Monday, November 07, 2011

Richard Hooker vs. Michael Horton

In his A Learned Discourse on Justification, the judicious Hooker wrote:
They be not all faithless that are either weak in assenting to the truth or stiff in maintaining things any way opposite to the truth of Christian doctrine. But as many as hold the foundation which is precious, although they hold it but weakly and as it were by a slender thread, although they frame many base and unsuitable things upon it, things that cannot abide the trial of the fire, yet shall they pass the fiery trial and be saved, who indeed have builded themselves upon the rock which is the foundation of the Church.

Hooker's words remain an important antidote to those Protestants who maintain that in order to be saved by justification by faith alone, one must believe in justification by faith alone. Such an idea is prevalent within Protestant evangelicalism. When having conversations with lay people, Christian educators and those in leadership positions in Protestant churches, I am frequently told that while individual Roman Catholics can be saved, this can only happen if they “trust in Christ alone for salvation.” When pressed to explain what it means to “trust in Christ alone for salvation,” the response I am usually given is that it means the Roman Catholic has to (more or less) believe in Sola Fide. To reject Sola Fide is to reject Christ, which is to reject any hope of salvation. This myth persists on a more scholarly level as well. For example, Michael Horton seems to have made lack of self-conscious assent to official Catholic teaching on justification a necessary condition to being a brother or sister in Christ, writing
“We affirm that individual Roman Catholics who for whatever reason do not self-consciously assent to the precise definitions of the Roman Catholic Magisterium regarding justification…but who think and speak evangelically about these things, are indeed our brothers and sisters in Christ, despite Rome’s official position.”
What's wrong with this picture? Well, return to Hooker. If Sola Fide is true, then to deny it (for example, to say that we are saved by faith in Christ plus works) is to lack perfect faith, assuming of course that Sola Fide is true. Yet can any one of us really claim to have perfect faith? Evangelicals frequently hold meetings where someone will testify that they learned to make Christ Lord of some new area of their life. Well, what does that mean other than that such a person realized by God’s grace they were trusting themselves, and not Christ, in some important area of their life? The person had imperfect faith, but that does not mean they had no faith at all. Similarly, in matters relating to salvation, even staunch five-point-its-all-by-grace Calvinists can fall into the trap of unconsciously trusting in themselves rather than Jesus. But this lack of perfect faith does not mean that the person in question cannot be saved. 

Part of the problem here is that the reformed doctrine of “justification per fidem propter Christum” (justification by faith on account of Christ) has morphed into its parody “justification propter fidem per Christum,” (justification on account of faith through Christ). While the difference is subtle, the second actually leads to a denial of the historic Protestant doctrine.
 
Sola Fide affirms that if a person is saved, it is only because of Christ and His finished work, mediated to us through our faith, and that all other things are irrelevant. The ‘all other things’ include imperfections in and misunderstand about faith itself. The Protestant who really believes Sola Fide is thus released from having to assume that the efficacy of a person’s faith is dependent on a person having a correct theology about faith.
 
The same point can be made by way of analogy. A person can die of microbiological poisoning without believing in microbiology, as was the case until comparatively recently in human history. Likewise, a person can experience the results of living on a heliocentric planet without believing in Heliocentrism, as is still the case for some primitive peoples. Similarly, a person can be saved by faith alone without believing in justification by faith alone, as everyone agrees is the case with children and mentally handicapped individuals.
 
If we can get this simple fact straight, there are enormous implications for the ecumenical agenda. The Protestant is released from having to assume that the efficacy of a person’s faith is based on that person having to agree with his theology of justification. This releases Protestants to rejoice in the faith of those (such as Roman Catholics) who hold to a different theology of faith. It can enable there to be common ground between those who affirm Sola Fide and those who do not.

To read more about this, visit my article 'Sola Fide: The Great Ecumenical Doctrine'. In that article you may learn some surprising things about Sola Fide that you didn't know before.


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