Sometimes [the Scriptures] speak of faith of God [fides dei] by which we trust [fidimus] in him rather than in man; it is said to be “of God” not only because it is directed towards him, but also because it is given by him; sometimes [the Scriptures speak of faith] of both [God and man] as in “the righteous” shall live by faith [fides]—of God who does not deceive in what he has promised, and also of man who trusts [fidit] in God.43

Erasmus handled the topic of works in a tangential manner when discussing Habakkuk 2:4b. Critics accused him of Pelagianism, teaching that humans are basically good and therefore responsible for their own salvation, which could be achieved through asceticism and good works. Others, like Beda, charged him with Lutheranism and with denying that good works were related in any way to salvation.44 Scheck noted Erasmus’s paraphrase of Romans 2:6 shows his true belief of the works of a believer:

Erasmus supplies to his text “through faith.” In the original paraphrase of 1517 Erasmus interprets Paul as meaning here in 2.6–13 that good works are necessary in order to receive the eternal reward. He sees no contradiction between this passage and 3:20. The addition of 1532 shows that Erasmus has adopted the exegesis of Origen and Chrysostom, which applies the verses to Christians who are judged on the basis of not only of faith but of works.45

If indeed Erasmus adopted Origen and Chrysostom’s interpretation, then how did he understand the relationship between faith and works? According to Albert Rabil,

Erasmus recognizes the limitations of ever fully doing the good or achieving its complete blessing in this life. An essential part of doing the good is knowing that what is striven for in a particular way in this life will be consummated only in the life to come. The Christian’s life is never separated from this hope. His hope is based on the trustworthiness of God in fulfilling his promises of which Scripture gives evidence. Christ was foretold in the Old Testament, and the prophecy was true. Since we have proofs of God’s truthfulness toward us, we can trust that the promises made in the New Testament which are not yet fulfilled, e.g. our resurrection and ascension and our participation in the glory of God, will also be fulfilled. Our future hope keeps us on the proper path and limits the power of temptations of the present to deter us from the good to which we are constantly called.46

In essence Erasmus’s early writings show a very “Lutheran” interpretation, whereas later writings accord with the Council of Trent. Thus, Erasmus noted, “It is through pure faith that the good news is realized. The faith which comes from God is, as Erasmus points out in the Explanation Symboli, much more than just accepting God’s promises as true”47 This view of faith alone can also be found in Erasmus response to his opponent Beda: “Eternal blessedness is given not through works according to the law but gratis through faith,” and “no human work is good enough to merit eternal salvation.”48 Though Erasmus’s early thinking was more consistent with the Protestant reformers, he desired for differences to not divide the church, possibly explaining why he did not leave with Luther and Calvin.49

In summary, Erasmus circa 1516 clearly taught that justification was awarded by God’s grace through faith alone. As such, he interpreted Paul accordingly in his 1517 Paraphrase on Romans. In the Argumentum, he points out “that true righteousness and perfect salvation are conferred … without the help of the law, through the Gospel and faith alone in Jesus Christ … that true righteousness comes to no one through the Mosaic law but through faith.”50 This view of Erasmus only lasted till 1532, when he released his paraphrase of Romans 2:6 and began advocating for the need of human works in justification.

2.2. The Council of Trent’s Counterinterpretation of Faith in Habakkuk 2:4

Erasmus may have been the most published Catholic theologian, but he did not speak on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. When the church needed a formal response or stance on any topic, a council would be convened and an official edict or statement would be released. Due to the rarity of councils, many topics went long periods of time without being answered. Luther and the Protestant Reformation was no exception to this delay and rather short response.

Though short in focus concerning Luther, the Council of Trent still impacts Catholics today.

Trent rings a bell, but faint and muffled is the sound. A church council? Against Luther and the Protestants? For many the bell tolls ominously, intimating regression, repression, and the dreaded Counter Reformation. Even for Roman Catholics the bell rings with distant sound and indistinct tone: some stoutly maintain that Trent was the council that wrought all the bad things from which Vatican Council II saved them in the twentieth century, others that Trent created all the good things of which Vatican II then robbed them.51

To grasp Trent, one must first understand the impact that Luther had on the council. Some may say that Luther’s teaching was the sole purpose for the council.52 Many texts concerning the Council of Trent highlight the success of Luther’s reform but undermine the reason for the success. “Luther’s success was surely due to in large part to his religious message. His doctrine of justification by faith alone, easily misunderstood though it was, struck a deep chord. People responded to a teaching that promised a more personal relationship with God and was based directly on the text of Scripture.”53 Interestingly, Trent seemed unaware of Calvin, thus the primary concerns listed in Trent documents revolve around Luther solely.

The official documents of Trent have been publicized in numerous forms and languages throughout the years. Within the Trent documents there are Decrees (Chapters) and Canons. Decrees related to doctrine, and Canons related to discipline. Canons follow methodology of concluding with a condemnation of dissenters, “anathema sit.”54 Sadly, the documents of Trent do not cite Scripture; thus, to survey Habakkuk 2:4b in Trent one must look to the topic of justification by faith. It should also be noted that the interpretation utilized at Trent tied Scripture and apostolic traditions and designated them under the encompassing term “the gospel.”55

Not only does the Council of Trent affirm that tradition and Scripture determine interpretation, but also denied the Protestant’s right to interpret Scripture on 8 April 1546.56 “No one, relying on his own prudence, [may] twist Holy Scripture in matters of faith and morals that pertain to the edifice of Christian doctrine, … and no one [may] dare to interpret the Scripture in a way contrary to the unanimous consensus of the fathers.”57 With this statement settled the Council of Trent will judge the reformers.

The sixth session, which focused on the doctrine of justification, concluded in 1547. They discussed four topics: (1) the nature of justification, (2) the nature of justifying righteousness, (3) the nature of justifying faith, and (4) the assurance of salvation. This article presents Decrees and Canons from this section of Trent documents in totality followed by a short summary.

If indeed Trent’s agenda was set by Luther, then what did they say regarding faith? Chapter 8, “How the Gratuitous Justification of the sinner by faith is to be understood,” read as follows:

But when the Apostle says that man is justified by faith and freely, these words are to be understood in that sense in which the uninterrupted unanimity of the Catholic Church has held and expressed them, namely, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and the root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and to come to the fellowship of His sons; and we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification. for if by grace, it is not now by works, otherwise as the apostles says, grace is no more grace.58

In essence, Trent stated that faith has no part in salvation, but rather subjugating it to the beginning element of salvation. Though faith is listed as the beginning element of salvation, Trent later clarified that faith alone cannot save, for it requires the promises of God’s mercy.

Chapter 9, “Against the Vain Confidence of Heretics,” read as follows:

But though it is necessary to believe that sins neither are remitted nor ever have been remitted except gratuitously by divine mercy for Christ’s sake, yet it must not be said that sins are forgiven or have been forgiven to anyone who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the remission of his sins, resting on that alone, though among heretics and schismatics this vain and ungodly confidence may be and in our troubled times indeed is found and preached with untiring fury against the Catholic Church. Moreover, it must not be maintained, that they who are truly justified must needs, without any doubt whatever, convince themselves that they are justified, and that no one is absolved from sins and justified except he that believes with certainty that he is absolved and justified, and that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone, as if he who does not believe this, doubts the promises of God and the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ. For as no pious person ought to doubt the mercy of God, the merit of Christ and the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, so each one, when he considers himself and his weakness and indisposition may have fear and apprehension concerning his own grace, since no one can know with the certainty of faith which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God.59

Throughout the Trent documents one gains the sense that the word of contention is not faith, but rather alone. Chapter 9 gives a response very similar to the Protestant view point previously mentioned. A closer look will notice that not only is faith not sufficient, for it requires the work of Christ, but also the sacraments.60 Thus, within this chapter the second question—what does Trent say regarding works?—is answered clearly and articulately. There is a sense of both the works of Christ and observation of sacraments (humanly work) as the means of justification.

Trent’s chapter 11 offered this decree:

The observance of the commandments and the necessity and possibility thereof, but no one, however much justified, should consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments; no one should use that rash statement, once forbidden by the Fathers under anathema, that the observance of the commandments of God is impossible for one that is justified. For God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes thee to do what thou canst and to pray for what thou canst not, and aids thee that thou mayest be able. His commandments are not heavy, and his yoke is sweet and burden light. For they who are the sons of God love Christ, but they who live him, keep his commandments, as He Himself testifies.61

Where Luther and Calvin rightly note that no human can observe the law, thus earning salvation, Trent states that “God does not command an impossibility,” i.e., it is possible to keep the commandments. These three noted Decrees (chapters) show a Catholic belief that is not a steadfast works-based salvation; in fact, some canons show more agreeable doctrine than the last noted chapter. Consider the first three Canons of Trent:

Canon 1. If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ: let him be anathema.

Canon 2. If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free-will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty: let him be anathema.

Canon 3. If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, so that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him: let him be anathema. 62

These listed Canons are built upon Origen’s interpretation of Romans 3:25–26, where he clearly states the necessity of Christ’s work as the foundation for human salvation, since man cannot earn salvation by works. In fact, Origen’s commentary was quoted in the session on justification:

A human being is justified through faith; the works of the law contribute nothing to his being justified. But where there is no faith which justifies the believer, even in one possesses works from the law, nevertheless because they have not been built upon the foundation of faith, although they might appear to be good things, nevertheless they are not able to justify the one doing them, because from them faith is absent, which is the sign of those who are justified by God … therefore all posting which comes from the works of the law is excluded.63

The fact that Trent quoted Origen is interesting especially since he stated that man’s work gains us nothing, “because it does not embrace the humility of the cross of Christ.”64 Possibly Trent was comfortable quoting Origen because he said that faith is the beginning and foundation of justification. Though these Canons may seem encouraging to Protestants, many subsequent Canons reestablish the ambiguity of belief surrounding the topic of justification by faith.

Canon 9. If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will: let him be anathema.

Canon 10. If any one saith, that men are just without the justice of Christ, whereby he merited for us to be justified; or that it is by that justice itself that they are formally just: let him be anathema.

Canon 12. If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified: let him be anathema.

Canon 14. If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected: let him be anathema.

Canon 18. If any one saith, that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to keep: let him be anathema.

Canon 19. If any one saith, that nothing besides faith is commanded in the Gospel; that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, but free; or, that the ten commandments nowise appertain to Christians: let him be anathema.

Canon 24. If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema.

Canon 32. If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,-if so be, however, that he depart in grace,-and also an increase of glory: let him be anathema.

Canon 33. If any one saith, that, by the Catholic doctrine touching Justification, by this holy Synod set forth in this present decree, the glory of God, or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ are in any way derogated from, and not rather that the truth of our faith, and the glory in fine of God and of Jesus Christ are rendered [more] illustrious: let him be anathema.65

The summary of Trent’s understanding of the role of faith in justification may appear to combine both Protestant and Catholic positions in the same document. For Trent, faith is but the beginning of salvation, which finds its point of focus in the work of Christ. There are a few statements which amend this belief to being one in not only Christ’s work, but also the holy commandments, and sacraments, for “God would not assign anything that is impossible to do.” This noted changing theology leads one to wonder if Erasmus or the reformers slightly impacted the Catholic church. In sum, Trent does not directly note Habakkuk 2:4b in its writings, but the council did clearly articulate beliefs regarding the Protestant view of justification by faith alone that comes from this passage.

2.3. Understanding Trent

McGrath states, “Trent itself was perfectly prepared to concede that the Christian life was begun through faith, thus coming very close indeed to Luther’s position.”66 Erasmus also held a close view of salvation, in his earlier writings. Yet, Trent concludes with the anathema of the Protestants and their doctrines. McGrath continues,

Trent’s point is that the reformers seemed to be making human confidence or boldness the grounds of justification, so that justification rested upon a fallible human conviction, rather than upon the grace of God. The reformers, however, saw themselves as stressing that justification rested upon the promises of God; a failure to believe boldly in such promises was tantamount to calling the reliability of God into question.67

Had the council of Trent actually been ecumenical, the attendees could have been corrected on what the Protestants actually believed; perhaps consensus might have been drawn and a unification of the divorced parties might have happened. However, Trent was a Roman Catholic only event. The Greeks (Orthodox Church) were never invited, and essentially Protestants were placed on trial without a hearing. Due to this historical fact, the Catholic view of Habakkuk 2:4b concerning the doctrine of justification by faith yields a belief that one is justified firstly by faith in Christ’s work, but is conferred repeatedly through the works of the sacraments.

3. Conclusion

The sixteenth century Reformation debate primarily centered upon the interpretation of the Bible. Furthermore, the Reformers called into question Catholic understandings of justification, and forced a debate, which resulted in a divide.68 The result was a long period of theological writings concerning faith and justification. At the center of this debate is the interpretation of Habakkuk 2:4b passage (and its NT quotations). For Luther and Calvin, one can’t help but read that man is justified by faith in the work of Christ. Thus, the Protestant conclusion is that man is saved by faith in Christ’s faithfulness. For the Catholics, Erasmus began with an almost paralleled belief to the Protestants, but the Council of Trent concluded with a conviction that both the works of Christ and sacraments are necessary for salvation. Thus, the Catholic interpretation of Habakkuk 2:4b is that man is saved by faith in Christ, and his work, but then is preserved by observing the sacraments. The hypothesis concerning Luther and Calvin has been confirmed. Martin Luther and John Calvin understood Habakkuk 2:4b, and its quotations, to mean that a believer is reliant upon the Lord’s actions. However, through the process of researching 16th century Catholic theology the hypothesis was only partially confirmed. The Roman Catholic church does point to the faithful actions of a believer as the object of faith in Habakkuk 2:4b, but they also to point to the actions of Christ as the beginning of justification.

As one from a denominationally mixed family and pastor of numerous Catholic-raised parishioners, I frequently have conversations concerning a believer’s role in salvation. Understanding how key reformers and Catholics viewed Habakkuk 2:4 helps contemporary readers to articulate the historical belief and the closeness of current views of faith in Christendom. As a result, Protestant family and parishioners now have more respect for Catholic faith, and Catholic family and parishioners now have more respect for the Protestant view of Sola Fide. Hopefully this article will inspire more research of the original Catholic texts so as to correct partial understandings and develop meaningful conversations between modern Protestants and Catholics.

[1] Alister McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 177.

[2] Cited in Steven D. Paulson, Luther for Armchair Theologians, Armchair Series (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 40.

[3] Martin Luther, Lectures on the Minor Prophets II: Jonah and Habakkuk, ed. Hiilton C. Oswald, Luther’s Works 19 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1974), 123.

[4] Luther comments upon Romans, “This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.” Martin Luther, Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2000), 1,

[5] Luther, Lectures on the Minor Prophets II, 151.

[6] Luther, Lectures on the Minor Prophets II, 8.

[7] Luther, Lectures on the Minor Prophets II, 6.

[8] Luther, Lectures on the Minor Prophets II, 6.

[9] Luther, Lectures on the Minor Prophets II, 124.

[10] Luther, Lectures on the Minor Prophets II, 124.

[11] Luther, Lectures on the Minor Prophets II, 124.

[12] Luther, Lectures on the Minor Prophets II, 124. “Luther’s interpretation of Scripture is at once Christocentric and Christological. It is Christocentric in that he regards Christ as the heart of the Bible,” according to Arthur Wood, The Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), 81.

[13] Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 75.

[14] Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 75.

[15] Thompson, “Biblical Interpretation in the Works of Martin Luther,” 305.

[16] Thompson, “Biblical Interpretation in the Works of Martin Luther,” 305.

[17] McGrath, Historical Theology, 194.

[18] Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, ed. Wilhelm Pauck (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 17–18.

[19] Luther, Lectures on Romans, 18. McGrath explains, “Iustitia fide is: (1) A righteousness which is a gift from God, rather than a righteousness which belongs to God. (2) A righteousness which is valid coram Deo, although not coram hominibus. (3) A righteousness which is itself fides Christi.… Iustitia fidei must be recognized as (1) being a divine gift to man, and (2) originating from God.… In other words, for a man to become righteous coram Deo, ‘the righteousness of God’ demands that he possess ‘the righteousness of faith.’ The two concepts are not identical, but they are clearly closely related, in that their common denominator is the pactum. By virtue of that covenant, God accepts man’s faith as the righteousness required for his justification coram deo.” Alister McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 114–15, 119.

[20] Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 43.

[21] Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 43.

[22] Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 77.

[23] David C. Steinmetz, The Bible in the Sixteenth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 1–2.

[24] Steinmetz, The Bible in the Sixteenth Century, 2.

[25] John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul to the Romans and Thessalonians, trans. R. Mackenzie, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries 8 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 28–29.

[26] Calvin, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 28.

[27] Calvin, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 29.

[28] Calvin, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 29.

[29] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.2.7, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1960).

[30] Calvin, Institutes 3.2.29.

[31] Calvin, Institutes 3.11.7.

[32] Calvin, Institutes 3.11.9.

[33] Calvin, Institutes 3.11.9.

[34] Calvin, Institutes 3.11.16.

[35] Calvin, Institutes 3.11.18.

[36] Calvin, Institutes 3.11.19.

[37] Calvin, Institutes 3.11.19.

[38] Erasmus wrote his Paraphrases from 1517 to 1524. The publications of Trent were released after 1563.

[39] Erasmus, Paraphrases on Romans and Galatians, ed. Robert D. Sider, Collected Works of Erasmus 42 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984). This work is organized like a Bible as such all versions do not follow page number, but rather Scripture reference.

[40] Margaret King, Reformation Thought: An Anthology of Sources (Cambridge: Hackett, 2016), 23. This phrase was first noted in a letter from December 1524.

[41] Erika Rummel, Erasmus and His Catholic Critics (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1989), 2:34.

[42] Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 79.

[43] Cited in Christine Christ-von Wedel, Erasmus of Rotterdam: Advocate of a New Christianity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 147.

[44] Christ- von Wedel, Erasmus of Rotterdam, 145.

[45] Thomas P. Scheck, Origen and the History of Justification: The Legacy of Origen’s Commentary on Romans (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 143.

[46] Albert Rabil, Erasmus and the New Testament: The Mind of a Christian Humanist (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993), 154–55.

[47] Christ-von Wedel, Erasmus of Rotterdam, 145.

[48] Christ-von Wedel, Erasmus of Rotterdam, 150.

[49] Christ-von Wedel, Erasmus of Rotterdam, 151.

[50] Christ-von Wedel, Erasmus of Rotterdam, 147.

[51] John O’Malley, Trent: What Happened at the Council (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2013), 1.

[52] O’Malley, Trent, 12.

[53] O’Malley, Trent, 49.

[54] Philip Schaff and David S. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom: With a History and Critical Notes, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 94. “In an article written in 1953, Piet Fransen showed that to condemn something under anathema was not necessarily correlative with ex cathedra definition, as catholic theology in its listing of theological notes or qualifications had so long supposed. An anathema is rather like a curse on people who are disturbing the church because of what they are propounding, or because of what they are calling into question. They are seen to disrupt true piety and belief. The anathema defends a perspective and a system, to which both beliefs and practices are inherent, supporting and corroborating each other. It does not isolate one point from another, even when naming particular issues, but it is the interrelation of diverse factors that is the concern for a decree that enforces its viewpoint with anathemas.” David Power, The Sacrifice We Offer: The Tridentine Dogma and Its Reinterpretation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987), 127.

[55] Guy Bedouelle, “Biblical Interpretation in the Catholic Reformation,” in A History of Biblical Interpretation, Volume 2: The Medieval through the Reformation Periods, ed. Alan J. Hauser and Duane F. Watson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 431.

[56] Bedouelle, “Biblical Interpretation in the Catholic Reformation,” 431.

[57] Bedouelle, “Biblical Interpretation in the Catholic Reformation,” 431.

[58] J. Waterworth, ed., The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Ecumenical Council of Trent (London: Dolman, 1848), 36 (italics added for emphasis).

[59] Waterworth, The Canons and Decrees, 36–37 (italics added for emphasis).

[60] “However, they also show the catholic emphasis on the act of the priest in applying satisfactions and merits, and on the importance of the rite itself as the means through which Christ works in the church. This could not dispel reformers’ discomfort with the role of the priest and with the role of sacrament, as distinct from word.” Power, The Sacrifice We Offer, 58. “The mass is also reconciliatory, because it is an offering of Christ to God, but it is at the same time satisfactory, because it applies to sinners the satisfaction made by Christ on the cross.” Power, The Sacrifice We Offer, 64.

[61] Waterworth, The Canons and Decrees, 38 (italics added for emphasis).

[62] Waterworth, The Canons and Decrees, 44.

[63] Scheck, Origen and the History of Justification, 40.

[64] Scheck, Origen and the History of Justification, 40.

[65] Waterworth, Canons and Decrees of Trent, 45–49.

[66] McGrath, Historical Theology, 177.

[67] McGrath, Historical Theology, 177.

[68] McGrath, Historical Theology, 177.

Mario M. C. Melendez

Mario M. C. Melendez is Auguie Henry Chair of Bible and assistant professor of Old Testament and biblical studies at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

Other Articles in this Issue

The concept of personhood is crucial for our understanding of what it is to be human...

This article considers whether “The Woman Caught in Adultery” (John 7:53–8:11) should be preached...

During the American Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King’s principal arguments reasoned from theological ethics, appealing to natural law, imago Dei, and agape love...

Many churches switched to streaming or recording their services during the COVID-19 crisis...