For those unfamiliar with theological jargon, this article will delve into unfamiliar waters. As much as possible I'm trying to avoid using too many terms but I'm afraid it is somewhat inescapable. In this post and several subsequent parts I will be discussing the doctrine of Sola Fide or Justification by Faith Alone and how that works both in the Bible and how we in seeking to understand the Bible, and teach it, run into certain dilemmas. These dilemmas and the way we deal with them are actually the source of the many divisions within the Church today.
Over the course of history people have lived in different contexts and these contexts affect how they think. Due to these contextual factors, we read the Bible in different ways and one group may really focus on one thing while someone else in a different time and place focuses on something else. I'm arguing we tend to overly focus on certain things and that sharply affects how we understand or in some cases don't understand the rest of the Bible.
In this particular series I'm dealing specifically with those who are committed to the Bible being the very Word of God and claim it as the Sole Authority for faith and life....Scripture Alone/Sola Scriptura. Thus far we're in agreement. But now how do we read it and what tools do we employ in seeking to understand it? That's a different question and one that I wish to raise.
We've often discussed how Hyper-Calvinism and Dominionism both exhibit tendencies in which their proponents lock on or 'anchor' at a certain point, for whatever reason, and then use that premise to construct a system.
At that point the Scriptures are viewed through this lens and/or filter and often in their literature they refer to non-contextualized proof-texts to make their points. Inevitably this method creates a number of 'problem texts' which must be forced or contorted to fit within the grid they have created.
For those who aren't committed to Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) as a foundation for their authority it's not a problem. The Scriptures merely provide materiel to work with…appealed to when convenient, interpreted by Tradition when it is required, and certainly never meant to be taken exclusively.
Those who do profess to derive their authority from Scripture Alone must be careful to avoid a System Dilemma. This is where they, employing Systematic means, syllogistic logic and induction can in fact construct a system that may look very similar to Scripture but in all actuality is really only using Scripture as a Source rather than a Foundational Authority. They end up creating a System Beyond (Meta) the Scriptural text itself. The System takes on a life of its own and becomes the authority. This then is the razor employed to dissect texts that don't fit the system.
Here's the rub. We do believe the Scriptures work in some coherent manner. They're not chaotic and unrelated statements. They go together, ideas are expressed, themes developed, and principles can certainly be derived.
Justification by Faith Alone is certainly one of the hallmarks of the Reformation. I've argued elsewhere this is actually a secondary symptom of the more foundational issue of Authority and thus much of the Protestant narrative is actually mistaken in making this issue of Sola Fide, THE article by which the Church stands of falls. This understanding also allows Protestant Constantinian historians to grant validity to the Roman Catholic Church right up to the 16th century. Even though Justification by Faith Alone was never taught by the Roman Entity, because they did not formally deny it until the Council of Trent they retain their status as 'The Church' until very conveniently the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican bodies appeared to take up the mantle.
Justification by Faith Alone is biblical, but there are two issues which must be taken into consideration.
1. Church History. One looks in vain to find this doctrine expressed in this way prior to Luther post-1517. There are hints of it in the Brethren of the Common Life and some other movements, but you don't find it expressed in this explicit way before Luther. It's not in the Church Fathers, it's not in the proto-Protestants and it is certainly not found in Medieval Catholicism.
2. While the doctrine is indeed Scriptural one encounters certain difficulties with the way it is commonly taught. The Scriptures actually teach Justification by Faith Alone….but then also speak in terms of the Ordinances/Sacraments being salvific. It also speaks in terms of Perseverance, the danger of Apostasy, Temporary Faith, and so forth. The text of the New Testament presents a more complicated picture than the System structures given to us by the main Protestant bodies.
Now, we can either incorporate these notions into our understanding of the Scriptural teaching of Justification……and we may have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the doctrine of Salvation...one both simple and profoundly multifaceted.
Or, we can establish Sola Fide as an Anchor or Lens and then build a System on top of it.
Historical Theology is often worthwhile, because it helps understand how doctrine is developed. Many doctrines are self-evident, axiomatic on the pages of Scripture itself… but not that many. Hence all the disagreements, the thousands of nuanced positions that cause many to glaze over in overwhelmed frustration.
Often the Church has not dealt with issues until someone puts something forward. The issue wasn't an issue until someone positively asserts a particular point generating a response. There is often a pendulum swing, a reaction to counter this. Another generation comes along and upon examining both sides may come up with something else or try to synthesize and harmonize.
In the 20th century, Dispensationalism emphasized a hyper-disunity within the Bible. This system teaches that in the post-Resurrection age, God has two people….The Jews, then the Gentile-Jewish Church, and then after the Church is removed...we're back to the Jews again.
Theonomy, in many ways a theological and cultural rebuttal to this, sought to emphasize a hyper-unity, almost erasing the distinctions between the Old and New Testament, bringing Jewish law and practice into the Church and the Christian Life and attempting to Zion-ize the world…transform it into the Kingdom.
19th and 20th century Revivalism gave us the likes Finney, Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and today's Seeker movement. These theologies cultivated easy-believism, cheap grace, and a rather minimalistic view of Salvation.
Other movements in the Reformed world sought to counter this and sought to give systematic expression to the full range of Biblical texts which countered these cheap and easy notions of salvation as well as their often experiential/subjective interpretations of Ecclesiology. They instead turned to more of an 'objective' and intellectual explanation of Covenant and Sacraments, the life and authority of the Church. I'm speaking of theologians like John Murray, Norman Shepherd, and those associated with the movement known as Federal Vision or Auburn Avenue Theology.
And there have been other movements which have taken on both Theonomic and the Objectivist camps. They have sought to emphasize a gospel of grace while avoiding the twin pitfalls of legalism which they find in the Objectivists, and the Cheap Grace of Arminian Evangelicalism. They have also sought to counter the hyper-disunity of Dispensationalism and the extreme hyper-unity found in Theonomy and the Kuyperian Neo-Calvinists. I'm thinking of the Klinean wing of the Biblical Theology movement as well as the Calvinistic Baptists that identify themselves as adherents of New Covenant Theology.
I categorically reject Arminian Dispensationalism and Theonomy. I don't think I need to go into that here. I've written plenty in regard to these camps and the fundamental errors they make.
I have sympathies with all the other groups but to some extent also reject them at key points. Usually this centers on method.
The reason I have sympathies with such an array of factions, is because each group is indeed focusing on some aspect of Scripture. But then they anchor, or stop at a particular premise…perhaps Covenant, perhaps Election, perhaps Justification by Faith Alone, or Dominionism.
And then from that point on they build a system based on that point and consequently wreak havoc and other Scriptural texts…often changing their meaning or in many cases rendering them meaningless.
Some groups are better on certain points than others. Some have a better understanding of the overall flow of Redemptive History and structure of Scripture.
Others are better at understanding the dynamics and tensions, the dialectics and interplays of Scripture when it comes to trying to apply Eternal Universals to Temporal Particulars.
While most of my theological sympathies lie with the Klinean/Vosian Camp, they are not exempt from this tendency, the trap of Meta-System.
I've mentioned in the past there are Hyper-Calvinistic tendencies within this group. Hyper-Calvinism as I'm using the term is tendency to declare Election as the Anchor or Lens. I'm not referring to the 18th and 19th century tendency among some Calvinists to systematically explain away evangelism, though it comes from the same root.
In both systems by erecting Election as the focal point of a logical construction, the System takes over….you can reduce texts when necessary to reduce dualisms (theological nominalism, giving a little nod to Ockham) or you can expand and create categories to maintain your system (I've labeled this Aristotle's Razor). Every doctrine is subjected to logical coherence with this...the anchor point, the foundational presupposition. Thinking systemically, if Election is true, if Predestination is true, it must by necessity define every aspect of doctrine....including Justification.
Is there a way we can believe in Election and yet not fall into this system-trap? Absolutely. That's a big part of the theological emphasis of this project. Authority and Method are the keys to wrestling with these questions. At this point with two millennia of Church History behind us, most are looking to traditional formulations which are in the end....systems. We're caught in circles.
Continuing with the Vosian/Klinean camp... (Vos was for the most part an early 20th century theologian who taught at Princeton. Meredith Kline died in 2007 and he taught at Gordon-Conwell and Westminster West.)
While I agree whole-heartedly with the 1st and 2nd Adam emphasis found in the Biblical Theology movement, (All theology we hope is trying to be Biblical, but this movement or method is thus labeled due to its variation in methodology placing context and thematic development, or Redemptive-History as the primary lens or foundation upon which Systematics is developed.) As excellent as it is in trying to place text over system it does not escape this tendency. Why? That's another discussion and probably not a simple one. While the System commitments of this camp are more textual-thematic than philosophical, they too are not immune. None of us are of course, the present author is no exception.
Nevertheless, I fear there is a tendency in this movement toward what I would call Hyper-Solafideism. That is, not merely an excessive emphasis on Solafideism or Justification by Faith Alone. Rather it's taking this doctrine and placing it at the center of all theology. All theological concepts and constructs must comply with this...this SolaFide Razor as it were. I've used various terms to describe this...an anchor point, a lens.
This tendency which is fairly widespread also very often is rooted in Election. Election placed as the anchor necessitates Sola Fideism. If there were any contribution or meritorious activity on the part of man it would contradict the intrinsic properties of the concept of Election and Predestination. While the Bible teaches these things, I would argue the text does not present them in this systematic construction, a point that most if honest, would agree with. This however does not daunt them for they believe it the task of the Theologian to employ certain methods to do that very thing...develop the textual raw material into a system.
While that might sound silly to some on the surface, I'm suggesting that adherents of Hyper-Solafideism have picked up on one key aspect of this 1st/2nd Adam Construct and subsequently anchored there and built a whole system around this. All texts are subordinated to this fundamental concept. Many would agree with this assessment . They would say this system is the Gospel itself.
But I would argue it's a Meta-system, it is a system beyond the text itself. It's a system resting on the absolute authority of Scripture and in order to make the Scriptures systemic...it constructs a secondary system that by necessity competes with the very authority it is built on. The System ends up becoming the Word of God. Some theologians aren't afraid to say that, in fact they'll say it with great confidence and many treat their confessions in this manner.
So we're back to the fundamental questions of Authority and Method. They way I understand these terms in incompatible with the Philosophical basis, authority claims and method of Systematic Theology.
While Sola Fide (Justification by Faith Alone) is true, the Vosian/Klineans in making it the center piece, the filter, the lens, for all subsequent theology, they have made it into a hyper-construct…thus the phenomenon of Hyper-solafideism.
Whether this flows out of reaction to some of the aforementioned theological trends or flows from philosophical commitments….someone else can figure that out.
My problem is…..while I can agree with Sola Fide, the Bible says so much more.
Do I make the Scriptures conform or do I bend my system to the text?
I hope the answer is obvious.
I'm assuming we all agree that sane thought is to some extent systemic. No one can escape system, but there has to be a way we go about this (method) without falling into the hyper- and meta- traps. Otherwise, we can't really claim that we're submitting to Scripture. Otherwise we are subjecting revelation to the limits of our understanding....essentially our mathematical abilities and limitations.
When you throw in Confessional Traditionalism the waters grow even more muddy.
These are just basic concepts that have to be thought about and questions that must be raised and answered. Otherwise any discussion will end up dis-jointed and since neither side is thinking the same way or has the same goals....nothing will be accomplished.
I firmly believe in Justification by Faith Alone. But I believe the Bible says much more regarding this matter...ultimately rendering modern Sola Fideism a reductionism.
Go to part 2