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Merit: Christian Concepts


The term merit derives directly from the Latin meritum as used by theologians in Western Christianity beginning with Tertullian (160?225?). Earlier Christian apologists had stressed the importance of postbaptismal works as a preparation for eternal life, and indeed this line of thought can be traced back in a general way to various New Testament writings. The important question as to whether the third-century teaching on merit emerged naturally out of early Christianity or whether it was a distortion, or at best a countertheme, is variously assessed by Catholic and Protestant theologians. Thus, in an article on merit (1962), Günther Bornkamm emphasized the absence of any concept of merit in the New Testament, while his co-writer Erdmann Schott roundly declared that "only the Roman Catholic church developed a doctrine of merit." However, both of these writers recognize the presence of those elements in early Christian writings, including the New Testament, which writers with a Catholic viewpoint see as the basis for the development of the doctrine. These elements are none other than judgment, reward, and punishment. Thus according to Anselm Forster (1965) references to such themes are so numerous that the apostolic fathers and the apologists simply brought the idea of merit into their proclamation of salvation as circumstances required, without any need for systematic reflection at that time.

The New Testament writers certainly made much use of this complex of ideas, as seen for example in the vision of judgment in Matthew 25. However, such ideas do not in themselves amount to or necessarily require the development of a doctrine of merit, as may be observed in parallel situations in the history of religions. Historically, there certainly was no general belief in the New Testament writings that some sufficient degree of merit either should or even could be accumulated for any purpose. The main thrust of early Christian teaching was rather to overcome any calculating religiosity in favor of a trusting reliance on the promises of God and spontaneous, uncircumscribed works of love. This holds good both for the teaching of Jesus himself, as far as this can be precisely ascertained, and also for the teaching of the major theological exponents, John and Paul. A doctrine of merit as such did not clearly arise until the third century.

Patristic View of Merit

With Tertullian, well known for his legal metaphors, the doctrine of merit came into semiformal existence. He distinguished between good works as a source of merit and nonobligatory good works as a source of extra merit, thus introducing an element of calculation. He also taught that human sinners are required to render satisfaction to God, a satisfaction that could be fulfilled by the offering of merits. Other church fathers accepted Tertullian's teaching, above all with a view to the care of postbaptismal life within the church.

Thus Cyprian (c. 205258), bishop of Carthage, taught that sins could be purged by charitable works and by faith. This did not refer to those sins contracted before baptism, for they were purged by the blood and sanctification of Christ. But, Cyprian says in On Works and Charity, "sic eleemosyne extinguet peccatum" ("as water extinguishes fire, so charitable work extinguishes sin") and "eleemosynis atque operationibus iustis" ("as the fire of Gehenna is extinguished by the water of salvation, so the flame of transgressions is assuaged by almsgiving and just works"). He goes on to say that God is satisfied by just works and that sins are purged by the merits of mercifulness (misericordiae meritis ). Indeed, by charitable works our prayers are made effective, our lives saved from danger, and our souls liberated from death.

Of importance for later understanding of the doctrine was the debate between Pelagius, Augustine, and others in the first part of the fifth century. Pelagius, whose teaching was current in Rome and North Africa, stressed the power of man through free will to choose and practice the good, and he viewed grace conveyed by the example and stimulus of Christ as a welcome but theoretically not absolutely essential extra. Augustine considered Pelagius's teaching to present a faulty doctrine of man and to render Christian salvation all but superfluous. For the present subject the debate is of importance in that it had the effect of subordinating teaching on merit to the doctrine of grace. Since Pelagianism was condemned as heretical at the councils of Milevum and Carthage (in 416 and 418), Augustine's treatment of the subject set the framework for later Western definitions and ultimately for the divergence that broke out at the Reformation.

It may be noted in passing that the concept of merit was never worked out in detail and did not become a matter of controversy in the Eastern (Orthodox) churches because the operation of divine grace and human free will were and are seen in terms of synergy. By this is meant a cooperation of powers that are unequal but both essential. Although human response and action are necessary within the event of salvation, the preeminent role of grace means that calculations are of no relevance. The perfect example of synergy is provided by Mary, honored as the mother of God (theotokos ).

Medieval and Reformation Views of Merit

In medieval Latin Christendom an increasingly carefully defined doctrine of merit was current. This doctrine was, with minor variations, consistent from Peter Abelard up until the Reformation. Both obligatory and nonobligatory (supererogatory) works were regarded as meritorious in the sense that they contributed, within the overall economy of divine grace, to the ensuring of salvation. Grace itself can be understood at various levels: all-important was gratia praeveniens, but Peter Lombard distinguished between the self-effective gratia operans and the gratia cooperans that assists in the creation of merit. Widespread in the Middle Ages was the distinction between acts that ensure divine recognition and acts that merely qualify for it at divine discretion. These two types of merit are referred to as condign merit (meritum de condigno ) and congruent merit (meritum de congruo ) respectively. However, the sovereignty of God was maintained by the teaching, for example of Thomas Aquinas, that while merit arises equally from free will and from grace, the effective status assigned to condign merit was itself still dependent ultimately on grace. The underlying idea here, not usually made explicit, is that the church in its teaching function can reliably assert the positive availability of grace in such circumstances. Some discussion centered on the possibility of regaining a state of grace through merit after committing deadly sin, which Bonaventure considered possible and Thomas impossible. Another aspect arose with John Duns Scotus, who emphasized the crucial role of the divine acceptance of merit over against the value inherent in the work itself. This permitted the assertion that God recognizes the merits of supernaturally assisted works within the economy of salvation rather than of those performed by man in his natural state simply because he so wishes. (For more details on these and other aspects of the medieval doctrine of merit, see Schott, 1962.)

The doctrinal subtlety of many medieval theologians was clearly directed toward safeguarding the principle of the prior, determinative grace of God over against any idea that salvation could be ensured by calculated acts on man's part. However, not all medieval Christians had the ability, or, in their often short and hard lives, the leisure, to appreciate these points. Since theology had a place for individual acts that might be meritorious, that is, of assistance in securing salvation rather than damnation, the common assumption was that some of these acts had better be performed. It was plainly believed that bad things had to be compensated for by good things if lengthy or eternal punishment was to be avoided, and this meant in daily religious life: penance, good works, and the sacraments. Thus salvation became for many a transaction, albeit a mysterious one. The sale of indulgences in respect of a plenary remission of sins may be regarded as an extreme example of this and was understandably criticized at the Reformation as an abuse. That the element of weighing, or paying, had become a standard feature of Western Catholic tradition, was evident also, however, in the large numbers of chantries endowed for masses to be said for the patron's benefit, via a transfer of merit, after his death.

The Reformation saw a massive reassertion of grace and a straightforward rejection of reliance on works of any kind. With Martin Luther the language of justification was central but was used paradoxically, as in Pauline literature, to refer to God's gracious justification of man through Christ, even though man himself is not able to stand before God in judgment. With this fundamental shift of emphasis, which became increasingly critical of current religious practice, the doctrine of merit related to works was swept away. Yet the vocabulary of merit did not immediately disappear. Indeed the traditional terminology of condign and congruent merit occurs in Luther's Dictata super Psalterium (Lectures on the Psalms) and serves as the basis for a gradual transposition of the concept of merited salvation into that of unmerited salvation (cf. Rupp, 1953, esp. pp. 138f.). Thus the idea of the insufficiency of merit or of works provided Luther at one and the same time with a polemical differentiation from the existing tradition of Western Christianity and an invitation to faith in the saving and transforming power of grace leading to good works as the fruit of Christian life. As far as these matters were concerned, the position of other reformers, including John Calvin with his formula sola gratia (by grace alone), was essentially similar. As a result, wholesale changes occurred in the practical forms of religion. At the same time the transactional aspect was concentrated in the doctrine of atonement through the merits of the death of Christ.

Merit in Catholicism

The positive significance of merit in the context of the religious life was reaffirmed for Western Catholicism at the Council of Trent (15451563), the relevant definitions and thirty-three anathemas being contained in the sixteenth chapter of the text for the sixth session: "De fructu justificationis, hoc est, de merito bonorum operum, deque ipsius meriti ratione" (Denzinger, 1965). The argument is tightly linked to the concept of justification, which is viewed as a process within the believer that leads to meritorious good works. Since the merit of good works was considered to bring about specific results contributing to the increase of grace in the present life, to eternal life itself, and to the increase of glory, room was left for the continued pastoral management of religious life in terms of relative achievement, within the overall context of divine grace. This has essentially been the basis of Catholic religiosity ever since.

Thus the marketing of indulgences was abandoned, but the attainment of an indulgence through devotional practice (e.g., on "the first nine Fridays") or through special sets of prayers (Our Fathers, Ave Marias, etc.), leading to a reduction of the number of days required to be spent in purgatory (by 500, 1,000, etc.), has continued down to the present. Moreover such remissions can, via the communion of saints and the work of Christ himself, be applied to the suffering of souls already in purgatory, through prayer, fasting, alms, and the saying of Mass. As one popular nineteenth-century work put it: "She [the church] appears before the tribunal of the judge, not only as a suppliant, but also as the stewardess of the treasure of the merits of Christ and his saints, and from it offers to him the ransom for the souls in purgatory, with full confidence that he will accept her offer and release her children from the tortures of the debtor's prison" (F. J. Shadler, The Beauties of the Catholic Church, New York, 1881, p. 404). One could hardly hope to find a clearer statement both of the idea of the transfer of merit and of the transactional manner in which merit is, or can be, understood. Other presentations content themselves with a loose statement of the need for both grace and works, thereby allowing elaboration at the pastoral level. Thus a modern catechism declares: "We can do no good work of ourselves toward our salvation; we need the help of God's grace," but also: "Faith alone will not save us without good works; we must also have hope and charity" (Catholic Truth Society, A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, London, 1971, pp. 22f.). The consciousness of ordinary Catholic believers may be summed up in the view that while one cannot ensure one's own salvation one is certainly expected to make a contribution.

In recent years theological controversy about merit in the context of Christianity has lost much of its sharpness for three reasons. First, the theme is subsumed, for Protestants, into the greater theme of faith and grace over against works. From this point of view relying on merits or merit is simply a variant form of relying on works and therefore hardly requires separate consideration. Second, although the concept of merit is retained by Catholics, it is usually made clear, at least in formal accounts, that the prior grace of God is an essential condition. Although, admittedly, this does not meet Protestant objections to all and every form of reliance on works, it does mean that from the Catholic side, too, attention is directed fundamentally toward man's position in the overall economy of divine grace. Third, and this applies to Protestant and Catholic theologians alike, interest is directed toward other issues such as the historical and social responsibilities of Christianity, questions arising through the encounter with non-Christian traditions, and philosophical reflections about the very nature of religious language. In such a perspective, while theological viewpoints regarding merit remain distinct, it is not currently considered to be a matter requiring intense or urgent debate.

See Also

Atonement, article on Christian Concepts; Free Will and Predestination, article on Christian Concepts; Grace; Justification.


Bornkamm, Günther, Erdmann Schott, et al. "Verdienst." In Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3d ed., vol. 6, pp. 12611271. Tübingen, 1962.

Cyprian. Quellen zur Geschichte des Papsttums und des römischen Katholizismus. Edited by Carl Mirbt. Tübingen, 1911. Includes the Latin text of Cyprian's On Works and Charity.

Denzinger, Heinrich, ed. Enchiridion Symbolorum. Freiburg, 1965. Includes definitions formulated by the Council of Trent. See especially pages 376ff.

Forster, Anselm. "Verdienst (Systematisch)." In Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, vol. 10, cols. 677680. Freiburg, 1965.

Jedin, Hubert. A History of the Council of Trent, vol. 2. Translated by Ernest Graf. London, 1960.

Raemers, W. Indulgenced Prayers to Help the Holy Souls. London, 1956.

Rupp, E. G. The Righteousness of God: Luther Studies. London, 1953.

Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. Harmondsworth, 1963.

New Sources

Hallonsten, Gösta. Meritum bei Tertullian: Überprüffung einer Forschungstadition II. Malmö, 1985.

Moule, Charles Francis Digby. Forgiveness and Reconciliation and Other New Testament Themes. London, 1998.

Wawrykow, Joseph P. "God's Grace and Human Action: 'Merit.'" In Theology of Thomas Aquinas. Notre Dame, Ind., 1995.

Michael Pye (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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