Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Questions about Sola Fide

I don't dispute that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, properly qualified, is a Biblical doctrine. (I say 'properly qualified' because I think Tom Wright and the New Perspective on Paul has done a good job of showing that what Paul meant by 'justification by faith' is not exactly what Luther meant.) But I do have some questions about some things that aren't adding up to me about it.

First, why do Protestant receive lots of instruction, if not on what is meant by faith alone, at least in the absolute importance of it, but relatively little instruction in the absolute importance of the Christological disputes after (or even leading up to) the Council of Chalcedon?

Certainly how we emphasize orthodoxy will always be largely (and appropriately) conditioned by what heresies abound at the time. However, this merely underscores the irony of the current situation seeing that evangelical Christianity, including reformed Protestantism, tolerates so much Christology that is heretical if judged by the standards of the ecumenical councils.

I'll give an example. I have a friend who is virulently anti-Catholic, and who would be the first to say that justification by faith alone is a 'salvation issue.' He teaches theology at his church and yet his views on the Trinity are heretical if judged by the standards of Chalcedon (he teaches his students a type of modalism without realizing it). Or again, consider the irony that many Protestants would find unity Pentecostals to be basically Christian but have difficulty accepting Catholics as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Nor do I exclude myself - as a Protestant I have never taken much interest in the Christeological issues that were debated at, say, the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681), and what I do read convicts me of holding heterodox views of the Trinity. Of course, this raises the larger issue of how we know which councils are legitimate. Do individuals have the right to declare all councils post-Chalcedon as being invalid merely because they don't add up to our own interpretation of scripture or the interpretation offered by whichever group we happen to identify with, or should the collective authority of the united church count for something? (I raised some of these questions in my post "Questions About Sola Scriptura.")

I digress and clearly this is neither here nor there on whether the doctrine of Sola Fide is true or false. But it does raise an important second question: what has brought the Protestant church to the point of assuming that justification by faith alone is a mountain to die on (as seen by the numerous times Protestants have told me that Catholics can be saved as long as they 'trust in Christ alone for their salvation' which, when explained further, always amounts to some type of assent to Sola Fide) while the issues which the church has historically put more of a premium on (such as the issues that were hammered out in the first seven ecumenical councils), fade into non-relevance for us? I think the answer must be that Protestantism often tends to suffer from a type of historical amnesia. Protestantism, by its very nature, will always be fighting the battles of the reformation era.

Alright, let's carry on with my questions. A third question is this: if the doctrine of justification by faith alone is so obvious in scripture that it can legitimately divine Protestants from Catholics, then how do we explain the fact that the ONLY time the phrase "faith alone" is used in the whole of the Bible, it is used by a writer denying it? In asking this question, it is important to emphasize what I am NOT saying. I am not arguing that the doctrine of Sola Fide isn't taught in scripture merely because the words aren't used. Nor am I implying that an issue has to be obvious in the Bible before it can legitimately divide Christians from apostate groups. However, given that the Protestants who functionally excommunicate Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox will typically do so on the grounds that these groups are denying what is supposedly obvious in scripture (which is what has always been said to me when I have pressed the point), it is at least legitimate for us to question how Sola Fide can be that obvious when the only time the words "faith alone" are mentioned in the scriptures is by a writer who denies it?

Fourth, why do Protestants always contrast salvation by faith alone with sacerdotalism (salvation by sacraments) in arguing that the former depends on God and the latter on man? Surely this is a false dilemma which hinges on the prior assumption that sacraments are not of God. If salvation can be mediated through faith and still be from God since faith is a gift, then what reason in principle is there why salvation can't be mediated through the sacraments and still be from God since the sacraments are also gifts?

Consider the words of Ligon Duncan when talking about Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy on a Ligonier Ministries panel. He said:
There are two systems of salvation: the sacerdotal system and the evangelical system. Sacerdotal doctrine of salvation is based upon the dispensation of sacraments by the church. Evangelical system of salvation acknowledges the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the sinner, drawing the sinner to Christ, uniting him to Christ by faith. Its system of salvation similar to Roman Catholicism in terms of the function of the sacraments.  Eastern Orthodoxy clearly fits into the category of sacerdotalism.
Now it may be false that salvation is based upon the dispensation of sacraments by the church. But merely to hold that the sacraments are one of the instrumental means by which God conveys salvation to his people is not necessarily to deny the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the sinner, any more than to say that faith is one of the instrumental means by which God conveys salvation to his people does not in itself entail a denial of the Holy Spirit's work in the life of the sinner.

There are many Protestants (and forgive the over-simplification) who hold that we are justified by faith alone but that natural man is already possessed of all the equipment necessary to exercise such faith. We call this position Arminianism, and it is contrasted with the soteriology of Calvinism which emphasizes that the work of the Holy Spirit must be antecedent to faith (again, pardon the over-simplification). Then there are also many Roman Catholics in the tradition of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas who, while affirming that merit and sacerdotalism are necessary for salvation, believe that such things are gifts to which the work of the Holy Spirit is antecedent. If this establishes anything, it is that the questions of the Holy Spirit's work are logically independent to the questions of Sola Fide, sacerdotalism, etc. What I don't understand is why these categories are constantly being conflated by apologists of Sola Fide, with the result that non-Protestant traditions are constantly charicatured.

Perhaps a reformed Protestant will be able to explain these things to me.

Further Reading

Questions About Sola Scriptura 

Are Calvinists Also Among the Gnostics?

Are Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians?

Eight Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed

Is Charles Hodge Also Among the Gnostics?




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8 comments:

Joe Reilly said...

Do you hold to Sola Fide or not?

Robin Phillips said...

Define your terms Joe! Sometimes when a Roman Catholic denies that we are saved by faith alone and a Protestant affirms that we are saved by faith alone, they appear to disagree when really they are operating with different definitions of salvation and faith. (This does not deny that there are often substantive disagreements as well, and that is why I would disagree with Peter Kreeft that the reformation was simply a mistake. However, the false disagreements generated by semantics can sometimes obscure these substantive differences). Thus, I will be happy to say whether I agree that we are saved by faith alone (Sola Fide) after you have defined (a) salvation (b) faith and (c)alone.

Tim Enloe said...

To your questions:

1) There's no reasonable excuse for Protestants receiving tons of instruction about soteriology and almost none about Christology. This is a severe blind spot in our pastors and teachers, to be sure, but I'm sure you recognize that it doesn't impact whether sola fide is true or not. At best it just means some serious work needs to be done on the contents of our catechesis.

2) There's also no reasonable excuse for Protestants endlessly fighting the Reformation debate, as if that is the center and warp and woof of Christianity. This also is a serious blindspot we have, but if one steps outside of the world of popular apologetics against Catholicism and popular works aimed at Evangelicals, there is a lot of work being done by Protestants on historical and theological matters outside of the peculiarly Reformation ones. It's a matter of what one chooses to read, and doesn't impact whether sola fide is true or not.

3) Have you read any substantial Reformational works on sola fide? This question about James 2 has been dealt with ad nauseam in Protestant works, as it is an old canard raised by 16th century Roman Catholic polemicists. If this question bothers you, resources exist to help you work through it. As you have phrased it, it has largely nothing more than a rhetorical point that focuses too literally on the words "faith alone" rather than on the underlying substance of the doctrine.

4) I think you have much of the answer to this question in your own work on how Gnostic influences have crept into Protestantism. But these Gnostic influences are not present in the Reformers themselves. Have you read much of Luther and Calvin on the sacraments? They rail against sacerdotalism, to be sure, but they do not do so in the superficial and Gnostic-like manner that modern Protestants do.

Robin Phillips said...

Thank you Tim for this.

Regarding 1, yes. I did point out in my article that it didn't impact the truth or falsity of Sola Fide. However, it does underscore the sense in which Protestants can suffer from historical amnesia, and when assessing the legitimacy of Protestantism we need to factor this functional amnesia into the equation, just like if we were assessing Roman Catholicism during the Middle Ages we would need to factor in the functional Pelagianism.

Regarding 2, certainly it depends on what circles one moves in and which books one reads. However, if there is a sort of functional, operational mindset implicit in popular protestant praxis, then even if the Protestant movement can produce books which state a different position (indeed, the Protestant movement can produce books which state ANY position), the implicit theology has to be taken into account when assessing the merits of Protestantism, just as the functional, operational theology at the time of Tetzel has to be chalked down to the errors of Roman Catholicism even if there were writers at the time who argued otherwise (which there were; indulgences were an in-house debate long before Luther's little day in the sun). That is why I put more stock in what former RC say they felt and believed growing up than in what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches. These are questions of religious sociology and not merely to do with reading the right books. But what do you think, Tim? Am I off on the skinny branches?

Regarding 3, it seems that your question may be of very limited relevance since I didn't make any truth-claims that hinged on the assumption of historical knowledge, including any knowledge I may or may not have gained from reading reformation sources. But again, I'd like your feedback because I certainly might be wrong. You are clearly more knowledgable about these subjects than I am.

Your point about James 2 having been dealt with doesn't quite get to what I was asking, since I was not claiming either that it hadn't been dealt with or that it was a problem. I don't think it is a problem. Moreover, I'm aware of the issues involved and even wrote a review for The Month interacting with the way R.C. Sproul tackled the problem in his book Faith Alone. (James and Paul were using different definitions of 'faith' Sproul argued. Fine, I agree. But why then does he resist so hard the rather obvious point that Protestants and Catholics are also using different definitions of salvation?) But all of this is irrelevant to my point about James 2, which was merely that the issue isn't as obvious as people claim. While there are certainly ways of reconciling James and Paul, let's at least be honest that it isn't a straight-forward issue (especially after factoring in the NPP it is far from straight-forward). But this is problematic for those who claim that Sola Fide is SO obvious in scripture that only a fool could miss it, and then use this supposed obviousness to functionally excommunicate Roman Catholics. Sola Fide may be a true doctrine (I actually think it is if it is properly qualified), but it is not obvious in scripture. So just let me recap: the issue is not whether James 2 poses a problem for Sola Fide; rather, the issue is that James 2 renders Sola Fide less than partently self-evident from scripture even if said doctrine is actually the Biblical teaching. Now because the assumption that Sola Fide is patently self-evident is often given as a reason why Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are out to lunch, this is problematic.

Robin Phillips said...

Regarding 4, yes I am always impressed by the high view of the sacraments in the reformers - a refreshing antidote to the semi-Gnosticism of contemporary evangelicalism. However, even here it is important to make some qualifications. For Luther, the Word could stand independent of the sacraments, as seen by his statement that "For the sacrament without the word can be nothing, but indeed the word without the sacrament [can], and if necessary, one can be saved without a sacrament, but not without the Word.” An interesting corollary of this is as long as one has faith the eating and drinking become unnecessary accessories. To quote again from Luther (from 'the Pagan Servitude of the Church'): “I am able daily, indeed hourly, to have the mass; for, as often as I wish, I can set the words of Christ before me, and nourish and strengthen my faith by them. This is the true spiritual eating and drinking.” Even Calvin occasionally seems to collude with the Zwinglian spiritualization of the Supper as well as the Gnostic devaluing of matter. The Eucharist, as important as it was within Calvin’s system, remained God’s concession to our materiality. As Calvin himself would write: “Forasmuch as we are so ignorant, so given up to earthly and carnal things and fixed upon them, so that we can neither think, understand nor conceive of anything spiritual, the merciful Lord accommodates himself in this to the crudity of our senses.” Calvin thus made himself vulnerable for later generations to suggest that he “left the Eucharist dangling, an inadequately attached appendage to his system.” This is a point made by Lee in Against the Protestant Gnostics: “It is easy to see how Calvin’s suspicion of knowing God through material things would influence his sacramental theology. Although he makes every attempt to keep Word and Sacrament together, to handle them in a parallel way, there is never the slightest doubt in his mind as to which is preeminent. If necessary, the Gospel could stand by itself and indeed would do so were it for our human weakness, which makes us dependent on these more primitive means of grace….In maintaining a distinct dualism between...spirit and flesh, he would always be on guard against awarding too much dignity to the visible Church as Church, and he would always be suspicious of the externals of religion.

OK, I'm taking these quotes out of context to be intentionally polemical, and I have read enough to know that these cherry-picked quotes do not represent the reformer's sacramental theology in its full breadth and complexity. And certainly the earthiness of Luther’s personality, Calvin’s ability to maintain a dialectical tension between nature and grace, transcendence and immanence, creation and redemption, together with the high ecclesiology that he and the other Magisterial reformers held, did mitigate against the Gnostic overtones that later generations of Protestants would amplify in their thought. However, it should not be overlooked that there is a Gnostic seed apparent in their thought. Calvin had no hesitation invoking the distinctly Platonic idea of the body being a prison and in his Institutes he wrote “And when Christ commended his spirit to the Father and Stephen his to Christ they mean only that when the soul is freed from the prison house of the body, God is its perpetual guardian. . . . It is of course true that while men are tied to earth more than they should be they grow dull. . . .”

Robin Phillips said...

This same semi-Gnosticism is apparent in the popular Protestant refutations of sacerdotalism that almost always attend discussions of Sola Fide, as the quote from Ligon Duncan illustrates. Duncan is not an anomaly but does I think represent the pulse of contemporary Protestantism on this issue. This isn't merely because he represents a number of institutions (though he does, being the distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at RTS, President of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, editorial Director of Reformed Academic Press, in addition to having held the position of John R. Richardson Professor of Systematic Theology at RTS, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at RTS, in addition to pastoring Presbyterian churches) but because we could find dozens of similar quotations from other respected Protestants all assuming that if salvation comes from sacraments then salvation depends on man whereas if salvation comes by faith then it depends on God. I don't want to be melodramatic, but this is really dreadful since it implies that sacraments come from God less than faith comes from God. Now maybe these things can all be answered, but I think I'm justified in urging that these things are at least problematic for a Protestant.

Robin Phillips said...

In Fred Zaspel and Sinclair Ferguson's discussion of B.B. Warfield's theology in their book The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, they write that the key question separating sacerdotalism and evangelicalism is the question of divine grace comes to us "immediately or by means of supernaturally endowed instrumentalities - the church and sacraments." (p. 415) They do acknowledge that both are supernatural, yet it is troubling to see their failure to recognize that faith in the evangelical view is also an instrumentality. They then quote Warfield: "Does God save men by immediate operations of his grace upon their souls, or does he act upon them only through the medium of instrumentalities established for that purpose?...[Evangelicalism] "sweeps away every intermediary between the soul and its God, and leaves the soul dependent for its salvation on God alone, operating upon it by his immediate grace." OK, so does that mean that if salvation is mediated through the sacraments that we are no longer dependent on God alone? To say that a salvation mediated through faith is dependent on God but a salvation mediated through the sacraments is not dependent on God, may hinge on the Gnostic idea that faith is spiritual because it is invisible and sacraments are not because they are visible, although I really don't know what drives people to construct these false dilemmas. Zaspel and Ferguson then throw out a comment of their own: "The evangelical directs the sinner, in need of salvation on God alone, operating upon it by his immediate grace." The key word here is 'immediate' - the evangelical hates any mediaries of grace even though faith is itself an instrument of grace within his theological paradigm. But there is no reason in principle to assume that a non-evangelical who is directed to the sacraments as means of grace is less dependent on God than an evangelical who is directed to faith as a means of grace - both can be seen as coming from God, and both can be seen as coming from man. The writers then go on to say something that makes me very insecure in my Protestant identity: "This 'evangelicalism' is, simply, Protestantism." Ouch. I guess its time for me to join the Eastern Orthodox church!

Zaspel and Ferguson go on to argue that if salvation is dependent on the ministry of the church then it depends on man. However, we might equally say that if salvation depends on faith then it is dependent on man. If someone replies that this is not the case with faith because faith is a gift, then I want to know why the church and its ministry isn't also seen to be a gift. My point is that every single argument used against sacerdotalism could equally be applied against Sola Fide.



And yes, I am aware that the view espoused by Zaspel, Ferguson and Warfield is not even the classical Calvinist position since Calvin said, "There is no other means of entering life unless she [the Church] conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at the breast, and watch over us with her protection and guidance...Outside her bosom no forgiveness of sins, no salvation can be hoped for."

Matthew N. Petersen said...

Hey Robin: You asked whether Protestants always contrast faith alone with the Sacraments, which they assume to be Sacerdotalism.

The answer is no, and to call a reliance on Sacraments Sacerdotalism is a misnomer. (Yes, I know it comes from Warfield.)

First, if you read Luther's Large Catechism, he clearly spells out why faith alone entails Sacraments.--It's not like the Sacraments are added to Christ, or to faith; rather the Sacraments are or present Christ, and faith clings to that.

Moreover, Sacerdotalism is technically the doctrine that we need priests as intermediaries, and is linked to the Late Medieval notion of the salvific action of the Mass, qua Mass, not qua received Sacrament. When Luther rails against the Mass, it is this he is railing against, against the belief that saying the Mass saves, not against the belief that receiving the Sacrament saves--the latter is actually his own position.

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