Lutherans by and large have always retained this heavy focus on Justification by Grace Alone…the key word being Sola or Alone. Luther even added the word to the Romans 3 text, arguing the Greek implies it. This came to dominate much of Lutheran theology. Lutheranism became associated with what we call the Law-Gospel hermeneutic, categorizing Scripture into imperatives (law) vs. Gospel (grace).
This focus led Luther to struggle with the book of James, calling it an ‘epistle of straw’ and questioning its canonicity. The Reformed wing has certainly not gone to this extent, but some have revived the Lutheran Law-Gospel hermeneutic in an effort to explain the many (and what must be troubling) warnings and commands found in Scripture. Repeatedly the New Testament exhorts Christians to ‘do’, to change, to transform, to work out, to make, to put to death and so forth.
This camp places these imperatives into the category of Law as opposed to Gospel. Christ they would argue keeps the commands for us, our works are nothing. They’re right of course about our works and they’re right that anything we do isn’t us, but Christ working in us. So the answer is to focus on Christ and the works (so to speak) come on their own since it’s not us anyway.
While this is certainly true, the Scriptures just don’t present these ideas in this form. The Law-Gospel hermeneutic is something that has been placed over the text, being derived from making Sola Fide the Centraldogma.
Others have argued this form of thinking, in Reformed circles often tied with Predestination, has made shipwreck of what the Bible says about the Church, the Christian Life, Assurance and so forth. These camps have argued that Justification by Faith Alone is true, the Law-Gospel hermeneutic and the placement of Sola Fide in the central position (as it were) has been a mistake, and they have set about to recover a more full orbed teaching of what the Bible says.
The one side placing the emphasis on Sola Fide accuses the other side of works salvation and sacramentalism, while the other camp arguing for a more comprehensive understanding of salvation accuses the other camp of Easy Believism, a watered down gospel and of practically speaking an elimination of the doctrine of Sanctification.
The largest group is probably somewhere in the middle trying to synthesize the different views and often more concerned with clinging to their understanding of the historic creeds. Of course all these groups (with the exception of people like me) are trying to ‘claim’ the historical confessions support what they’re saying.
There’s a lot of dishonesty and self-deception when it comes to the Confessions. The arguments are very reminiscent of what we find in the United States with regard to the Constitution. Many are arguing from the standpoint that…the Confession (or Constitution) COULD be made to say that, or doesn’t necessarily speak AGAINST this or that, when everyone knows full well the original authors didn’t mean what the person is suggesting.
Such a reality is highly problematic to creedal subscriptionists!
Because in addition to the theological arguments the issue of historical continuity is just as, if not more important. That’s unfortunate but a reality. Every side is trying to claim they have historical standing. Nothing is worse than the charge of novelty, the very charge levied against Protestants in the 16th century by the Roman entity.
I argue this is an abuse of creeds and confessions. They are at best guides, and as I’ve said many times before, using them this way makes them into ossified chains. Truth is indeed absolute and objective, but our understanding of it is at best limited and subject to error. Error is not always turning the wrong way and embracing a lie. Error can be much more subtle and theologically more often than not the greatest error is speculative systematic theology based on a reductionism. This is not to say Systematic Theology is inherently of no value. This is not to say limited speculation is forbidden. But often the theological tendency has been to Anchor (see glossary), to pick a logical focal point, and then construct a massive theological super-structure based on the Anchored Centraldogma.
If there is something approaching a central dogma or doctrine in Scripture it is that of the Incarnation which in and of itself defies Systematic mapping or subjugation to syllogistic evaluation.
If the Incarnation is unverifiable via syllogistic deduction or induction, or to put it more simply, if the Incarnation is not something we can logically explain, and it is the Central focus of God’s Revelation to us…that ought to tell us something about how we approach theology.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Incarnation is not illogical even employing temporal-based logic. It must be understood as Supra- or Meta-Logical. The Incarnation is Revealed to us and we are not to pick apart the Person of Christ, we are to accept His Person based on the testimony of His work. The Incarnation can only be understood…by faith.
The disagreements stem from both Centraldogma and method. These issues when addressed end up entangled once more in the historical claim debate and at present there seems to be no way out, no solution, no means of reconciling the various factions.
As a person who no longer identifies with Reformed Christianity, I’m quite outside of the debate. I hold to doctrines some within Reformed circles sympathize with and several that exclude me entirely from their community.
Sadly in the end, from an outsider’s perspective, it seems to be more about institutional control than anything else.
Michael Horton and much of the Westminster West faculty, many Klineans and people like Tullian Tchividjian represent the side advocating what I call hyper-Solafideism.
While I disagree with them on these issues, I am largely in agreement with them with regard to the doctrine of Two Kingdoms and their critique of Theonomic and Dominionistic theology. I think Tchividjian might be exception considering he took over the pulpit previously occupied by the late D. James Kennedy, one of the most vocal proponents of what I often refer to as Christo-American Sacralism.
Norman Shepherd, and the group known as the Federal Vision would be representative of the other camp. (Federal referring to Foedus, Federal or Covenant Theology in this case, not referring to some kind of political action)
This would include people like Douglas Wilson, Steve Schlissel, Steve Wilkins, John Barach and others. Sadly, though I am more than a little sympathetic with them on these issues, the movement is largely compromised of Theonomists.
Thus I find myself both in sympathy with and in strident opposition to…both camps. The emergence of Federal Vision around 2002 startled me because my good friend (from part 1) and I were discussing these same issues at the kitchen table in 1998 and had been for a few years prior.
How did we come to these positions? Ironically we were somewhat isolated from the American Reformed mainstream. We had formulated our ideas while overseas with nothing more than old books at our fingertips and endless hours of discussion and debate. Though we realized Calvin himself did not exactly teach what we believed or what the Federal Vision was to come out with a few years later, we also realized that most Reformed people we encountered in the United States in the late 1990’s were not in line with Calvin either…at least in terms of spirit and methodology.
Since then I’ve moved farther and farther away from John Calvin on several fronts, but on these issues I’m pulled back to his writings and methodology. I don’t find most people who claim to be his followers, to be in line with his Christian Humanist way of reading the Bible. On this point at least they would do well to return to the Genevan font.
I have been nothing less than frustrated by the rapacious dialogue at work in Reformed circles. The accusations are disheartening and often times what’s most disappointing is listening to people critique the other side without even understanding where they’re coming from. I’ve used the illustration before but it’s like a man in a skyscraper shouting from the 70th floor at another man in an adjacent building on the 30th floor. They can’t understand each other. They don’t even realize what the problem is. Until they return to the sidewalk, to ground level, they’re not going to resolve anything.
The other day I encountered a glimmer of hope. I often listen to the Christ the Center podcast, put out by some folks associated with Westminster Seminary’s Eastern campus outside Philadelphia. The West campus is in the north San Diego area. I remember as a lost teenager drinking beer and shooting pool down the street from it, thinking, “huh, wonder what that place is?”
Anyway, Christ the Center was doing a podcast on Sanctification and I was most pleased to hear some other people in Reformed circles not belonging to either of the ‘fringe’ camps (which I both reject and embrace) having an intelligent discussion on this issue. And it was interesting to me because they picked up on the fact that Hyper-solafideism, or as they refer to it, Hyper-forensic soteriology effectively undermines the doctrine of Sanctification.
I don’t agree with everything they said, nor do I agree with how they were trying to parse it out in systematic terms…but I could agree with much they were vocalizing and the spirit in which it was said…was excellent.
What was even more surprising was that one of main panelists was Richard Phillips, the pastor of 2nd Presbyterian Church in Greenville South Carolina. I used to attend there pretty regularly back in 1998, before he was there. Phillips in the past has put me off for at least two reasons. One, any pastor who touts his military ‘service’ and boasts of his leadership of combat units receives an immediate black mark in my book. I find it pretty sick to be honest. Two, Phillips wrote an essay in perhaps the most helpful book debating Federal Vision theology. It’s called, “The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision.” In this book proponents of both camps go back and forth arguing the issues. Phillips was set up in opposition to Steve Schlissel and Schlissel is pretty hard on Phillips…and I have to say I completely agreed with Schlissel. I thought Phillips position was a perfect expression of modern Reformed theology with all its flaws.
But here he surprised me. I thought his understanding was much more nuanced and insightful. I still don’t agree with his commitments, but the discussion and his insights are worth listening to. He’s striking a still flawed but healthy and certainly much more helpful and wise middle ground, and I hope more people within his camp will listen.
To sum up, the issues stem from a fundamental divide over methodology. Little of the argument engages along these lines. Everyone is usually arguing up in the superstructure and frankly it ends up being an unproductive waste of time.
The answer to both the Justification dilemma and the other issues related to Dominionism that I’m constantly harping about is in hermeneutical method. How do we read the Bible? I continue to argue the answer is found in the Incarnation and in the Apostolic witness of the New Testament. The clear perspicuous didactic passages of the New Testament teach us how to read the entirety of Scripture. The Incarnation teaches us how to relate the Already and Not Yet, the Divine and Human, the Invisible and Visible, the Eschatological to the Temporal in the realm of theology.
Perhaps the supreme irony to this debate and it comes up constantly is the fact that the Hyper-Forensic crowd (holding to essentially a Lutheran doctrine of Justification) criticizes the Hyper-Covenant crowd (Federal Vision) as having Sacramentalist tendencies. Of course the Lutherans themselves while holding to Justification by Faith Alone are also accused of teaching Baptismal Regeneration, and they see no conflict. Now I personally find the Lutheran explanation of this to be rather lacking and convoluted but I don’t find the concepts to be in conflict if properly understood.
Just the other night I stumped a Reformed man on this issue. He was saying Federal Vision’s teaching regarding Baptism overthrows Justification. I said the Lutherans hold to a form of Baptismal Regeneration and you certainly can’t accuse them of playing fast and loose with Justification can you? On that point our Lutheran friends are more concerned with accurate Scriptural fidelity than adherence to systemized logic.
I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again here, on these issues I’m quite sympathetic to what might be called a conservative Anglican position, as in the 39 Articles. I completely disagree with Anglican polity and liturgy but I think their rather broad and somewhat seemingly undeveloped position on the relationship between Justification by Faith Alone and the Sacraments is quite balanced and faithful (I think) to the text of Scripture without imposing a system on it. Few readers here will resonate with that statement but remember Ryle remained Anglican and Packer still is. The Reformed have generally been unfriendly to deliberately ‘undeveloped’ theology, but I think they’ve gone too far, not only in their probing but in the construction of dogma. Rather than unify I think it has actually proved schismatic. I definitely find their polity to be so.
I continue to watch these debates with great interest. I’ve been wrestling with these issues since my earliest days as a Christian. These theological issues and the entirety of Church History have led to me constantly re-think and re-examine many of these issues.
System, method, history, historical theology, and how all this is playing out today is what has driven me for many a year and from my perspective all these things come together at certain points…and that’s why I continue to write and comment even if very few are interested in what I’m saying.
I hope some will find my somewhat different and extra-factional viewpoint to be helpful in trying to navigate what must be for many an overwhelming and quite confusing factional struggle.