By Robin Phillips
One of the reasons I was eager to accept the position as Co-Director of the Reformed Liturgical Institute (besides being able to work closely with my friend Greg Soderberg) is because of the Institute’s emphasis on catholicity. As an evangelical who was rescued six years ago from the sectarian home-church mentality, I have found that catholicity and ecumenism are very important concepts to me. By ‘catholic’ I do not mean Roman and by ‘ecumenism’ I do not mean syncretism. Rather, both terms should be understood in the twofold sense that my friend Brad Littlejohn defined catholicity in his book The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity. Speaking of the catholicity of Nevin and Schaff, he wrote that
“first, catholicity in the sense (or similar to the sense) of ecumenism – a passionate desire that all believers may be truly one, one in spirit and one in visible union; second, catholicity in the sense of an embrace of what I am calling the ‘catholic heritage,’ that is, the sense of motherhood of the Church, the mysterious power of the sacraments and the liturgy, the divine authority of the ministry, and the rest of the spiritual worldview that characterized the first five or even the first fifteen centuries of the Church.”
In trying to identify with the first fifteen centuries of the church, this ecumenical emphasis is enthusiastic about emphasizing and celebrating areas of continuity between Protestants and Roman Catholics or between Protestants and Eastern Orthodox.
Sadly, however, I have found that not all of my reformed Protestant friends share this agenda, and one of the primary reasons for this is because of the doctrine of Sola Fide. Indeed, if there is any doctrine that divides Protestant evangelicals from their brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions, the doctrine that we are justified by faith alone (Sola Fide) has to be it.[i]
At least, that has been my experience. 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.
The writings of reformed Protestants are peppered with these same notions. One prominent reformed evangelical has compared Rome’s rejection of Sola Fide to Mormonism’s rejection of the deity of Christ. Touchstone magazine reported the case of three leading reformed theologians who “asserted Roman Catholicism to be a different religion from the Christianity of the gospels.”[ii]Similarly, 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:
“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.”[iii]
Unfortunately, Sola Fide not only divides Protestants from non-Protestants, but many Protestants will use it as a club with which to beat up on fellow Protestants. Not infrequently a narrowly defined interpretation of Sola Fide will be used as an ideological boundary marker to separate those who are ‘truly reformed’ from those who, while claiming to be Calvinists, are allegedly “heretics.” The irony of this position is that it actually amounts to a denial of sola fide if pressed to its logical limit. But I am already anticipating the argument I want to develop.
This article will not be concerned with whether Sola Fideis actually correct. As a reformed Protestant I do believe that Sola Fide is a biblical doctrine; however, the purpose of this article will be to show that an historically and biblically-grounded understanding of the doctrine has the potential to bring Christians together rather than to divide. This includes bringing Christians together from traditions with different views regarding justification. Properly understood, Sola Fide is a catholic or ecumenical doctrine.
My argument will be for what I call a “Sola-Fide-shaped-ecumenism” and will be developed in a series of four steps. Although the type of ecumenism I have in mind is specifically between Protestants and Roman Catholics, many of my arguments and proposals will be equally applicable to an ecumenism which includes the Eastern Orthodox tradition even though that will not be the focus of this article.
Step One: Appreciating the Catholic Pedigree
The first step towards a Sola-Fide-shaped-ecumenism is to appreciate that the doctrine of Sola Fide owes much to the Roman Catholic Church. To establish this, a short historical detour is necessary.
Luther formulated his thinking about justification in response to two great events in his life. The first of these was the epiphany he had while reading scripture, particularly the book of Romans, where the apostle wrote, “For in it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17) This realization set Luther free from feeling he needed to earn God’s approval through his own works-righteousness. Instead, he could rest confidently in the merits of Christ. Thus, he would go on to speak of a “grasping faith” (fides apprehensiva) which grasps Christ and unites Him to us independently of our own merits.
The second seminal event for Luther was the visit that the Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, paid to Wittenberg. To raise money for reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, Tetzel was travelling throughout Saxony selling indulgences – certificates assuring a person that, in exchange for money, a person could be released from specific amounts of time in purgatory. Luther’s opposition to the sale of indulgences culminated in his penning the monumental 95 Theses that he posted on the church of All Saints on 31 October 1517. While Luther had been using his lecturing post to preach justification by faith, it was this event that thrust the issue before all of Europe.
The idea that our salvation is 100% from God and not ourselveswas hardly a novel concept. In fact, in formulating his views on justification, Luther was drawing on a whole tradition of Catholic theology going all the way back to Augustine’s dispute with Pelagius. Throughout the Medieval period, debates about justification were an in-house issue, with many taking the position (as Aquinas had in his ‘Treatise on Grace’ in the Summa Theologiae) that grace is unmerited, and that we can do nothing without God’s grace. Some even used the language of “faith alone”, as did Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) when he wrote “let him trust in the One who changes the sinner into a just man, and, judged righteous in terms of faith alone….”[iv] The emphasis on the absolute necessity of God’s grace for salvation can even be found in leaders of the Catholic Church in the high Middle Ages. For example, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), a cardinal of the Catholic Church in the Holy Roman Empire wrote in his De Pace Fidei that, “It is necessary that we show that salvation of the soul is not obtained by works, but rather from faith” and “no living person can be justified through works in the sight of God, but only gratuitously….”[v] Further examples might be multiplied. It would be anachronistic to assume that these writers meant the same thing as Protestants when they used similar vocabulary, and certainly things become more complicated when considering how God works out the salvation that is by grace alone. After all, a salvation that is by grace alone may not necessarily also be by faith alone. However, historians agree that in developing his views of justification, Luther was not drawing on Scripture merely, but on a pre-existing theological tradition.[vi]
Given that Luther was saying nothing unorthodox, he fully expected Pope Leo X to agree with him. Of course, once the issue was complicated with the question of church authority, both sides took to the trenches and the possibility of constructive dialogue was over. Yet if the question of justification can be bracketed off from the question of church authority, there is nothing intrinsically un-catholic about the doctrine that we are justified by faith alone. In fact, Roman Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft has boldly declared that “The split of the Protestant Reformation began when a Catholic discovered a Catholic doctrine [i.e., Sola Fide] in a Catholic book.”[vii]
The same observation applies to Eastern Orthodoxy. In his book Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective[viii], Robert Letham has combed through the prayers, liturgy and teaching of the Eastern Orthodox church to show that the Eastern tradition has a robust affirmation of salvation by faith alone (I have substituted the word ‘salvation’ for ‘justification’ since Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism use different definitions of justification, which often mask the essential similarity in their soteriologies).
Thus, the first step towards recognizing the ecumenical nature of Sola Fide is to appreciate that Protestants do not have a monopoly on the concept. The doctrine of Sola Fide underscores the fact that Protestants have much in common with the rich theological heritage of both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
Step Two: Both Sides Have Valuable Emphases to Contribute
Because Sola Fide is so often used as a Protestant battle-cry against both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, the term itself has come to be paradigmatic of the great divide separating these traditions. An unfortunate corollary to this has been an unfortunate obscuration of the fact that both sides in the Sola Fide debate actually have something valuable to contribute.
Before proceeding, it will be helpful to consider an objection that may have occurred to many when reading the previous section and which provides a natural lead-in to Step Two. The objection goes something like this: while the idea of salvation by faith alone may have been articulated by Roman Catholics throughout the Middle Ages, didn’t the Roman Catholic Church solidify its theology in reaction to Protestantism, resulting in Trent’s condemnation of Sola Fide as official heresy?
It is certainly true that at the Council of Trent (1545 -1563) Rome anathematized Sola Fide along with numerous other Protestant doctrines. Well, kind of. It is interesting that Trent defined justification as “The movement from the state in which man is born a son of the first Adam to the state of grace and adoption as sons of God through the second Adam, our savior Jesus Christ.” That, however, is not the Protestant doctrine of justification, as Alister McGrath reminded us in his 1990 publication Justification by Faith. McGrath pointed out that, in contrast to Trent, Protestant denominations have historically defined justification in more forensic terms. This means that Trent was condemning a caricature of the Protestant doctrine, rather than the doctrine itself, not unlike the way evangelicals will frequently condemn Roman Catholic teaching without having taken the time to really understand that teaching on its own terms. Thus, technically speaking, the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone has never been officially repudiated by the Roman Catholic church.
But what was the crucial difference between Trent’s definition of justification and that of the Protestants? This is a question that McGrath answers in his book Studies in Doctrine:
“It will therefore be obvious that the Roman Catholic understands by ‘justification
’ what the Protestant understands by ‘justification and ‘sanctification’ linked together. The same word is used by both – but it has a different meaning in each case. This has led to enormous confusion. Consider the following two statements.
- We are justified by faith alone.
- We are justified by faith and works.
The former broadly corresponds to the Protestant, the latter to the Roman Catholic position. But what do they mean?
For the Protestant, statement A means that the Christian life is begun through faith, and faith alone, which appears to be the New Testament teaching on the question. For the Roman Catholic, however – who understands ‘justification’ in a different way – statement A means that the Christian life as a whole is begun and continued by faith alone, which seems to exclude any reference to regeneration or obedience. For the Roman Catholic, statement B means that the Christian life is begun in faith, but is continued and developed through obedience and good works – which appears to be the general position of the New Testament. But the Protestant – who understands ‘justification’ to refer only to the beginning of the Christian life – would regard this as a totally unacceptable doctrine of justification by works. In fact, there is general agreement between Protestant and Roman Catholic that the Christian life is begun through faith and continued and developed through obedience and good works – the Reformation slogan ‘faith is pregnant with good works’ embodies this principle.”[ix]
If McGrath is correct, then does it follow that the entire reformation was based on a mistake, on an unfortunate equivocation of terms? That is essentially what Peter Kreeft has argued in Fundamentals of the Faith[x], as well as in an apologetic work that he co-authored with Ronald K. Tacelli for Intervarsity Press. In the latter text, Kreeft and Tacelli write that “since Catholics were using salvation in a bigger sense and faith in a smaller sense, and Luther was using salvation in a smaller sense and faith in a bigger sense, Catholics rightly denied and Luther rightly affirmed that we were saved by faith alone…. Both sides spoke the truth.[xi]”
This is likely an optimistic over-simplification. The varying definitions between Protestants and Catholics certainly masked substantive theological differences, and we should not forget that debates about justification dove-tailed with a web of other important (and interconnected) disagreements, as the text of Trent shows. At the same time, however, Kreeft and McGrath have usefully reminded us that the Protestant and Catholic position may be a lot closer than most people realize. Both sides agree that faith and works are necessary for salvation, and both agree that salvation is a gift of God’s grace. After all, just listen to what the Council of Trent wrote about salvation being a gift of God’s free grace:
“…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 unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification – whether faith or works – merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.”[xii]
Now listen to what Calvin writes about the necessity of works:
We dream not of a faith which is devoid of good works, nor of a justification which can exist without them…. Thus it appears how true it is that we are justified not without, and yet not by works, since in the participation of Christ, by which we are justified, is contained not less sanctification than justification.”[xiii]
Protestant theologians have long argued that the seeming inconsistency between James and Paul arises because each has a different definition of ‘faith’ and ‘justification’[xiv] so it should not be difficult in principle to recognize that the same dynamic underscores much of the seeming inconsistency between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Recognizing that disputes about Sola Fide have been partially disputes over semantics may help to break down barriers so that both sides can learn something valuable from the other. That is the second step towards a Sola Fide-shaped-ecumenism. Again McGrath grasps the point well:
“In recent years, there has been a growing awareness that Roman Catholics and Protestants have several important insights into this doctrine in common. Thus the Council of Trent insisted upon the priority of faith over everything else in justification. “Faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God.’ Similarly, the Reformers insisted upon faith as the sole instrument of justification.”[xv]
By blending these different emphases and listening to both sides, Protestants and Catholics at the end of the 20th century have found that they can make important moves towards unity, as evidenced by the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement of 1994, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church in 1999[xvi], and Pope Benedict XVI’s comments in 2008 that Luther was not actually a heretic and made valuable contributions to our understand of justification.[xvii]
Step Three: Protestants Must Really Believe Sola Fide
The third step towards a Sola-Fide-shaped-ecumenism is that Protestants must truly believe and live by their own doctrine instead of a bowdlerized version of it. Many barriers towards ecumenism have arisen by virtue of Protestants not understanding their own doctrine of Sola Fide.
In my conversations with Protestant evangelicals I frequently find that the historic doctrine of justification by faith alone has been unconsciously conflated with the doctrine of justification by Sola Fide. That is to say, the notion that (A) ‘we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and Him alone for salvation’, has been confused with the notion that (B) ‘we are saved by believing in justification by faith alone.’ This is not a confusion that tends to exist very much among serious Protestant theologians, but I have found it to be very pervasive on street level.
Recall the conversations I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Not infrequently many evangelical Protestants will say that while individual Roman Catholics can be saved, this can only happen if they “trust in Christ alone for salvation.” When asked what it means to “trust in Christ alone”, they will say that this means that the person must not trust in their works. That is to say, the Roman Catholic must assent to Sola Fide before the possibility even exists of them being justified by grace. Thus, while Sola Fide may not be a sufficient condition for being saved, it is certainly perceived to be necessary for salvation.
The problem here is that the position expressed in B above is not only a distortion of historic Protestant teaching, but a functional denial of Sola Fide. Douglas Wilson explained why this was in a blog post from 2005. Echoing comments that N.T. Wright had recently made to the same effect, Wilson wrote:
…justification by faith is not accomplished by affirming or believing in justification by faith. Believing the doctrine of justification by faith alone as a way of being justified is a fine way of actually denying the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We are not saved by works — ethical or theological. We are not saved because we got better than a ninety on the ethics quiz, or over a ninety-five on the justification section of the theology exam.
R.C. Sproul has argued similarly:
The doctrine of justification by faith alone not only does not teach that justification is by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but in fact, teaches that which is totally antithetical to the idea.[xviii]
Consider the same problem from another angle. 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. 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. As the judicious Hooker put it in A Learned Discourse on Justification,
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.
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, as Douglas Wilson showed in the quotation above. When Sola Fide is used as a weapon to divide Protestants from Catholics, it is usually because the Protestant has unconsciously accepted this parody of the traditional doctrine.
In their book Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings, Gritsch and Jenson have suggested that if one is justified by believing that one is justified, then we have unwittingly embraced “a works-righteousness that makes medieval Catholicism seem a fount of pure grace”[xix] by comparison. As they note,
This “belief”-condition is either too easy or too hard. If, as usually happens, “faith” is psychologized into the holding of certain opinions and/or attitudes, then to offer salvation if only this work is done (never mind others) peddles grace more cheaply than did the worst indulgence-sellers. We usually sense this, and try to patch on a little authenticity by adding a few more conditions such as “love” and “really” believing. Then even the verbal reminiscence of the Reformation is lost, and the pattern of medieval Catholicism is fully embraced….
“Faith” no longer means, in ordinary usage, what it did in the usage of the Reformers. Perhaps the abstract best would be to eliminate the vocabulary of “justification” and “faith” from our gospel-language altogether; for, as the words “justification by faith” are now almost certain to be understood, they are an exact contradiction of the Reformation proposition.
…the whole point of the Reformation was that the gospel promise is unconditional; “faith” did not specify a special condition of human fulfillment, it meant the possibility of a life freed from all conditionality of fulfillment….[xx]
The solution is to remind ourselves exactly what the Protestant doctrine of justification says. R.C. Sproul helpfully summarized the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone like this: “The phrase ‘justification by faith alone’ is theological shorthand for saying justification is by Christ alone. Anyone who understands and advocates the doctrine of justification by faith alone knows that the focal point is that which justifies — trust in Christ and not trust in a doctrine.”[xxi]
“Sure,” a Protestant might object, “belief in Sola Fide is not instrumental to our justification. However, anyone who denies the doctrine simply reveals that he doesn’t have true faith. Believing that Jesus isn’t a cucumber may not be instrumental for our justification either, but that doesn’t mean that you can believe Jesus is a cucumber without there being eternal consequences.” The problem here is that if Sola Fide is true, then one can deny it and still have true faith, whereas it is doubtful that one could maintain that Jesus is a cucumber and still have true faith. This is because if Sola Fide is true, then to deny it is to lack perfect faith, but that is not the same as lacking true faith. The father of the boy with seizures in Mark 9 expressed faith in Jesus’ power to help his son, yet in the same breath he confessed to struggling with unbelief (Mark 9:24). Even in the best of us, our faith is faulting and imperfect, tinged with a pride in our own self-righteousness.
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.
Once again, we see that Sola Fide, though so often used to separate Protestants and non-Protestants, can actually be foundational to ecumenism. Sole Fide is indeed the ecumenical doctrine, and thus should impel us not only to preach the gospel to all, but also to embrace those who trust in the Christ of Scripture, whatever their other theological shortcomings may be.
Step Four: Recovering the Biblical Context
In the New Testament the epistles of Paul are organized from his longest to his shortest. Thus, Paul’s longest letter, the one he wrote the Romans, comes at the beginning of his corpus, while his shortest epistle, Philemon, comes at the end. The fact that Romans is the longest and therefore hits us first has had enormous implications in Christian theology, some good and some not so good. One of the not-so-good implications has been that when most people reach Paul’s letter to the Galatians, they unconsciously read it through the lens of Paul’s discussion of justification in Romans, or at least their interpretation of it. Yet imagine if it were the other way round. Try reading Romans through the lens of Galatians. To do so, I suggest, can have an enormous impact, not least on this central question of ecumenism. This is because Galatians, more than any other book of the Bible, so clearly shows the ecumenical implications of justification by faith.
We often forget that Paul’s great exposition of justification in Galatians sprang out of his controversy with the Judiasers that was recounted back in Acts 15. Because the Judiasers have often been misunderstood in post-reformation historiography, a brief excurses about them will be necessary.
It is often assumed that the Judiasers were proto-Pelagians encouraging people to earn their salvation through works-righteousness. However, N.T. Wright and others have helpfully pointed out that it is far more likely that the Judiasers were simply good Jews who were operating as things always had done under the old covenant.[xxii] During the age of the Mosaic covenant Gentiles could join the people of God, but they had to first convert to the Jewish faith and receive circumcision. When the Judiasers began to contend that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1), they were simply affirming what had always been the case: the way to God is through the door of Torah. By urging that people needed to get circumcised and come under Torah to be ‘saved’ (which, to a first century Jew, had more to do with entering into the visible people of God than going to heaven when you die), the Judiasers were not advocating a type of proto-Pelagianism. They were not urging that people needed to work their way to heaven through works-righteousness. After all, even in the old covenant period, we can see that contextually “keeping the works of the law” (Torah) never meant living perfectly by every command; rather, it meant faithfulness within the context of the covenant. Such faithfulness was expressed by entering into the basic structure that defined this people over and against the Gentiles, availing oneself of the atonement system, living by the Mosaic ceremonial codes, being separate from the Gentiles, and of course getting circumcised. The only thing wrong with the Judiasers’ prescription is that it had expired. They were turning back the clock on redemption history, failing to properly reckon with the fact that Christ had died and risen from the dead, and that the Holy Spirit was being poured out on Gentiles as Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48 & 15:8).
Thus, the conflict that Paul and the Jerusalem council had against the Judiasers was not a conflict between a group who advocated a works-based soteriology vs. those who were contending for a grace-based soteriology (again, salvation has always been by grace, even under the old covenant system that the Judiasers were still trapped in). Rather, the conflict hinged on two different ways of answering the question “How do you define the people of God?” Both groups believed in an expanding covenant and both groups could assert that God’s plans were international. The difference is that the Judiasers said that the Gentiles had to stop being Gentiles and enter the covenant through the door of circumcision (and therefore conversion to Judaism) and the “works of the law” (i.e., the Torah of Moses). By contrast, Paul asserted that faith in Christ was the only requirement.
This backdrop helps us to understand what is going on in Galatians 2, when Paul recounts to his Galatian readers the confrontation he had with Peter at Antioch. Paul called Peter a hypocrite (Gal. 2:13) because even though Peter had stopped living like a Jew (Acts 11:3) and even though Peter had opposed the Judiasers at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7-11), nevertheless when “certain men came from James… he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.” (Galatians 2:12) That is to say, Peter separated himself from the Gentile Christians, keeping table fellowship only with the Jewish Christians. Given the pressure that the Judiasers had been exerting on the church, Peter’s action was understandable. But it was wrong.
Paul’s purpose in recounting his confrontation with Peter to the Galatians seems to be that they too were being influenced by the Judiasers. They too seemed to have fallen into the trap of thinking that converts to Christianity had to go through the gate of Judaism. Paul’s refutation of this is his great exposition of justification by faith in Galatians 3 and 4. He expounds the doctrine of justification as his way of urging that all who have faith in Christ belong to the same common table, that our identity as the people of God cannot be subordinated to Torah (the law). Getting the context of Galatians right is important, because it shows that the doctrine of justification was as much a pastoral issue for Paul as a point of abstract dogma. Moreover the pastoral concern was fundamentally ecumenical. While the doctrines of the Judiasers were dividing one group of Christians (Jewish Christians) from another group of Christians (Gentile Christians), the doctrine of justification by faith did the opposite: it brought all the groups of Christians together around one common table. The doctrine of justification by faith is thus the doctrine of fellowship by faith.
No doubt Paul would be sad if he could see that in our time the doctrine of justification by faith – the very doctrine he expounded to bring Christians together – is once again being used to separate believers and to build walls. We have taken Paul’s very uncomplicated point – that through Christ, Gentiles can be saved without having to become Jews – and read back into it our post-reformation debates. Thus, the Judiasers become proto-Roman Catholics and Paul is turned into an evangelical targeting those who would earn their way to heaven through works-righteousness. The problem with this approach – apart from being anachronistic and failing to engage with the 1st century context – is that it loses the ecumenical nuance inherent in the original doctrine.
For this very reason, my controversy with Protestant sectarianism, and my appeal for evangelicals to take an ecumenical view of Rome and Orthodoxy, would be incomplete without a critique of the sectarianism tendencies of non-Protestant communions. Neither Roman Catholics nor Eastern Orthodox will admit Protestants to the table and many within the Orthodox tradition will not recognize that Protestants even have churches. When members of these traditions visit Protestant churches, they are expected not to share the Eucharist with their hosts. Thus, Protestants who join either of those traditions end up having, in a sense, to functionally excommunicate their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Even though the Orthodox and the Catholic do recognize Protestants as being Christians and having true faith in Christ, such faith is viewed as insufficient for establishing table fellowship. While this is a legitimate area of concern, however, it is easy to exaggerate the nature of the problem. I had a friend once who insisted on administering communion in his own home, and when he asked me to participate I refused on the grounds that this was an ordinance that the church had special authority to dispense or withhold. If that is not the case, I pointed out, then church discipline in the form of excommunication becomes meaningless. “But,” I said, “I would love to have communion with you and your wife, so let’s go find a church to attend together on Sunday morning and we can do it there.” Saying this did not mean that I was functionally excommunicating my brother, nor did it mean that I was being sectarian since I was perfectly willing to break bread with him and his wife if done within Biblical parameters. The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox could argue that they are essentially in the same position as I was: they are quite willing to break bread with any and all who call themselves Christians and who worship the Jesus of Scripture, yet for them the equivalent of me saying, “Let’s go find a church to do it in” is “Let’s go find a Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox church to do it in.” Of course, it is not exactly the same, since the Protestant must go through conversion rites before table fellowship is permissible. To the degree that these necessary and sufficient conditions for table fellowship involve more than faith in the Christ of scripture, the charge of Galatianism may still be said to apply. In light of Galatians 2, what would Paul say about a group of Christians who functionally excommunicate all other believers simply because they do not believe in doctrines like the immaculate conception or the assumption of Mary or papal infallibility – doctrines which I am quite certain Paul himself never heard of? I think I know what Paul would say to that. So while I applaud Rome and the East for all that they have preserved from the early church, I lament the way that they have gone far beyond what the Bible warrants in their terms of admission/communion.
An Objection Answered
“Still,” someone might object, “doesn’t Paul’s warnings regarding justification amount to him saying that the Galatians are losing the gospel? In Galatians 1:6-9 Paul condemns alternative understandings of justification as “another gospel” and says, ‘If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.’ So whether through works-based righteousness or non-inclusion of Gentiles, either way the Gospel is at stake. Hence, the non-Sola Fide Christian, whether a Judiaser or a Roman Catholic, is in jeopardy as to the Gospel since he has added to, mutated or departed from the gospel.”
It is true that Paul seems to think that to embrace a false understanding of the gospel or of justification can amount to a fall from grace. This comes out in the passage quoted in the above objection, but also in Gal 5:4: “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” I say that it “can” amount to a fall from grace because Paul doesn’t seem to think that denial of the correct understanding of justification is necessarily or automatically indicative of a fall from grace, since incorrect understandings of justification seem to come on a continuum. On one end of the continuum would be lay people who may be ‘foolish’ and ‘bewitched’ like the Galatians (Gal. 3:1) or those who may need a sharp rebuke like Peter at Antioch (Gal 2:14) but who are still basically faithful. Then on the other end of the continuum would be false teachers who are leading people astray. We see both sides of this continuum in Galatians 5:10 where Paul says, “I have confidence in you, in the Lord, that you will have no other mind; but he who troubles you shall bear his judgment, whoever he is.” This suggests that the false teachers would be judged with greater severity than those on the other end of the continuum whom Paul is confident will be of one mind after receiving his teaching. Similarly, when writing to the Colossians over essentially the same set of issues Paul addresses them as “faithful brethren” and continually gives thanks for them. He spoke that way about believers who had apparently fallen, or were in danger of falling, into the same type of works-based legalism (properly qualified) as the Galatians and yet never for a minute is there a hint that they are anything less than brothers and sisters in Christ.
Given that there is this continuum, the question we need to ask regarding Roman Catholics are these:
1) What end of the continuum does Roman Catholicism fall on as an institution? More specifically, is her official theology of justification bad enough to come under the curse of Galatians 1:6-9?
2) Where on the continuum do individual Roman Catholics fall who self-consciously believe the Roman Catholic dogma of justification including her denial of Sola Fide? Assuming that the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide is correct, does such a denial mean that the person in question has embraced “another gospel”?
Given that all of us have only partial and imperfect understanding of sola fide anyway, and that we have all probably imbibed minor errors regarding justification at some point, in answering both the above questions it is not good enough to simply establish that Roman Catholic teaching is false or even idolatrous. Rather, we must ask whether the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is sufficiently gospel-denying to warrant the claim that it is “another gospel.”
To the extent that I have already shown that much of the doctrinal difference between Catholics and Protestants on justification is semantic, the likelihood is greatly lessened that Roman Catholic denials of Sola Fide are sufficiently bad enough to amount to “another gospel.” I also argued that the specific threat to justification facing the church in Galatia was not equivalent to the denial of justification which Protestants typically accuse Roman Catholics of committing. While it may be true that the errors of the Judiasers and the errors of Roman Catholics amount to equally serious denials of justification, this is not obviously so on the basis of Galatians and would require further argumentation before such a claim could be established. Put somewhat differently, the fact that (A) the Judiasers embraced “another gospel” when they failed to appreciate the universality of Christ’s redemption, does not necessarily entail (B) that Roman Catholics have also embraced “another gospel” when they fail to understand the appreciate the appropriate relationship between faith and works. The two positions may be sufficiently similar to fall under the same Pauline curse, but it would be illogical to assume that B follows from A independent of additional argumentation.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that the person making the above objection is correct, and that it is true that “whether through works-based righteousness or non-inclusion of Gentiles, either way the Gospel is at stake.” If true, this immediately raises certain questions: would the gospel also be at stake for all Protestants who preach the non-inclusion of Roman Catholics? Would the gospel also be at stake for all Protestants who functionally deny Sola Fide by confusing “justification per fidem propter Christum” with “justification propter fidem per Christum”? If non-Sola Fide Christians are in jeopardy of losing the Gospel, and if Sola Fide is nuanced according to its original Pauline context, then it is by no means certain that contemporary Roman Catholic community would come out worse than the contemporary evangelical community, given some of the observations I made earlier in this essay.
To summarize the argument of the fourth step, what Paul realized, and what he would no doubt desire for us to understand, is that the doctrine of justification by faith is at heart an ecumenical doctrine. Not only does it affirm that Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man and woman, all belong to the same common table, but it even gives a theological framework for union between those who affirm and those who deny Sola Fide. While the doctrine of the Judiasers was dividing one group of Christians (Jewish Christians) from another group of Christians (Gentile Christians), the doctrine of justification by faith did the opposite: it brought all the groups of Christians together.
Should the doctrine of Sola Fide be anything less?
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Sacred Times and Seasons Part 2
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Alfred the Great Society
Are members of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches Christians?
[i]When Hodder and Stoughton published By Faith Alone in 1995, they subtitled it, significantly, “the doctrine that divides.”
[iv]Cited in Franz Posset, Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux (Cistercian Publications, 2000), 186.
[v]Charles Dollen, James K. McGowan, and James J. Megivern, The Church (McGrath Pub. Co., 1979), 264.
[vi]See Franz Posset, The Real Luther: A Friar at Erfurt and Wittenberg (Concordia Publishing House, 2011).
[vii]Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the faith: essays in Christian apologetics (Ignatius Press, 1988), 281.
[viii]Robert Letham, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective (Mentor, 2007).
[ix]Alister E. McGrath, Studies in Doctrine: Understanding Doctrine, Understanding the Trinity, Understanding Jesus, Justification by Faith (Zondervan, 1997), 399-400.
[x]Kreeft, Fundamentals of the faith.
[xi]Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (IVP Academic, 1994), 320.
[xii]Council of Trent and Theodore Alois Buckley, The canons and decrees of the council of Trent: Literally translated into English. With supplement, 1851, 35.
[xiii]Jean Calvin and Robert Pitcairn, Institutes of the Christian religion (Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 386.
[xiv]This is the position taken in R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Baker Publishing Group, 1999).
[xv]McGrath, Studies in Doctrine, 401.
[xvi]See Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Baker Academic, 2008).
[xix]Eric W. Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1976), 37.
[xxii]N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic, 2009); N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?, 1st ed. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997).