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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